‘Gottland is about interesting people,’ Mariusz Szczygiel said at the opening discussion of Frontline cinema’s screening of the film modelled on his stories. Joined by Bloomberg News writer Doug Lytle and translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Szczygiel told us there are only two kinds of people in this world: those that are quiet and calm, and those that make a lot of noise. He counts the Czechs (and himself) among the former and, with brilliant storytelling and amusing anecdotes, illustrated how in his stories this behaviour confronts the past. At the same time, Szczygiel stressed, his book also contains a sense of universality – all the more evident from his outsider’s perspective as a Pole interested in Czech identity.
By contrast, Gottland the film is very much an insider’s perspective – so much so, you have to know at least the basics of 20th century Czech history to understand it. Built up chronologically, Gottland is a series of five short documentaries by young Czech filmmakers, focusing on benchmark moments in Czech history, from the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 to the post-communist era. The film’s ‘an attempt at describing contemporary Czech views of heroism as seen in the light of major and minor historical events of the 20th century’.
The first film focuses on the legacy of Tomáš Bat’a, whose shoe manufacturing empire was an important marker of progress in newly founded Czechoslovakia. Like an assembly line of images moving past, the scenes progress from one production stage to the next while workers in factories today talk about their labour and what their company means for the country: ‘stagnation is death, movement is progress.’ Next, we learn in a conversation between the legendary actress Lída Baarová and the filmmaker Otakar Vávra about her infamous affair with Josef Goebbels. Their meeting’s based on a real recording, but where the original material couldn’t be accessed, actors fill in for the two in a sad story of regret and misjudgment. There’s no hero here, just reminders of the Nazi occupation paired with a personal story all too often misunderstood.
The impact of history on people’s lives also features in the next film, an animation based partly on Eduard Kirchenberger’s own book, partly on Skype interviews with his daughters. It questions where the line should be drawn between hero and coward, and highlights the dubious things people had to do to protect their loved ones in a totalitarian system. Kirchenberger’s story is as amusing as it’s tragic, leaving us to ponder while we’re moving on to the story of the Stalin Monument in Prague and its legacy, told by its sculptor and the widow of the man who organized its demolition. We also hear the wonderful ideas suggested for reviving the remaining platform – the most inventive being to
transform it into a huge aquarium. By now we realise that all the films question how to deal with history, and what legacy the fall of communism brought in its wake – a bleak vision still looking for its heroes. This search is continued in the final story about student Zdeněk Adamec, who committed self-immolation as a protest against the demoralization of society – just 4m away from the spot where Jan Palach set himself alight in 1969. Was he a hero or a coward? On that question, the film ends.
In a way, Gottland is typically Czech: the story-telling that connects each documentary, the tragedy in each underscored with a fine sense of humour – all of this is an elementary part of Czech culture, from Hašek to Hrabal to Havel. Within it, there’s a deeply ingrained sense of how to deal with the myriad political changes Czechs’ have had to put up with over the last century. Each of the short films is engaging, moving, funny – and leaves plenty of food for thought with no bitter aftertaste. And even though the whole documentary felt longer than it was, owing to all the different eras and storylines, every single section was a masterpiece on its own. As such, Gottland the movie isn’t just an accomplished interpretation of Szczygiel’s brilliant book – it’s a feast of contemporary Czech cinematography not to be missed.
Screening: Gottland Q & A was part of London’s Frontline Club’s ongoing programme of screenings, conferences, lectures and discussions on ‘issues affecting media, journalism, foreign affairs, and politics around the world.’ It was supported by the Czech Centre, London.