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The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia lasted from January to August of 1968. Under reformist Alexander Dubcek censorship restrictions were lifted from the arts for little over half a year. Then the Soviet Union invaded and put an end to the liberalism, calling the return to authoritarian repression normalization. Although a few film directors had commercial success outside Czechoslovakia -- most notably Milos Forman -- one of the most revered Czech talents is Vojtech Jasny, a survivor of both Nazi and Communist tyranny who used the Prague Spring to produce his dream project, All My Good Countrymen. Jasny's episodic, nearly epic script had to be pared from six hours down to two; but he got it filmed and finished just as the Russian tanks arrived. Countrymen was shown only briefly before being banned. It was rescued from oblivion by the survival of just a few positive prints held outside the country.
Facets Video continues its series of fine Eastern European releases by accompanying its DVD of All My Good Countrymen with an excellent "Cine-Notes" text insert that explains the context and meaning of the film, which will be obscure to many audiences.
This elegiac film establishes a semi-comic tone that American viewers may find difficult to understand. All My Good Countrymen begins with a choir practice in which lyrics to a hymn seem to criticize the socialist government ... but we aren't sure if the scene is really happening or just an author's jest. A few minutes later in the "1945" chapter, two boys find some German pistols and take potshots at neighboring farmers. Then the main character unearths a German land mine, and moves it about rather casually. We're concerned for the kids and the farmer, but the filmmakers take both incidents as lighthearted frolics in the happy dawn of postwar peace.
Other developments are not so difficult to decipher. Vojtech Jasny orchestrates an interesting ensemble of friends that quietly lust after the Merry Widow while trying to sidestep the wrath of the party bureaucrats. There's the thief who can't stop himself, various propertied gentlemen trying not to lose what's theirs, and the occasional innocent like Bertin. Just as Bertin is being fitted for a wedding suit, another man is figuring out a way to snag his position as the party secretary -- by violence. Meanwhile, the sanctimonious choir director takes the leading party slot, enacting ruthless measures to bring the farmers into line.
Jasny's point seems to be that men committed to rural traditions can't be forced into a socialist order nobody believes in. Faith in the land overrides the fear of what the party committee might do, and every aggressive action taken by the party damages the community's overall productivity. The mature and sensible Frantisek goes to prison more than once but always comes home, because the party can't afford to liquidate him. Unfortunately, the group of friends pays dearly, through suicides, murders and reckless accidents brought about by the unjust regime.
Director Jasny doesn't have to exaggerate to make his point. The wealthiest farmer's land is seized, and his wife cries her eyes out as they load their possessions into a wagon and move away. The farmer sees the party officials admiring his confiscated livestock, money and the liquor, and tells them that the new order simply won't work. In a few months the once-thriving farm is a pitiful wreck of waste and inefficiency.
All My Good Countrymen is said to be revered in Czechoslovakia because it tells the story of revolution in the countryside with an intimacy not to be found in propaganda films. To outsiders it may seem slow and sometimes obscure; we watch it knowing that we're missing important nuances any Czech would catch. European sentiment for the casualties of the Prague Spring ran high; the film earned its director a major award at Cannes. As explained in the liner notes, Vojtech Jasny avoided state detention by using personal contacts to slip away to Hungary, and from there to Austria, where he took up residence before emigrating to the United States. He's since returned to his homeland for nostalgic films about times lost and promises unfulfilled. All My Good Countrymen is a reminder that for half of Europe, the misery of WW2 extended almost to the 21st century.
Facets' DVD of All My Good Countrymen is a good color transfer limited only by the fact that source materials were limited to positive prints. The early reels have some weak splices that produce slight jumps at cut points. Otherwise the color is rather good for Jasny's images of green fields, rows of syncopated reapers, loud polka parties and lyrical shots of spring thaws and a white horse frolicking in the sun. One must also mention the exceedingly good score by Svatopluk Havelka, which begins with an intriguingly original and dynamic title cue.
Jasny appears in a recent video interview, answering some rather uninteresting questions about the film. More rewarding are the thorough text essays by professors Jiri Vorsak and Susan Doll. Ms. Doll's name has appeared on several informative DVD essays on Eastern European cinema, and she's particularly good at placing this notable film in multiple perspectives. In Czechoslovakia, cinematic history and political history are inseparable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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