Cranky confirmed bachelor gets stuck taking care of a little kid. At first the bachelor is harsh and unfriendly to the kid. The kid puts a cramp in his ladies’ man lifestyle. Bachelor just wants to pawn the kid off on someone else. We’ve seen it all before. Will the bachelor fall in love with the kid? Will the kid show him what love is? I mean, what do YOU think?
There are only so many stories to tell. It is how a film tells the story that matters. Kolya, which won an Oscar for best foreign film takes what could be cliched material and makes something beautiful and original and important out of it. The lead actor, Zdenek Sverák, who plays Louka, the bachelor, also wrote the script.
Directed by Jan Sverák, Kolya takes place in Czechoslovakia in the last days of Russian rule, the Velvet Revolution. The Velvet Revolution, with Vaclav Havel in the lead, a man who had been imprisoned for much of his adult life, hounded by the police and censored (his plays bringing him worldwide fame but not allowed to be performed in his home country), began as a series of student protests. The numbers grew each day. The protests were non-violent. The students kept calling for the workers to join them. They went out to the factories in the countryside, and begged the workers to come … come join the protests … strike with them, please. If it were only the students protesting, then it could be argued that the Revolution was just run by the intellectuals in Czechoslovakia, and the students (and Havel) had the foresight to know that that wasn’t right. This was about the whole nation, not just an elite group. The workers resisted, and then stopped resisting. They joined the protests. Day after day after day, protests filled the streets of Czechoslovakia. Ivan Klima, Czech writer, wrote in his book The Spirit of Prague:
By the late eighties, the international situation was undoubtedly influential. Those who represented power and those who represented culture were clearly squared off against each other. Several events also sharpened the conflict between the authorities and those who were trying to extricate themselves from their toils. The authorities frequently used police brutality to break up memorial assemblies to commemorate the country’s national holiday or the memory of Jan Palach, a student who had set fire to himself, and died, in protest against the Soviet invasion. Those who came to pay their respects to a person who symbolized the possibility of individual protest taken to its furthest extreme became the object of a violent attack by special units who used truncheons, water-cannons, and tear-gas. People, mostly the young, decided not to give way to violence. For five consecutive days the peaceful assemblies were repeated, and on four occasions the police used violence to break them up. Several people were arrested, Vaclav Havel among them. During these events, which aroused the emotions of the whole country, the cruel truth about power was publicly revealed for the first time. At this critical juncture, the government could not find a single person with sufficient authority to address the nation. No one was willing to give public support to the regime, but many could be found to protest against police brutality, against imprisoning the innocent. Among the protestors were actors, filmmakers, and writers who, until then, the regime had believed to be “on its side”.
In this critical situation, the authorities — and it is hard to say whether this was out of stupidity or desperation or arrogance, or the awareness that they were indeed indelibly tarnished — refused all invitations by the cultural opposition to take part in a dialogue. The deep chasm between totalitarian power and all the “shaken”, to use Patocka’s term, became unbridgeable. It was clear that any further error, any further act of arrogance, might be fatal.
What happened in November 1989 is well known. As an eyewitness and a participant, I wish to emphasize that this revolution, which really was the outcome of a clash between culture and pwoer, was the most non-violent revolution imaginable. In the mass meetings attended by up to three-quarters of a million people, no one was hurt, not a window was broken, not a car damaged. Many of the tens of thousands of pamphlets that flooded Prague and other cities and towns urged people to peaceful, tolerant action; not one called for violence. For those who still believe in the power of culture, the power of words, of good and of love, and their dominance over violence, who believe that neither the poet nor Archimedes, in their struggle against the man in uniform, are beaten before they begin, the Prague revolution must have been an inspiration.
