Happy End (1967) Oldritch Lipsky.

Second Run Blu Ray 2024


There are dangers in having a story that‘s written or filmed going backwards in time.  For a writer you have to be adroit, to a very controlling degree, in making sure your reverse continuity makes sense; that it doesn’t appear self-conscious and finally what does this reverse chronology achieve that’s more insightful than a linear approach?

Three examples that come to mind are Martin Amis’s novel Time’s Arrow (A German Holocaust doctor getting younger and younger); Pinter’s play Betrayal (A seven year affair of a married couple viewed in reversed time) and Scott Fitzgerald’s story, and David Fincher’s film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  The later being a narrative that moves forward in time as the protagonist’s body moves backwards until he becomes a baby, making it an unusually interesting variation on a time conceit.  And behind Time’s Arrow and Betrayal lies the long shadow of Proust’s engagement with time and memory.

Oldritch Lipsky’s film Happy End technically has a tight control of its narrative – the reverse action is brilliantly used to evoke silent cinema comedy: a Mack Sennet madness gleefully backing off into a time before our hero’s crime.  It begins with the gruesome death, by guillotine, of Bedrich (Vladimir Fydrych giving a fine performance) and ends with his birth.  However Bedrich’s death isdescribed as his birth and his birth is now his end.  In between his life cycle he kills his wife and her lover, is imprisoned and executed.

On the DVD blurb the film’s been compared to Christopher Nolan’s Memento and a script by Spike Milligan.  Happy End doesn’t have, or require, the earnestness of Memento but it did remind me of the BBC Radio Goon Show song “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas” (with Milligan as vocalist).

For about half of the film I was captivated by Lipsky’s amazing orchestration.  Happy End is effectively shot to look like an old sepia photograph album that you are rapidly flicking through.  And its characters are seamlessly assimilated into the reverse thrust of the tale.  You really do think that the actors are moving of their own volition, backwards.  Visually this brings a poetry to the scenes when a smashed up room is re-tidied and the body parts of Bedrich’s wife are reassembled again.  The scene of the murder is a bathroom, where husband puts back the wife he’s manically chopped up.  Here the tone is not grisly but more enchanting black humour.  Once patched up his wife Julia (Jaroslava Obermaierova) leaps out of the bath she was drowned in and continues to argue with her husband.  And it feels so normal and natural.

But of course Happy End is subversively mad, in terms of human behaviour rather than political leaning, and owes a lot to the theatrical absurdity of Dada.  This is especially so in a dialogue that abandons the logic of what’s said next; by saying what came just before a question or a reply: a cinematic linguistics making the viewer question character motivation in a clever and unique way.

If you place their now created ‘nonsense’ chatter against action then a zany energy is the result.  Especially in the tea room scene between wife and her lover “Mr.  Birdie” (Josef Abrham) where they chat, drink tea and eat cakes.  Their mouths open and chewed bits of cake are removed, made whole, uneaten and placed back on the plate.  A very funny moment in Happy End.

Happy End is often delightfully amusing with its comedy being authored by the off screen narration of Bedrich.  It steers the film yet also allows it to freewheel on its own crazy road.  Happy End is a mere 72 minutes.  That’s good because the reversal idea wouldn’t have sustained a longer journey.  Indeed I did feel my interest flag keeping up with events, somewhat in the middle of the film, yet the story, thankfully, doesn’t go right back to Bedrich’s boyhood but skips thirty years to when he’s a baby.

For me it’s not the most audacious and radical of 60’s Czech films.  Yet it does avoid pastiche and obvious parody.  I’m not sure it’s basic conceit would stand up to repeated viewings.  But I’m intrigued enough to want to see more films where writer Milos Macourek (How did he manage to script the intelligent insanity of Happy End?) was in fruitful collaboration with Oldrich Lipsky.

Alan Price©2024.