Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Anna Siemienkiewicz brings us a Czech cinema gem, Karel Steklý’s The Good Soldier Schweik (1957). This brilliant satire on the Austro-Hungarian society of the late 1910s is surprisingly still relevant with its portrayal of authoritarian power and patriotic obedience.
Partly due to its troubled history, the Czech nation has much to offer in the world of literature and cinema, which regrettably tends to be forgotten or overlooked in the United States. Jaroslav Hašek’s brilliant satire, The Good Soldier Schweik, is one of these gems that reminds us about Czech literary brilliance. Schweik’s dark and almost slapstick sense of humor is specific to its region but can easily be understood and appreciated by audiences from all around the world.
As Joseph Heller admits, if not for Schweik, the well-known and loved Catch-22 would have never been written. This direct inspiration for the cult classic American novel, however, far exceeds its successor in genius and humor. Similar to Catch-22, the soldier Schweik worked his way into the colloquial language in Czech Republic, becoming its national personification, also well-known to its European neighbors. The phenomenon proves Schweik’s undeniable influence on the culture, making it a must-read. Unfortunately, Hašek did not get to finish the fourth book of Schweik, out of six planned, when he died of heart failure in 1923. Nonetheless, we should be happy we have nearly a thousand pages of this priceless piece.
Karel Steklý’s adaptation is comparably popular and beloved in its country of origin, making it also a must-see for any European cinema lover. Out of quite a few existing adaptations of the classic Czech novel, Karel Steklý’s two part film from 1957 is the most famous. It stars the most acclaimed Czechoslovakian actors, including: Svatopluk Beneš, Frantisek Filipovský, and a clumsy, plump Rudolf Hrusínský with a constantly cheerful and proud smile on his flashed face as Schweik. The film succeeds in translating onto the screen the humor and the brilliance of the novel and consequently produces an effective satire. Through comedy and realistic cinematography, the director revives a constructive criticism on the defects of social structure, the constant abuse of power, and the overall wickedness of human mentalities that can roam freely during troubled times.
Schweik takes place in Austro-Hungarian Empire that ceased to exist nearly a hundred years ago. This ridiculed, out-of-date environment creates a somewhat strange impression, which surprisingly can still strike us as familiar in many aspects. The film welcomes us into a stimulating world of drunks, informers, con artists, and prostitutes, where no one is sober and everyone can land in jail for being an enemy of the Emperor; even the super cautious local bar owner eventually gets a ten years sentence for saying that “the flies left their trademarks on the Emperor” when explaining why he needed to take a portrait of the monarch down. The rich blend of colorful characters includes, among others, a secret police agent who craftily tricks people into speaking against the Empire and writes everything he overhears down on his sleeve, and a chaplain who spends more time worshiping women and slivovitz (plum brandy) than God.
However, the character of Schweik is the hardest nut to crack. He is highly exaggerated in his child-like innocence not spotted by any insights, and in naïve enthusiasm to serve his Austro-Hungarian Emperor, which from the start gives him a label of “imbecile.” An imbecile who spits in every spitting bowl to do “like regulations tell him” and who always makes sure that “nothing has been left out” when facing his unjust charges.
We can’t help but ask, just like most characters in the film, is it really natural incompetence, simple-mindedness and ignorance, or an indication of passive resistance? Schweik might be the only sane one, able of fully comprehending the futility of war and incongruity of social hierarchies, in a world where even authorities consider the genuine obedience a symptom of idiocy or insanity. Encountering Schweik, the authorities additionally seem to wonder what the point of power is if the citizen never resists and is always happy to be unjustly punished. It is no coincidence that the most annoying, selfish, and dumb lieutenant is assigned the lines: “The true arms in war are patriotism, fidelity to one’s duty, self-denial and similar sentiments.” Yet, this cruel little man who constantly exercises his power to unjustly punish his subordinates cannot stand Shweik who appears to be a perfect personification of the quoted above statement.
The Good Soldier Schweik was inspired by the anarchist author Hašek’s personal service in the army: the events he first-handedly witnessed and actual people he met during WWI. His ideology and insight are sugarcoated on the screen in a witty satire on authority figures, social climates, censorship, and blind patriotism. The events and dialogues are absurd, the acting highly exaggerated; yet, the subtle camera work, with the characters perfectly framed with medium shots—who most often simply sit indoors and talk half-facing the camera, half-facing each other—creates an experience similar to watching a live play. This might be due to Stekly’s career in theater, to which he devoted most of his life.
