O slavnosti a hostech
“When one lives in a society that is essentially not free, it is the obligation of every thinking person to attack obstacles to freedom in every way at his disposal.”–Jan Nemec
DIRECTED BY: Jan Nemec
PLOT: Seven people are pleasantly picnicking by a stream when they see a festive bridal party in the distance; they wonder if they can join in the celebration. Later, walking through the woods, a gang of men accosts them and takes them to a clearing where the leader interrogates them without explaining why. The bully’s adoptive father shows up, apologizes for the son’s crude behavior, and invites the party to the outdoor bridal banquet; the older man becomes upset, however, when one of the invitees decides to leave the party and strike off on his own…
- Even under the relatively liberal 1967 Czechoslovakian regime, The Party and Guests was banned (at the same time as Vera Chytilová‘s Daisies) because it had “nothing in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideas of Communism.” The movie was briefly exhibited during the Prague spring of 1968 then banned again after the Soviet invasion. In the second round of censorship, hardline President Antonín Novotný honored Party and Guests by naming it one of four films that were “banned forever” in the dictatorship.
- The movie was filmed quietly and quickly in five weeks because director Jan Nemec was afraid that authorities would shut down the production.
- Party and Guests was accepted in competition for the 1968 Cannes film festival, but the festival was cancelled that tumultuous year out of solidarity with striking French workers and students.
- The common English translation of the title O Slavnosti a Hostech adds a pun on “party” (both a celebration and a political association) that wasn’t present in the original Czech. The American title also adds the word “report” (the British released it as simply The Party and the Guests).
- None of the cast were professional actors; most were artists and intellectuals who held “counter-revolutionary” political views. Jan Klusák (who makes quite an impression as the bullying Rudolph) was a composer who scored many of the Czech New Wave movies (including Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), and later made music to accompany Jan Svankmajer shorts. Director Evald Schorm (“House of Joy“) plays the guest who decides to leave the party. This bit of casting suggested to the authorities that the film was a protest of their decision to ban one of Schrom’s previous films.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The idea of a functionary sitting behind a desk, your fate in his hands and an enigmatic grin on his face, is the preeminent vision of bureaucratic totalitarianism from the 20th century. The incongruous twist A Report on the Party and Guests puts on this disquieting picture is to set up that desk in the middle of an open forest glade, with birds chirping merrily in the background.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When discussing A Report on the Party and Guests, every critic is required to use two words: “allegorical” and “Kafkaesque.” The second descriptor explains why this quietly disturbing examination of senseless conformity earns its place on the List of the best weird movies ever made. After watching this quietly absurd totalitarian nightmare, I can pretty much guarantee you will scratch Report on the Party and Guests off your list of possible wedding themes.
Short clip from A Report on the Party and Guests
COMMENTS: Understated to the point of madness, A Report on the Party and Guests slips slowly and almost imperceptibly into an authoritarian abyss. Through a series of absurd incidents, what begins as a pleasant country outing ends up in a manhunt. Manipulated by displays of power and promises of brotherhood, the protagonists turn from meek sheep into blindly obedient dogs so gradually that it’s hard to remember how they evolved from point A to point B.
It begins at an idyllic picnic with seven comfortably dressed, middle class, middle aged people reclining, nibbling on sweets and sipping wine next to a babbling brook. The four men and three women engage in abrupt dialogue; with each new line anyone speaks, it sounds like we’re coming into the middle of a conversation that’s been going on for some time. We do manage to gather that they are looking forward to a celebration later that day, although none of them seem to know exactly where or when it is to be held, or who it’s in honor of. They take a stroll through the woods, with no a clear destination in mind, when suddenly a man in short pants approaches; he grabs one of the party by the arm and asks where he’s going, and he won’t take “mind your own business” for an answer. He’s polite but aggressively persistent, always smiling, and he’s backed up by a large group of hulking men who follow him wherever he goes. Soon enough, without once directly threatening violence, he has somehow herded the group into a clearing, where they stand by nervously as his cronies retrieve a desk from the forest and set up an office in the middle of nowhere. There he becomes a backwoods apparatchik, examining them in turn and making notations in an oversized book. One of the thugs drags his boot heel in a circle in the dirt, forming an invisible fence that the party decides they dare not cross without begging permission. The captors never directly pressure the group—they only make suggestions backed by vague qualifications like “it would be in your best interest”—but the kidnapped party immediately turns subservient, meekly bending to every request and trying their best not to anger the alpha male.
The leader turns out to be Rudolf, played as a schoolyard bully with oily menace by Jan Klusák. With his chronic crooked smirk and impishly sadistic man-child persona, the ever-so-slightly comic Rudolf resembles a Adam Sandler’s Czech cousin promoted to head of the secret police. He assures the party that their imprisonment is all a joke and that he’s just an actor, but he nonetheless continues with the game, leading them around in circles and violently wagging his finger in displeasure when one of them speaks out of turn. Eventually one of the men tests Rudolph’s authority, only to be surrounded by the boss’ friends who grab him and toss him in the air. But the reign of terror is still ambiguous; Rudolph continues to insist that it’s all a joke, and they’re all friends.
