Note: there are no English-language releases for the week of September 9th, with the Czech-dubbed Sammy’s Adventures: The Secret Passage (showtimes | IMDB) and the French-language, Czech subtitled 22 Bullets (showtimes | IMDB) opening in local cinemas. Instead, I caught up with Robert Sedláček’s Největší z Čechů (The Greatest Czechs), which is screening with English subtitles at Kino Světozor through the 15th:
Low-key, deadpan, and often absurdly funny, Robert Sedláček´s Největší z Čechů (The Greatest of the Czechs) is an excellent primer on a very specific brand of Czech humor.
The titular great Czechs are various record-holders from around the country, Guinness Book style: a man who can stuff the most straws in his mouth, another who can weave the largest sculptures out of wheat, a father and son who can bounce a football off their faces the longest, and so on. The film opens with footage of Rudolf Bok´s record-setting 58 meter drop into a river in 1997, in which the stuntman was seriously injured.
But Největší z Čechů isn´t a documentary; it´s a (partially?) fictional story of the filming of one that follows four filmmakers in search of the great Czechs. At the outset, a producer (Simona Babčáková) and director (Jaroslav Plesl, standing in for director Sedláček) are pitching their story – a difficult political piece – to the state film council in search of funding.
They don´t get support, but another opportunity arises: Dobrý den, an agency that “looks after the field of records and curiosities in the Czech republic” wants to make a documentary about obscure record holders, sponsored by the Kahan brewery. They´ll pay in cash, up front and incrementally along the production, and so the filmmakers accept: along with an alcoholic cameraman (Jiří Vyorálek) and an inexperienced sound girl (Johana Švarcová), they´re off to find the greatest of Czechs.
And their journey is often very funny. The agency wants to film the record holders as real people, not circus freaks, and as the director captures them in a natural environment he finds pure absurdity, no commentary necessary. The wheat weaver espouses on what it´s like to maintain his supremacy. A man who can drink a bottle of beer underwater refuses to wear the corporate T-shirt, preferring his own, which has a nationalist slogan (Čechy Čechům, or ‘the Czech Republic is for Czechs’). “He can´t wear that,” says the producer. “No,” replies the director, “he must.”
Největší z Čechů also serves as a biting satire of state-funded and corporate filmmaking, akin, in some respects, to Robert Altman´s thrashing of Hollywood in The Player. I´m not sure what is fact or fiction here – the Dobrý den agency not only exists, but was one of the main partners of the film (amusing given their portrayal here), while the Kahan brewery seems to have been inspired by something else – but I have no doubt most of this is coming from first-hand experience.
I was a fan of director Sedláček´s debut film, Pravidla lži (The Rules of Lying), which has aged even better in my memory – it was an intense, gripping experience that featured a memorable performance from Jiří Langmajer. Největší z Čechů isn´t quite in the same league; it´s fast and loose and tends to drag at the end of the second act, as the focus shifts to the filmmakers and away from their project. But the climax – an excursion to the Festival of Records at Pelhřimov – picks things right back up.
Among the cast, Plesl fares best as the stone-faced director, able to convey his ‘yeah, right´ mindset without uttering a word. But we´re lacking the fully fleshed-out characterizations that might have elevated the light comedy to something more significant. Music by Tomáš Kympl – a kind of 80s spoof jazz – perfectly complements the movie.
Aňa Geislerová shows up briefly in a memorable cameo as a mousy waitress. Director Jan Hřebejk and musician Wabi Daněk appear as members of the film council; Daněk also performs over the closing credits.
Also: be sure to check out the Jacques Tati retrospective at Kino Lucerna and the French Institute through September 18th. Each of his feature films will be screened, including 1974’s little-seen made-for-TV Parade, along with a number of his shorts. They’re all terrific; Playtime and Mon Oncle are among my personal favorites.