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5 Films That Will Help You Better Understand Slovakia

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Photo: Slovak films, Source: Collage The Gaze
Photo: Slovak films, Source: Collage The Gaze

Andy Warhol probably never imagined how deeply he is cherished in his ancestral homeland—not in the American Pittsburgh, where the family of Andrew Warhola moved before his birth, but in Slovakia. Particularly in the villages of Miková (where the artist's parents were born) and Medzilaborce (home to the Museum of Modern Art initiated by John Warhol, Andy's brother). However, Warhol was not only a globally renowned artist but also an equally recognized film director. He famously said, "People sometimes say that the way things happen in the movies is unreal, but actually it's the way things happen to you in life that's unreal." Consequently, these 5 suggested Slovak films will tell us much more about the "real Slovakia" than any historical documents. The key is not just to watch but to truly see.

"The Sun in a Net" («Slnko v sieti», «The Sun in a Net»), directed by Štefan Uher, 1963

This film can unequivocally be called legendary. Not only did it mark a decisive departure from the officially sanctioned "socialist realism" by the communists, but it also served as the starting point for the "Czechoslovak New Wave" with its socially critical view of reality and visual stylistic innovations. Additionally, "The Sun in a Net" became the first film in Slovak cinema to explore urban life – in contrast to Czech cinema with its rich tradition of city-themed films, Slovak directors often limited themselves to folkloric rural dramas or celebrations of natural beauty, unmarred by the intrusion of urbanization. Štefan Uher discovered aesthetic beauty in the forests of television antennas on the roofs of Bratislava's apartment buildings (among these "forests," the main characters of the film often schedule meetings with each other) and on crowded streets with their car noises and pop music emanating from transistor radios. The story of the relationship between two young people – the amateur photographer Fajolo and his girlfriend Bela – is told in the film not linearly but fragmented, through short scenes, unfinished dialogues, and reflections in mirrors. The film often emphasizes the lack of communication prevailing within contemporary society (a kind of nod to the fashionable existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Michelangelo Antonioni's "trilogy of alienation" at that time). Despite this, the film retains a certain lyricism and sensuality. For example, Fajolo and Bela watch a solar eclipse together from the roof of a high-rise, but later, they argue and break up, only to forget each other in the arms of others. In parallel, we observe the experiences of Bela's blind mother, who constantly asks her children to describe what is happening around her, and they often have to lie to her – because the truth would only upset her. The solar eclipse that opens the film (barely discernible due to cloudiness) is "balanced" in the finale by a shot where the sun, reflected in the water, seems to be entangled in a fisherman's net, and this "visual deception" becomes a visual and cognitive metaphor for the illusions of youth regarding the surrounding world.


"The Shop on Main Street" («Obchod na korze», «The Shop on Main Street»), directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965

In 1965, the year of its release, this film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and a year later, Ida Kamińska (born in Odesa, heading the Jewish theater in Lviv), one of the main actresses, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The issues raised in "The Shop on Main Street" in the mid-1960s seem even more relevant today than back then. The film is set in 1942, during the time of the First Slovak Republic, controlled by the Third Reich. A gigantic pyramid of boards adorned with the symbol of the Hlinka Slovak People's Party is erected on the main street of a provincial town – the locals have already dubbed this absurd construction the "Tower of Babel." In the context of the events of those years, this can be interpreted as a hint at the forced relocation to Babylon of a significant part of the Jewish population of the Kingdom of Judah during Nebuchadnezzar's reign. The hapless carpenter Tono Brtko, as part of the "Aryanization program," is assigned the haberdashery shop of the elderly Jewish widow Mrs. Lautmann. Even though trading buttons brings no profit, and the old lady is deaf and does not understand what is happening, Tono agrees to become the official Aryan controller of the store because the Jewish community of the town pays him a salary for it (after all, instead of this "schlimazel," the authorities could send a fanatical Nazi). Throughout the film, the carpenter and the old lady begin to sympathize and trust each other. However, a decree on the resettlement of Jews to a special zone is issued, and Tono starts to oscillate between a sincere desire to save the Jewish widow and a panicked fear of punishment for it. This poignant film, where comic and tragic scenes sometimes follow one another, is far from dry moralizing or formal condemnation of anti-Semitism. It is more of a subtle reflection on the "little man," an ordinary citizen who has not harmed anyone but is faced with a choice that affects both his own life and the life of another person.