The tension is broken when Treater, an elegant older man, shows up and puts an end to Rudolph’s shenanigans, apologizing for the misbehavior. He’s distressed by the bad joke of his adopted son; he had only asked Rudolf to lead them to his birthday party. Treater takes the crew to an enormous banquet by a lake where they are seated with the guests who’ve already arrived. Relieved, the released prisoners mingle congenially with their former captors. With the guests all planted in the wrong seats and everyone scrambling to find their proper place, the joyless celebration that follows resembles the Mad Hatter’s tea party as rewritten by Franz Kafka. Treater’s mood grows darker when he learns that one of the guests has snuck away from the party without even saying goodbye. Their gracious host gets so upset about the inconsiderate desertion that the partiers—wife and friends included—all agree that a search party must be formed to find him and return him to the celebration. Fortunately, Treater and Rudolf just happen to have brought a hunting dog and a rifle to the party (Rudolf explains purpose of the firearm: “I want to fire just one shot when we find him, so the whole company will know that we have him…”) The group breaks into small bands which set off into the woods to track down the party-pooper and bring him back into the fold…
At first the regime change from Rudolf to Treater seems like a boon for the former prisoners, but it soon appears that there’s a good cop-bad cop dynamic at play between the two. After being rescued and reassured by the older man, the picnickers are even more obedient to authority. Treater’s friendly camaraderie and appeals to brotherhood make for an even more effective leash than Rudolf’s veiled threats. Soon enough the kidnapees are currying Treater’s favor and apologizing for their own inadequacies as guests, accepting the new order and jockeying to get ahead of the pack. The most obsequious of the party is promoted to honored guest, seated at the host’s right hand.
There is some debate over how much of Nemec’s parable is meant to be specific to Czechoslovakian politics and how much is simply a biting satire on our human disposition to bully and be bullied. There are certainly plenty of hints that the director is referring to events in recent history. It’s hard not to see the pastoral peace of the first reel as representing Czechoslovakia’s pre-war independence, Rudolph’s brief reign of terror as the Nazi occupation, and Treater’s “liberation” as the era of Communist dominance. Balding and sporting a smartly trimmed Van Dyke, Treater looks a lot like Vladimir Lenin (Nemec insists it’s an accident, but both commentators and Communists were quick to pick up on the resemblance). Treater speaks of brotherhood and democracy, but he keeps Rudolf the fascist by his side (he will prove useful); he promises better times, but actually delivers the same enforced conformity with a more pleasant-seeming front. Significantly, a point is made of the seizure of private property from the formerly happy Czechs. During a tussle Rudolf took a knife and a lighter from one of the seven principals. The aggrieved man loudly complains to Treater; rather than ordering his crony to return the seized property, the imperious host calms the protester by promising to provide him with a knife and lighter in the future. The picnickers, so quick to fold under pressure and try to curry favor with each successive regime, are weak-willed bourgeois intellectuals who easily turn into collaborators. The one man who decides not to attend the party is a dissident whose existence can’t be tolerated; the very idea that he doesn’t want to join in the fun is a threat to their solidarity.
The Czech Communist party certainly, and rightfully, understood Nemec’s parable as a dart aimed at them. And yet the story resonates because it speaks to humanity’s universal cowardice; the way the partiers succumb to pressure and form hierarchies, the way they can’t accept the existence of someone who’s not on the team, reminds us as much of high school as it does history.
Nothing that occurs onscreen in A Report on the Party and Guests will shock or appall you. The villains smile, never raise their voices, and are uniformly polite in their demands. The one assault that occurs is hardly more violent than a bunch of football players jostling each other in the locker room. The scariest thing that happens is the sound of a dog barking on the soundtrack. And yet, precisely because of the subdued nature of its threat, Party and Guests is one of the tensest films ever made. You spend the entire movie in a state of dread, certain that something unspeakably horrible is about to happen. It’s only after the screen fades to black that you realize it already did.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a beautifully weighted absurdist allegory about conformity and the mechanics of totalitarianism which sounds echoes of Kafka, Ionesco, Buñuel and Vlacav Havel…”–Sight and Sound (DVD)
IMDB LINK: A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Second Run DVD – The Party and Guests – Second Run DVD, the European distributor of the film, has collected an impressive number of essays, reviews and links concerning the movie
CER | Kinoeye: An Interview with Czech Film Director Jan Nemec – This 2001 Kinoeye interview with Nemec is part of a spotlight on the director; check the links in the sidebar for more articles on the Nemec and his films
Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave – This page collects all the booklet essays accompanying the films in the “Pearls of the New Wave” box set (including Report on the Party and Guests)
DVD INFO: For a long time Party and Guests was only available in an inferior print from Facets. That changed (for Europeans) in 2007 with an impressive restoration by Second Run DVD. The disc comes with a booklet by Michael Brooke and a short featurette from Peter Hames discussing the movie and its impact. It’s the best single disc option for purchasing the film; but, although it’s a Region-free disc, the video is converted in PAL format and thus won’t play on most North American DVD players. If you can play PAL format you may want to purchase this release (buy). The rest of us will have to make do with the Eclipse box set “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” (buy), a less-affordable but extremely appealing alternative. Although there are no extras beyond short inserts providing background on the included films, the set includes six important Czech films made between 1966 and 1968, including (in increasing order of interest) Evald Schorm‘s bleak drama Return of the Prodigal Son, Jirí Menzel‘s chaste sex comedy Capricious Summer, Jaromil Jires‘ astoundingly anti-Communist The Joke, the occasionally weird omnibus film Pearls of the Deep, and Vera Chytilová‘s psychedelic/surrealist/feminist trip Daisies (which was banned at the same meeting where Party and Guests was axed).