Alongside household names such as Miloš Forman and František Vláčil, Jan Němec was one of the key personalities responsible for the pioneering Czechoslovak New Wave cinema of the 1960s. Given his death at the age of seventy-nine on the final day of shooting, Vlk z Královských Vinohrad (The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street) was definitively the veteran director’s swan-song in the world of film – a pleasing coincidence, therefore, that it’s also an autobiographical montage of his own life and career.
The name of this film’s clearly designed to invoke The Wolf of Wall Street, and it’s correspondently self-indulgent and unashamed. But rather than boastful, it comes across as refreshingly open, honest, and self-aware. Narrated in the first-person by Němec (voice of Karel Roden), he’s unabashed about his sexuality and intellect, but also more than happy to poke fun at the expense of his younger self (played by Jiři Mádl).
Using a mix of original and new footage, Němec plays upon several key motifs in his life, and follows his own journey from young hopeful at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, to rootless exile in the USA, and finally to the rediscovery of home on his eventual return to post-communist Czechoslovakia. The film’s punctuated by several excellent scenes in which the very best of Němec comes bubbling to the surface – in particular, one in which he brilliantly smooth-talks his way out of a Secret Police interrogation by ensnaring the officer in his own words – during a discussion of socialist interpretations of Kafka.
Overall though, the mix of old and new footage overlaid by narration seems to lack the desired impact. Mostly, this seems to hinge upon the lightweight production values of the new footage, hinting at a shoestring budget. The spectacle of thirty-one year-old Mádl in a grey wig acting a seventy-eight year-old Němec (at the 2015 Karlovy Vary Film Festival) was perhaps meant to be funny, but comes across as little more than a cheap stunt. Nevertheless, some of the archive footage – particularly of the Soviet invasion of 1968 which helped propel Němec to fame – is raw, gripping, and emotive.
While the film itself may not live up to the story it’s telling, the strength of that narrative and the flashes of brilliance that shine through are enough to make up for other inadequacies in the production. It’s a shame that The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street doesn’t meet the high-standards Němec set himself, but perhaps it didn’t have to. This is the work of an elderly and accomplished man with nothing left to prove, and we should be thankful for this last parting gift – a snapshot glance at a life well-lived.
Jan Němec’s The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street was screened on 10 November 2017, as part of the 21st Made in Prague Festival, organised by the Czech Centre, London.