Desire / All My Good Countrymen (Vojtech Jasny)

Second Run DVD


“Jasny is the spiritual father of the Czech New Wave” claimed Milos Forman.  Vojtech Jasny drew upon the lyricism of 1930’s Czech cinema to create his own dreamy naturalism and generosity of spirit that influenced those young directors of the 1960’s.  Now we have the opportunity to see fine transfers of two key Jasny films: Desire (1958) and All My Good Countrymen (1968).

Desire consists of four short films.

(1) The Boy Who Wanted to Find the Edge of the World.  I cherished the opening shots of this film: a tracking shot of a group of boys running across fields then up a hill as they pursue crows in the sky.  At the skyline there’s no edge but a bigger landscape with clouds.  Jasny cuts from the crows to a jet aircraft.  Although not a cut, in time and space, like from the hawk hunting, of the middle ages, to a WW2 spitfire (Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale) or the bone of the ape cut to a spacecraft (Kubrick’s 2001) the editing makes a trenchant point about the cold war intruding upon a seemingly timeless pastoral world.  The rest of The Boy Who Wanted to Find the Edge of the World isn’t as striking, however the film’s a charming enough fairy tale about the arrival of a baby daughter for a peasant family.

(2) The People of the Earth and Stars in the Sky owes, like The Boy, a great deal to photographer Jaroslav Kucera with its bicycle ride moments recalling the beginnings of the French New Wave and especially Truffaut’s exquisite short film Les Mistons (1957).

(3) Andela.  Andela is a private farm owner who refuses to join a collective farm.  She’s looking after her ill father and her best land has been replaced with worse.  Her only help is an itinerant worker and Andela rejects his proposal of marriage.  Andela is stubborn, proud and fiercely independent.  The film successfully avoids all the clichés of a noble peasantry because of Vera Tichankova’s remarkable performance.  I found it touching, bitter and critical.  The strongest of the three shorts and an interesting companion piece to All My Good Countrymen.

(4) Mother.  This is more conventional.  Yet the performances are strong and endearing in this story of an elderly woman teacher, living in a small village, who’s dying of a heart condition.  Like Andela it records a way of life that’s about to change forever.

All My Good Countrymen is a highly regarded work.  You don’t have to be a nationalist Czech to appreciate its picture of the social rupture of the village Bystre through the long utilitarian years of a bludgeoning communism.  The film records episodes from a decade.  Spring 1948, June 1949, July 1951, June 1952, Christmas 1954, Spring 1955, Summer 1957 and Winter 1958 (there’s also a 1945 prologue and 1968 epilogue.)

These dates mark the tragic and sometimes comic fortunes of the villagers.  And each episode is given a visual parenthesis in the form of a season: again glowingly photographed, in colour, by Kucera with a poetic intensity that acknowledges its debt to Dovzhvenko’s Earth (1930).

Social division is executed by the appropriation of individual farmers’ lands for collectivisation.  But the heroes and villains are not black and white for Jasny’s script is carefully nuanced.  Human frailty, greed and profiteering rise out of Communist rule.  It’s the subtle intermingling of these feelings and responses that matters.  For some viewers the film might appear too muted a protest against bureaucratic madness.  Yet Jasny tenderly sustains a Jean Renoir notion of fraternity that must prevail.

All My Good Countrymen emphasises character flaws easily open to be exploited and how individuals suffer from reversals in fortune.  Especially the car scene in the snow that causes a heart attack, blindness and disability to a photographer turned obnoxious state -farm manager.  And the constantly drunk villager who is haunted by hallucinations of his ex-wife, a Jew who died in a concentration camp: one inebriation too many he stumbles against a loose bull to be mortally impaled.

Perhaps the strange, theatrical carnival scene where village folk dress up as animals to pester the motorists is misconceived.  On removing their masks they remark, “Soon all the people will be gone and all that will be left are the animals.” Not so much a false note more an over-strident gesture.

Still this is an excellent film containing much exact detail of rural life often as deep as Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs.  Whilst its frequent music making and semi- ballad tone reminded me of Angelopoulos’s The Travelling PlayersAll My Good Countrymen isn’t as ethnographical and politically radical as those films.  But its compassion is affecting.  It wants to forgive people who caused awful suffering, to others, in dark, disruptive times (Those tough officials, driving furtive cars, to quietly escort you away) as much as angrily denounce political thuggery.

All My Good Countrymen is a remarkable and moving testament to the ills of Soviet socialist practice and the tenacious resistance and acquiescence of a cruelly harassed community.

Alan Price © 2022.