The Party and the Guests: Jan Němec – the film they banned for years.

A Report on the Party and the Guests (Czech: O slavnosti a hostech, also known in English as The Party and the Guests) is a 1966 Czechoslovak drama film directed by Jan Němec. It was entered for the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but the festival was aborted owing to the events of May 1968 in France.

This film has the illustrious reputation of being one of the most controversial Czech films ever made. It was completed in 1966, was banned immediately, was briefly released during the Prague Spring in 1968, but was subsequently “banned forever” in 1973. This final ban remained in force until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 (at least in Czechoslovakia). The widespread assumption, very much shared by Antonín Novotný, the Czechoslovak President at the time of production, was that the film was a direct attack on the Communist government and therefore too dangerous to show.

It must be admitted, anyone who sees this film, agrees the film is a criticism of Communism. Especially in the West, where the interpretation of the title has added to the controversy. 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.

This narrowing of focus may (partly) be why the controversy around the film can distract from the power of the film itself. Here is an excellent review, by Bonjour Tristesse who had precisely this problem with the externals of the film. I was lucky enough to have seen the film with no expectations at all. I fellow film buff asked me if I had seen any Czech New Wave films (over a year ago now – how much I owe this wonderful person who promptly burned me a copy and sent it through) and this (together with Daisies) was the first of the Czech New Wave I saw. At this point I hadn’t even seen any French new Wave films. (!) So, for me, the film was as raw as if It it the silver screen yesterday.

Some note from the Second Run DVD edition:

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 Hasek demonstrate this to perfection, as do the plays of Němec’s distant cousin (and future President) Václav Havel, whose bureaucratic satire The Memorandum (Vyrozumení,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 Bunuel. Němec’s first feature Diamonds of the Night (1964) not only depicted one of its protagonist’s faces crawling with ants in overt homage to Un Chien Andalou, 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 Bunuel’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).

I still ‘only’ have my treasured naughty copy, so I wasn’t able to read the rest of this brilliant essay. But, on to the plot summary for this funny, enthralling film.

It is a political thriller that satirizes unquestionable conformity. A group of happy picnickers are accosted by a group of strangers led by a bullying sadist who has an unbreakable hold over his followers.

After he interrogates one of them, a stranger then invites everyone to a nonsensical, but elegant and formal banquet outdoors. Nemec documents the process of self-deception and rationalization which lead to an acceptance of constraint; free will and freedom are seen as difficult to maintain and easily discarded. This is the central message of the film and, for me, the brilliance of it. Despite the absolutely ridiculous situation the guests find themselves in (being forced to stand in a circle marked on the ground and told they are not to cross its borders for example) they do conform through the tactics of peer pressure, implied violence, powerlessness and (remarkably) politesse.

What a profound curse is the desire to never cause offence.

The affair is bizarre, and ends when one of the guests (played by film director Evald Schorm) chooses not to remain and escapes. His compatriots agree that he must be recaptured, and the group arms and hunts him down. The film concludes with the nightmarish barking of search dogs.

It should be added that The Party and The Guests  was written by Ester Krumbachová and Jan NÄmec and directed by NÄmec, Ester being his wife.  This film is very much a collaboration between the two, though Krumbachová usually only receives writing credits. Visually the film occurs as a kind of cinematic documentation of an al fresco theatrical event. It’s documentary ‘feel’ may be partially what lays behind it’s being taken as such a serious threat. There are essentially only three scenes and all of these are in the same (or a nearby) Forrest. In terms of camera work, The Party and the Guests is full of stillness, differing from previous Namec films. This stillness is offset by a striking audio track.

Silence and ‘natural’ sound are dominant. Throughout the first 30-plus minutes the most discernible sound other than speech and extra-vocal noises is the delicious friction of shoes against gravel as the guests tramp along country pathways. These footsteps sometimes sound like marching, particularly as the guests are being ushered to their party.  As the movie continues it becomes apparent that the sound of rural Czechoslovakia – if indeed, it is Czechoslovakia – is obviously controlled. For instance, in one key scene the chief of what is implied to be the secret police sits at a desk in a clearing and interrogates the guests, guests who are in a state of Kafka-esque befuddlement as to what it is they are guilty of – trespassing? During his interrogation of the ‘guests’, the chief talks of nature and birds and their apparent freedom, and as he does so bird song and natural sounds are heard or rather conjured. As if the countryside is an illusion subject to the whims of a nebulous autocracy. It is this subtle use of sound, along with the stillness of the camerawork that allow the country side, the Czech peaceful way of life, to be seen as a commodity to be controlled through these subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) approaches. The film is dialogue heavy, but is punctuated with inconsistencies or fragmentation’s that add to the subtleties of a surreal kind of domination being wielded over the people and their country. The soundtrack is layered with non sequiturs and inconsequential banter from which occasionally arise significant monologues and exchanges.

I enjoyed this film a great deal, particularly given the environment in which I saw it. I do recommend it, but don’t be too excited by the uber bannings. If you see this film more as a surrealist comedy, it will most likely expand its potential for appeal with you.

Below I have found a wondrful film interview of the great Peter Hanmes discussing this great film. Peter Hames is the author of many of the Second Run Czech New Wave DVD accompanying essays that go with the films.

“The Party and the Guests” video appreciation by… by ragingnoodles