Czech filmmaker Jan Sikl’s Private Century can be read both as formal experiment and as social history. Made from home movies created by residents of Czechoslovakia during, primarily, the ’20s through the ’60s, his eight film series is an exercise in editing and narrative that also serves to document life in Czechoslovakia from the perspective of individuals and families, perspective provided not merely from the collected home footage but also from narration scripted from interviews with relatives from the families represented in the films.
Home movies are notable primarily for their aimlessness and shaky photography. By their very nature, they are meant for a specific audience and as a means for participants in family activities, and their descendants, to ‘remember’ the day, the people, and what life was like in that different time and place from the moment of viewing. As noted in the supplemental booklet included with the Facets DVD, Sikl sorted through up to fifteen hours of footage for each episode to fish out material for shaping into stories.
Beyond the sheer quantity of film that Sikl and his editors, Jan Danhel and Simon Spidla, worked with is the fact that it’s all found footage. Not a single shot in Private Century is original to Sikl or his collaborators. The coherence of the images, and their narrative function, comes almost entirely after the fact of their making, and from choices made by individuals well removed from the people behind and on the film used for the project. In that regard, the series is a profound illustration of the significance of editing to the nature of film as an art and craft.
The winnowing and shaping of the home movies for the purpose of making structured narratives that tell very personal versions of Czech history means that Private Century works not only as a formal exercise but also a social document, reflecting back on the meaning and significance of large scale changes on individual people.
Sikl describes Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century as a place of “constant assault on human identity”. This theme emerges clearly in the individual episodes as family after family is torn apart or placed under stress by, particularly, World War II and its aftermath. In episodes one and two, “Daddy and Lili Marlene” and “King of Velichovky”, a German-Czech family bears the brunt of the racialized politics of Nazi Germany, most notably in the post-War relocation of the German members of the family.
That the greatest tragedy to befall the Seisser family in the first installments of Private Century would be after the War presages Sikl’s persistent critique of the socialist state.
In subsequent episodes, the families in the series struggle against decisions of the state, and the pressures to conform. Artists have their work claimed by others, in episode three, “The Statuary of Granddad Vinda”, families have their film and photography archives raided, in episodes four and six, “See You in Denver” and “With Kisses from Your Love”, and souls are sold to the Communist Party, in episode five, “One Stroke of Butterfly Wings”.
This last episode is the only one to focus on someone who actually became a member of the Party in Czechoslovakia, composer Vaclav Felix. Not surprisingly, it’s among the most poignant and nuanced episodes in the series. Amidst the stories of rebels, such as sculptor Vincenc Havel from episode three, the disillusionment, and mistreatment, of the true believer, is tragic in a way that the more inevitable disaffections and entrapments are not. The latter are, of course, also moving, but clashes with the state are built into the very fabric of these episodes. Felix’s case is one that holds out the promise of a good ending, even as it fails to unfold.
One of the interesting, but largely unexamined, aspects of Private Century is the relative privilege of the featured families. Simply having film cameras in the early decades of the twentieth century serves as a class marker for these subjects. That a group of of relatively wealthy families would struggle against the rise of the socialist state is not surprising. What the films ask is whether that makes a difference to how we understand the crushing of individual creativity and agency.
And it’s important to note that Sikl focuses his critique of the post-War state on individual expression, and not on property ownership in and of itself. This makes the understanding of the wrongs of Soviet-styled socialism in Private Century very different from that of the more economically focused perspectives common in the United States, especially during and immediately after the Cold War. It’s the loss of the ability to create freely, and to enjoy in a very basic way the fruits of that creation, that Sikl seems to find most objectionable about life under state socialism, not the more narrow loss of the ability to profit materially from one’s creations.
The families in Private Century while privileged, are also largely of the professional middle class rather than the capitalist class. The primary exception here is Karl Seisser, the ‘King of Velichovky’, but even he is more a remnant of feudalism than of the modern economy. While Seisser, as both a large landowner and an ethnic German, found himself immediately excluded by the post-War regime, the other families, as members of the educated middle class and small business owners, found themselves in a precarious position, holding skills desired by state authorities, but only able to secure themselves by pledging their fealty, including giving up control over one’s own creative work. Indeed, the relative privilege of the subjects in the series made them both desired and suspect in the eyes of the Czechoslovakian government.
The final episodes in the series focus on Russian emigres who fled the Soviet Union after the revolution. These are sad stories, not least because the featured family, the Popovs, find themselves doubly torn by post-War events in Central Europe, ultimately ending up subject to the Soviet Union despite the initial decision to leave.
The booklet included with the DVD is more than a marginal extra. It provides substantive details about the making of the series and a timeline that places the events documented in the films into their larger contexts. It is, however, the only extra.
One of the minor notes in Private Century is the power of cinema. The families featured in the series are clearly fascinated by the medium of film. Many of the shots incorporated into Sikl’s movies seem to exist solely so that the subjects can see themselves, their faces and bodies, on screen. Furthermore, many of the films within the films are not simply records of family life, but are scripted recreations of that life or attempts at narrative filmmaking. I can only imagine that many of the now dead subjects would appreciate and admire Sikl’s labors in turning their work into his unique experiment in the art of cinema and the making of history.