Czech dreamer: Karel Vachek's "Bohemia Docta or The Labyrinth of the World and the Lust-House of the Heart (A Divine Comedy)" plays the PFA.

Berkeley Hosts Karel Vachek Retrospective

Dennis Harvey May 28, 2009

It’s rare indeed that you get a chance to see a director’s entire body of work—let alone one almost entirely unknown outside his or her home country. But all that is exactly what’s on offer at the Pacific Film Archive over the next four weeks, as it hosts "Karel Vachek: Poet Provocateur," the first-ever full U.S. retrospective for this unclassifiable Czech filmmaker.

Vachek is nearly 70, yet before age 50 you might more actively have called him a onetime filmmaker than a practicing one—and even his very slim early output had barely been seen by anyone. Every career has its ebbs and flows, but Vachek’s has a Grand Canyon of inactivity that could hardly be more easily explained: It ended with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and began anew with the "Velvet Revolution" that ended Communist rule in 1989.

Like many talents who flourished in the heady period leading up to and through the "Prague Spring" whose Western-style liberalization eventually attracted Moscow’s retaliatory smackdown, Vachek pushed the boundaries of what had hitherto been allowed in artistic/political expression. And like them, he then paid the price—blacklisted from future work in his chosen field, eventually forced into exile. Though unlike Milos Forman, Ivan Passer and a few lucky others, his reputation was far from established enough to ensure an international career—or even make one remotely possible. And few of his contemporaries had the full ill-fortune to time things as badly as Vachek did. His only two completed films—a short and a feature documentary—both arrived so late that they were basically banned upon arrival.

His thesis film at the Prague Film Academy was actually completed five years before the heavy hand of the U.S.S.R. pushed Czechoslovakia back into its place, under Mother Russia’s thumb. The half-hour Moravian Hellas must have sounded like a very safe choice of subject in 1963: The maintenance of folkloric traditions and crafts in rural settings. Yet despite one official’s lament that such living "ethnology" is "like a slowly dying cow," soon to expire from neglect, Vachek doesn’t exactly celebrate their existence or mourn their passing. Instead, he takes a decidedly antic, even caustic tone, mixing doc and staged sequences, suggesting that the real work of such kitsch enterprises as "traditional decorative sewing" is to keep large sections of the populace cocooned—from modernity, progress and the discontent with the status quo.

This was controversial enough to be withheld from exhibition for several years, while Vachek’s proposals for feature narrative projects were turned down for being too radical, even by the standards of that very forward-looking creative epoch. But he did get permission to make Elective Infinities, a very on-the-ground, all-access record of the 1968 Presidential campaign—one that prove the nation’s last gasp of independence for over two decades. Needless to say, this chronicle quickly became outdated, unwanted, and unavailable as Czechoslovakia underwent "normalization" by its occupiers and their collaborators.

Vachek spent the next ten years working menial jobs, then left his homeland for Europe, ending up in the U.S. But it wasn’t until the events of 1989 that he was able to return—either to Czechoslovakia or to filmmaking.

To say he’s made up for lost time is a major understatement. While he’s made "just" five features in the two decades since, they comprise a total of nearly 18 hours, or an average of almost three and a half each. They’re epic film essays, extended arguments about his homeland (now parted in two EU-member halves, Czech Republic and Slovakia), its people and cultures. They’re also to an extent arguments with (or about) himself, a frequent on-screen presence and bundle of energy.

The titles alone just scratch the surface of thematic, stylistic, philosophical and humorous engagement. First up is a "Little Capitalist Tetralogy" consisting of 1992’s New Hyperion, or Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood (about the changes immediately after Prague Spring); 2000’s Bohemia Docta or The Labyrinth of the World and the Lust-House of the Heart (A Divine Comedy), whose four-plus hours open wide to embrace the whole history of Czech art and literature; and 2003’s Who Will Watch the Watchman? Dalibor, or The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a chorus of voices (including, natch, Vachek’s own) musing on a nation’s present and future.

He’s made one film since, officially separate from the above trilogy but closely allied in most other respects. Zavis, the Prince of Pornofolk Under the Influence of Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ and Tati’s ‘Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,’ or The Rise and Fall of Czechoslovakia mixes up mime, an ex-Prime Minister, a ketchup fight, motorcycle stuntmen, a dog’s funeral, "pornofolk" music and more into an absurdist consideration of internal globalization that’s been called Vachek’s most personal work to date.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, these movies resist easy descriptive grasp—their restlessness, sprawl and genre-defying sense of play must be experienced, heavy a time investment as that prospect might seem. (They are not, however, "heavy" films, but frequently delightful ones.)

No doubt many of the questions they raise will be about the man behind them. Two of the later PFA screenings (of What Is to Be Done? on June 21 and Affinities/*Moravian* the 24th) will give you the opportunity to ask their maker—also a sometime painter, teacher, and author—himself.