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The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street: Peter Hames on Jan Němec

This year, the 21st edition of the Made in Prague Festivalorganised by the Czech Centre, hosts the first UK retrospective of the leading Czech filmmaker and enfant terrible of the Czechoslovak New Wave Jan Němec (1936—2016). Critic, historian, programmer and Czech and Eastern European cinema expert Peter Hames writes for Run Riot on the event and Němec's legacy.

When Jan Němec, one of the leading directors of the Czech New Wave, died last year, he was viewed very much as a historical figure. He was noted primarily for films such as Diamonds of the Night (1964), rated by Agnieszka Holland as the best film made about the Holocaust, and The Party and the Guests (1966), a metaphorical and absurdist account of bureaucratic power, which was seen as one of the most subversive accounts of the Communist era.

Forced into exile in 1974, Němec was taken off the plane by the police and had several screenplays confiscated, but soon completed his planned film version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1975, for German television). Like Miloš Forman, Němec moved to the USA but found himself unable to adapt his approach to the needs of the commercial industry. He had hoped to direct the film version of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1987) but ended up as technical advisor and actor.

The Party and the Guests, 1966

His return to Czechoslovakia was marked by the completion of a long prepared adaptation of The Flames of Royal Love (1990), adapted from Ladislav Klíma’s proto-surrealist novel and Codename Ruby (1996), in which contemporary history is merged with a quest for the philosopher’s stone. Neither reached either national or international audiences. Finding himself once again at odds with the commercial system, he opted for the personal and experimental with his semi-autobiographical Late Night Talks with Mother, which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 2001. It was undoubtedly a case of ‘le caméra stylo’ and provided a successful formula for a further five films.

In Toyen (2005), he examined the relationship between the surrealist painter Toyen (real name Marie Čermínová) and the poet and philosopher, Jindřich Heisler. It focuses on their life in wartime Prague, when Toyen hid the Jewish-born Heisler in her flat, and follows them to Paris where they joined Breton’s group after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. Němec makes it clear in the film’s subtitle, Splinters of Dreams, a quotation from Toyen, that it will be no ordinary work. It fits neither the category of feature or documentary. Němec works by association, forging links between the real world and that of the imagination, which emerges as a higher form of reality. If the visual track is a composition of disparate but evolving elements, the soundtrack presents a complementary reality of silence, sound, poetry, and reminiscence.

Toyen, 2005

While his subsequent films follow in this elliptical and subjective style, his final film The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street (2016), based on a published collection of his stories, is more of a mainstream account of some of the themes in Late Night Talks with Mother. Here the actor Jiří Madl plays the Němec double, John Jan, in a number of dramatised sequences. Particularly good are those in which the dissident director is removed from his plane into exile and interviewed by a secret police chief who believes Kafka to be a leader of the counter revolution. Another scene with an imaginary Ivana Trump (the mother not the daughter) sees Jan searching for backing for one of his films only to receive The Art of the Deal in exchange. In another scene, Jean-Luc Godard is assassinated. Not only did he close down the 1968 Cannes Festival when three Czech films were in the main competition but subsequently attacked the ‘bourgeois’ revolution known as the Prague Spring. Němec’s disjunctive collage provides an interesting commentary on the travails of a film maker intent on his own vision and one suspects that history will perceive his later films as some of the most lasting in the post-Communist era.

 

A retrospective of the films of Jan Němec will screen at the Regent Street Cinema from 10th-12th November and will include the UK premieres of ‘Toyen’(2005) and his final film ‘The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street’.