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Private Century is a Czechoslovak television miniseries from 2006 and a brilliant and inspired piece of filmmaking. Director Jan Sikl has edited the home movies of a number of ordinary Czech citizens into a living history of the 20th century. The surprise is that each hour-long episode plays as a fascinating family chronicle complete with colorful characters. The expected familial intrigues -- marriages, children, domestic problems -- are intertwined with the chaotic political upheavals of the time.
The 'private' in Private Century apparently comes from 'private movies', the local equivalent of home movies. The title is ironic, as what were intended to be private, intimate records have been repurposed as rare surviving documents of a bygone age. As liner notes essayist Susan Doll says, most of recorded history is concerned with power politics. The only individuals that come into play are the kind of notables that get written up in the newspaper. Private Century tells the story of what it was really like to live in Czechoslovakia between the middle 1920s and the early 1970s, told by ordinary citizens that had no choice but to muddle through.
Unlike the bitty keepsakes that most of us have in our closets, the movies shown here were clearly taken by devotées of cinema who used tripods and took their filming seriously. In the 1920s the European home movie standard was a 9.5 mm format that can be spotted immediately because the sprocket perforations are in the middle of the frame, not down the side. One narration track mentions that one family's home movies stopped at the beginning of WW2, because the French Pathé film stock they used was no longer available in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia.
Director Sikl narrowed down his shows from up to 30 hours of audio interviews with surviving family members, usually a person who begins as a newborn baby in the early part of a show. Although read by a professional the narration tracks are assembled from actual remarks, so the shows remain true documentaries.
Of the eight programs, two are unofficial two-parters divided along generational lines. Babies born in the 1920s and 30s face a different set of problems than their parents. Czechoslovakia apparently had a fairly peaceful and prosperous 1920s, at least seen through the lens of people wealthy enough to be home movie hobbyists. Fortunes are made, even by Russian immigrants fleeing the Bolshevik revolution. But the coming of the Nazis in neighboring Germany puts stress on families with ties to both countries. When the country is taken over by the Germans we hear of a Jewish relative who commits suicide. Some Czechs fit into the German scheme of things in a way that will later be considered collaboration.
The allied victory turns things upside down when the new Communist state seizes all private property and businesses, destroying lives left and right; former White Russians are deported to Gulags. Artists and scientists, military men and businessmen struggle to maintain a living standard and to keep their families together. The movies show lives broken and futures stunted under the Communist system, yet people continue to raise their families and better their living conditions.
Each of the shows presents interesting, real personalities and family conflicts, "real" as opposed to what now passes for "reality". Above our interest in the world of the past in a foreign country -- the clothing, the hairstyles, cars -- we recognize things that haven't changed. The people look basically the same as they do now. Mothers love their babies but some married couples don't stay happy. Parents help their children or try to impose their will upon them. People are envious or jealous or fear betrayal by their mates; they make emotional decisions they later regret. Nobody can predict the historical events that force drastic changes in their lives.
The individual shows of Private Century present an unexpected variety. Daddy and Lili Marlene follows the story of a well-off farmer in the Sudetenland (an area annexed by Germany early on) who raises three daughters with very different personalities. Lili marries an oral surgeon; the family vacations in Nazi Berlin in 1934. King of Velichoky picks up the story of one of the grandchildren, who witnesses family problems as her parents adjust to life under Fascism and Communism.
Statuary of Grandad Vinda is about an eccentric sculptor, a control freak who earns big commissions (and a car!) from the new Communist government but falls victim to his own stubbornness with party officials -- despite his claims of greatness, his main asset are his popular sculptures of a Czech president now discredited. Other artists are quick to move in on his unfairly awarded commissions.
See You In Denver shows brothers who work in their father's film exchanges and theaters, love their dad's collection of silent westerns and make their own home-movie westerns for fun. The Germans take some of the film collection but the communists seize both the business and the archive. The old man becomes a projectionist and the boys emigrate to Canada. In the early 1960s we see them visiting the desert locations where their favorite westerns were filmed.
One Stroke of Butterfly Wings follows a young composer who turns from butterfly collecting to writing music for the Communist regime; he embraces the new social order and loses control of his career. He can do nothing when his father is sent to prison.
The most compelling installment is With Kisses from Your Love, about a famous family photography studio. The owner's new daughter-in-law has both beauty and talent and develops the business after the war. Hit hard by the Communist regime, they bargain to keep control of their priceless archive of glass photos and prints. The regime forces the company to hire an informer who snoops through their files. The archives are seized and destroyed, partially to eliminate evidence of past associations of party officials with the German occupiers. The main "star" of this segment (pictured on the package cover) is a stunning beauty of movie-star caliber.
Small Russian Clouds of Smoke tells the saga of Russian immigrants fleeing the October 1917 Revolution. The families prosper in Czechoslovakia and are allowed to retain their own schools, national identity, etc, always believing they'll be able to return to their homeland. Some of the exiles were esteemed intellectuals, who delight in arguing, even in the home movies. Low Level of Flight continues the saga with a couple in the next generation. He eventually becomes a fighter pilot and relocates to a military town in Russia. She rebels when the husband turns to drink and becomes unfaithful -- Russian girls hang out around the base and boast when they sleep with the married pilots. The husband secretly filmed movies of his fighter jet on the ground and in the air, a serious breach of security.
Director Sikl hasn't just stacked up some home movies. The carefully edited footage frequently suggests relationships not described in the commentary. Just as often the narrator will contradict the footage of smiling faces with stories of marriages on edge. A daughter tells us that her mother was unkind and cruel, but we have to look at the people on screen and decide for ourselves.
The families of Private Century avoid most of the chaos of WW2 because they're not Jewish and are wealthy enough to move to the country or otherwise avoid the strife. Yet we see movies of troops moving in and some long shots of cities being bombed. How many of us have "home movies" of our country being invaded? The "Private" aspect is never dropped, as the films abound with loving portraits of complex people. We see a woman who seems normal, while her daughter describes her as hostile to her husband and looking for sensation out of marriage. While the daughter describes her mother's ongoing affair, we realize that the father is taking movies of his wife and her "friend", unable to do anything about it.
The intimacy of the home movies results in a direct emotional connection with the people on film. The smile of the woman in With Kisses from your Love penetrates the camera with a big "I love you" every time she's on screen. That contrasts with the perky wife of the MIG pilot, who grows less happy despite their "luxury" existence: a baby carriage, a TV set that ordinary people can't buy. As for the old folks, they build up secure lives and positions for themselves, only to see it all taken away. The movie distributor is forced to work as a projectionist. One man goes to prison for making a joke about the Communists, while another writes a book criticizing the new order and is imprisoned as well. Private Century is an engrossing story of educated, hopeful people suffering under political chaos.
Facets Video has a real gem in this release, which I just saw praised in a new issue of The New Yorker. Private Century is an excellent transfer of this flat TV presentation. Most of the films are B&W but some come through in rather good color -- you'll be impressed by the quality of the amateur cameramen. There are no video extras, but Susan Doll contributes a useful insert essay and a timeline of Czech history that places the various events depicted in the personal stories.
The eight hours are presented on two discs. Most of the music cues come from old recordings, many of which are Czech covers of American hits. The language is Czech and the English subtitles are not removable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Private Century rates:
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