Show and Tell: A Report on The Party and the Guests

By Michael Brooke

party-and-the-guests-jan-nemec-1.jpgThe Party and the Guests, 1966

One of the most controversial Czech films of its era, Jan Němec's second feature was completed in 1966, belatedly released during the short-lived liberalization of early 1968 but formally “banned forever” in 1973. It was assumed to be a direct attack on the Communist government, an impression aided and abetted by its official English titles. A literal translation of O slavnosti a hostech, stripping out articles and ambiguity, would be something like 'About Celebration and Guests'. But if one renders 'slavnost' as 'the party', the rules of English title capitalization turn it into the loaded 'the Party'. 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 to be used as evidence in an impending prosecution of its unwitting protagonists. This doesn't counter the film's spirit, but it does tend to narrow its focus.

It's actually closer to an absurdist satire, squarely in line with a movement that had been enthusiastically received in the Czech theatre, with homegrown plays by Němec's distant cousin Václav Havel rubbing shoulders with imports by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. A further acknowledged influence is the more overtly Surrealist work of Luis Buñuel. 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 Angel Exterminador, 1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, 1972).

Indeed, either of Buñuel'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.

party-and-the-guests-jan-nemec-2.jpgThe Party and the Guests, 1966

But although Němec himself has tried to play them down, it's hard to escape the film's political aspects – not least because most of the people making up the principal cast either had or would later have a reputation for dissident activity. The most contentious of these was the filmmaker Evald Schorm: the then Czech President Antonín Novotný even went as far as to assume that Němec's film was an allegorical attack on the banning of Schorm's film Everyday Courage (Každý den Odvahu, 1964), since its director is not only depicted as a persecuted victim but his character isn't even given a name. Another assumption was made as a by-product of the casting of Ivan Vyskočil as the 'host': his physical resemblance to Lenin made the Czechoslovak censors read more into his scenes than Němec had intended.

The Party and the Guests begins in a sun-dappled meadow, a rippling stream flowing through both image and soundtrack, as a group of seven people (three women, four men) enjoys a picnic. After a short preamble, they get up and walk through a wood. A man clad in plus-fours, giving him the disconcerting and not inappropriate appearance of an overgrown schoolboy, ambles nonchalantly out from amongst the trees. The entire group is suddenly surrounded by men bearing the unmistakably thuggish demeanour of the hired goon. (One sports a Slobodan Milošević bouffant, an unintentionally serendipitous detail that does not diminish the scene's impact in any way).

Who are these people, and on what authority do they "arrest" the picnickers? We are never told, but despite the lack of official identification, they're clearly outnumbered. They are segregated by sex and herded into an imaginary 'pen' outlined by a stick tracing lines in the surrounding dirt, with two small rocks representing a 'gate'. The man who accosted them earlier (we later learn that his name is Rudolf) now sits facing them at a (real) desk and begins an interrogation that fully justifies that much-misused term 'Kafkaesque', since none of them has any idea why they're there.

party-and-the-guests-jan-nemec-3.jpgThe Party and the Guests, 1966

One of the picnickers, Karel, finally snaps, striding outside the circle. He is set upon by Rudolf's henchmen, a sudden explosion of violence that is abruptly curtailed by the arrival of a dapper, neatly-bearded man in a brilliant white suit. He calms down the situation, scolding Rudolf for his excesses while at the same time chiding Karel for failing to respect the unspecified 'rules'. However, he then reverts to his original bonhomie by inviting everyone to his birthday celebrations, which take the form of an open-air dinner party.

The party begins well, until the picnic hostess realizes that her husband has quietly got up and left. The host wonders how anyone could possibly want to leave, and Rudolf persuades him to let him round up "the boys" and hunt him down with the aid of guns and a large Alsatian. The entire party, plus host, takes off on the hunt, leaving the original six picnickers, who remain behind to drink the rest of the host's wine, presumably intending to think as little as possible about what they have just witnessed.

Any number of interpretations can be made to bear on this clearly allegorical material. The host is a totalitarian dictator of some kind (at one point, he refers to the vast amount he has had to forget about his life, doubtless because it's not safe to retain such memories), and Rudolf his unswervingly loyal henchman. Establishing Rudolf as his adopted son suggests a dynastic aspect to his rule that would appear to run counter to true Communist principles, but which has been applied in practice in such states as North Korea (Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il), Romania (Nicolae and Nicu Ceaușescu) and Iraq (Saddam and Uday Hussein). It's also worth noting that in all three of those cases the sons, like Rudolf, were notorious for their social, intellectual and moral shortcomings, and would never have scaled such heights had it not been for the family connection.

party-and-the-guests-jan-nemec-4.jpgThe Party and the Guests, 1966

As for the original septet, by the end of the film we have got to know them a little better, usually to their detriment. With one major exception, all end up finding accommodation with the host’s ‘regime’, whether through direct patronage (the host seems to regard František as his “useful idiot”), by offering some measure of intellectual justification (Josef is happy to speak on the host’s behalf, though shies away from direct action), or simply being happy to accept bribes in the form of food, wine and material goods (the three women).

There are two dissenting voices, though the louder one ultimately lacks bite. Though Karel is happy to create the impression of robust dissent, he makes sure that the actual content of his various interjections is so vague that little can subsequently be held against him. At one point, he seems about to make a serious complaint, but he then clams up, convincing himself that his point has been made (or happy to accept the host’s offer to replace his missing knife and lighter).

So the one wholly admirable figure is the hostess’ husband (played by Evald Schorm). He is the one person who recognizes that this is a world where words have lost their meaning and no-one is listening. Tellingly, when the others affirm their commitment to democracy in a contrived show of spontaneity, he exercises his own right to remain silent, shortly before disappearing altogether. If you can’t beat them and won’t join them, what’s the alternative?

Michael Brooke works at the BFI and is the mastermind behind magnificent dvd releases by the Brothers Quay and Jan Svakmajer. See page 38.