In the summer months before the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989, the 60- something František Louka (Sveˇrák) augments his meagre income as a politically suspect cellist in a funeral ensemble by touching up the gold leaf lettering on Prague gravestones. He begins an affair with the singer Klára (Šafránková) and also agrees to marry a Russian woman, Nadeˇžda (Livanova), so that she and her five-year-old son, Kolja (Chalimon), can come and live with her aunt in Prague. He agrees to the sham marriage for a fee that allows him to buy a car and settle some of his debts. Nadeˇžda absconds to West Germany and her aunt is soon hospitalised, leaving Kolja in the crotchety Louka’s care. The confirmed bachelor and the young boy struggle to understand each other at first but eventually develop a strong friendship despite police attention and disrupted seductions. The Velvet Revolution comes, Nadeˇžda returns for Kolja, Louka is reinstated in the Czech Philharmonic and Klára is pregnant.
Kolya is perhaps best known as the first film from the former Eastern bloc to win an Academy Award (for best foreign language film) since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Jan Sveˇrák’s first feature, The Elementary School (Obecnáškola, 1991), also scripted by Zdeneˇk Sveˇrák, was nominated in the same category five years earlier and Sveˇrák’s short student film, Oil Gobblers (Ropáci, 1988) also won a number of film festival awards from around the world. The father and son team have won a number of Czech Lions, the country’s Oscar equivalent, with Sveˇrák junior winning best director for Kolya, Tmavomodrýsveˇt (Dark Blue World, 2001) and Vratné lahve (Empties, 2007) while Zdeneˇk Sveˇrák’s screenplays for the first two films were also winners.
There are a number of clear themes that run through Kolya. Most obvious perhaps is the importance of freedom, both personal and political. Louka is relatively free in the sense that he has no family ties and, at 60, is still living the life of a seducing bachelor with no particular dependents, apart from his mother for whom he has already provided. Kolya is the middle film in the Sveˇráks’ ‘maturation’ trilogy, beginning with childhood (The Elementary School), moving onto middle age in Kolya and then finally ending with retirement in Empties. 1 Thus, Kolya shows the gradual change from carefree youth to responsible adulthood, even though Louka is perhaps a little late in coming to this stage. It is only when unexpected fatherhood is thrust upon him that Louka learns to care for someone other than himself and so gives up certain freedoms in favour of the other great theme of the film, love. While his initial freedom is based on selfishness, to find true love Louka must give up his self-interest and embrace the needs of others. Kolja is the initial catalyst but soon Louka begins to engage and empathise with others, particularly his soon-to-be pregnant lover, Klára. His move to monogamy is heralded by the deus ex machina of the Velvet Revolution, to use Jan Cˇ ulik’s formulation. Just as he, and the country he represents, gains political freedom so he gives up the fleeting and lonely pleasures of bachelorhood.
The third theme of the film is death. Represented most obviously by the funerals at which he plays cello and by the gravestones that he restores. Cˇ ulik sees this as an ‘apposite metaphor for life in communist society during normalisation’ where life has been all but extinguished and ‘limited to the minimal necessities of existence’ (Cˇ ulik 2007: 88). Thus, while Louka goes through the motions of life he is figuratively dead and is only brought back to life through his relationship with Kolja, whose naive drawings, linked to Louka’s own gold leaf lettering, feature crematoria and corpses.
