PORTRAIT OF JAN SVĔRÁK by Nicolas Šustr
an Svěrák is already assured of a place in the annals of Czech film. Since the end of the communist era, no other director has been more successful in the Czech Republic. In a country with a population of merely ten million, four of his films each attracted over one million visitors to the domestic box-office. In 1996, he received an Academy Award for KOLJA / KOLYA, and many other national and international awards have been bestowed on his work. Abroad, too, his films have enthused general audiences and specialists alike. But what drives him? What are his influences? What are his distinctive stylistic attributes? Answers to these questions, and other besides, are attempted in the following introduction.
Jan Svěrák was born in 1965 in Žatec, a typical small Czech town in North Bohemia. His father, Zdeněk Svěrák, came from Prague. He was a journalist for Czech radio at the time of his son’s birth, but would later become known as an actor and screenwriter as well as the author of children’s books. For Jan Svěrák’s later career it was altogether a family background that might be termed ideal.
In 1983, Svěrák enrolled at FAMU, the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Although he originally wanted to be a cameraman, he opted for documentary filmmaking because the cinematography course was hopelessly over-subscribed. He soon realized that documentary was not his calling. “On the rare occasions that something came together,” he confessed in an interview with the Czech film journal Cinepur in 1994, “it was a film absolutely on the fringes of the documentary genre.”
n the same interview, he mentioned his first cinema experience. The film was JAWS (1975), which his father took him to see when he was ten. He was fascinated by Spielberg’s thriller, and also by the emotions it roused in the audience. This encounter with Spielberg might be said to have traced out the boy’s future artistic path. Both directors share the same quest for precise and impressive scenes composed with the full repertoire of filmic devices, for science fiction combined with the determination to emotionally captivate and satisfy as many different audience groups as possible. The first outstanding work by Jan Svěrák was VESMIRNA ODYSEA II / SPACE ODYSSEY II, his end-of-year student film for 1986. He uses the cinematic language of American sci-fi films to document a trivial occurrence: one senior citizen pays a visit to another, and in order to do so she walks from her own prefabricated tower block to the building opposite. This short already demonstrated his talent for involving the viewer by precisely combining visuals, music and editing. Equally, the grotesque heightening of an everyday episode deftly focuses the viewer’s gaze on the forlorn situation of residents isolated among the monotonous architecture and oversized dimensions of communist-style housing estates. It was an aspect that the official hymns celebrating the success of construction programmes preferred to screen out.
His graduation film ROPÁCI / OIL GOBBLERS of 1988 was somewhat more down to earth. Narrated in documentary style, the plot nudges the boundaries with science fiction: in the brown-coal shafts of North Bohemia, a new species appears that lives on diesel and can survive only in a polluted atmosphere. The filmmaker had again identified a theme within reach of his possibilities in Czechoslovakia, and presented the location to great effect in a way equally comprehensible to international audiences. His confident handling of emotional responses was evident even then: as the jeeps speed across the lunar landscape of the pits, the viewer feels like a member of an expedition; when the local watchman indicates the sites where he spotted the exotic creatures, it is like witnessing the utterances of a primitive being living remote from civilization; and when an improvement in air quality leads to the death of one of the new-found creatures, you catch yourself almost hoping that the scientific predictions of vastly increased pollution levels that favour the oil gobblers will soon come true.
fter his short won the Oscar for a student film in 1989, Svěrák embarked upon his career as a director. OBECNÁ ŠKOLA / THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, his first feature-length fiction, went on cinema release in 1991. Narrated from the perspective of the ten-year-old boy Eda, the film conveys a nostalgically tinged picture of the mood in Czechoslovakia in the immediate post-WWII period. One extreme is represented by the new teacher, Igor Hnízdo, who appears in class wearing his army uniform complete with a pistol in a holster. He is admired by Eda and his classmates, especially when he tells stories about the war. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Eda’s father, Fanouš Souček, a much more typical representative of the Czech way of life. Eda’s father is correct and diligent, a likeable member of the middle classes. Traditional in its narrative form, the film was scripted by the director’s father Zdeněk Svěrák, who also plays Eda’s father. It was the first collaborative venture by the future “dream team” of Czech cinema, and the father-and-son combination came up with a masterpiece.
Jan Svěrák’s style emerges with particular clarity in the scene in which Eda and his friend Tonda find themselves taking a somewhat unexpected train journey. A perfectly staged piece of filming, the inventively directed trip in the steam locomotive delivers almost chocolate-box images of the snorting locomotive amidst the scenic landscape, all this edited with precision and balance. Not least the music – Dvořák’s From the New World – demonstrates the crafted precision that distinguishes Svěrák’s work.
The filmmaker experienced a considerable setback with the release of AKUMULÁTOR I / ACCUMULATOR I in 1994. A mixture of fantastic and realistic scenes, the film allowed the director to indulge his proclivity for Spielberg-like special effects, but its rough-hewn plot on the boundary with science fiction lacks depth. Nevertheless, the visual power and the directing of individual scenes remains impressive.
Svěrák made a wholly new departure with the road movie JIZDA / THE RIDE, also of 1994. Shot in the space of a few weeks with a nine-strong crew, this unspectacular summer fantasy lacks the family appeal of his other films. Among viewers of the director’s own generation, however, the film soon achieved cult status.
KOLJA / KOLYA was released in 1996. A collaborative Svěrák production like TMAVOMODRÝ SVET / DARK BLUE WORLD (2001) and VRATNÉ LAHVE / EMPTIES (2007), it was again a universal tale of people and their relationships in all kinds of situations.
From KOLJA onward, the opinion of the critics was divided. Many Czech reviewers have accused Jan Svěrák of producing kitsch and calculated effects, of over-conforming in order to make his films accessible to viewers abroad, altogether of making Hollywood-style movies instead of pursuing the European tradition. These objections made no difference to the audience response, with every film attracting more than one million Czech viewers.
o what does Jan Svěrák stand for? He does not view himself as a filmmaker in the European auteur tradition. He is a precise, but also creative, engineer determined to make his films perfectly and reach the widest possible audience. It is no coincidence that the Czechs often dub him the “Czech Spielberg”. As he said in the Cinepur interview, he views the language of American film as “internationally understandable, with clear forms and clear structures”. Good reasons, he said, to adopt elements for his own cinematic ends without necessarily “craving to make American movies”. His stories are transnational in scope and validity, but they remain Czech in character. Aware of his own limits, Svěrák turned down offers from Hollywood after his Oscar success: “Make films about what you know” has remained his credo. We await his next films with interest.