Photo by Anton Podstrasky; Source: © Slovak Film Institute

By Milan Cyron
Translated from Czech by Tomáš Hudák.

In the 1960s, works of the Czechoslovak New Wave were regularly awarded in Cannes, Venice, Bergamo, Sorrento, Locarno, Mannheim, or Oberhausen while film critics praised directors such as Milos Forman, Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jires, or Hynek Bocan. However, these Czech filmmakers somewhat overshadowed their Slovak companions, including arguably the most famous one, Juraj Jakubisko, whose second feature, Deserters and Pilgrims (1968), was awarded at the Venice Film Festival. In his book The Czechoslovak New Wave, the British film historian Peter Hames even argues that it’s difficult to evaluate the Slovak contribution to the Czechoslovak New Wave. Still, films made in the Slovak part of the then united country were no less interesting than the Czech ones. Slovak filmmakers opposed Socialist Realism prescribed by the Communist regime and distortion of reality in socialist films while finding inspiration in Italian Neorealism and French New Wave, just like Czech filmmakers did. In addition, they drew on their own cultural traditions, especially folklore, literary naturism, and Slovak surrealism developed in the 1930s and 40s.

The work of Eduard Grecner, a key representative of the Slovak part of the Czechoslovak New Wave, arises from the above-mentioned domestic sources of inspiration and at the same time fully absorbs the stimuli coming from Western European cinema. The admirer of Juan Antonio Bardem, Jean Cocteau, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Ingmar Bergman, Grecner has been one of the loudest proponents of demanding arthouse cinema in Slovakia since the second half of the 1950s. Like most representatives of the Czechoslovak New Wave, he studied at the Prague FAMU but did not complete his studies in dramaturgy, as he was offered a job at a film studio in Bratislava. Here he worked first as a lecturer and later as a screenwriter and dramaturge, but his dream was to become a director. He, therefore, began working as an assistant director, among others on The Sun in a Net (1962) by Stefan Uher, generally considered the first film of the Czechoslovak New Wave.

At the same time, he worked as a dramaturge and later as a co-author of Ivan Stadtrucker’s screenplay Seven Days Every Week. The film had been in development since 1958 and was supposed to be directed at first by Frantisek Kudlác, an artist of the older generation. However, it turned out that Kudlác’s screen idea matched the screen ideas of neither Stadtrucker nor Grecner, not to mention he did not earn the trust of Albert Marencin, the head of the creative group, because of his previous work. And so, in 1962, Grecner was offered to direct the film and thus was given the opportunity to put into practice his hitherto only theoretically proclaimed conception of the subjectification and intellectualization of film, which he himself described as “introverted realism”. Diverting from the “narrative-driven realism”, it was supposed to analyze the disturbed emotionality of contemporary humans, their inner world, and the social contexts that result from it. In such a film, the story was to be fragmented and microscopically examined. Introspection was to play an important role, and due to the study of one’s inner self and one’s complex and contradictory emotions, established formal conventions were to be disrupted. (This conception was described in detail by Grecner in his 1964 article Film ako volný verš  [i.e. Film as a Free Verse].)

Based on these ideas, Grecner made his directorial debut, Seven Days Every Week, in 1964, telling the story of two students whose lives are marked by the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The first of them, Turo, a bohemian deeply affected by a Hiroshima doctor’s diary he is reading and by losing both his parents during the Second World War, fears a nuclear catastrophe, which is why he suffers from anxiety and is unable to establish a lasting relationship. Sculpting student Andrej, in turn, struggles with the design of a memorial to the Hiroshima tragedy, which endangers his relationship with medical student Luba. In both cases, the Hiroshima tragedy marks the personal lives of the young heroes. This may seem strange at first glance, as the film takes place in the first half of the 1960s, but Grecner, who was born in 1931, experienced World War II as a child and early adolescent, and in his own words it was an experience that marked him for life. Thus, when the Cuban Crisis of 1962 raised fears of a possible nuclear war, he reworked the original script, transferring his fears into the characters (in the intention of the New Wave, played by non-actors).

