An excerpt from the booklet essay by Michael Brooke
One of the most controversial Czechoslovak films of its era, Jan Němec’s second feature was completed in 1966, belatedly released during the short-lived liberalisation of early 1968 but formally ‘banned forever’ in 1973, a decree that remained in force (at least in Czechoslovakia) until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The widespread assumption, very much shared by Antonín Novotný, the country’s President at the time of production, was that the film was a direct attack on the Communist government and therefore too dangerous to show.
To be fair to Novotný and his equally censorious successors, this impression has also been widely assumed in the West, aided and abetted by the film’s two official English titles. A literal translation of ‘O slavnosti a hostech’, stripping out articles and ambiguity, would be something like ‘About Celebration and Guests’. However, both British and American versions translate ‘slavnost’ as ‘the party’, which the rules of English title capitalisation turn into ‘the Party’, an unhelpfully loaded term. The American title, A Report on the Party and the Guests, goes further still, suggesting that the film itself has been commissioned by some unnamed agency (possibly with links to the secret police) to be used as evidence in an impending prosecution of its unwitting protagonists. This certainly doesn’t counter the film’s spirit, but it does tend to narrow its focus.
It’s actually closer to an absurdist satire, squarely in line with one of the most fashionable theatrical movements of the day. Originated by the Irish-born Samuel Beckett and Romanian-born Eugene Ionesco in Paris in the 1950s, it travelled particularly well to Czechoslovakia - unsurprisingly, as absurd humour is very much a Czech trait. The very different works of Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek demonstrate this to perfection, as do the plays of Němec’s distant cousin Václav Havel, whose bureaucratic satire The Memorandum (Vyrozumění, 1965) mocked attempts at streamlining the language of workplace communication.
Comparisons have also been drawn between Němec’s films and the more overtly Surrealist work of Luis Buñuel. Němec’s first feature Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964) not only depicted one of its protagonist’s faces crawling with ants in overt homage to Un Chien Andalou (1929), but also blithely intercut dream and reality without distinguishing the two. Though Němec would not see the first until the 1970s, and the second wouldn’t be made till then, The Party and the Guests can be bookended very neatly by The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972). Indeed, either of Buñuel’s titles could conceivably be reapplied to Němec’s film when thinking of the far-reaching powers of its white-clad, deeply sinister ‘host’, or the discreetly charming picnickers who are generally content to go along with the film’s increasingly bizarre events, even if it means denouncing a former companion.
Michael Brooke's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
East Europen Film Bulletin
(i) Enfant Terrible of the Czech New Wave by Peter Hames
(ii) Everything You Always Wanted to Know about My Heart... Jan Němec
(iii) Jan Němec 1936 - 2016. Obituary by Michael Brooke
(iv) Off the Blacklist: The films of Jan Němec
(v) A Political (Dinner) Party: Food and Subversion in Czech Cinema
(vi) The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiří Trnka