Vojtěch Jasný’s Cinema of Freedom
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In the 1970s, when the Czech filmmaker Vojtěch Jasný was struggling in exile from his Communist-run homeland, he came to the German writer Heinrich Böll for guidance. Böll offered a simple reminder:
“He said three words: ‘Patience, Vojtěch, patience,'” Mr. Jasný, 79, recalled recently.
Patience was a necessity for the director, who lived through World War II, Communist rule, exile, and all the accompanying turmoil before alighting in America in 1984. Beginning Friday, Anthology Film Archives will celebrate Mr. Jasný, whom compatriot Milos Forman dubbed “the spiritual father of the Czech New Wave,” with a weeklong, seven-film series. Bookended by his 1958 debut, “Desire,” and a 1999 documentary shot in Washington Heights, the heartening program also offers the opportunity to see Mr. Jasný’s best-known feature on the big screen: the gorgeously shot chronicle of a village sighing under collectivization, “All My Good Countrymen,” which was banned the moment Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968.
Like many filmmakers who were raised and came of age behind the Iron Curtain, Mr. Jasný faced obstacles from fascists and communists alike. After his father was sent to Auschwitz and eventually killed for his resistance efforts under Nazi occupation, a young Mr. Jasný joined a Communist anti-Nazi league and was even recruited by a British spy.
“He asked, ‘Will you work for British intelligence?’ I said, ‘If you are Gestapo, then I am a dead man,'” Mr. Jasný said.
After the war, under Socialist rule, Mr. Jasný was recruited to contribute to the new Czech order. In 1952, he and the director Karel Kachy were sent to China with 35 mm cameras to shoot features and shorts. Not long after, when one of his colleagues, Radim Drejsl, was killed by the Soviets for resisting their brand of communism, Mr. Jasný realized he’d have to wait for Joseph Stalin to die before he could make the movies he wanted to make.
Consequently, his landmark works — “Desire,” a cycle of stories focusing on four protagonists, for which he first recruited the cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera, and “Cassandra Cat,” a breakout work that won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963 — came as the 1960s dawned. “Cassandra Cat” marked a significant step in Mr. Jasný’s bold evolution: In the extended parable, a circus cat magically color-codes a town’s inhabitants according to their tendencies as liars, lovers, and so on. Though explainable in terms of folktales and children’s stories, the film is also a provocative thought experiment and displayed Mr. Jasný’s imaginative lens work, which he used to obtain the musical-esque color effects.
As the Prague Spring arrived in 1968, Mr. Jasný would seize the moment to film “All My Good Countrymen,” a story he had originally proposed in lieu of “Desire” a decade before. Set amid the bucolic beauty of his native region, Moravia, the film recounts 15 years in the life of a village undergoing Communist collectivization after nearly a decade of Nazi rule. The film is equally about changes — farmers uprooted, a petty clergyman elevated to Communist office — and about the community’s timeless heart. A gallery of town personalities, from a stolid landowner to a petty thief, tipple and dance, and in one memorable scene, emerge from beneath a sheltering tree, practically the tree of life.
One could imagine red-blooded Moravians swooning over the film and bridling under the Communist yoke, and authorities made their displeasure known.
“They told me my only chance was to tell a story ratifying the secret police, and to write to radio, TV, newspapers, that ‘Countrymen’ and ‘Czech Rhapsody’ were my worst movies and that I repent totally,” Mr. Jasný said.
As the Soviets made their may toward Czechoslovakia in the late ’60s, the director, who was still attracted to socialism though obviously disillusioned with Soviet communism, had already taken precautions for an abrupt departure with his wife, son, and dog. He soon fled and came to live under the sympathetic protection of the dictator Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia. The association would later hamper a creative collaboration with Alexander Solzhenitsyn on a script entitled “Only Tanks Know the Truth.” But Mr. Jasný’s trials and tribulations in the 1970s, during which time he made films in Austria, West Germany, and Yugoslavia, were brightened by working in Germany with Böll on “The Clown,” which was nominated for an Academy Award (and, unfortunately, not found in a suitable print for Anthology’s series).
Finally, in 1984, an offer to fill in for Milos Forman at Columbia University during the shooting of “Amadeus” marked the beginning of Mr. Jasný’s happily permanent residence in New York. The Anthology series plucks two diverting documentaries from this ongoing American phase, which recently included work commissioned by Steven Spielberg. “Why Havel?” (1991) captures the downright giddy, anything-is-possible period after the playwright Václav Havel was elected leader of newly independent Czechoslovakia. “Gladys” continues the life-affirming and spiritual strains in Mr. Jasný’s work through the story of 100-year-old Gladys St. John-Colegrove, who patiently waits to be reunited with her two dead husbands, communicating with them regularly, but lives a full life of friendships and conversations while she still can.
These days, Mr. Jasný teaches at the School for the Visual Arts, where he relishes his role as a mentor, plots out more film ideas, and is working on an autobiography. It’s a lifetime of stories that seem even to extend beyond this world. But the director, who will appear in person for the opening night of the retrospective at Anthology, never stops learning from those he encounters through film.
“Gladys was my spiritual mother,” Mr. Jasný said of his centenarian subject. “We were friends with her husband. In my past life. But that’s a long story. Some other time.”
Through September 25 (32 Second Ave. at 2nd Street, 212-505-5181).