Czech Films at the Berlinale

Eighty Letters

61st Berlin International Film Festival

10-20 February 2011, Berlin, Germany

Berlinale website

Matchmaking Mayor (Erika Hníková, 2010)

The original Czech title of this documentary, Nesvatbov, means ‘a place with no weddings’. The mayor of the village in question is none too happy about the situation, which poses a serious problem for villages across Europe: they are dying out as residents leave or, in the case of this particular village, the younger generation fails to have children. For a film treating a sad topic, it was incredibly funny: I haven’t heard such uproarious audience responses since Borat (Larry Charles, 2006). At first, you feel guilty for laughing at the backward villagers, but very quickly you perceive their intelligence and humour, and start laughing with them.

The real inadvertent comedian is the village’s ‘matchmaking’ mayor: he is firmly convinced that it is everyone’s natural and civic duty to marry and procreate. He shares his contentious opinions with his constituents in daily addresses delivered over a loud-speaker system audible throughout the village. He organises a party for local singletons, a social engineering project reminiscent of the factory dance in A Blonde in Love (Miloš Forman, 1965). While the communist manager genuinely had his employees’ welfare at heart, the mayor’s motivation is less philanthropic, more abstract.

The House (Zuzana Liová, 2011)

Where Matchmaking Mayor starred a local official who wanted to organise his constituents’ lives, The House is about a father who tries too hard to control his family. To give his two daughters a good start in life, Imrich has decided to build them each a house on the same land as their family home. Having abandoned the house for his elder daughter Jana, who married an unsuitable man, Imrich is now focused on completing a house for Eva, his younger daughter. Eva dreams of going to London to work as an au pair, but her father forbids it. Desperate for a means of escape, Eva begins an affair with her English teacher.

Although slow at times, The House is engaging as a character study. Eva is defiant but vulnerable. Imrich’s stubbornness causes great unhappiness: he refuses to acknowledge Jana, her husband or her children, even when they lose their home. But there is a lot of love behind his gruff façade, and this is portrayed with great skill and realism by lead actor Miroslav Krobot: the film’s happy ending is the result of a change in Imrich’s attitude, but his demeanour remains the same.

Eighty Letters (Václav Kadrnka, 2011)

In communist Czechoslovakia, a boy named Vacek accompanies his mother as she collects documents to apply for travel abroad: his father is in England, and they would like to join him. That is about all there is to the storyline and as a result, even at just 75 minutes, this film feels very long. With the exception of one scene, the audience consistently shares the boy’s perspective on this boring administrative trip: sitting in the porter’s lodge or the doctor’s waiting room until his mother comes back with the required letter, then heading off with her on the next errand.

Although its slowness makes this film a challenge to sit through, the viewer comes away with an experience that the director has carefully engineered. What Eighty Letters lacks in events, it makes up for with atmosphere, giving a well-rounded impression of everyday life under communism. The camera lingers on the drab streets, buildings and interiors that the characters move through, emphasising their oppressive familiarity. Sounds, too, are insistent: the tapping of high heels, the rattle of sheets of paper, and the opening and closing of doors all seem amplified, almost to the point of irritation.

Alison Frank