In early 1968, reformist Alexander Dubcek came to power in Czechoslovakia, initiating a period of openness and freedom of expression in the Soviet-dominated state that is known as the Prague Spring. From January up to mid-August (when a fed-up Politburo ordered their tanks to roll into the country, crushing the quiet revolution) Czecho-Slovak people enjoyed a respite from the harshness of a Soviet system that seemed to reward cowardice and small-mindedness, while punishing bravery and self-expression. The boom in the arts in these few months is a direct result of the sudden feeling of freedom, artistic and intellectual, which washed through the country.
Often cited as the greatest Czech film ever made, Vojtech Jasny’s All My Good Countrymen was produced at exactly this historical moment. A disturbing, languid study of the imposition of collective farming on one tiny Moravian village, the film moves from 1945 to 1960 in a series of brief episodes, many of which end in either the exile or the death of a popular local figure. Indeed, the film is obsessed with loss, with the edging out of a vibrant past to make way for a banal future.
It is surely no accident that two of the deaths come in the form of suicide (although one of these is only so in a figurative sense). The people have been pushed to despair, and are now forced to respond in tragic, unfathomable ways. It’s a dark, subversive, and highly courageous film given the circumstances of its production, and led directly to Jasny’s own exile from his homeland in 1970.
The slow pace of the film is likely deliberate, a reflection on the pace of life in a simple village such as this – and while this may make the film a trifle boring at times, it also adds to the gathering suspense as the film moves toward its tragic finalé. Each section begins with gorgeous shots of the natural world, and of people’s natural places within. The famous image of a group of people waking up under a huge tree in the middle of a field at sunrise is a perfect distillation of this theme.
As the Soviets force collectivization upon the villagers, their link to the land is severed, and they begin themselves to wither. Recurring shots of an old, wrinkled woman seem to provide this link to the past – her disapproving eyes haunt the film as it moves toward its darker, later episodes.
The mounting desperation of the villagers as the years roll along is played out through the narrative of a handsome and stalwart local farmer who resolves to resist collectivization at all costs. He becomes a lynchpin, and a niggling thorn in the side of the local Soviet authorities as the other farmers look to his example, refusing to sign up to the collective farm before he does. But, his martyrdom has been assured from the first frame. When we first meet him, he is ploughing his field until he hits something hard. Reaching down, he pulls a landmine out of the ground. This instructive introduction combines images of his hardworking devotion to the land with the desecration of the soil through war, invasion, foreign occupation.
Minutes later, in the most horrific episode in the film, two young boys find a gun in the same soil and run around trying to find something to kill with it, animal or human. When he is finally gone, the horrific trammeling of the land appears complete.
In nearly every way this film is important. A vanguard Czech film, and an indispensable piece of the puzzle when reappraising the Czech New Wave, All My Good Countrymen should be required viewing for film students, and students of European postwar cultures alike. However, this is not the edition to get excited about. Maddeningly, even though this edition offers a recent print restoration by the Czech National Archive, it is marred by some of the worst subtitling I have ever encountered. Virtually at all times behind the beat, the subtitles never seem to appear while the character is saying anything. In a dialogue, it often appears that the two characters are saying each other’s lines. And, in the many group scenes, it is simply impossible to know who is saying what.
To complicate matters, there is a narrator who speaks at random intervals, and who sounds at times very much like he is a character speaking offscreen. What’s more, the subtitles themselves are rife with spelling mistakes and grammatical inconsistencies. How hard would it have been to fix this?
Still, the edition does come with an interesting and worthy booklet including essays on the film and its times. The DVD also contains a lengthy interview with Jasny himself, conducted fairly recently.