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Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightened


Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightened

18. 3. 2021 / AUTHOR: Olaf Möller
In this English issue of dok.revue we have collected some remembrances to Karel Vachek, the respected Czech documentarist who died in December 2020 at the age of 80. One of the contributors is Olaf Möller, a well-known film theorist and critic collaborating with many renowned film magazines (Film Comment or Sight & Sound), film museums and festivals (e.g. Il Cinema Ritrovato or International Film Festival Rotterdam).

The sheer length of his titles often seemed to defeat the curious, of which in truth there never were that many, especially outside his realm which is something different from a country, for the latter changed its shape and bearing while the former (here: an ideal state of mind) remained true to itself, just like Karel Vachek. His realm is Czech culture and history, and their place among the cultures and histories of Europe. His country of birth was the ČSSR which he left when during Normalisation it became too normal to harass, persecute or sequester those with a different Normal on their mind, and to which he returned upon finding out that the rest of the world was alien to his realm – and also, because the Normalisation Normal had changed enough for uneasy comfort and security even if that meant making money as a driver and not an artist. The country that nurtured his main period of film production (despite some active reservations of funding entities...) is the Czech Republic, whose sometimes comical and sometimes tragical attempts at finding an identity that squares different with unchanged, Vachek reported, documented, commented on and reflected upon like no other filmmaker local or foreign ever could let alone dared.

It says a lot about the world not only of cinema that this adventure was widely ignored. When Vachek returned to filmmaking for real and good with New Hyperion or Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood (Nový Hyperion aneb Volnost, rovnost, bratrství; 1992), Part One of his give-or-take 16h adventure Tetralogy The Small Capitalist (Tetralogie Malý kapitalista; 1992-2002), the international movie culture mainstream just turned its interest away from the cinematographies of Central and Eastern Europe to focus on countries like Iran and the People Republic of China, which now got scrutinized and chastised the same way the GDR, ČSSR, USSR etc. had gotten scrutinized and chastised before. This is all very much about claims of cultural superiority – which Vachek often implicitly and sometimes even explicitly ridiculed apropos the Czech Republic's attempts at playing along and blending in. One could even go so far to say that Vachek's aesthetic of opposites at play and the importance of the fringes to the centre was a threat to all that which defines this culture of hubris. While Moravian Hellas (Moravská Hellas; 1963) and Elective Affinities (Spřízněni volbou; 1968) are on the surface mighty fine examples of direct cinema, an essayistic edge is already noticeable – come New Hyperion or Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood (Nový Hyperion aneb Volnost, rovnost, bratrství; 1992) this edge becomes the core, with direct cinema being now but one element at play with various others. From New Hyperion on, Vachek strove relentlessly for a balance of extremes which essentially meant combining fly-on-the-wall-, shot-from-the-hip-material with theatrically staged scenes, excursions on mushrooms with hard looks at the politics of the day, FAMU classroom discussions with performance-like monologues by celebrities and nobodies alike, and whatever else might fit in here or there, help elucidate this opaque-seeming point and obfuscate that oh so obvious-sounding line of thought – call it: action collages, pop-up Palais idéaux...! In all that, Vachek is never hectoring or self-righteous, but invariably cheekily self-assured, curious, educated and above all playful – yes: playful, the most dangerous attitude an artist can have these dour days. Thus, he was something contemporary culture knows ever less how to deal with: A liberal bourgeois intellectual whose firm convictions about individual liberties and state responsibilities allows for a freedom of thought that can explore even seemingly dangerous ideas with ease. Authoritarianism has no dominion over citizens like him.