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The Party and the Guests: the absurdist film that was ‘banned forever’ in communist Czechoslovakia

3 September 2021

Nothing grisly or graphic happens in Jan Němec’s 1966 film The Party and the Guests, in which picnickers play games and dine in the sun. The film, however, shocked officials in communist Czechoslovakia — enough for them to deem it “banned forever.” The regime, deep in the throws of a censorship crackdown, was on alert for any double meanings and political hostility they could detect in the films of a bold new generation of directors: the Czech New Wave. In Němec’s absurdist film, hooligans appear in the forest and force the picnickers to attend the lavish birthday banquet of a tyrannical personage in a white suit. But is it a practical joke, or something more sinister? Suddenly, the complicity between the joyful picknickers wanes, and their differing tendencies towards submission or rebellion come to the fore.

It was not hard for audiences at the time to read the film’s subversive hints, or its parallels with the denunciation of dissidents and their violent repression by the StB, the Czechoslovak secret police. Over half a century later, a digitally remastered version of the film screened at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in August 2021, giving audiences a chance to rewatch the film, but also to reflect on the legacy of the Czech New Wave and the abiding relevance of authority-defying cinema.

At a time when criticising the socialist-enforced status quo was nearly impossible, the Czech New Wave thrived with its subliminal messaging. Criticism of life under communism was harder for state censors to pin down when it was smuggled in through the ambiguous allegory of outlandish fables, rather than declared overtly in naturalistic portrayals. The Czech New Wave, of which Němec was a key figure, created surreal cinematic worlds in which the rules made little sense and incompetent, even sinister, figures abounded. The movement, which arose in the 60s, was spearheaded by a young crop of talented directors who studied together at Prague famed film school FAMU, and were fed up with the propaganda pushed by authorities in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc state. There was a gulf between the state-sponsored socialist-realist films of the era, which showed heroic workers cheerily toiling toward a utopian future of productivity and progress, and the bleak reality for citizens amid the hypocrisy and lies of corrupt authoritarianism. A sense of absurdity infused everyday life, giving art a black-humoured edge.

The Party and the Guests was Němec’s second feature, following his graduation masterpiece Diamonds of the Night (1964): an unusual, hallucinatory tale following the experience of two Holocaust escapees. It was released during the Prague Spring, a brief window of liberalisation and creative freedom that opened up in Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Alexander Dubček came to power and instituted reforms to create “socialism with a human face”. His plans were short-lived. The head of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, feared a weakening of the Eastern Bloc’s position against the West during the Cold War. He sent tanks rolling into Prague to crush the reforms and install the most hardline government the country had seen since the Stalinist era. The invasion came with a cultural clampdown. The Party and the Guests was formally “banned forever” in 1973, a decree that remained in force until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 ended one-party rule in Czechoslovakia. Political turmoil abroad also disrupted the film’s journey to screens — unrest in France in May 1968 prevented its planned Cannes premiere — but it screened at that year’s New York Film Festival and became an international success.

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Just how easily citizens fall into line in a climate of mass oppression, especially when they are disoriented and left in the dark, is the stark warning transmitted by The Party and the Guests. Thrown off balance by the sudden arrival of the hooligans, the picnickers look to others to make sense of things, and even start fawning for the favour of those who seem in control. While most lean into conformity, rare black sheep maintain independent thinking and resist. For example, though almost all the guests soon forget their reluctance as they are plied with food and drink at the banquet table, one man, the most taciturn of the group, takes off, upsetting his wife for relinquishing what most see as a great opportunity for feasting and networking. With one seat empty, the imperious host (Ivan Vyskocil, whose casting aggravated authorities as he resembled Lenin) considers the event ruined, and harmony destroyed. When his right-hand henchman Rudolf (Jan Klusák) suggests that the man be found and brought back, nobody objects. As a result of the incident, guests instinctively realise that it is more comfortable to be in blind allegiance to those in control, than to defend the rights of the unjustly condemned. An Alsatian dog, snarling and trained to hunt by scent, is given a shoe of the departed guest to track him by. While, in the film, it is still unclear if it is all just a game, it is indistinguishable from the most savage of hunts for deserters of a ruling ideology.

Screenwriter and designer Ester Krumbachová, who was married to Němec at the time, co-wrote The Party and the Guests, and devised the sharp costumes of the black-and-white satire. Gifted with one of the New Wave’s wildest imaginations, she interrogated power abuses in her inspired phantasmagorias. She also collaborated frequently with director Věra Chytilová, one of the most prominent names in 20th-century Czech cinema. The two dreamt up the wildly anarchic Daisies (1966), an irreverent carnival of excess and destruction that subverts the ideal of worker productivity as two young women wreak havoc around Prague, pulling pranks on lecherous men and destroying a regime banquet in a food fight. Krumbachová and Jaromil Jireš also conjured up another New Wave classic, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), in which a girl confronts a nightmarish landscape of carnal predators and authority figures.

Just how easily citizens fall into line in a climate of mass oppression, especially when they are disoriented and left in the dark, is the stark warning transmitted by The Party and the Guests

The crushing of the Prague Spring ground the momentum of the Czech New Wave to a halt, as the state-controlled nature of film funding meant that most projects couldn’t get off the ground. Chytilová, who was blacklisted but staunchly committed to remaining in Czechoslovakia, struggled to make any films for years and resorted to making commercials under a pseudonym. Němec, who narrowly avoided being arrested for subversion over The Party and the Guests, left the country, as did a number of other key directors of the generation. Miloš Forman, who had lampooned self-aggrandising and corrupt power in The Firemen’s Ball (1967), in which a small town’s volunteer fire department hold a dance that descends into chaos, successfully transitioned to Hollywood for a long and illustrious career, directing Oscar-hit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Less attuned to slick Hollywood sensibilities, Němec moved around, and lived in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States, dabbling in music promos, television documentaries, and even wedding videos. He eventually returned to Czechoslovakia after the fall of Communism, where he continued directing until his death in 2016.

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czech Republic, the world’s main showcase for Central and Eastern European cinema, screened a digitally remastered version of The Party and the Guests as a special event in August in recognition of the film’s abiding relevance. Nobody would ever argue that censorship, with its very real devastation of lives, is good for artists. But the bold innovation the Czech New Wave harnessed to side-step limits on their political resistance remains an enduring inspiration in an era in which outlandish strongmen are flexing authoritarian methods with renewed zeal, and each citizen must soul-search to decide which protagonist in Němec’s classic they are most at risk of becoming.

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