"Deserters and Pilgrims" («Zbehovia a pútnici», «The Deserters and the Nomads»), directed by Juraj Jakubisko, 1968

Juraj Jakubisko was dubbed the "Slovak Fellini," not just because of his frequent collaborations with Italian cinema figures but primarily for his innovative, hypnotic films that occasionally intersected in aesthetic characteristics with the works of the renowned creator of "8½." In "Deserters and Pilgrims," Jakubisko, with his unique visual magic, carnivalizes the events on the screen, transforming his film into a sequence of mysteries and commedia dell'arte, played out with the sly naivety of fairground charlatans, all in the spirit of Fellini. The film comprises three novellas, in each of which the director seeks the causes of the world's demise, finding them in humanity itself—in its unconquered barbarism and the dark, blood-thirsty nature of humans. The first novella is set at the end of World War I: a young Romani man, witnessing Death's face on the battlefield, deserts the army and escapes to his homeland; his subsequent fate intertwines with three weddings—a hussar's wedding with a peasant girl, a murderer's wedding with a sabre, and the final marriage of the deserter with Death. The second novella transports viewers to the end of World War II: Russian soldiers, driven mad by vodka and impunity, carry out senseless executions of Slovak peasants who accidentally cross their path. However, these ruthless executioners, singing "Katyusha" in drunken revelry, fail to notice that a group of Germans follows Death into the village. Just during the filming of the second novella, Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia and occupied it—Jakubisko incorporates footage of those days into his film, condemning it to a 20-year storage due to Soviet censorship. The action of the third novella takes place after the end of the Very Last World War: humanity is exterminated, only the mad elderly rummage in the underground; a miraculously surviving nurse wanders the desolate land with Death, trying to find God but encountering characters from the first two novellas.


"The Copper Tower" («Medená veza»), directed by Martin Hollý, 1970

This film, over half a century old, still ranks among the most popular Slovak films. Chronologically and stylistically, it concludes the 1960s, a period often associated with romanticism. If desired, in "The Copper Tower," one can easily find motifs reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, although it begins more in the spirit of Erich Maria Remarque's "Three Comrades." Three inseparable friends work as caretakers of an alpine hut in the High Tatras near the Polish border, from early spring to late autumn. The severe yet incredibly beautiful nature of that mountainous region (the film is filled with breathtaking shots that leave one spellbound and dizzy) attracts many tourists—some simply admire the views, others learn mountaineering. All, however, pass through the hut of the three friends, where they can rest, eat, clarify their route, and acquire some contraband goods regularly brought from Poland by the riskiest of the trio—Valer. However, it is not his penchant for risk that disrupts this idyll but a tourist beauty named Sasha. After the friends provide medical assistance to Sasha, bitten by a snake on a mountain trail, the girl falls in love with the most silent of her rescuers—Pirin—marries him, and stays in the hut as its mistress. This leads to numerous conflicts, and the previously strong male friendship begins to undergo regular tests. Over time, Sasha descends more often to a small town located in the valley. Pirin, suspecting that his wife secretly meets the local doctor, throws a wild fit of jealousy. The next day, he takes her into the mountains, where, during the ascent to the peak of the Copper Tower, Sasha slips and falls, resulting in her death. Now, Pirin's friends question whether it was truly an accident or a murder out of jealousy.


"The Line" («Čiara»), directed by Peter Bebjak, 2017

This film, breaking records for box office earnings in Slovakia, was a co-production with Ukraine, involving collaboration not only in terms of production but also showcasing the notable performances of Stanislav Boklan and Rimma Zubina, two Ukrainian cinema favorites. The narrative of the gangster thriller "The Line" unfolds in 2007 on both sides of the Slovak-Ukrainian border—Slovakia is about to become a part of the Schengen Zone, and consequently, life is soon to change for both smugglers engaged in illegal transportation of cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, and Afghan refugees, as well as corrupt border service officials safeguarding this lucrative business. Life on the "frontier" has always been challenging, but now, Adam Krajnak, the leader of Slovak smugglers, faces particularly tough times: betrayal by a partner results in a financial debt that must be settled promptly, and the only way to do so is by agreeing to transport a large shipment of crystalline methamphetamine across the border. Adam's refusal to participate in drug smuggling leads to dramatic consequences that forever alter the power dynamics in the criminal underworld of the border region. Peter Bebjak adopts the stylistic elements of Guy Ritchie's films, characterized by rapid editing, an abundance of dynamic music (the soundtrack even includes "Hej, Sokoly!"—an old folk song uniting Ukrainians, Slovaks, Czechs, and Poles), and quite ironic scenes where crime bosses respond to unpleasant questions with childish jokes and threaten using lush metaphors. Although this irony robs the film of some dramatic significance, it crucially saves it from the pretentiousness that is easy to fall into while working in the gangster genre. "The Line" participated in the main competition program of the Chicago International Film Festival, where it received several awards, and was Slovakia's submission for the "Best Foreign Language Film" category at the Oscars. Peter Bebjak rightfully earned the title of Best Director at the International Film Festival in Karlovy Vary.  



You might be interested in a similar article from The Gaze dedicated to Czech films.

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