The Jan Palach incident was the spark that lit the flame that exploded the country. Memorials were planned for early 1989 for the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death. They quickly turned into protests against the regime. Strikes started spreading across the country. The population took to the streets. These protests galvanized everyone. It was a matter of constant and insistent pressure, which naturally was coming from all sides, with Perestroika and Gorbachev and the other nations in the Eastern Bloc having their own issues. Each revolution was different. Each country fell in its own way. What a time. (I wrote about Vaclav Havel here).
This is the background of Kolya. This is the context of the story.
Louka is a man of 55. He had had a successful career as a cellist in the national Philharmonic, but because his brother had emigrated (a big no-no), and because of a flippant answer he gave to the authorities on returning to the country after a concert tour in the West, he lost his position in the national orchestra, and now makes a living playing funerals. He has never married. He has a series of women he can call when he is feeling lonely. He has big money problems. He can’t afford to buy a car, which limits the jobs he can take. He has a side job restoring tombstones in the graveyard. He is slightly rapacious when it comes to women, but not unfriendly. He clearly has a black book full of “friends with benefits”. He calls them up at night, one by one, “I’ve been feeling lonely and so of course I thought of you …” He keeps calling until one of them says she is free.
There’s an aimless quality to his life, he seems to be floating above events, yet events are already pushing themselves into the foreground. He listens to Radio Free Europe, and hears about what is happening, not just in his own country but elsewhere. The Russian army clatter through the streets of his city, “back and forth, back and forth”, and they are universally despised. Louka has refused to learn any Russian. His landlady pressures him to hang the Russian flag in his window for some upcoming Communist anniversary. Their building will get in trouble if they do not show sufficient decoration. Those who collaborate with the Russians in any way are hated. This is the atmosphere of Louka’s life.
Then comes a job opportunity from a friend, a gravedigger who lives in cheerful chaos with his pregnant wife, two small children, and a crazy menagerie of animals. The gravedigger has heard of a Russian woman with a child who needs to be married to a Czech in order to avoid being sent back to Russia. The wedding will be a sham, but Louka, if he accepts the job as groom, can make a lot of money. Enough to buy a new car. To make a show of legitimacy, there must be a wedding ceremony and reception, and the marriage must last at least six months. This way the authorities will not get suspicious. Louka wants no part of it. He says No. He is against the institution of marriage anyway. Not to mention the fact that he would be helping out a Russian, who is the enemy. But eventually, his financial situation becomes so dire that he says Yes. He goes through with it.
The Russian woman has a small son, 5 years old. His name is Kolya and he is played by the remarkable little boy Andrei Chalimon. This is one of the most extraordinary child performances I have ever seen, up there with the little boy in The Bicycle Thief. He is not precocious, he is not an actor. He is alive onscreen, spontaneous and free, and he has tough scenes (one, where he is pretending to talk to his dead grandmother on the “phone”, which is actually the water-hose in the bathtub – an amazing moment). He is adorable, but adorable in the way that children are often adorable, not adorable in a “movie kid” way. Louka pays no attention to Kolya. He is in this for the money. He finds the Russian woman’s aunt despicable – a gap-toothed voracious monster, a member of the occupying forces of his country. After the fake wedding ceremony, Louka and the woman go their separate ways, but suddenly the Russian woman leaves the country and goes to West Germany to see her boyfriend. She has left Kolya with the aunt. This is already bad news for Louka. It will look bad. If she had gone to visit East Germany, a Communist country, then maybe the authorities wouldn’t think something was rotten in the state of Prague, but now, he is left vulnerable. Matters are made worse when the Russian aunt dies, and little Kolya is dropped off at Louka’s for the foreseeable future.
Kolya is, naturally, traumatized by what has happened in his young life. He doesn’t speak Czech, and Louka doesn’t speak Russian. They sit opposite each other at the table, silently. Louka starts talking to him about the Russians, referring to them as “you”, lumping in the small child with his nation. “You are expansionists, occupiers … ” Kolya is uncomprehending. Even if he could understand, it wouldn’t make any sense. How could a 5 year old boy be an expansionist?
