Jan Němec’s film is an engaging yarn about a small group of bourgeois people who set off for a picnic and soon find themselves in rather sadistic and perplexing company.
The Party and the Guests is an engaging yarn about a small group of bourgeois people or, perhaps, nomenklatura, who set off for a picnic and soon find themselves in rather sadistic and perplexing company; their party subsumed by an even larger and decidedly less sedate party. It was written by Ester Krumbachová and Jan Němec and directed by Jan Němec in 1966. Mr Němec was soon to fall foul of the Czechoslovakian Communist party, who promptly banned the film, and Němec’s life is entwined in a rather bittersweet history of art and censorship.
Visually, what it most resembles is a cinematic documentation of an al fresco theatrical event. There are essentially only three scenes and the mise en scène is pretty much constant forest. In terms of the camera choreography, The Party and the Guests is full of stillness; this, according to the short but thorough accompanying DVD booklet, is in contrast to Němec’s earlier films, which are renowned for their handheld, cinéma vérité jitteriness. This stillness is offset and reinforced by a subtle audio track that is spare but utterly seductive.
Silence and ‘natural’ sound are dominant. Throughout the first 30-plus minutes the most discernible sound other than speech and extra-vocal noises is the delicious friction of shoes against gravel as the guests tramp along country pathways. I imagine this is nothing other than a concrete by-product of shooting in country lanes strewn with shale but one is tempted to read it symbolically as a gnawing prelude to a grim and baffling denouement. As the movie continues it becomes apparent that the sound of rural Czechoslovakia – if indeed, it is Czechoslovakia – is obviously controlled. For instance, in one key scene the chief of what is implied to be the secret police sits at a desk in a clearing and interrogates the guests, guests who are in a state of Kafka-esque befuddlement as to what it is they are guilty of – trespassing? During his interrogation of the ‘guests’, the chief talks of nature and birds and their apparent freedom, and as he does so bird song and natural sounds are heard or rather conjured. As if the countryside is an illusion subject to the whims of a nebulous autocracy. It’s at that point that I realised that for me it is Němec’s graceful, restrained and symbolic use of sound and his subtle deployment of music that make this film so captivating. Without intending any disrespect to the camera operators or the cinematographer, I think this film would make a sparkling and captivating radio play or Hörspiel, albeit a very indirect one. It is dialogue-heavy, yet the dialogue is often inconsistent or fragmented. The soundtrack is layered with non sequiturs and inconsequential banter from which occasionally arise significant monologues and exchanges.
The Party and the Guests is usually interpreted in the West as an allegorical statement about the peculiarities of state dictatorships; the social orthodoxies imposed upon the mass and the implied threats that exist should one fail to conform. This complements quite nicely Western capitalist myths about post-Stalin Eastern bloc dictatorships. Yet when one thinks about it, it isn’t too long (say 30 seconds) before one recalls McCarthyism or thinks about extraordinary rendition and water boarding. Irrespective, I think a maverick figure like Jan Němec was probably railing against the conventions of cinema just as much as he was satirising the machinations of Antonín Novotný’s Czechoslovakia.