An excerpt from the booklet essay by Jonathan Owen
Coach to Vienna (Kočár do Vídně, 1966) belongs to a remarkable series of films from the prolific – though all too abruptly terminated – 1960s partnership of Czech director Karel Kachyňa and his fellow Moravian, screenwriter Jan Procházka. A chamber drama and rustic ‘road movie’ of revenge, hatred and unlikely sympathies in the last days of World War Two in Europe, the film is a typically compact but powerful vehicle for Kachyňa and Procházka’s brand of fearless moral examination and tender humanism.
‘The nation won’t take this.’ Such were the words of President Novotný to Karel Kachyňa after a private screening of Coach to Vienna (this in spite of the President’s own earlier sanctioning of the film). Procházka himself, in his introductory remarks for the film’s premiere, anticipated that it will be called ‘anti-German’, ‘anti-Czech’, ‘anti-partisan’. The unfavourable, often hostile domestic response that greeted the film after its screening at Karlovy Vary proved both men’s qualms to be justified. Unsurprisingly, Czech critics’ greatest bugbear was the film’s ‘de-mythologising’ approach to the Czech partisans who had fought against Nazi occupation, and its correspondingly unorthodox treatment of the occupiers themselves. Procházka and Kachyňa’s key provocation, in short, was to spurn, if not up-end entirely, the long-standing accepted stereotypes of heroic resistance fighters and universally villainous or faceless German enemies.
In a relatively sophisticated and balanced, though still reductive, review from Film a doba, Miloš Fiala attacked the film’s historical revisionism on the formal grounds of simply replacing the crude schematism of the traditional war narrative – i.e. ‘good Czechs’ vs. ‘bad Germans’ – with the inverted but equally crude schematism of ‘good Germans’ and ‘bad Czechs’. Elsewhere the film was attacked in more directly ideological fashion for its extreme ‘relativism’, its ‘absence of patriotic feeling’, its supposed historical distortions and slandering of the struggle against fascism. Held up in sum as an exemplary case of ‘anti-regime’ sentiment, the film would be withdrawn from circulation in the dark normalised days of 1973.
Czech critics’ fixation on the film’s ‘schema’ of national types, their concern to measure its success by how accurately it reflected the Czechs’ real wartime experience, were unfortunate because – even putting aside the disturbing way some detractors refused to re-examine such principles as German collective guilt – they neglected the film’s true qualities and sold short its range of possible interpretations. It took a Polish commentator, journalist Czesław Michalski, to upbraid the Czech critics for taking the film too literally. Michalski himself saw the film as a brutal condemnation of war in general, pitched at the level of ‘ancient tragedy’.
Jonathan Owen's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
Blu-Ray & DVD ReviewsSight and Sound
BFI - 5 Things to Watch
The Arts Desk
The Geek Show
Film at Lincoln Center
Karlovy Vary IFF
(i) Karel Kachyňa: Four Decades of a Great Czech Director
(ii) Peter Hames on the collaborations of Kachyňa and Jan Procházka
(iii) Interview with actor Iva Janžurová (in Czech)
(iv) Jan Novák: Musician and Humanist
(v) Czechs in World War II