Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The End of August at the Hotel Ozone has been a legendary, difficult-to-see title for almost forty years. Variety reviewed it at a New Czechoslovak film festival and was so unimpressed with its commercial prospects that it waited a month to post a review. Descriptions in Sci Fi film journals have been so sketchy as to suggest that they were all written not from seeing the picture but from reading that one Variety notice.
Variety was probably correct in terms of the film's overall appeal - it's a slow, arty combo of On the Beach and Lord of the Flies, complete with some disturbing animal cruelty that would surely raise hackles here and provoke an outright ban in England. But Hotel Ozone is interesting as a missing link between sober nuclear doomsday movies and the later escapist post-apocalyptic thriller genre.
Many years after a nuclear holocaust, a small group of young women roam the forests, led by an "Old Woman" (Beta Ponicanová) who wears military garb and tries to keep the less stable members in line. The women have little sense of purpose and while away the time in senseless cruelty to the animals they catch. Eventually they come to a small hotel run by a harmless old man (Ondrej Jarichek), and are charmed into a sense of peace -- momentarily.
Classic Soviet Bloc science fiction is slowly becoming more available in the West. Tarkovsky's Solaris is out in a handsome Criterion disc but many another Russian epic remains obscure, and some we have seen (the original Planeta Bur) aren't as impressive as we hoped they would be. First Run Features recently released the original East German-Polish Der schweigende stern along with a couple of other propagandistic DEFA movies. There are also a few noted titles from Hungary that have never been seen, along with older Soviet films like Silver Dust that sound too outrageous to be true.
So far the most impressive older space film from the East is the Czech-made Ikarie XB 1 written by Hotel Ozone's Pavel Jurácek. Jurácek also collaborated with director Jan Schmidt on a Franz Kafka adaptation; his personal political diaries from the 1969 "Prague Spring" formed the basis of a movie made in 2002.
The End of August at the Hotel Ozone follows a small group of women somewhere between fifteen and twenty years after a nuclear holocaust, as they forage on horseback through thick woods and dead cities overgrown with vegetation. The movie is all distant observation with little dialogue. Having reverted to a semi-feral existence, the women form an all-female Lost Patrol and relate to their environment mostly through their knives and their guns. Although one enjoys reading a found love letter, they mostly look for untouched stocks of kerosene, ammunition and liquor. They're a cross-section of physical types; although some are beautiful (second-in-command Magda Seidlerová) all are dirty and unkempt.
Very little conventional storytelling takes place. We're never really introduced to the girls as individuals. They fight among themselves a little; the old woman tries to keep order but her troops can be hard to manage, especially when an animal appears. One young woman shoots both a cow and a dog with a high-powered rifle, incidents that might be faked but are probably not. In another disturbing animal cruelty scene, a girl catches a small snake and rips it to pieces while it struggles. Sensitivity to animals has risen in the intervening years but original distributor interest in Hotel Ozone probably vanished when buyers saw this content. It is not all that shocking, but it's front and center and there's little else to think about.
Events are episodic and slowly paced. An extended sequence shows the old woman tracing a series of chalk marks on some buildings, to find one of her girls trapped in the crumbling gallery of a long-abandoned church. The rest of the group watches from below accompanied by one of their white horses, which makes for some unforced and eerily evocative imagery.
The picture perks up in the last two reels. After fording a river the girls come across a man, something they've never seen. The old codger welcomes them to his home, the 'Hotel Ozon' of the title where he has farm animals and fresh milk. The girls consume his sit-down meal like a pack of animals. The old woman is charmed when he brings her flowers - he's the first person she's met in years who remembers the old world. With everyone else dead from leukemia, the old man thinks the girls are in search of young men to impregnate them. The old woman doubts this is possible and the girls don't seem interested in the idea, either.
The ending is bleak and violent, imparting the strong message that the younger generation will destroy what they don't understand and cause an abrupt break in civilization. They kill to possess a wind-up gramophone that to them seems to represent a magic talisman. It has only one 78rpm polka record, Roll Out the Barrel.
Director Jan Schmidt plays the drama with an arty neutrality, never forcing symbolism or significance into the material: The killing over the gramophone is tragic, not ironic. There's absolutely none of the feeling of later post-apocalyptic movies that revel in junkyard anarchy (the Mad Max films) or flashy dystopian inversions of present-day political systems. Schmidt and Jurácek show humanity calmly devolving into savagery, living off the stored canned goods of a previous era and using hand grenades to catch fish. The good B&W cinematography keeps the screen alive with naturalistic compositions and handsome telephoto pans.
The acting is fine as well, although only Ponicanová and Jarichek are standouts. There's a tiny bit of non-exploitative nudity. The movie is a Czech Army Production and considering the rough duty on view, some of the women are probably Czech soldiers. They ride bareback and handle weapons with expertise. After shooting the cow, the group immediately begins to gut it, like a happy pack of Amazon butchers.
Facets Video's DVD of The End of August at the Hotel Ozone is a good transfer of a satisfactory source element. The movie is originally 1:37 so the flat screen ratio is correct. The first reel is a tad scratchy but most of the film accurately renders the hazy feeling of the forest scenes. An arresting title sequence begins with an audio jumble of international voices reciting a missile-launching countdown. The balance of the film studiously avoids flashy effects.
There are no extras to speak of. The review copy was a final disc without packaging, but the accompanying literature makes use of enthusiastic critical quotes that may overstate the film's general appeal. It's only tangentially like Mad Max and Tarkovsky. The End of August at the Hotel Ozone is definitely for fans interested in the creative margins of the genre. For those crazy about historical Sci Fi oddities it will be a must-see title.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The End of August at the Hotel Ozone rates:
Movie: Very Good with reservations over animal cruelty content
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 3, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson