Vojtěch Jasný, 9. 1. 1988, New York, USA

Questions to the narrator


Location New York, USA
Date 9. 1. 1988
Length 24:54

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After the end of the war, did you think that the cinema should be used to help build the new communist society?

Yes, indeed, I wanted to do it, and we thought we could do better. The first film I made is my film at the Film Academy in Prague. It was ‘There Are Not Always Clouds’. It was such a kind of neorealist film, but our inspiration was more Zavattini, De Sica and Rossellini then, and old Soviet films like ‘Mother’ by Pudovkin, who was my visiting professor. Also Donskoy, ‘Earth’ and so on.

What was it that made a film of that period a socialist realist film?

We saw it later. I have to say I worked for some years in documentaries and I came later to features. I refused to do features because it was easier for me to shoot direct life and not to lie so much. Because socialist realism is a beautiful word, or two words, but in the end it was a lie. You had to lie, and to show everything much more beautiful than it was. And then I came to Soviet Union in 1952 flying to China, People’s China, to shoot documentaries there, and I saw this poverty. And I saw it was a big lie, we saw feature films about kolkhoz stories and kolkhoz farms, and this poverty we saw was terrible. They showed those Potemkin villages. So I saw it was a lie, and I couldn’t lie more.

To what extent were you told as film makers the sort of subjects that you had to film and how you should film them, by the Party?

Till the 1950s I believed that the Party was right. And then I saw the Party was not right. Most of the Party was not right. Who is killing people, who is shooting people, sending them to prison … A friend of my father was sent to prison, it’s the countryman, the head part František, or Frank, so I asked why. And the same way I said, the Nazi system is impossible because they killed people in concentration camps and we knew it, and Germans knew it too, they are not unguilty in many ways. So after my father died in Auschwitz I knew I could do nothing with the system, just fight against it. And then I saw this system, I thought it’s O.K. I read Marx and Engels, and they were very smart men, but idealists in many ways. So I saw it’s totally different.

But what I was trying to ask you: When you were filming, when you were a film-maker, making approved films, did the Party actually give you very detailed instructions about the sort of films you should make, and how you should make them?

Very big instructions, and we were suffering from it. So you try to go away from it and let it be. Not to do it so at first. I was asked many times, doing documentaries, to go to shoot features. But when I received screenplays, I said, I will come, I will see, I can do it. And then I said, I am not ready, I have to learn how to work with actors. But this refusal was more because of the fact that those screenplays were very stupid and propaganda scripts.

But were there rewards for film makers who did conform? What were the sort of rewards for film makers who had made approved films?

The State Prize, which was 20,000 Czech Crowns, and the privilege to have a better apartment than other people. They threw away somebody who was a big businessman from his apartment, or they divided the apartment and gave you the bigger part because you were prominent of the state.

How did you change from making films that were politically acceptable to making films that were critical? How was that possible inside the state system?

That is a good question. First, it’s in you, in your roots and what you are taking with you. Then you try to help and you think those ideas are OK. Then I was in China. My boss was Zhou Enlai, he was a very smart man, and I shot documentaries and I didn’t have problems with him. But I had problems with the Soviet Union because this was barrier time, it was a police state, and coming back I couldn’t do it more. So I started to think in other ways. But it was not the real reason. The real reason was that I lost my mother, the son of my first wife was born dead, and my wife later died of cancer. And after those three dead people I changed my mind. I started to study more religions and other things.

But then the government, the Party, the state was still giving you money to make these new films.

And I had to be very smart then, like in the Bible: to be nice as a dove, and also as a snake. You have to do it so. And from this time I changed totally my opinion and I started to do it practically. I said to myself, you will do this no more. You will just do what you feel is right. So I started this development with ‘September Nights’, the critical comedy about the army, written by Pavel Kohout. And it won a Critic Prize in Prague. It was the time Khrushchev was in power, and he opened many doors. In the end he was a good man. So it helped us. He said, under Stalin, 20 million people were killed. I’ve got this small booklet in my library here in Russian language and it’s written there. Now Gorbachev is not saying more, but Khrushchev said it. So it was good, it helped us. And then I started more and more to think what I shall do. After ‘September Nights’, my producer, the director of the film group for which I worked in Prague, everything was state film, Šmída was his name, he said to me that after ‘September Nights’ I can do a film I like, and now is the time to write my story.

