An excerpt from the booklet essay by Jonathan Owen.
Born in Bratislava in 1938, Dušan Hanák emerged as a filmmaker in the 1960s, the undisputed golden era of Czechoslovak cinema. (Prior to 1993 the Czech and Slovak regions formed a single state, Czechoslovakia; thus we refer to a 'Czechoslovak' cinema, despite what were in many ways distinct film industries). Like nearly all the filmmakers who would later forge Czechoslovakia's New Wave, Hanák studied at the distinguished Prague film school, FAMU. Entering the school in 1960, Hanák benefitted from an 'unrepeatable' atmosphere of creative ferment and questioning, an atmosphere enthused by the cinematic innovations sweeping Europe as well as by early glimmers of the liberalisation that would soon transform cultural life in communist Czechoslovakia.
Upon graduating, Hanák returned to Bratislava, he began to make films for Slovakia's Short Film Studio and for television, thus immediately securing his independence in more 'modest' terms. Between 1965 and 1967 Hanák produced ten short films that were shown and awarded widely at international film festivals. These films reveal a groundbreaking approach, with Hanák already challenging the boundaries between documentary and fiction: the wry, Formanesque Learning (Učenie, 1965), for instance, introduces staged scenes into its verité depiction of student hairdressers.
Hanák's interest in music and the visual arts is also strongly evident in his short films. Among visual sources, Hanák has acknowledged Pop Art as a particularly important influence. He widely adopts the collage aesthetic frequently favoured by that movement, substituting principles of impressionistic juxtaposition for more 'logical' or linear modes of exposition. Old Shatterhand Came to Us (Prišiel k nám Old Shatterhand, 1966) richly exemplifies these artistic methods, a playful, mosaic-like portrait of everyday socialist Slovakia as it comes into contact with Western tourists. Hanák relates a series of cultural collisions through the formal collision of verité scenes, cinematic tricks, printed texts and a dense sonic collage (cited by Hanák as the film's starting point). Songs, sounds and words are juxtaposed tellingly and satirically with the images: rousing socialist labour songs combine with shots of paunchy and lazing workers, and 'tribal' music accompanies images of Slovak citizens staring at Western automobiles, capturing both the alien desirability of 'capitalist' goods and, perhaps, the self-perception of local 'primitiveness'. Other juxtapositions are purely visual or 'found', as when a road sign reading 'Vienna' appears below another sign reading 'one-way traffic', a reminder of Slovaks' own limited possibilities for foreign travel.
Thematically Hanák's shorts establish the concern for outsiders and imperfectly 'integrated' subjects that will resonate through Hanák's feature work: witness the circus performers of Artists (Artisti, 1965), the schizophrenics who strive to express themselves artistically in Call into Silence (Výzva do ticha, 1966), the youths being inducted into both their vocation and the dubious codes of adult society in Learning, and the devout, poor, mainly elderly attendees of a touchingly frail rendition of the eponymous ceremony in Mass (Omša, 1967). This last film, poignant yet slyly observed, anticipates Pictures of the Old World in its candid portraits of expressive old faces and suggestion of the sustaining power of faith.
Pictures of the Old World was begun in 1970, initially conceived as a medium-length film for television but later transferred to Slovakia's Koliba film studios. According to Václav Mácek the film grew out of the Slovak art of the 1960s, its discussion of national identity and rejection of 'superficial folklorism'. But Hanák's specific point of departure was five cycles of black-and-white photographs by the renowned Slovak photographer Martin Martinček (1913-2004). Hanák presents the actual subjects photographed by Martinček, supplementing these depictions with other 'protagonists' he had discovered himself. The film retains a photographic notion of portraiture, basically structured as a series of self-contained profiles. Hanák combines these pictures with additional photographs by his gifted collaborator Vladimír Vavrek, and the finished film integrates the photographs with the new filmed footage. The resulting interplay of still and moving imagery is of course characteristic of Hanák's interest in collage and counterpoint – even if this is in many ways a seamless blend that sometimes strives to narrow the gap between film and photography, with the filmed shots often posed and contemplative and the photographs arranged to create a continuous and 'narrative' dimension. Hanák has declared the film a mix of 'reportage, reconstruction and hidden staging', and he integrates elements of outright artifice like the so-called 'theatre of the world', a dazzling water-powered contraption whose inter-connected automata offer a rambunctious, macabre panorama of human life. (This mechanism might suggest a particularly baroque and ingenious work of folk art were one not aware that famed Czech animator and surrealist Jan Švankmajer lent his plastic skills to this section).
Aesthetically as well as thematically, Hanák considers the film a return to his roots, expressing his interest in 'the poetry that exists in life itself'. This belief in the poetic and marvellous qualities to be found in the real – a key principle of Surrealism, another movement with which Hanák has sympathies – is also strongly evident visually. Hanák and cinematographer Alojz Hanúsek emphasise the wear, roughness and solidity of the villagers' material environment; if the objects and surfaces presented are very conspicuously the physical components of an 'old world', they are also tactile and alive in their dense, grainy textures. The film's physical world brims with mysteries and affinities (are those strips of furrowed land, planks of wood, or gnarled fingers?). But of all its objets trouvés, none are more potent, revealing or emphatically presented than the subjects' faces, photographed with great attention in the still and moving shots alike. Knobbly and cross-hatched with age yet twinkling and open, these faces add animation even to the photographs. They are not only poems but testimonies, redolent of tough lives and hardy spirits.
Jonathan Owen's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the DVD release.
A short excerpt from the booklet
Little White Lies by David Jenkins
Peek-a-boo by Didier Becu
London Evening Standard by Steve Morrissey
The Skinny by Jamie Dunn
Backseat Mafia by Rob Aldam
Cine-Vue by Ben Nicholson
Close-Up Film by Colin Dibben
NoRipCord by Kai Lancaster
The Geek Show by
DVD Beaver by Eric Cotenas
The Arts Desk by
Sight & Sound by
Digital Fix by Clydefro Jones
Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Senses of Cinema
(i) Dušan Hanák: "Directing films is a risky job"
(ii) Historical and National Background of Slovak Filmmaking
(iii) Slovak Cinema of the 70s revisted
(iv) Slovak Photography 1925-2000
(v) Slovak Movie Database
(vi) Slovak Film Institute