Every year, millions of tourists flood to Prague to gaze in wonder at the city’s breathtaking medieval architecture. Practically untouched by the bombing that devastated so many of Europe’s historical cities during two world wars, the city’s picturesque beauty is augmented by the relative lack of modern, high-rise buildings in the city centre. But few of those tourists venture to the outskirts, where even today, 25 years after the end of communism, the panelák still rules.
Panelák, short for panelový dům (panel house) is the name Czechs give to the prefabricated residential buildings erected during the communist era. Between them they contain 1.2 million flats and house around one third of the Czech population. The buildings are largely grouped together in housing estates known locally as sídliště. Located around 9 kilometres from the centre of Prague, the largest sídliště to be found in the modern-day Czech Republic, Jižní Město, includes around 200 buildings, and forms the setting of Věra Chytilová’s 1980 film Prefab Story.
Rather than a model of socialist community living, the housing estate of Prefab Story resembles a construction site, with diggers and pneumatic drills constantly vying for attention with the discordant orchestral score. The space between the buildings is a brutal, barren wasteland. The flats themselves are unfinished both structurally and in terms of internal fittings. “Just a few minor details” says the state official showing potential residents around: a display of estate agent duplicity that present-day London renters will find only too familiar.
The apex of the film is the story of Sonia, a teenage student who, it’s soon revealed, is pregnant. As Sonia contemplates her situation, a complex web of plot-lines opens up around her, dragging in a host of characters, from the varied occupants of the half-built flats to the tradesmen and decorators working on them.
The half-finished sídliště provides a resonant setting for a scathing criticism of Czechoslovak society and its perverse divergence from the communist ideal, with avarice, arrogance and deceitfulness all present in equal measure. It’s particularly critical of how this society treats its women, with Sonia’s dilemma highlighting a range of issues: early marriage and motherhood, we see, is the quickest ticket to financial security, a flat and an automated washing machine, perks enjoyed by Sonia’s beautiful and elegant friend Marta. Yet while Marta at first appears to have it all, there are a couple of obvious downsides. She has immense difficulty finding childcare, and must constantly wait in never-ending queues. And then there are the problems with her flat. Sure, it looks nice: “It’s like a castle. Don’t you feel like a princess?” asks Sonia upon entering. “Oh yes,” Marta replies – but within seconds this princess has realised that the water has been turned off, and is reduced to ladling out the contents of the toilet cistern into a kettle to make a pot of coffee. When her husband comes home and the two instantly begin to quarrel, any illusion of idyll in Marta’s domestic life is shattered.
With its lack of a cohesive plot, avant-garde editing and largely unmelodious soundtrack, Prefab Story will not be to everyone’s taste. It does however offer a wry humour, which includes moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity as well as sombre reflection on the realities of life in communist Czechoslovakia.
Prefab Story was part of the Věra Chytilová festival at the BFI Southbank (1st-17th March 2015). The Festival was coorganised by the Czech Centre, London.