Photo by Anton Podstrasky; Source: © Slovak Film Institute

It is the feelings of anxiety and the alienation that stems from them that play a more important role in the film than the story itself (whose development they understandably influence). The director uses a wide range of strategies to depict them as well as to evoke the Hiroshima tragedy in the film. Turo and Andrej’s room, serving as Andrej’s studio, is filled with amorphous statues of various materials – stone, wood, metal, plaster – and when viewed from above, they create a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape (or at least a landscape after an explosion) reminiscent of the ruined Japanese city also seen in the film in the old footage. At times, the camera “maps” the space and examines Andrej’s statues, which often overshadow the actors. The characters are “pushed” into the lower half of the screen, or even into one of the lower corners, while being separated by a considerable space or various objects, such as lamps. In other moments, we can only see distorted reflections of the characters in the shop windows, or the image becoming blurred, while an elaborate soundscape comes to the fore: voice-over by a Hiroshima doctor, mechanical sounds, or electroacoustic music by the leading Slovak composer Ilja Zeljenka. The same happens when the image freezes or is combined with archival footage, some of which is the same as the footage used in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). The nuclear explosion (in Turo’s imagination) is then depicted with the help of an inverse image, similar to Godard’s Alphaville made a year later.

In 1964, thus, an unprecedented experimentally oriented feature film was made in Slovakia, which stands at the beginning of the experimental line of the 1960s Slovak cinema, which culminated in two collaborations with French filmmaker and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet – The Man Who Lies (1968) and Eden and After (1970). However, in the first half of the decade, despite liberalization in society and culture, neither the audience nor the administration of Slovak cinema were ready for a similar kind of film. The film completely failed with the audience when less than 70 000 spectators watched it in cinemas – compared to historical spectacles by the eminent director Palo Bielik, which were seen by up to 3.5 million people (Czechoslovakia had around 14 million citizens at the time). However, low attendance was the reality for many New Wave films, including the satire The Barnabás Kos Case (1964) and the comedy Before Tonight Is Over (1965), both by Peter Solan, which attracted an audience of 84 000 and 137 000 respectively; or The Miraculous Virgin (1966) by Štefan Uher with an attendance of 78 000. One of the most successful films of the Slovak part of the New Wave was the already-mentioned The Sun in a Net with more than 450 000 viewers.

The helplessness of the audience with the New Wave films, including Grecner’s Seven Days Every Week, therefore led to their rejection. This can also be attributed to virtually no experience with more artistically and intellectually demanding works since, until the beginning of the 1960s, state-run cinema produced films that were mostly uninspiring, schematic, and fully conventional. There was thus a discrepancy between the audience’s lack of interest in the New Wave and its positive acceptance by domestic critics. However, in the case of Grecner’s debut, critics were sceptical, considering the film to be cold and too imitative of its predecessors, especially Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. On the contrary, the Italian film historian Lino Miccichè found the film at the time to be a particularly mature first film with distinctive poetics, which skillfully used the possibilities of film expression.

Photo by Anton Podstrasky; Source: © Slovak Film Institute

The film also created discomfort in the Bratislava film studio. Grecner recalls that during post-production he often came into conflict with the editor Bedrich Voderka, who had been working in film since the 1940s and was accustomed to strict adherence to classic editing rules. The studio’s director Pavel Gejdos was strongly critical of the film, supporting his argument mostly with the low attendance, and ordered the director to choose a more attractive material for his second film, as he did not intend to release funds for Grecner’s anxieties again. The main problem was the pessimistic tone of the film and its Existentialist feel (the director was also influenced by Existentialism, especially the work of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir).

This was not the only case of the artist’s fears of a nuclear threat, as in 1965 a collection of poems by the renowned Slovak poet (and later the Minister of Culture) Miroslav Válek, Milovanie v husej kozi (i.e. Love-Making with the Goose-Flesh), dealt with a similar subject matter. However, Grecner had to give in to the studio and the style of his next film, The Nylon Moon (1965), an adaptation of the then-popular novella by Jaroslava Blazková, is no longer as radical as his first film. Nevertheless, it retains the essentials of the director’s poetics, such as a focus on human psychology and feelings or concentrating on individualistic heroes (artists) protruding from the collective (as a reaction to collectivism preferred by the Communist regime). We can also find an influence of Existentialism, which was banned in Communist Czechoslovakia. It can therefore be said that Slovak film then found in Grecner a really bold and unique filmmaker, both formally and ideologically.

A digitally restored version by the Slovak Film Institute of Seven Days Every Week had its international premiere at IFFR 2022.

Cinema Regained

Director: Eduard Grecner
Screenplay: Ivan Stadtrucker
Cast: Anton Ocelka, Vera Kresadlova, Frantisek Velecky, Michal Docolomansky, Otilia Chorvatova,
Cinematography: Vincent Rosinec
Editor: Bedrich Voderka
Music: Ilja Zeljenka