So in a way the Party had deliberately loosened its grip, they were letting you make these critical films?

Look, there is a party and there is a boss. And this boss was human, and he thought, now is the time to let Vojta do a film he likes. And he said, you will write your story. So I sat down and wrote ‘The Desire’. It started with my memory of a little boy running after crows, believing that beyond the hill is the end of the world and he will catch them there. So I started this story with that. It’s the story of a little boy. Then a love story and a farmer’s story, and that of my mother, the death of my mother. And ‘The Desire’ was a basis for all my films I made later, like ‘The Cassandra Cat’ and ‘All My Good Countrymen’, this trilogy. And in between I shot other films, but I can sign all those films with my blood.

All My Good Countrymen is very critical, obviously politically critical, but some of the films that were made before that were seen by the Czech people as being very radical in the political way or shaking up the system, though to us they look like rather simple social comedies. Why was that? Why were these films seen as being politically radicalising?

We couldn’t say things directly, so we used fairy tales, comedies and similar things to talk in allegories. So all those films, including ‘The Cassandra Cat’, are saying it through fairy tale. And then came the time I thought, now it’s the time to write and do a film directly. And I made ‘All My Good Countrymen’. It was in 1968, and then came the Russians, then came this invasion.

What was the purpose of your film ‘All My Good Countrymen’?

After 1945 I decided to collect materials and do a film. Somebody’s writing a big novel, so I will do a film. And later I was all ready and I was made a director in 1956. I wrote the first script of ‘All My Good Countrymen’ after the big success of ‘September Nights’, this comedy by Pavel Kohout, which won the Critics’ Prize. So it opened the door and I knew I could prepare a trilogy. First was ‘The Desire’, which I shot in 1957–1958, then ‘The Cassandra Cat’ in 1963, and ‘Countrymen’ came till 1968. So I wrote the first script in 1945. And censorship started to work. Before the censorship was an artistic committee, but it didn’t come to the artistic committee because it was too official, because there were writers, politicians and so on, it didn’t come there. It came directly from this film group to the general director of cinema, from the general director of cinema to the Committee for Cinema of the Party, and they said to me: “Never, never. You cannot ever do this film.” And it was given also to the committee of Ministry of Internal Affairs, so it was this trinity.

What was it that they objected about? What made ‘All My Good Countrymen’ so dangerous?

As it is now: because I was telling the truth, and there is a belief in God. And as you know, Communist ideas are not connected with that, and I was saying how real life is, because you cannot write easily about somewhere you don’t know, but if it is your village, your neighbourhood and your neighbours, you can do it. You know exactly about their every step. So I decided to tell totally and directly the plain truth. And I did it. With retardation, much later, but I did it in 1968. There were differences between this and all those quasi-social-realist films, they are a lie and they try to do everything beautiful, more beautiful, still more beautiful, and the Party is a saint, the Party secretary is a saintly man, and nice man, he is like a Holy Ghost and everything is so in this way. It’s a big lie, you cannot do that.

What were you doing in a scene in the film, where the newly-elected Party committee walks through the main street of the town? What were you trying to say?

You know I like music and musicals. This scene was a joke. This party committee is walking through the village, I used a famous march and we made it another way with my composer. I let them go through the village and we see people laugh at them, they don’t like them, they know them very well, what kind of people they are, and it is impossible to do it at the end.

What sort of the people were you trying to suggest they were in that scene?

There were three people. An organist, who was a nice man, he helped a lot the Soviet Army to succeed because he worked for espionage. This guy believed in the communist system very much, he was an organist and in the war he played the International. So we liked to go to the church to hear the International play under the Nazis. It’s just a joke, and we Czech people like to joke. So this organist was a nice man, but then he saw it’s impossible to go ahead in his way, he stopped and he only worked for natural things and reservations, so he left.