Louka makes a report with Social Services, in the hopes that the child will be taken from him and put in a home. He brings the child with him to the funeral gigs. He takes him to his mother’s house. Louka has kept the entire situation a secret, and his mother, prejudiced against the Russians, is baffled. Louka tells her the child is Yugoslavian, but when the child runs outside to greet some Russian soldiers (he is so excited to see people who speak the language he speaks), the mother realizes that Louka has brought the enemy into her home. Louka says, and you can tell that these are new thoughts for him, just forming, “Not all Russians are alike …” But this is not acceptable to the mother. This is heresy.
The growing bond between Louka and Kolya is played subtly. The movie is full of symbols and poetic metaphors, things that have resonance and power because it gives you something to think about. For example, Louka lives in a flat at the top of an apartment building. Pigeons crowd along his windowsills, pecking at the panes of glass. They are pains in the ass, and must not ever be fed, because then they will never go away. The sounds of their pecking beaks are a constant soundtrack. One of Louka’s lovers asks, “What is that noise?” and Louka responds, “The pigeons are sharpening their beaks.” Birds look over the action in the film, there is also a sequence with a circling hawk out in the country, and it seemed to me that the birds were the moral center of Czechoslovakia. Seemingly harmless creatures, who were silently, all along, without anyone really noticing, sharpening their beaks. Ready for the fight of 1988. Ready to destroy the “pecking order”. Keeping sharp and alert for the moment when it would be their time. The film rightly does not make a big deal out of all of these moments. Nothing is on the nose. There is a dreamy quality to some of it, reflective of the feeling of those last days: Is this really happening? Is the Politburo really crumbling? Will they actually just ….. walk away from power? Could it be?
Louka is not a revolutionary. He is an accomplished cellist, and an isolated quiet man. He has a lot of women, but you get the sense that they are quality women. One of his regular lovers is Klara, played by the wonderful Libuse Safránková, and she comes to his aid one frightening night when Kolya is ill. Louka asks her, “What will you tell your husband?” She replies, in one of the most moving lines in the film, “I will tell him that an old flame had a sick child. And that he couldn’t cope.”
The truth. She speaks the truth. It was actually breathtaking. This happens 3/4 of the way through the film and it had a shocking quality to it, which is when I realized how effective the film really was. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who grew up in similarly harsh circumstances in Poland, said during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.
Klara’s comment is like a pistol shot. Kolya portrays a world where you must lie. I fully expected her to say, “I will tell my husband I went out for drinks with my friends” or “My car broke down on the way home from work”. To dissemble in some way. When lies are expected, when you are required to put a Russian flag in your window even though you are Czech, when everyone knows you don’t believe in Communism but you must pay lip-service to it anyway, when that is the environment one lives in, people’s spirits become petty and jealous. Lying is a way of life. This, in the world of Czechoslovakia, 1988, is a political observation. But here, with Klara gently telling the truth about what she will say, it is personal. There is no difference, in that aspect, between personal and political. It is the “contaminated moral environment” which Vaclav Havel spoke of so eloquently in his speech on January 1, 1990 (my post on that here). It would be too easy to just blame the Russians. “They did this to us!” Havel, in that extraordinary speech, asks the Czech people to examine how they allowed themselves to be so contaminated. Tough stuff. Communist regimes are expert at creating schizophrenic divided populaces. You say one thing in public, you do another in private. But often the lies you must tell in public affect who you are in private. Louka has been contaminated.
Klara has not. She still has the capacity for truth. Over the course of the film, Louka finds his way back to that. Kolya certainly helps with that, merely by his innocent presence, a reminder that the Russians are just people, that’s all. Kolya is not a small Stalin-in-training. He is a little troubled boy who likes to draw and who looks up at Louka with a mixture of innocence and knowing, like he is trying to figure out HIS place in all of this.
