The Joke is one of the best from the incredibly rich Czech New Wave. Jaromil Jires might be better known for his follow-up, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, as that film has basically reached cult status, but it’s this 1969 collaboration with the great Milan Kundera that is his masterpiece.
Very non-linear, and featuring techniques like direct-to-camera address, The Joke feels like so many other classics coming out of Czechoslovakia in the 60s: a wry sense of humor, a dissenting eye towards the Communist government, long takes, and a palpable feeling of irony.
Ludvik Jahn (Josef Somr) is expelled from the Communist party in the 1950s as a university student. Years later he runs into Helena (Jana Ditetova), the wife of one of his persecutors. He sets out to seduce her to get revenge.
One of the best techniques that Jires settles on is his refusal to really show Jahn in the past. We’re often in Jahn’s POV, where he’s just a specter hovering around the frame. It’s as though Jahn has expelled him from the past of the film the same way that the student Communist group expelled him from their midst. It adds an eerie, phantom-like layer to the film; it reminded me of Resnais.
Here’s a long-ish clip from the movie. It’s a great scene and representative of a lot of the look of the film. Jahn’s recollections are presented as a crosscut between past and future:
It’s no accident that children are used in the present tense of this clip. This is also a comparison: the students of the Communist party in Jahn’s past were only children as well.
The beginning of the clip is interesting. It starts with a high angle 3-shot on three children and then cuts to Jahn looking on. That initial shot seems to be his POV. But then there’s a cut to a new angle on the children (at 00:12). It’s a profile and doesn’t seem to be anyone’s POV. It feels a bit strange to leave Jahn’s POV at this point. It’s already been established and we don’t know anyone else in the scene. This is fully his film, and we’re about to be treated to his recollections. So why cut to that “neutral” angle at 00:12? It’s the only time we aren’t basically head-on in this entire sequence.
It seems to be a moment to signal some kind of impending change. We’re in Jahn’s POV, but we’re also not: this is Jahn’s recollection, but it’s also a collective recollection.
The important transition is at 1:01. A new voice comes in referring to “comrade Jahn” and the cut at 1:05 basically matches Jahn’s POV in angle. Jires has some clever cutting, like from 1:22 to 1:23 where two people’s POV’s bring past and present together; or at 1:27 when the master of ceremonies seems to actually say the words echoing from the past.
There’s a fear of ceremony here. A paranoia of gatherings. Jires’ framing of Jahn small and hidden at 1:23 puts him at the mercy of the crowd. A smiling crowd at 2:22 reacting the voiceover of “Optimism is the opium of mankind,” laughs along with Jahn at his own joke…one that’s very not funny (anymore).
Sound answers questions in this clip. At 3:41 the question is asked: “Who is in favor of expulsion?” Jires cuts to the violinist in the present playing. The upbeat, happy music is the answer: everyone. It also provides cinematic backdrop for a dramatic moment (i.e. non-diegetic music often anticipates emotion; here trans-diegetic music does so).
A Report on the Party and the Guests
Another from the Czech New Wave. Jan Nemec’s film is eerie and strangely scary. I didn’t know any Nemec films prior to this one, but he’s quite capable. The account of a group of picnickers who are accosted by a random smattering of men and end up at an awkward party is filled with cowards and conformists. There’s something of Luis Bunuel in this film in the surreality and the way that it’s often played with a completely straight face.
Nemec uses a lot of tight close-ups, often intentionally confusing the space and who is addressing whom. Those close-ups make the film even more unnerving – when we lose our sense of balance we can’t find an anchor of comfort in at least knowing the layout of the world.
Jan Klusak is amazing, and quite creepy as Rudolf, the overly enthusiastic “host” for his unwilling guests (he’s sort of like the secret police to his father’s dictator in the film):
A Report on the Party and the Guests was banned upon the Soviet’s occupation. Its atmosphere is of dread and suspicion, and of keeping a delicate, mannered balance intact by whatever means possible.