English Title: The Ear
Original Title: Ucho
Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia
Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov
Director: Karel Kachyňa
Producer(s): Karel Vejrík
Cinematographer: Josef Illík
Art Director: Oldřich Okáč
Editor: Miroslav Hájek
Runtime: 91 minutes
Volume: East European
Banned for twenty years and first seen at Cannes in 1990 following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Karel Kachyňa’s Ucho remains a damning indictment of totalitarian control, and at the same time a fascinating examination of marital discord. Based on an original story by Kachyňa’s frequent collaborator, Jan Procházka – who was once an influential member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and who was later expelled for ‘anti-socialist activities’ – the film portrays the intense paranoia and fear of being presumed guilty by the State; the same kind of ‘guilt that is never to be doubted’ that one finds in Kafka.
The story begins when Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohatý), a deputy minister in Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party, and his wife, Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová), return home from a State held reception. They notice keys missing, the power is turned off, and the phone line dead. They assume it was their son, Ludek, up to mischief, but Ludvik sees strangers in trench coats in his garden and wonders if he is under suspicion by the Party. As he wanders around their house with only a candelabra to light his way, he suddenly flashes back to the State reception from which they just arrived and tries to recall the many conversations he’d had – the absence of his superior minister Kosara, and the thinly veiled surprise on his comrades’ faces at his own attendance – and what at first seemed innocuous at a fairly casual gathering suddenly seems replete with menace. One iconic, almost symbolically Christian, moment occurs when one of Ludvik’s comrades embraces him: ‘I’m only friendly with those who they’re after,’ he says before kissing Ludvik’s cheek. It recalls Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, who identified his former Master with an infamous kiss – and even if the kiss does not in itself signify Ludvik’s betrayal, it does at the very least serve to identify him as a potential target of the prevailing establishment.
Throughout the night his intractably drunken wife Anna harangues him constantly about his disinterest in her, both emotionally and sexually. ‘We ought to have sex at least once a week even if it is bleak,’ she scorns. And as Ludvik’s fears intensify, so the domestic jousting becomes more violent as the couple move from room to room, closing doors, screaming one moment then whispering the next, knowing ‘The Ear’ is always listening. Fuelled by more and more alcohol, Anna’s caustic jibes reveal the innermost secrets of their private life. At one point Anna confesses to having had an affair with a curly haired driver for twenty days while Ludvik was in Moscow. Ludvik seems apathetic and simply retorts that it must have cost a lot of money for twenty days of sex. There are, however, moments of genuine tenderness between Ludvik and Anna: for example, on the following morning when Ludvik leaves to find a bottle of liquor to belatedly toast their wedding anniversary, Anna fears that Ludvik will commit suicide. She scrambles out of one window, shuffles across a ledge, only to break into another window in order to save Ludvik whom she finds on the floor. He is alive, as the Party have already taken his gun. In despair Anna weeps on his breast – the closest we ever come to seeing the couple expressing love.
Throughout The Ear the relationship between Ludvik and Anna becomes analogous to that of the citizen and the State. The marital contract becomes comparable to the social contract; both, in this case, involve secrets and lies, accountability and responsibility, suspicions, resentment, even violence, whether physical, psychological, or threatened. Unless both parties work toward the same goals, the same ideals, the same future, the relationship, either political or marital, ultimately collapses. With this film Kachyňa and Procházka (who died a year after filming had been completed) created a dark, intense, beautifully photographed study of both the politics of communism and the dialectics of marriage.
Author of this review: Zachariah Rush