Mention the Czech New Wave to a moderate cinephile, and they may think of the generous-hearted, knockabout works of Miloš Forman, or the sly subversiveness of Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains. One director they almost certainly won’t mention is Drahomíra Vihanová, contemporary to them both but whose works were banned for 20 years. Hitherto deprived of them in London, we now have a number of long overdue premieres: of her 1969 film A Squandered Sunday (also reviewed on this site) and a quartet of documentaries, shown at the Barbican last Saturday.
They’re an intriguing mix. Most controversial, to a modern eye, is Metamorphosis of My Friend Eva (1991). Over a quarter of an hour or so we see the two sides of jazz-singer Eva Olmerová: one composed, focussed, crooning poignantly onstage, the other unmade-up, slatternly and in varying degrees of maudlin drunkenness, but compelling nonetheless. ‘I’m a rusty, dirty old anchor…’ she tells Vihanová, ‘like an octopus with my feelers…’ Quickly we realise she’s pitifully isolated too, complaining that friendship has disappeared, hoping that one day her loneliness ‘will die forever’, and asking, desperately, ‘Why do I bother with it?’ Much of this is routine – jazz-singers are supposed to have shaky personal lives – though as the discrepancy between Olmerová’s onstage and offstage self intensifies, we feel afresh the pain and longing coming through her songs. At times the film makes you uncomfortable – there’s only a hair’s breadth between this and the treacherous uploading of a friend’s drunken antics to Youtube. ‘I don’t trust you – stop filming,’ Olmerová shouts at one point, and you can only sympathise.
Yet as a portrait of loneliness Metamorphosis of My Friend Eva has power, and it’s a theme shared – overwhelmingly – with other documentaries here. In Fugue on the Black Keys (1965), the longest, most obviously experimental and – with its canon of nouvelle vague effects – perhaps the most dated of the films, we see the kindless existence of an African music student Fati Farari in 60s Prague. Rejected, attacked, discussed with casual bigotry in the flat next door – ‘These walls are too thin’, he says in voiceover, ‘Can’t you speak more politely?’ – we see him searching for a resting place and unable ever to find it. Instead Fati tramps the streets to a bleakly credible inner monologue: ‘God is punishing me… I am feeble and so broken.’ As a picture of urban alienation the film hits hard: this is all of us at certain moments: intensified by race.
The series’ comic gem, and the most typically Czech of the lot, is Questions for Two Women, where two apparently very different women are studied – a rural railway worker and an urban molecular biologist – and their lives turn out to have parallels: both are altruistic, both in long-term marriages, both dedicated to their work and both highly creative. It’s the portrait of the railway worker that’s the draw here: a character out of one of Hrabal’s novels brought to life. While her day-job commands her conscientiousness, it’s into her free time that her passions go: hacking out, on an old typewriter, manuscripts of poetry written with almost graphomaniac prolificness – so many that she staggers under piles of scripts and publishers have refused to wade through them (even though of the 300 poems she wrote solely about ‘medicinal plants’, she offered them, she explains, only half). It’s a joyous picture of eccentricity, but deadly serious too. ’I want to show people the good and the bad,’ she says, ‘Poetry makes life beautiful… But first one has to do one’s duty.’ Both women are examples of goodness, and neither is ever dull: nor is the documentary, which is a small delight.
Yet it’s in the final work shown here, Everyday I Step in front of your Face (1992) that Vihanová’s lyricism really comes to the fore: another study of goodness, and of terrifying solitude. Focussing on the daily life of Franz Eimann, an 84 year-old farmer who made the mistake of being Czech-German and, after the war, was jailed for 13 years, it’s about much more than that: acceptance, rootedness, faith, grief, the long preparation for death. Intertwined with religious imagery and scenes of the changing seasons, we see Eimann’s daily life – utterly isolated, struggling through all weathers to keep his farm going – and his complete lack of self-pity or bitterness. It’s alive with scenes of suffering – martyred saints, the old man weeping at a roadside shrine, or struggling bent-backed across snowy fields: ‘I’d like to be young, but I can’t go through it all again… If a person has faith, everything will be easier… I’d like to die at home…’ Slowly we’re convinced, amidst the Lutheran imagery, that we’re seeing a picture of everyday saintliness ourselves, and when we finally watch him wander through the summer-corn for once not alone but with a pair of frolicking goats, it comes almost as a benediction.
With any film-maker whose works have been unshown for such a long time, the real question must be of whether they’re worth rediscovering at all. Without a doubt here the answer is yes. These aren’t mere curios: they’re exquisite portraits of loneliness and loss, filmed with a poetry that recalls documentary-makers like Humphrey Jennings or John Schlesinger. Not only the two women in Vihanová’s gem have something in common. Technical artistry aside, these indelible snapshots of cockeyed beauty bring home to us with a thump that we all – men, women, black, white, old and young – share infinitely more than we acknowledge.
The screening of Drahomíra Vihanová’s documentaries at the Barbican on June 4 2016 was organised by the Czech Centre, London, in partnership with the Barbican and the National Film Archive, Prague.