And the other characters, what were they essentially?

They were poor mediocre people in a system like the communist system and the fascist system. For example, Zavattini’s sentence was ‘conspiracy of mediocrity’. They used a lot of mediocre people because they killed the best businessmen, the most talented farmers. The biggest farmer mostly was the best farmer because not only he had to do it well, he had to be very good. And they were put into prison and killed.

The other very strong scene was when the good farmer and the other farmers are being coerced by the local party to join the collective farms. They are supposed to join voluntarily. Why did you make that scene particularly so strong, and what effect did it have on people?

In the film, there are two types of scenes on how they will bring farmers into the collective. First it is with violence, to send them to prison. And later, the second time, it came under President Novotný, it was a system to ask people to do it, and ask them again, again, again and sign, sign. They didn’t kill them anymore, they didn’t send them anymore to prison, just Frank, the head part, and they asked the others to do it, but they refused and said, after František, we don’t, we don’t. But at the end they did, but they left again. And it was necessary that Frank survived, and he came back from prison and became the president of the co-operative, so everybody was going to the co-operative. It’s not a bad idea, co-operative. This big agriculture which you see in the United States, in Canada, where 2% of farmers are giving food for the whole world.

What was wrong with it before?

It was the violence. Here is also some kind of violence. Big industry, agricultural industry and you can read here stories of smaller farmers who killed themselves. There are also problems but not of this kind.

What happened when you took this film to the villages, when you showed ‘All My Good Countrymen’ in villages?

When we took ‘All My Good Countrymen’ to small towns and villages, I have to say originally I made this film for my farmers firstly. They knew it, but I wanted to show them that under this government a film was done and it is the government of the Prague Spring: “We will change it, we won’t kill any more, we will do it this way. We say we made those errors and we show it openly,” and that they know it. But it became a success in the whole world, and if they would have let it free, ‘Countrymen’ would have sold everywhere.

What in general was the impact of all these Czech films that were made in the mid-60s on Czech society? What did they do to Czech society?

I think those films of the 1960s and after the 1960s made an impact. We were the first avant-garde before literature. Literature came a little bit later, but almost the same time. So we had an influence on the development of our society, but the problem of the Prague Spring was that our movement was more of intellectuals than of farmers and workers. They supported it, but it was the problem of the intelligentsia.

But did the cinema reach out beyond the intelligentsia?

Yes, we came to millions, and people till now love it. And ‘All My Good Countrymen’ [is shown] secretly. You can have tapes in Czechoslovakia, you can see it. So people know it, also young people. It’s like a legend.

And what was it doing to people psychologically when they went to the cinema and saw a film like that? What did they think?

The young people who see it now don’t understand it really, they have to ask their parents. And they have to explain to them. They like it like a movie because it’s beautifully done, but they don’t understand really.

And what did their parents, who lived in that period, say?

Most parents are crying after the film. Till now, also people living in the United States ask me to give them a tape of it, they go to the mountains with other friends, show this tape of ‘All My Good Countrymen’, and first they cry.

And why do they cry?

Because it was a great possibility. I tell you, this Prague Spring was a great possibility for Czechoslovakia to be more free, to work on the spoilt society, to do it better, to say, we did murders, we will do better, and it was a very free society. Some months of 1968 was one of the best parts of my life. But I knew it would stop, it would never continue.

How did you get Czech Rhapsody through censorship?