That does not limit his work, however, and he still takes advantage of the possibilities of film to create even more intimate experience: the camera draws nearer characters when they are whispering or walking towards the forth wall, making us feel closer to the fictional world and its members. The actors do not need to violently break the forth wall in this case for us to feel that they acknowledge the presence of the audience and perform just for us. This realistic and confidential feel to the 1910s Bohemian mise-en-scene of public offices and uniforms juxtaposed with dive bars and rags, reinforces relevance to the world history and culture, and brings a note of cynicism, pessimism, and skepticism to the overall cheerful atmosphere of upbeat orchestra music accompanying the ever-optimistic Schweik, who couldn’t be more happy to get arrested again and again.
In the first part of the film, when seen outside, Shweik’s surprisingly optimistic attitude always meets the enthusiasm of the commoners. The exterior shots usually place our protagonist facing the center, surrounded by a cheerful crowd framing him from both sides. Even though he might be a fool, Schweik makes an impression as a charismatic leader, which is further reinforced by the shot design. He incites the crowd to hail the emperor and support the war efforts and even though no one takes him seriously, he still manages to gather “followers” who enjoy the festive turmoil. This bonding of community in a spectacle creates suspicions in the authorities who keep arresting Schweik, mistaking him for a rioter, a spy, a deserter, or a negligent.
The camera work along with the shot design in these instances is nearly identical to the style commonly seen in musicals. When Shweik claims to have rheumatism but nonetheless is excited about going to the recruitment offices in Prague, the crowd enthusiastically wheels him forward towards the fourth wall. Considering the ridiculousness of the situation and familiarity of the cinematography, it would not seem totally out of place if people started dancing and singing all of a sudden, which, to my disappointment, never happens. What is more, the impression of the actors performing for us is felt all-around and that motivates us quite aggressively to interpret the “show.” In this instance, the community bonding in enthusiasm and celebration always meets authorities’ disapproval and brings punishment, once again reinforcing the belief that authorities do not care about the common good but simply about making life harder for the commoners and abusing their absolutely undeserved power.
The second part of the film gives more in-depth analysis of the authority figures. The character Schweik, even though still present, becomes somewhat secondary. Nonetheless, we often see Shweik walking alone through the deserted areas, without any knowledge of geography, in his vain attempt to find a city after having missed a train to Budejovice. The beautiful shots of desolated, cold and gloomy Southern Bohemia juxtaposed with Schweik’s cheerful smile, once again blurs our lines between comedy and reality, between passively enjoying slapstick and actively learning a life lesson. When seen from a distance, he makes an impression of a deserter, an outsider, a fearless rebel. Nothing he says or does, however, suggest his acknowledgement of this seeming rebellion. Even at the very end, surrounded by explosions, horses panicking and people hiding, unmoved and impassive Schweik calmly cleans a pipe to smoke; we can’t tell if this bizarre behavior is due to ignorance or arrogance.
Schweik’s attitude, if feigned, might be the only working way to challenge and boycott the unsatisfactory regime, by playing along with and consequently exposing the absurdity of the world around him. The world where to resist is to encourage the authorities to exercise their undeserved power. Are we supposed to laugh at him, or is he making fun of us? We’ll never know for sure. The ambiguity of the character and the contrast of the plot with the form used are reinforcing the function of a satire, which through exaggeration and ridicule comments on disturbing realities. The confusion between realistic and absurd, between a joke and a joker, blurs our lines of what is funny and what is simply alarming. The ridiculous plot, characters, and dialogues prone our laughter, but at the same time, the way they are served reminds us that the satire should also induce insights and proposals for a potential social change.
Check out Facets’ other Czech releases, including Milos Forman’s feature debut, Black Peter (an adaptation of Jaroslav Papousek’s brilliant coming-of-age novel), and freshly released on DVD for the first time in the United States, Jan Nemec’s powerful documentary with the only footage of the Soviet-led invasion of Prague in 1968, Oratorio for Prague.
Author: Anna Siemienkiewicz is a senior at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where she studies English and Moving Image Arts. This Winter she is the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets.