THE EAR (Czechoslovakia / 1970/89)
Widely recognized as one of the best and most important Czech filmmakers, Karel Kachya (1924-2004) made over 50 films in his long and fruitful career. But his best work came in collaboration with novelist and screenwriter Jan Prochzka during the ten-year span they were together -- the time-period which coincided with the rise of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Their partnership produced nearly a dozen films. Those which were openly critical of the socio-political situation at large are now considered as "black" series films. Hope (1963), Long Live the Republic! (1965) and Coach to Vienna (1966) were a few of the key efforts of the series, though its best might be The Ear (Ucho), a masterful study/critique of the fear and paranoia which comes to fruition under totalitarian regimes.
Adapted from a story by Prochzka, The Ear begins with a stoic Prague deputy minister, Ludvk (Radoslav Brzobohat), and his crude, boisterous wife, Anna (Jirina Bohdalov), as they arrive back home after a hard night of "socializing" with their comrades. Anna appears to have misplaced the keys at the party, but the couple end up getting in through the doors which were meant to be locked. They initially suspect that its their young sons folly. But once they discover that their house is the only one on the street without power, and a trio of trenchcoated men are lurking in the garden, their minds start to wander.
Ludvk attempts to recall the smallest possible details of the conversations he had at the party and what they might all signify. (Kachya has shot those flashbacks from his protagonists point-of-view, thus heightening the claustrophobic nature of the milieu.) Not taking any chances, especially since his boss was recently taken away by the authorities, he begins destroying any papers that might be considered suspicious. Anna, however, still doesnt quite recognize the delicacy of the situation at hand, and takes this opportunity to berate her husband about their dysfunctional marriage. As the personal and the political merge, they form a damning portrait of the societys mores and values. At this point, the "Ear" (one or more electronic listening devices that they believe are present in certain rooms) exerts its presence in their thoughts, especially after they recognize the severity of a few of their remarks about the Party.
The Ear brings to mind several films that feature similar themes and motifs -- the most prominent among them being LAveu (1970), The Conversation (1974), 1984
(1984), and Triple Agent (2004). Much like the Rohmer film, the conversations shared by the protagonists here have a deceptive quality. However, unlike Rohmers Fiodor, Kachyas Ludvk appears to be in much less control of his situation, even though hes sharp enough to decipher his comrades prevarications. Both chamber pieces feature excellent performances, and they heavily rely on their mise-en-scnes, which are mostly comprised of medium master-shots. (One of Kachyas best assets is his visual sense, undoubtedly the product of the time he spent at FAMU in Prague, which was where the likes of Vera Chytilov, Milos Forman and Jaromil Jires also graduated from). But if Rohmer primarily preferred his narrative to remain anti-dramatic, Kachya continually ratchets up the tension as his couple spend the night in dread considering what might happen to them in the morning. And then a shock arrives which causes them to have trouble believing their own ears.
It might be surprising to some that The Ear was the first of Kachya-Prochzka collaborations to be banned. The reason why their earlier efforts had been tolerated was because Prochzka was a respected member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and reportedly had strong ties with President Antonn Novotn. But things changed after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. Kachya was fired from the film academy; Prochzka had trouble finding work (he died in 1971 due to cancer). But Kachya found a way to continue making films, though he largely stayed away from confrontational subject matters. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 overthrew the communist government, Kachya was reappointed at the academy, and, along with numerous other previously banned films, The Ear finally saw the light of day.
*After premiering in 1989, THE EAR went on to play at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival (in-competition!).
*Available on DVD in the U.K. (Second Run). The film is introduced by author and critic Peter Hames.