Czech Rhapsody is a very special thing. It was a film for the Osaka Exhibition. I was told I have to do a propaganda film for Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion. So you have to do it. But I wrote the script and I said to myself, first, I will use masks because I knew the Chinese and Japanese like it, and I wrote the script without one word, only music and sounds. And I gave it to Miroslav Galuška who was President of the Czech part of the Exhibition in Osaka, and over him was Minister Kahuda. He read the script, every shot, and he said to me: “If you will shoot it this way, the Minister will lose his job, I will lose my job and you will go.” I said: “I know.” He said: “So you have to change it.” And I smiled and said I would change it. “You promise?” “Yes, I promise.” The dove and the snake. I was like a dove but the other way I had to be a snake. I lied because I knew I have to shoot it. “I will change it and you will be happy, I will do a beautiful film and propaganda.” So I shot some industry and those things, but at the end I made the same, and much stronger because for the end brass music is going in the plane field, and there is only frost and ice and everybody is in black and they are playing such a funeral march, but there is no coffin. And everybody is looking, where is the coffin? I say, the coffin is our country because we are no more free. So I made many things this way, I succeeded to do it. And after this film was ready and was shown in Osaka it was a big success, I think it was also nominated for Documentary Oscar. And in Osaka the Japanese President loved it very much, so after it was banned he showed it again and again, he asked to show it. And I was asked to the Committee of the Party. And two ladies were there and other people, and they asked me: Comrade Jasný, what did you make with this film, what you wanted to say? And I smiled and said, my dear comrades ladies, you see what I showed. And what I showed I wanted to say. So I smiled, but my knees were weak, because I didn’t know if I will leave this room home, to see my family. And they said, you wanted to show our country and the Soviet invasion, and they were smart, they knew exactly it was the story I said. But I wasn’t imprisoned, so …

What did they say to you then?

They let me go home and I left this Ministry. I visited first the pub and took a cognac to do better to my heart and weak knees. And then I left home and I wondered. Some days later I was called to the General Director of Cinema. He was earlier my friend, Dr. Purš, and said to me: “Vojta, you made ‘All My Good Countrymen’, it is banned. Now you made ‘Czech Rhapsody’, it’s banned. And if you do a third film of this kind again, you will go to prison and me too. And they will lose their positions, the Minister and so, and you are losing yours, too, and if you want to save your life and everything, you have to do a film glorifying secret policemen, and it’s you, and you have to talk openly on TV and say that you made a mistake with ‘All My Good Countrymen’ and with ‘Czech Rhapsody’ and everything, and now you know you made only mistakes and now you will do better.” And just as the church did it, you know, the Inquisition, the same way it repeated here. So I said to myself, first time there is the possibility to leave this country, I will leave it. And I started to prepare a film, I smiled, but I left. That is the story.

Vojtěch Jasný (1925–2019)

Vojtěch Jasný

Film director, script writer and pedagogue

He graduated from the Film Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in 1951. He and his classmate Karel Kachyňa worked first for Czechoslovak Army Film, where they made several documentaries on China. His first feature film, Dnes večer všechno skončí [Everything Ends Tonight] (1954) was made with Kachyňa. The first film he made on his own was Touha [The Desire] (1958). His top films include especially the epic allegory Až přijde kocour [The Cassandra Cat] (1963) and the poetic story of the spirit of the countryside after the communists seized power, Všichni dobří rodáci [All Good Countrymen] (1968). These two films were banned for twenty years. The August 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia and his film Česká rapsodie [Czech Rhapsody] (1969) put an end to any further film-making for this renowned Czechoslovak New Wave film director. In exile, he shot 29 films in Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Finland, France, Canada and the United States. He settled permanently in the USA in 1984, but often visited Europe. He worked as a pedagogue in New York, Vienna, Munich and Salzburg. His last job was at the New York Film Academy, where his extensive library is held. After the fall of communism he came back to Czechoslovakia and made his first film, Proč Havel? [Why Havel?], jointly with another successful representative of the New Film Wave of the 1960s, Miloš Forman. His last feature film was Návrat ztraceného ráje [Return to Paradise Lost] (1999). Jasny also wrote an autobiography and lessons on film and creative work, Život a film [Life and Film] (Národní filmový archiv, 1999).

He received many awards for his films at the film festivals in Cannes, San Sebastian, Berlin, Buenos Aires, New Delhi and many others. He was awarded the Lifelong Achievement in Czech Cinema Prize at the Academia Film Olomouc in 2003, the Czech Lion film award from the Czech Film and Television Academy for his lifelong artistic achievements (2007) and the Karlovy Vary IFF President’s Prize (2013). The Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor honoris causa in 2013.