Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ucho (The Ear)

I've already looked at one Czech film of the 1960s here, Sedmikrasky, or Daisies, but the output of during the period was so prodigious, and Ucho is so singular an example, that I feel I should include it. It's actually dated by some sources as 1970, but it was made at least partially in 1969 and never shown publicly until 1989, just months before the velvet revolution, so I take the liberty or including it here. Besides, of all the films I've featured, Ucho is by far the most explicitly political, confronting head on such taboo issues like Stalinism, repression and antisemitism.

According to the interview with Peter Hames, a British expert on Czech cinema, the director of Ucho, Karel Kachyna, and the writer, Jan Prochazka, enjoyed a long career together collaborating on films. Prochazka was a communist and had many contacts with the party elite, including an acquaintance with the president. Their films together were seen as bearing the stamp of officially approved criticism. Ucho was made after the Prague Spring had ended, apparently with Soviet troops marching on the streets outside their studio, and on completion it was withheld by authorities. Prochazka died the next year, but Kachyna seems to have accepted the dictates of the regime and continued to make uncontroversial and unremarkable children's films, and even continued his collaboration with Prochazka, filming some of his scripts, though a 'front' was given credit.

Ucho is the story of a couple returning home after a party at the presidential palace. They discover they have somehow misplaced their keys. Their gate is open in any case, and once inside their house, they discover that the electricity and telephone service are not working. They begin to suspect that somebody had been there while they were out. The husband, Ludvik, is deputy at the ministry of construction and his rather vulgar wife Anna (superbly played Jirina Bohdalova) bicker with each other as they explore their darkened home. It's coincidentally their tenth wedding anniversary, and despite numerous broad hints, Ludvik won't acknowledge the occasion. We switch between the scene at the house and flashbacks of the party where we learn that Ludvik's superior and three colleagues are missing, and presumed to have been arrested. By the end of the film we understand the connection between what we've learned at the party and the strange state of the house. Ucho is a mix of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Kafka. It's a study of a relationship under conventional strains that could affect any marriage, with the added burdens of being subject of surveillance and political repression.

at home - before or behind bars

Ucho gives us an opportunity to see life under surveillance. What I thought was unique is how 'the ear' - those who listen -  is drawn into their personal lives. Anna will be talking to her husband, and when she finds him too obtuse or otherwise objectionable, she will interrupt herself and address the ear directly in cheeky banter. Their casual acceptance of the police state is also evident in their prison-like decor, and in Anna's admission that she keeps her young son locked in his bedroom while they go out. Near the end, Anna courageously rebels against her role as prisoner and warder in her own home, but her freedom is short lived. In the final scene, for the first time she expresses fear, and we see her, also for the first time, silent, deflated and exhausted.

Ucho is available here at the Pirate Bay for download. With a bittorrent client, of course. Be sure not to miss Peter Hames' twelve minute introduction to the film, which is part of the package.

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