Slovakian director Marko Škop’s new feature Let There Be Light opens with a famous view: Milan, a Slovak carpenter working in Germany, gazing up at the iconic Neuschwanstein Castle, perched on a hillside in Bavaria. With its towers and turrets, Neuschwanstein looks like a storybook palace — so much so, it inspired the Walt Disney Studios logo. For Škop, though, the spectacle becomes almost satirical.
We soon learn that Milan’s situation is no fairytale. His dream of providing for his family’s future through the economic opportunities afforded by mobility within the European Union has turned into a nightmare: in his absence, his son has become involved with a paramilitary group. When Milan arrives home to northern Slovakia for Christmas, the mood in his small town is far from festive. A youth, bullied for supposedly being gay, has committed suicide, alerting the community to a malevolent ideological influence in their midst.
When I meet Škop at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where the film had its world premiere last week, he says he expects that his examination of nationalist extremism will provoke adverse reaction in Slovakia. “This topic is controversial and will prompt a lot of discussion, but that is actually the goal. One of the purposes of art, and I regard cinema as a part of it, is to make people rethink things. Life isn’t only about entertainment.”
The multi-layered film’s twists and revelations concerning just how far fascist ideology has infiltrated the town lend it the gripping suspense of an arthouse thriller. With its unflinching dissection of power and violence, it is hardly upbeat, but with far-right populism spreading like a virus across Europe, its urgent topicality is undeniable.
“Some boys join basketball teams. Unfortunately, others decide they want to be little soldiers”
“In Slovakia, we have already for several years had a far-right party in parliament,” the director says. “In the recent European elections, their supporters voted them in third place. It’s important to talk about it.” The party in question is Kotleba — People’s Party Our Slovakia, headed by Marian Kotleba, whose platform is defined by hostility towards Roma, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and EU membership. It has aligned itself with the legacy of politician and Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, who governed the Slovak Republic when it was a client state of Nazi Germany during the Second World War, collaborating in the deportation and murder of Jews. Kotleba stunned observers when he was elected Governor of the Banská Bystrica Region in 2013.
As Škop is quick to point out, the problem of rising nationalism and fear-based rhetoric is certainly not confined to Slovakia. “I see it everywhere in the world, societies becoming more polarised. This is the case, too, in the United States and Great Britain. It’s not only a question of Central and Eastern Europe. There is huge fear among people that they will lose their position in society, a fear fed by the agenda of politicians, hate speech, and the media — radicalising people’s views so they see anyone different as an enemy who is out to take what they have. Everyone wants better lives, even though our grandparents lived in much worse conditions and were happy when they had meat once a week. People who have not experienced war are unaware of what it brings.”
In Slovakia, the far-right resurgence has seen the emergence of youth paramilitary groups, a phenomenon also addressed in the chilling documentary When the War Comes from Czech director Jan Gebert, which screened at last year’s Karlovy Vary. “All of us need to belong to some [sort of] groups to feel like we are part of society, and the weaker a person’s identity, the more they crave some sort of imaginary status,” Škop continues. “Some boys join basketball teams. Unfortunately, others decide they want to be little soldiers.”
“I would hope most priests don’t support this ideology, but when you go on YouTube, you can see videos of priests going to marches with neo-Nazi skinheads”
He says that, while Slovakia’s many Christian believers are likely to be offended by the way they are represented in the film, his research has confirmed that there are numerous far-right ideologues in the church as well as the nation’s police force and army. “I would hope most of the priests in Slovakia don’t support this nationalistic ideology, but it’s a fact that it is not just a question of a few of them [being] sympathisers. When you go on YouTube, you can see videos of priests going to marches with neo-Nazi skinheads.”
Let There Be Light suggests that, in a world of corrupted and corrupting institutions, it’s ultimately the family that has the most sway over the values we adopt. The parental absences caused by the prevalence of economic migration from small towns has created a social strain. “If a parent is not there when you are forging your identity, you’re more subject to other influences,” argues the director. “It’s a complex cocktail we are in, and a horrible discourse can seep in where certain parts are missing.”
Milan is an avid firearms collector whose ebullient nature masks deep insecurity — what Škop calls a “crisis of masculinity” and a craving for “symbolic power”. Even after returning from Germany, he falls far short of being an ideal role model, despite his vows never to repeat the parenting mistakes of his own cold, authoritarian father. Milan is played by established Slovak actor Milan Ondrík, who also starred in Škop’s 2015 festival hit Eva Nová; the real surprise is nuanced newcomer František Beleš as his troubled son Adam. “His father passed away some time ago, and his mother is working as a carer in Austria, so he has his own experience to draw on,” the director says of Beleš. “He’s very mature and curious, and was really a partner in the creation of this character.”
“I have a nine-year-old daughter, and I consider myself to be part of this generation that has changed the discourse around raising children a little bit,” He continues. “It’s possible now to be much warmer and more attentive.” Škop mentions his admiration for a number of other films that draw a link between familial breakdown and social crisis: Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless and Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s Happy End amongst them, works which superbly handle the theme of neglectful or misguided parenting. Let There Be Light is a worthy addition to the ranks of these cautionary family tales — a call for greater societal compassion in our troubled times.