Reverse Shot: Re-assembling the Invasion of Prague

By David Balfour

unbearable-lightness-of-being-philip-kaufman.jpgThe Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988

Walter Murch in conversation


Walter Murch is perhaps the world’s leading sound designer and editor for film, as well as being a remarkable thinker on the broadest range of concerns. His work has received many accolades, including three Oscars. His writing on the process of editing has shaped how many view and approach the task.

In 1988 he edited The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s iconic novel about those affected by the brutal crushing of reforms in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring. The film used documentary and newly-shot material to depict the Soviet invasion of the country. The material had been little seen since the events made the news in ’68. The act of assembling this footage created unexpected resonances.

David Balfour: Could you talk about where the material used in that section of the film came from?

Walter Murch: This was a time when the technology of documenting had reached a new point. You had people in 1968 with access to relatively inexpensive motion picture cameras and 16mm film. You can see this in many of the other events of ’68. There was a saturation of media, still photographs and motion picture documentation, of events from people who had no official authority. It’s kind of like an early idea of YouTube.

It turned out that if you had shot anything of the events [in Czechoslovakia], the instructions, spread byword of mouth, were to get it out of the country as fast as possible. Either you take it out yourself if you are leaving, or give it to somebody who can take it out. So within a few hours of the events starting there was this haemorrhaging of material going in all sorts of different directions.

They would take this undeveloped film and give it to the BBC or to Swedish National Television or wherever they wound up. The stations would run it that evening as breaking news about what was going on in Czechoslovakia. Remember, at the beginning of this nobody really knew what this was going on. It might have been the beginning of World War III, because that’s the corridor through which Soviets tanks were expected to move [in an invasion of] Western Europe.

DB: How did that section of the film get conceived and put together?

WM: The idea was to incorporate this material into the film by merging it with fictional footage into a single sequence that would play a central role in the middle of the film. The idea was that this could save money and be an interesting cinematic technique to try to pull off.

The screenplay was being written at this time and it depended on the kind of footage that we had. The initial chunk of material from Canada and the United States gave us our first purchase on the landscape. So then Phil and Jean-Claude Carrière (scriptwriter) would look at that material and start to get more specific about what was actually going to happen in the screenplay.

There was a shot [from the archive material] in an alleyway of two dead bodies with a flag. The bodies are shown to the camera then the flag is put over them. Phil and the storyboard artist Michael Ploog worked out a reverse angle [which was then shot.] Then it became an editorial decision on how best to use this material as if it had all been shot simultaneously.

DB: Can you describe any visual accidents that occurred in the construction of the sequence?

WM: Many of the people taking the photographs were students from the film school in Prague. Frank Daniels, who later became head of Colombia film school and also USC, was head of that school. When the tanks started coming in, all the students ran to the school because that was their home. Frank was there and he said, ‘nobody knows what’s happening but get out there and photograph it.’ He opened up the stock room and started handing out cameras. They ran out into the city and started photographing whatever they could.

Frequently events were captured by several students at one time. There is a ramming of a bus which was shot by three film students simultaneously. The luck of the draw was who this film student gave this undeveloped material to and where that wound up. I found one version of that in Stockholm and the other in Amsterdam. Here were two people who had photographed the same event but the material had wound up in two different countries and been there undisturbed for 20 years and then, in the process of putting this together, that same material came back together. In this way, I had multiple camera coverage of the event.

DB: Could you talk about the impact of the images and events captured in that sequence of the film?

unbearable-lightness-of-being-philip-kaufman-2.jpgThe Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988

WM: It had the emotional effect on me of watching an explosion take place and then seeing that explosion go in reverse. The events of 1968 created this explosion of film, the debris of which landed in different cities. Another of the projectiles blown out of the country was Kundera himself, who wound up in Paris and wrote the book which sparked the interest of the producer Saul Zaentz in making the film. He brought Phil Kaufman on board, who had the idea of using real footage of the event. Which led to us going around the world finding where this material was and bringing it together. Then finally editing it together into an event that seems to be happening in one continuous series in front of your eyes, but which is actually being stitched together out of fragments of shrapnel and a few newly photographed scenes.

