Jan Sverak is the big star of modern Czech cinema. His thesis from the famous Prague Film University FAMU – the short film ‘Oil Gobblers’, received an Oscar for student film, and in 1996, at the age of 31, he grabbed a second Oscar for his famous film ‘Kolya’. Over the past 30 years, Sverak has authored more than 15 feature, short, and documentary films, most of which have won prestigious international awards and are distributed in cinemas around the world. The Czech director was a guest at Sofia Film Fest, where he presented his latest film Bethlehem Night, as well as a retrospective of his work, including his most successful films, including ‘Kolya’. The story is simple – a Czech musician decides to enter into a fictitious marriage with a Russian woman, even though he hates Russians. The year is 1988, twenty years after Russian troops invaded Czechoslovakia and are still present there. The result of this marriage is a runaway wife who abandons her child, who the father has to take care of himself.
With director Jan Sverak, we talk about the contemporary context of the film ‘Kolya’ and what debates the war in Ukraine has provoked in Czech society.
Let’s start with the movie Kolya which you won an Oscar for! In the context of today’s political environment, would you change anything about his storyline?
I do not think I have to change anything. The film was shot very soon after the Russian occupation troops left Czechoslovakia. And all of us who made the film knew that the Russian was strong and clumsy, and wherever he stepped, he wouldn’t budge. On the other hand, we were very aware that these were Slavs and had a delicate soul. This film is based on the contrast between the small, defenceless and delicate Russian who is cared for by a wise adult, who is actually a metaphor for the tiny Czech Republic. This is where the comedic feeling and the good impression are born. It is possible that those same troops are advancing in Ukraine today. Like a man who asks to wash his hands – every single Russian when he is alone is a normal human being born of the love of two people. Then, when they are together, they can behave like cattle. Unfortunately, too many nations have this quality.
What is the attitude of ordinary Czechs to the war in Ukraine?
People who are over 50 years old have memories of the Prague Spring. They are well aware that if the Russian is going to war with Ukraine, it is a great danger for the whole of Europe. There is one important aspect here – the Ukrainians began to defend themselves, and very heroically. Something we didn’t do. When Warsaw Pact troops attacked us in 1968, we Czechs did not defend ourselves. Somewhere deep inside, mostly men, we are quite ashamed of this fact. We are glad that the Ukrainians are able to defend themselves.
There is a difference compared to the Prague Spring, because then all Warsaw Pact troops, unfortunately Bulgaria as well, occupied Czechoslovakia. You shouldn’t feel guilty. You were alone…
Whatever. They had to shoot then as well. An equally important question of discussion is whether we should have defended ourselves when Hitler attacked us years ago. As we well know, Poles have defended themselves. Not defending one’s home and nest is very bad genetic information that is passed on to the next generation. This is a topic of constant discussion in the Czech Republic. It had to defend itself, but there were also voices that Hitler was going to crush us. True, but we had to defend ourselves, nevertheless.