There are number of symbolic objects and other motifs that occur in the film and it is their materiality that seems to be central to the thinking of Kolya. Firstly, touch itself is foregrounded. The first shot of the film during the opening credits is of clouds, which we quickly realise are seen from an aeroplane as a young boy’s hand presses against the aircraft window leaving a misty print. This is our first introduction to Kolja and, of course, it is his touch that will change Louka’s life. We are introduced to Louka himself in the next scene where we see his fingers playing the cello before we see Sveˇrák’s well-known face. His cello playing is quickly sexualised when he uses the bow to lift Klára’s skirt to expose the back of her legs as she sings a piece from Antonín Dvorˇák’s biblical songs. This ironic juxtaposition of high seriousness and good-natured bawdiness is echoed in the contrast between the grand locale of the funeral and Louka’s threadbare socks – he takes his shoes off to play in comfort – and homely soup flask. Shortly afterwards Louka and Klára touch each other in a post-coital game instigated by her hiccups which, she says, always come on ‘after it’. Louka’s cello is further associated with sex when his young Slovak pupil, Blanka (Šuvadová), visits him in his picturesque tower flat and grips the cello between her legs suggestively. Louka’s seduction however is interrupted by a phone call announcing Nadeˇžda’s defection to West Germany and this will inevitably lead to Kolja’s arrival at his flat. At first Kolja rejects Louka’s touch, flinching when he tries to comfort the weeping boy and refusing to take Louka’s hand as they cross a busy street.
As the pair become more used to each other, we gradually see more intimate moments of touch especially at bath time until, as they leave the hospital where Kolja’s grandmother has just died, he looks up at a typical Czech pedestrian crossing sign which shows an adult man in an anachronistic hat holding the hand of young child, and Kolja takes Louka’s hand. From this moment on their relationship strengthens and they are often shown physically close. At the end of the film Kolja rides on Louka’s shoulders as they join the protest crowds in Wenceslas Square and also when they go to Prague airport to meet his mother. In an image familiar from the film’s poster, Kolja playfully places his hands over Louka’s eyes indicating the level of trust between man and child. As Kolja finally embraces his mother and both fly to the West we see a repeat of the first image of clouds with the boy’s hand pressed against the window, once again leaving an outlined handprint on it. The first time we see this image it is Kolja’s farewell to Russia, now it is a goodbye to Louka. Kolja’s life had been dominated by women and he now leaves a new father for an even newer one in the West. Louka plays his cello in his reinstated position in the Czech Philharmonic, intercut with documentary sequences from the actual concert conducted by Rafael Kubelík performing Bedrˇich Smetana’s Mávlast (My Country). Klára touches her pregnant stomach as she looks on from the gathered crowd. All the connections have been made and the Russian Kolja conveniently flies off elsewhere once his magic spell has been cast and Louka has learned to touch.
The language clash between Louka and Kolja, the Czech and the Russian, is central to the comedy of the film. While every Czech was supposed to have learned Russian at school, Louka proudly displays his ignorance of the language as one of his many petty rebellions. They communicate mainly through gesture and Slavic similarity and this leads to one of the important moments of comic misunderstanding when Louka is forced to display the Czech and Soviet flags in his flat window to demonstrate Czech-Soviet friendship. Kolja points to the flags and says, in Russian, ‘Ours is red’, which confuses Louka as the Russian красный (red), sounds exactly the same as the Czech ‘krasný’ meaning ‘beautiful’. ‘What’s so beautiful about it?’ he wonders.
It is the women in Louka’s life who are able to speak to Kolja in Russian. Blanka greets him enthusiastically in Russian while one of Louka’s mistresses, a schoolteacher, reads Kolja a fairytale over the telephone. Earlier, in one of the film’s more touching scenes Kolja tells his dead grandmother that he misses her, using the shower attachment in the bath as a spectral telephone. Kolja’s understanding of Czech quickly improves and even Louka manages to dredge up some Russian vocabulary. The most significant word he uses is the heavily accented ‘Cˇ emodan’, a word meaningless in Czech, for Kolja’s small, battered suitcase. It is this suitcase that heralds Kolja’s arrival and departure and Louka’s use of the Russian word for it emphasises its role as a literal transitional object.
Before making the decision to marry Nadeˇžda, Louka visits his mother’s village and while clearing out her gutters finds a jewellery pendant which initially looks as if it might solve her money worries, but turns out to be worthless. The pendant reappears a number of times during the film and there is speculation that it may have been thrown into the gutter during a lovers’ tiff. A more sensible explanation is offered by Klára who suggests that it would probably have been dropped by a magpie or jackdaw. She says, ‘It’s still beautiful, even if it’s worthless’. Louka’s actions are initially motivated by money but at the end of the film he realises that it is those things that cannot be bought – love, friendship, trust – that define what it means to be truly human. Ironically, of course, the freedom that is about to arrive will be one in which the human is even more brutally reduced to monetary worth.
