Among Eastern European nations, the Czechs are an anomaly. While neighbouring countries like Hungary and Poland seem to romanticise martyrdom and self-sacrifice, the Czechs – brave when the circumstances demand it – have throughout their history put survival first. Budapest and Warsaw were flattened in World War Two, but Prague was left unscathed, much of its war-resistance channelled into tiny protests like switching street signs to confuse the Germans, and deliberately miscalibrating bombshells to stymie the Nazi war machine. Schweik, the low-ranking soldier whose cunning lies in his feigned stupidity, is their national emblem, the grand hoax their national sport, and in modern Prague, where the red and cream trams seem to tootle about like Tomás the Tank Engine, there is an atmosphere of lightness and play.
Iconic of this sense of fun is Marta Kubišová, the singer associated more than any other with the Prague Spring of 1968, that brief period, a dance between icebergs, when the country liberalised under Alexander Dubček and anything seemed possible. Kubišová, with her tremendous pout, combative vocals and glorious, short-lived megafame caught the joy, innocence and sexiness of the time like no one else. But in the wake of the Soviet invasion, offering public loyalty to Alexander Dubček, Kubišová saw her career switched off like a light. Refusing to kowtow to the new regime, she suffered two decades of menial jobs, state persecution and anonymity, before emerging in November 1989 onto a balcony in Wenceslas Square, to cheering crowds for whom her acapella performance of ‘Song for Marta’, the ballad she made famous during the invasion and which had been banned ever since, came as sheer historical catharsis.
Now The Magic Voice of a Rebel, a new documentary from prolific film-maker Olga Sommerová, brings her story up to date. We see Kubišová, an elderly woman but with voice and charisma unimpaired, rehearsing a rather kitschy-looking musical in Prague. There are numerous clips of Kubišová’s 60s videos – still with a joie de vivre to them but often comically naïve, met by a knowing kind of laughter from the audience. We listen to Kubišová – tart, unpretentious, funny and rather grand – tell her story: of an unexpected celebrity she didn’t know quite know what to do with, of dangerous husbands and dangerous politics, of the joys of motherhood, animal rights, becoming a political activist, of losing everything and getting most of it back again. Despite the seriousness, even tragedy, of the story it tells, the tone is light, playful and strangely joyous. For it’s Kubišová’s almost freakish strength to take nothing bar her family and her beloved animals seriously: her own fame, one senses, she found as farcical and throwaway as she found the regime that killed it. About the latter she is grimly funny, remembering the games she played to outwit secret policeman on the Prague metro, and seeming to relish the cut and thrust of being picked on by the state. ‘That was a good interrogation,’ she says smugly of one day-long session with the authorities, as if remembering a game of chess. Of the Soviet invasion of 1968, she recalls the fun and giggles of dodging Russian bullets. Kubišová’s life would have been unendurable, you feel, without her sense of the absurd.
But where The Magic Voice of a Rebel achieves a real poignancy is in its study of ageing: of the singer in constant dialogue with her distant younger self: another person. The film is full of reminiscences, memories, leafings through old photo albums, and captures brilliantly the way one leaves the continent of youth and becomes something different, how things once unquestioned in their topicality become passé, even comical to later generations. Rehearsing with a girl of 26 – Kubišová’s exact age at the cut-off of her earlier career – we see her speaking matter-of-factly about her grandfather’s death. The girl’s reaction – nonplussed as if by a foreign language – seems to say it all about the different galaxies that old and young inhabit. Few people were ever as gloriously young as Kubišová in her heyday – but few youths were more abruptly, callously truncated.
In the hands of another film-maker, such things might have been turgidly momentous, but Sommerová avoids all mawkishness and melodrama. This is a documentary that needed to be made, and for all its light touch is powerfully moving. Like her ‘Song for Marta’ – as cathartic here as in its moment – Kubišová is at the very heart of modern Czech history. ‘Marta is the greatest’ a colleague says at one point, and Kubišová nods in agreement beside him. It’s Sommerová’s achievement – like her subject’s – to make you do the same.
Olga Sommerová’s The Magic Voice of a Rebel was part of the ‘Made in Prague’ Festival (2nd-30th November), organised by the Czech Centre, London.