Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Rare Magic of Obecna Skola

Discovering The Elementary School (Obecna Skola, '91) was like finding a hole at the bottom of my garden that led to the center of the Earth.

I didn't tell anybody about it at first. I wanted to explore it on my own.

It premiered in Australia on the magnificent SBS network without fanfare or fuss. Although it had been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film, it got no theatrical or video release.

Several years later, the director, Jan Sverak, would win an Academy Award for another film, Kolya ('96). Perhaps this award was intended to make good on the fact that Obecna Skola's Oscar had been stolen by the unworthy Mediterraneo (Italy). Among its equally unworthy competition that year were Children of Nature (Iceland) and Raise the Red Lantern (China). Only Sven Nykvist's The Ox (from Sweden) deserved to compete with Sverak's masterpiece.
Set in Czechoslovakia just after World War II, the film is about fathers and figures of authority. Are they our first heroes? Do they deserve respect? What example should they set? And when do we begin to see them as flawed human ourselves?

All of these questions are addressed thoroughly and in the most cinematic way.

Not surprisingly, the film was written by Zdenek Sverak, the director's father. He also stars as the father of the film's young hero, Eda (Václav Jakoubek), a wide-eyed boy...

who undertakes an incredible journey of self-discovery when a new schoolteacher, Ignor Hnizdo (Jan Triska), takes over his unruly class. Brandishing a sidearm and attired in military regalia, Igor uses stern authoritarian methods to whip the young rascals, who drove their previous teacher insane, into some sort of shape.

Gradually, his respect for them earns him theirs.

Of course, the film is about so much more, so you must see it to experience its many delights.

Sold as a movie for kids in some markets, it is certainly suitable for the young, but it is ultimately a movie for all. Under its sunny facade are darker, foreboding themes of race, national identity, revisionism, and sexuality.

Sverak's contrasting of the film's two father figures (Sverak and Trisca) is masterful, as is the way he handles young Eda's journey to a more mature world view.

A fascinating bit of character work is that Eda, the film's hero, believes he is his dead brother's "replacement". When the boys visit the cemetery where his brother now resides, Eda expresses this view while attempting to explain to his friend why his mother is always so paranoid about his safety. Ironically, his friend's parents care little for his well-being, and this results in a tragic event later.

Like Lasse Hallstrom's wonderful My Life As A Dog, Jean-Claude Lauzon's Leolo, Jean Loup Hubbert's Le Grand Chemin and Yves Roberts' My Father's Glory, the film drops us into a completely formed, utterly convincing world seen through the eyes of children. The bizarre rituals, the sensual discoveries, and the painful realizations of childhood are richly and sensitively conveyed.

So many aspects of Eda's life as a boy mirrored my own, despite the political and geographical differences.

When you're a kid, quality of life is the adventure you make.

The script is based on Zdenek Sverak's childhood, and this is why every emotional beat rings so true.

Zdenek Sverak as a young boy

Watching it for the first time, I was mesmerized by its poetry and good humor.

Watching it for close to the twentieth time, I am still in awe of its accomplishments.

It would be neglectful of me not to mention the great Czech actors who make such colorful contributions to The Elementary School.

Rudolf Hrusínský, one of my favorite actors of all time, is positively glowing as the school's headmaster. Scenes where he attempts to get the school's PA system to work are hilarious, as is a terrific sequence where he reprimands the boys for sticking their tongues to the school's frozen, metal railings during Winter.
Hrusinky, a veteran of Czech cinema, also appeared in Jiri Menzel's excellent My Sweet Little Village; Menzel, in turn, has a guest part here as a good-natured doctor.

Another superb performance is that of Marek Endal as the hilarious "Rosenheim", the school's oversized bad boy. More "naughty" than truly bad, Endal strikes a perfect chord as a dopey juvenile delinquent whose mother is mortified when he plays an unpopular character in a school play.

From the superb scoring of Jiri Svoboda (why the hell isn't this score on CD?), and Prague's own Antonin Dvorak (RIP), to FA Brabec's exquisite cinematography, The Elementary School is in a class of its own.

also recommended:

Jizda ('94)
Tatinek ('04)
Empties ('07)


  1. No other takers for the Czek cinema?

    I have to comment; I think it would take a climate like post Russkie-invasion cesky to engender such cinema. Have you noticed how subtle the czeks are? I had to watch 'Fireman's Ball' a number of times, and in my later years, to realise it was in fact a political film. At that time, I needed to be hit over the head with politics in film, and aside from 'Hearts and Minds' and other documentary fare, it usually took Andrj Wajda or Fassbinder- or even Costa Gavras et al to send the message. Pasolini was many things, but he could rarely be accused of subtlty, any more than, say, Bunuel.

    However, the Czeks really knew how to pull off subtlty. And at the time when 'Elementary School' came out, when it was comparatively safe to speak your mind, Film makers such as Jan Sverik and Jiri Menzl had become such masters at subtlty, over time, that it was less a question of necessity, and more a question of natural artistic inclination. True, as Woody Allen said it is hard to satirise a man in shiny boots, and 'bricks and baseball bats' send a very clear political mesage, the Czeks seemed to communicate better the pain of a stolen past with poetry than anger, and it struck home; literally, not only for us, but for them.

    Even if these lyrical film makers could revert to a kind of political extremism most often exhibited by younger, more dissident proponents, (which was not exactly non existent in the Czek Republic- just rare) I doubt they would have wanted to.

    Think back to Cesky pre-war. This was a society not unlike pre Pol Pot Cambodia; I think Spalding Gray's estimation of that society as being 'utopian' was, by most accounts, accurate. In a similar, albeit less gruesome way, the Soviet jackboots trudged through an almost universally acknowledged close as damn well 'utopian' society in Czek Republic- a society where art was not a dirty word, stability of government and community was manifest, and people were for the most part generally across the board happy and content. As near as damn well, in any event.

    It was simply too good to last.

    Czesky has never fully recovered- any more than any other usurped nation (or individual) can reasonably be expected to fully recover- but it seems to sally forth bravely, onward, with a grace and charm which I feel is best exemplified by it's cinema; not only those occasional early, resonant celluloid utterances strangled by the vice like grip of occupation and despotism, but the poetical overtures of a nation healing after the fact of which 'Elementary School' is a shining example.

    I don't think we have heard the last of a nation still coming to terms with it's comparatively recent loss of innocence; I suspect that in time, we will see a new form of dissident expression in the comparatively relaxed present day Czek environment. A thorough search through Czek cinema will reveal a leaning toward classic and contemporary fairy tales, and a persistent preoccupation with allegory and innuendo. But Prague is a big city; perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, we will see a wave of subversive cinema devoted to the lamentation of a paradise recently lost, and through it's cinema, regained.

    Who knows; it might even be too loud for even the academy to ignore...

  2. Sorry it took me so long to get to this, mandingo.

    Thank you for a very thoughtful perspective on Czech politics and its cinema.

    Whenever I write about this film, I always get silence in return. Your rich reply is most welcome.

    "hard to satirize a man in shiny boots" is a beautiful Woody Allen quote.

    The Czech filmmakers have written the textbook on subtext. Probably why I love their films so much.