The 1968 Soviet invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia is central to Kolya, as is the Czech loathing of Russians. Louka helps Kolja’s mother leave Russia, admittedly out of self-interest, and is then suddenly landed with the unwelcome guest. Kolja is the metaphorical invader who stands in for the two major Soviet arrivals into Czechoslovakia: liberation from Nazi rule in 1945 and the imposition of normalisation in 1968. However, as Dina Iordanova points out, Kolja is not so much a threat to Louka as a nuisance.2 In fact, Kolja’s presence makes it easier for Louka to pretend that his sham marriage was indeed genuine: why else would he take charge of a five-year-old child? For Iordanova, Louka’s relationship with Kolja is an ironic post-colonial rereading of the Soviet subjugation of Czech freedom as Louka’s literal subservience, as he kneels to put on Kolja’s slippers, becomes the sign of a Czech acceptance of Russian humanity.
While Louka is initially inconvenienced by Kolja’s presence, the boy’s absolute vulnerability and dependence allows Louka to feel sympathy for the young Russian and by extension for all the Soviet occupiers who have always been treated by the Czechs as usurpers. The Russian family we meet at the wedding ceremony are friendly and the two soldiers who Kolja befriends outside Louka’s mother’s house are shown sympathetically. When they ask to wash their oil-stained hands, they politely accept Louka’s obvious lie that the water has been cut off. Louka is clearly uncomfortable with his own mother’s absolute antipathy to both the Russian soldiers and to Kolja. The film argues that the Soviets are now weak and therefore should be treated with compassion and should ultimately be forgiven for past transgressions because, like the child Kolja, they have had no real choice in their actions. Sympathy for the foreign occupier and for their Czech collaborators is the central message of the film. The Sveˇráks make a plea for forgiveness and an understanding of mutual humanity which echoes the broadly humanist politics of both Václav Havel and T. G. Masaryk, respectively the late playwright-turned-president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and the philosopher-president of the first democratic Czechoslovak Republic between the two world wars.
Kolya’s lush photography, back-lit mise en scène, sentimental humanism and gentle irony combine to make a film that, despite its broad appeal, manages to negotiate the tricky terrain between the harshness of political history and individual desire in a way that betrays neither.
1. See Eddie Cockrell, Review of Empties (Vratne lahve). Variety, 407, 2007, p. 29.
2. See Dina Iordanova (2008) Kolya (1996) Jan Svérák. [online] Dina View. Available at: www.dinaview.com/?p=194 (accessed 30 May 2012).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Czech Republic. Production Company: Space Films, Portobello Pictures, Cˇ eská Televize and CinemArt. Director: Jan Sveˇrák. Producers: Eric Abraham and Jan Sveˇrák. Screenwriter: Zdeneˇk Sveˇrák (story: Pavel Taussig). Cinematographer: Vladimír Smutný. Music: Ondrˇej Soukup. Editor: Alois Fišárek. Cast: Zdeneˇk Sveˇrák (Louka), Andrej Chalimon (Kolja), Libuše Šafránková (Klára), Ondrˇej Vetchý (Brož), Stella Zázvorková (Maminka/Mother), Ladislav Smoljak (Houdek), Irina Bezrukova (as Irina Livanova) (Nadeˇžda), Silvia Šuvadová (Blanka), Liliana Malkina (Tamara).]
Jan Cˇ ulik, Cˇeská spolecˇnost v hraném filmu devadesátých a nultých let [What We Are Like: Czech Society in Feature Films of the 1990s and 2000s], Host, Brno, 2007.
Peter Hames, ‘The Ironies of History: The Czech Experience’, in Aniko Imre (ed.), East European Cinemas, New York and London, Routledge, 2005, pp. 135–50.
Peter Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave (2nd ed.), London, Wallflower Press, 2005.
Peter Hames, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.