An excerpt from the booklet essay by Jonathan Owen

Alfréd Radok was born in 1914, the child of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He served his artistic apprenticeship with the famed stage director E.F. Burian, before Burian’s theatre was closed down in 1941 by the Nazi occupiers. Radok lost many of his relatives in the Holocaust, and, while himself initially exempted from deportation as a ‘mischling’ (or ‘half-Jew’), he led a precarious undercover existence during the occupation. After the war he worked as a director for the Grand Opera of the Fifth of May company, already making himself known – and provoking scandal – with his highly unorthodox approach to staging. Radok would establish himself as a major visionary of the Czech theatre, espousing a complex and multi-layered stage aesthetic in which the text was seen as ‘only one melody in a total composition’. Radok’s avant-garde approach brought him into conflict, however, with the cultural dogmatism of the high Stalinist period, and in 1949 he was let go from a position with the Czech National Theatre, spending the next few years working with provincial touring companies.

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Distant Journey began with a treatment written by Erik Kolár (1906-1976), a lawyer who was later to become an important figure in the practice and teaching of Czech puppet theatre. Kolár, who was Jewish, drew for his story on his own experience in the notorious ghetto and concentration camp Terezín. Radok’s own involvement in the project began when he was asked by one of the state film industry’s production groups to provide a critical assessment of Kolár’s treatment. On the basis of the very detailed comments and recommendations he submitted, Radok was invited in February 1948 to develop the treatment into a full script, which he would do in collaboration with Mojmír Drvota and Kolár himself (an alternative, rejected version of the script was also prepared by Miloš Makovec and František Vlček). Surprisingly, given his lack of film experience, Radok was also invited to direct. The nub of Radok’s criticisms of Kolár’s treatment concerned what he saw as its overly literary and descriptive quality, its ‘unpoetic copying of the reality of everyday life – the style in which the majority of films are now made’. Radok’s ideal was rather a cinema that would mix reportage with artistic stylisation. His revisions of Kolár’s story also brought a tougher approach to the historical realities depicted: his script apparently strengthened the unusual and deeply uncomfortable theme of the collaboration by Czechs in the persecution of Jews, while the number and importance of scenes set in Terezín were also increased. The final script was passed by Czechoslovakia’s Film Artistic Board with only minor proposals for changes, a reflection of the fact that Soviet-style cultural dogma had not fully entrenched itself in these early days of Communist rule. The film’s shoot, which lasted from August to November 1948, involved location work in the real town of Terezín – which understandably proved painful for a director who had lost both his father and his grandfather at this site.

It was only after its completion that the film fell foul of Czechoslovakia’s cultural bureaucracy, and although, contrary to some accounts, it was never actually banned in its home country, it was effectively buried there. A planned premiere in Prague was cancelled, publicity was deliberately muted and screenings were most likely limited to some suburban cinemas and the countryside. In marked contrast to the cloak of critical near-invisibility that fell over the film at home, it received wide distribution and considerable acclaim internationally. Admiring reviews appeared from critics as notable as André Bazin and The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who called the film ‘the most brilliant, the most horrifying film on the Nazis' persecution of the Jews that this reviewer has yet seen'.

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Jonathan Owen's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.

Contents
Disc Info


Czechoslovakia, 1948
(Blu-ray/24fps): 104 mins
(DVD/25fps): 100 mins
Special features: 34 minutes
Sound: 1.0 Mono LPCM (48k/24-bit)
Black and white
Original aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Language: Czech, German
Subtitles: English

Blu-ray: BD50 / 1080 / 24fps / Region ABC (Region Free)
DVD: PAL / DVD9 / 25fps / Region 0 (Region Free)

DVD £12.99 / Blu-Ray: £19.99
Release Date: 25 May 2020

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