Czech New Wave Polemic ‘The Joke’ Returns to Karlovy Vary in Restored Glory

Milan Kundera’s first novel, “The Joke,” won him critical praise and set the tone for a robust career in the spring of 1967, debuting just in time to catch the rising tide of freedom of expression that would reach its peak with the Prague Spring movement just a year later. Jaromil Jires crafted a screen adaptation of the book, in collaboration with the writer, which became one of the iconic films of the Czech New Wave.

The digital restoration of the film, part of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival’s program of preserving and promoting classic films, alongside the Czech National Film Archive, brings a crisp new copy of the film to audiences this summer. The chance to experience “The Joke” in a pristine state after extensive work by Prague post house UPP and studio Soundsquare has been a long-time coming.

When the Soviet crackdown, known as Normalization, rolled into Prague along with Warsaw Pact tanks in the summer of 1968, a rich era crashed to a premature end with the return of Soviet-oriented Czechoslovak state control.

The story of a young intellectual whose life is ruined by the regime for writing a flippant postcard proved too much for the post-Dubcek authorities. It was all over for the social satirist Kundera, who self-exiled to France. Jires continued to work in the country, making less controversial movies. The film was banned in Czechoslovakia for 20 years.

Michal Bregant, head of the archive, says the time has come to once again celebrate two great Bohemian artists in Kundera and Jires.

The National Film Archive is focused on more than “preservation of the past for the future,” Bregant adds, noting education and outreach as key goals. “We also know that our collection needs to be open and accessible.”

That mission has led to the digitalization of “hundreds of films of all types and genres,” says Bregant, “and among them there are a few each year which we select for big festivals because we believe that they can speak to larger audiences, both Czech and international.”

As he puts it, “For us, the main purpose of digitization is to make classic Czech films available for current distribution channels.” Original negatives and prints, meanwhile, “stay in the vaults, well kept, as we know that they will be needed again for any new form of technical transfer in the future.”

“The Joke” indeed makes for a showcase project, Bregant explains, in that it illustrates “how varied in style the Czechoslovak cinema was in the 1960s. We speak about the New Wave maybe too often and thus sometimes forget about the complex image of Czechoslovak film culture and industry of that time.”

Jires’ film proved to be one of the rare screen versions of his books Kundera actually approved of – likely because he co-wrote the screenplay. Kundera much preferred seeing “The Joke” onscreen to the sight of Philip Kaufman’s ambitious Oscar-nommed 1988 adaptation of his “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” despite standout performances from early-career actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche.

In his handling of “The Joke,” Jires “was able to find the right key to the characters which are the real antiheroes and the axis of the plot,” says Bregant.

Josef Somr’s interpretation of the character of Ludvik Jahn is “captivating,” he adds, portraying powerfully a dilemma that’s always topical – “the paradox of how an attempt at revenge turns into a trap for himself.”

All the more poignant that “The Joke” was “one of a few films from the late 1960s that were supposed to be forgotten forever,” Bregant says. The totalitarian regime “considered this film together with some works by Evald Schorm, Karel Vachek, Karel Kachyna, Jiri Menzel and others to be dangerous to the society.”

Yet bold work did manage to slip out, he adds. “All these films were banned in Czechoslovakia but sometimes sold to Western distribution companies.”

“Some of the directors accepted the silence around their own films and never spoke about them until the end of the 80s when several critical films were taken out from the vaults and shown to the new (and old) audiences.”

“The Joke” in particular owes its new lease on life in large part to funding from Czech art patrons Milada and Eduard Kucera.

“They have decided to support with their own financial sources these projects,” Bregant says, “and I think that is a remarkable achievement, quite unique in our country.”

But it’s just one of the major new projects, he adds, noting the photo-chemical restorations of much older work, such as a new 35mm print of Rudolf Mestak’s silent 1927 film “The Prague Executioner,” also screening in Karlovy Vary’s Out of the Past tribute section. The ghoulish 104-minute film now features renewed tinting and toning, “which will allow the audiences to enjoy the original image characteristics of the film,” Bregant says.

And, just as in several recent years, a new musical score has been commissioned for the silent masterwork – this time by Vlastislav Matousek.

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