Newest Reviews:

New Movies -  

The Tunnel


The Tall Man

Mama Africa





Brownian Movement

Last Ride

[Rec]³: Genesis

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Indie Game: The Movie

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Old Movies -

Touki Bouki: The Journey of the Hyena

Drums Along the Mohawk

The Chase

The Heiress

Show People

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry



Miracle Mile

The Great Flamarion

Dark Habits

Archives -

Recap: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 , 2005, 2006, 2007 , 2008 , 2009 , 2010 , 2011 , 2012

All reviews alphabetically

All reviews by star rating

All reviews by release year


Screening Log



E-mail me




The Joke (Jaromil Jires) 1968


    The Czech New Wave movement that occurred in the 1960’s is one of the most significant of all film movements, ranking with Italian Neo-realism, not only because of the marked increase in the quality of the films themselves, but because of the real-world political ramifications that the films had in their home country and abroad. Collectively, the films of the Czech New Wave stirred in the populace awareness that the government, which was working to doggedly to convince them of their satisfaction with the system, was in fact an incompetent and negative force on their lives. The post-Stalinist thaw that occurred allowed the previously repressed country’s art to enter a short renaissance that allowed filmmakers to make overtly political films for the first time. These works contributed greatly to the liberalization of the country, eventually prompting Communist retribution. This bright spark of creative freedom was quickly snuffed out with the Soviet invasion and occupation of 1968, which resulted in several of the key works being withdrawn from circulation and some being declared “banned forever” by the new regime. Though Czechoslovakia’s film industry has never recovered from this blow, it’s undeniable that the Czech New Wave had a definite and lasting impact on world cinema by demonstrating the very real ability of films to provoke genuine social change.


    Jaromil Jires was one of the preeminent Czech directors of the period, and unsurprisingly his work has suffered at the hands of Communist censorship. The Joke, which he finished filming just before Soviet tanks stormed his country to recapture it, didn’t impress the new government, since it spoke boldly against the Stalinist era, and as a result, it sat largely unseen, even in its own country, for nearly two decades. Based on a novel by Milan Kundera, the celebrated author of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, The Joke is a blunt parable about the Stalinist era’s asinine insistence that every individual must at every moment act with the political party in mind. The film opens as Ludvik, its central character, arrives in his hometown after being away for twenty years ready to set upon what he describes in his narration as a “cynical mission.” Before long, the film launches into an extended flashback to the Stalinist era that explains what’s motivating his revenge plot. During these scenes, which are filmed from a first-person perspective, we never see Ludvik, and often the other characters address the camera directly. The minor transgression shown is quite obviously borne out of his frustration that the woman he loves loves her political party more than him (behavior that’s absurdly encouraged by the Czech society shown here), but it ends up resulting in his exile.


    Chronologically, it’s only once Ludvik is exiled that we finally see him on screen, which seems to suggest that he had no individual personality while he was a member of the party, and only found himself once he began to see the party as something other than himself. Though the scenes set in 1960 tell us that Ludvik has become a successful and respected professor, he’s still consumed with regret and rage about the reprogramming he was made to go through. Even during the flashbacks, Jires frequently shows us shots of Ludvik remembering his past. Everything seems capable of setting them off, and he finds it difficult to see beauty in anything, including the folk songs that he once enjoyed, because the party has appropriated all art and festivity and turned it into a form of propaganda. Every facet of society, including the church and children, seems to have been forced into this role as agitprop, and it’s easy to sympathize with a man who hates everything that he sees in such a culture.


    Ludvik’s revenge plot is at once justified by his unwarranted and unanimous expulsion from society and indicative of how profoundly he must have been hurt, since he still bears a grudge twenty years later. Small moments, such as the one where he furtively watches a woman as she asks for him at a hotel desk, then surprises her with his presence, show us that he is still a joker, despite the state’s attempted rehabilitation. The film is far from impressed with this stagnancy however, and as much as it disdains the people that punished Ludvik, it takes him to task for turning into and remaining the subversive presence that they accused him of being. His plot is bound to backfire precisely because other people haven’t retained the same convictions and stubborn ire that he has. Ludvik wants to demonstrate that no amount of conditioning could defeat his nature, but no one else much cares about the old ways, now that they can see that a younger generation has grown up and found happiness outside of the government (still, Jires is perceptive enough to show that with this political apathy comes cultural, aesthetic, and historical ignorance). The Joke becomes in its last few scenes an expansive gag that makes all of Czech society, and all people who bother to rebel against its inanities, the butt of its punch line. Jires’ exceptional and sometimes incongruent damnation of his homeland is in turns mournful, furious, conflicted, and resolved to failure, but it’s never less than moving.


* * * *  


Jeremy Heilman