It has a wonderful poetry to it, irrespective of the film making, just the series of events: the invasion which led to the explosion which led to the book, which led to the idea of a film which then pulled all of these fragments of film back together again into one document. Which is a version of the events that started the whole process.

After the film was finished, it was shown at the Moscow Film Festival and it became a sensation. For the Soviet people this was the first time that they’d seen any of the footage describing these events in terms of what actually happened rather than the propaganda that they had been fed. [They had been told] it was a response to a Fascist invasion from Western Europe. People would come up to Phil with tears in their eyes after the screening and say, ‘we didn’t know’, ‘we had no idea about any of this’. The film was able to be shown in Moscow in ’88, because of Glasnost. Who knows what influence it had over the events of 1989 and 1991 in the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Empire? We don’t know what, but it did have some impact.

DB: Could you talk about the way in which images of events begin to dominate the imagination and perception of the events themselves?

WM: The Second World War [has a large amount of audiovisual material] but even it was not a fully documented war. What was documented was very carefully filtered for release to the public at that time. A shift happened around ’65, ’66, ’67 and ’68 with the Vietnam War which was the first televised war; where people not fully under the control of the warring factions were documenting events. And I think that was the beginning of a much more problematic relationship between conflict and the public.

It’s more difficult to manipulate public sentiment, as is clear from the Iraq war, when there are other avenues of documentation. Terrible things happen in every war, but in the Second World War for example we were shielded from some of the more horrible things that lived in the memory of the soldiers.

The nature of post-traumatic stress or ‘shell shock’, which existed in all wars, is interesting. If [an event] is not documented it might be easier for it to subside; for the person themselves to say, ‘well, maybe it didn’t really happen’. But if it was photographed, or things like it were photographed, then that’s like a constant irritant that keeps bringing the fever back. Is post-traumatic stress more of a problem now than it was in the past? Are we more sensitive to it? What role does the photographing of those events play in the problem being more widespread?

DB: So much of what we know about that period comes from visual images. Key to this seems to be, as you say, the beginning of people documenting events for themselves. In what way has this become a legacy of ’68?

WM: Definitely. It was part of the zeitgeist of the times. Certainly, it was a factor in the Watts riots of ’65. But I think it really took hold in ’68 because of the existence of similar kinds of rebellions breaking out in different parts of the world and the constant irritant of the Vietnam War. The forerunners of today’s digital camcorders, the relatively inexpensive 8mm or 16mm cameras, began to be taken into politically charged situations, documenting events without there being any official authority. For sheer volume, 1968 was the year in which that really hit in a big way.

DB: How else do you see the legacy of 1968 at work?

WM: It has an absolutely a huge legacy, both pro and con. I think you could trace a direct line between the attitude of the Bush administration towards conflict and towards manipulation of public sentiment as an adverse reaction to the events of 1968. The seeds were being laid for a reaction to the events of 9/11. The idea of invading Iraq is like a delayed counter punch to the events of 1968.

The fact that those events were documented meant that they impressed themselves on world consciousness in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. The fact that those documents are still with us allows them to have a much more powerful afterlife. Documentation is a very powerful and interesting irritant.

The documentation of events in a social-cultural setting, as in the Vietnam War, as in Prague in 1968, is a way of focusing the world’s attention on these events and of intensifying the pain. This pain, not the best word in this context, makes us aware of events in a way that we would not feel without such imagery. There’s some relationship between the image and [its] impact on society. The interesting thing would be to try to tease out exactly what that relationship is.


Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (Bloomsbury) is essential reading for anyone who is conscious of the world and its possibilities.

David Balfour is a writer. He lives in London.