As events heat up in Czechoslovakia, Louka finds himself unable to imagine giving the boy over to Social Services. They go on a camping trip. They go swimming. They start to tentatively learn one another’s languages. At night, they lie in bed, watching the lights of the Russian tanks sweep across the ceiling. Kolya asks, in Czech, “Are those ours?” (Meaning: “mine”, meaning “Russian”). Louka replies, “Yes. Those are yours.” They silently stare up at the sweeping lights across the dark ceiling.
The police have focused in on Louka, and they drag him in for an interrogation. His marriage was obviously a sham, since the wife took off for West Germany. Louka brings Kolya with him into the interrogation room, which takes the edge off of some of the questioning. The “bad cop” can’t be as hard-assed when Kolya looks up at him, wondering why he seems so angry. Again, this little boy is amazing. As the interrogation heats up, Kolya abandons his crayons and runs over to Louka, pressing himself into his side, and staring up at the cop. He is a tiny little boy, but he knows a bad man when he sees one, and he doesn’t know what he is saying, but he knows it is bad and mean. Louka tells lies, and he is not believed. The woman from Social Services visits Louka, and tells him that the boy will be removed from his home and brought back to Russia to be put into a home. This would be a disaster. Not just for poor Kolya, who now calls Louka “Dad”, but for Louka. Slowly, somehow, he has gotten used to the kid.
I loved how one night when Kolya couldn’t sleep, Louka calls up one of his lovers who speaks Russian. He asks her if she couldn’t read a story in Russian to the little boy he has staying with him. The woman, lolling in her bed, agrees. She pulls open a book of fairy stories and starts to read in Russian, over the phone, to Kolya. Kolya clutches the phone to his head (it’s as big as his head), and listens in rapt attention. It is a very good story. He likes it very much.
Filmed by Vladimir Smutny with beautiful attention to detail, Kolya shows a certain moment in Czech history, when the ruling power toppled and the nation claimed itself for itself again. Louka, on the run now from Social Services, returns to Prague, since it is apparent that the structures have crumbled. The calls to join the protests have become irresistible. There is no more resistance from the powers-that-be. It’s over. The protesters gather in public squares chanting. An ambulance struggles against the crowd, and a loudspeaker proclaims, “Please let the ambulance come through” and the crowd chants together, “Glad to oblige! Glad to oblige!” The Velvet Revolution was famous even as it was going on for its non-violent almost humorous nature (Ivan Klima wrote a lot about the graffiti that appeared throughout Prague at that time: humorous satirical cynical statements, propaganda yes, but with a light touch, the unmistakable Czech spirit still indomitable even after decades of oppression), and those few shots of the protests give a good feel of what it must have been like. An eloquent moment comes when Louka sees one of the men who interrogated him in the crowd. They make eye contact. They are still. The power has now shifted completely, and the interrogator, a Czech man himself, is now in the protest, as jubilant as the rest, and he smiles at Louka. Louka smiles back.
It is that which separates us that creates moral contamination. It is when we insist on those separations that we are contaminated.
When Kolya first comes to stay with Louka, the boy is sullen and incommunicative. And no wonder. He has been abandoned by his mother, and he doesn’t speak the language. He senses that Louka doesn’t want him there. He stands still in the middle of the apartment, and Louka has to push him around to get him to do anything. They walk across a busy street and Louka automatically reaches out to grab Kolya’s hand, protectively, and Kolya pulls his hand back and stalks along by himself. He is pissed off. Your heart goes out to the poor little guy. Later in the film, after a tense day, the two reach a crosswalk. Kolya looks up and happens to see the street sign, showing a tall person holding the hand of a young person, the message being: “People Crossing”. He considers the sign, and then, simply, he reaches up and puts his hand in Louka’s hand. Louka glances down, surprised, but tries not to make a big deal out of it. They cross the street hand in hand.
This material could have been sentimental. It is not. It is specific and powerful and character-based. The ending was devastating and perfect. The surrounding events of the Velvet Revolution gives Kolya an intensity and a political subtext that vibrates in every beautiful frame.