Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 19 December 2006
Source Second Run DVD
A slightly drunk middle-aged couple return home late at night from a reception, sniping and bickering with one another, needling one another with the practised contempt of a stale marriage. This opening from Karel Kachyna’s The Ear has — as critic Peter Hames points out on this DVD — obvious similarities to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? But there are two surprises to its treatment here. One is the way this fractious couple’s relationship is built in as simply one layer in a wider analysis of the paralysing fear and paranoia projected by the totalitarian Stalinist state. And the other is that such an incisive political/psychological analysis should come from the conventional Kachyna, probably best-known internationally for the sweet and slightly mawkish I’m Jumping Over Puddles Again (this, rather bizarrely, is a Czech reworking of an Australian autobiography of a polio survivor’s boyhood experiences).
The Ear differs from other East European films that have tackled the same theme — Károly Makk’s Love and Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogationfor example — in that it is a critique from the inside. Both Kachyna and scriptwriter Jan Proch√°zka were part of the Czech arts establishment. Kachyna was an early graduate of the FAMU film school set up by the new Communist state, and Proch√°zka, a writer with whom he began to collaborate in the early sixties, had been a member of the Communist Youth organisation and was later head of a production group at the Barrandov film studios and from 1962 a candidate-member of the Communist Party Central Committee. (By 1967 however Proch√°zka had moved to a more independent position, very much part of the Prague Spring, and his imminent election as chairman of the Writers’ Union was thwarted by direct Party intervention.)
Similarly, the film’s protagonists, husband and wife Ludvik and Anna, are part of the Communist state establishment. Ludvik is the deputy to a government minister and the film’s long night of crisis begins when the couple return home to their suburban home from a government reception, at which the leader himself appears, held at the Castle. (Here, the shades of Kafka are no so far distant, with the paranoia, the unspecified implications of guilt, and the sudden bizarre incursion into his home by Party cohorts later on in the film.)
Immediately, things start to go awry in Ludvik’s ordered world. First, there’s the minor inconvenience of Anna’s missing key, for which Ludvik instinctively and resentfully blames his wife. But a sense of unease then sets in, with the discovery that garden gate and house door are unlocked and that their power and phone lines are cut off in spite of lights blazing from their next-door neighbours. What’s more, Ludvik begins to notice more sinister signs, men in a car in the street outside, and even a shadowy figure in their now unlit garden.
But this is all confirmation of the fear that Ludvik has had from from the start of the film, slowly revealed to us through the disjointed, stylistically-jarring flashbacks to the reception earlier that night. It’s through these that we observe the grotesque sycophancy of the partygoers, learn of the mysterious arrest of Ludvik’s minister, and watch Ludvik first try to piece the information together and then desperately to cover his tracks and distance himself from the minister.
The vulnerability now of Ludvik and Anna is emphasised by the stylistic contrasts between the two locales. The scenes in the couple’s house are all submerged in darkness, lit only by the candles the two carry around, an image of the darkening shadows that seem to threaten their very existence. The brightly-lit party scenes are a dramatic contrast, a contrast that is underlined by a very different camera style. Here, the camera often literally takes Ludvik’s point-of-view, moving as he walks down a passage, stopping as an individual face suddenly looms up in close-up to talk directly at us. And in these conversations Ludvik’s own reaction will come as another point-of-view shot, this time from the perspective of his conversation partner. There are other baroque stylistic touches too — a sudden cut to an extreme low angle, abrupt tilts or pans, rapid cutting between close-ups of the faces of individual party guests — that are absent from the scenes in the house.
The contrast between the two locales is clearest with the parallel cutting between the glaring white of the walls of the toilet Ludvik sits in at the Castle reception and the pools of darkness in Ludvik’s bathroom. The parallels switch first from a shot of him vomiting in the Castle toilet then to one of him doing the same in the dark of his own bathroom. Then, a scene of him starting to tear up piles of potentially incriminating papers is answered by a flashback shot where he tears up a photograph of himself and the minister together.
From this, Ludvik’s fear now drives him to start burning those piles of papers after they’ve succeeded in blocking the toilet, but even at this stage Anna, in her drunken haze, hasn’t quite caught on to the situation they’re now in. When she does, it’s as if their predicament fuels the tensions that underlie this married couple’s relationship. The political analysis now veers into a marital psychodrama as alcohol enflames Anna’s derision for her husband’s career and she flaunts her promiscuous sexual history — past and present — at him. And this increasingly venomous husband-and-wife bickering descends inevitably into a physical tussle, leaving Anna with a bloodied nose and a sousing in the shower—Ludvik’s attempt to sober her up.
But first this is interrupted by an interlude, once the power is back on, when a group of men appear at the gate. This menacing image — shocking enough to reduce Anna to tears and to bring out a shared and sober solidarity between the two — is then diffused by the discovery that they are some of Ludvik’s fellow-bureaucrats, detouring, inebriated, from the reception to return Anna’s lost keys. Ludvik sees the opportunity to assert the pretence that all here is normality and immediately plays the good host, plying his impromptu guests with more and more alcohol, while Anna retires in disgust. In any case this extended session of boozy male camaraderie is one that excludes her, especially when the leader of this little group highlights Ludvik’s own sexual past.
Once these guests depart, the bickering returns, ratchetting up higher and higher as Anna vents her spleen, accusing Ludvik of opportunism, solipsism, the abandonment of others out of self-interest, and finally of simply being a failure. And he returns in kind, answering her bile with physical violence.
But all this is suddenly brought to a halt by their discovery of listening devices, clearly placed throughout their home by their recent guests. Right through the film, Anna has jokingly, sardonically referred to the “Ear” of the state, listening in on them. She’s even mocked this, opening to the front door to shout some gossip about the president, or calling out “Comrades, we’re going to bed.”
But now she and Ludvik are deadly serious about this situation. This transforms the dynamics of their relationship. It’s as if the tension between them that has existed so far through the film is a mirror-image of the relationship between the oppressive totalitarian state and the individual, and now that the threat from the state is apparent, the antagonism within the marriage melts away. They start working together, looking for the devices, calmed into mutual concern. And this transforms our perception of Anna’s character, too. Now we have her dramatic smashing through a window in her fear that Ludvik may commit suicide; and the overhead shot of the fragments of glass falling onto the path below is a potent image of the disintegration of what was a secure and ordered existence. But it’s also a reminder of how the exterior threat has now sobered this couple into a calm reliance on one another. It then drives Anna into her own act of rebellion, sweeping up all the listening devices, shouting into them (“What do you want from us, Ear?”), and flushing them down the toilet.
At the end of the film, Anna and Ludvik are a couple at one together, quietly sitting on the balcony and toasting their anniversary of the day before. The swallow’s nest that Anna now notices is a symbol of the natural world and of a simplicity, purity, and innocence that stand in contrast with their own world of shadows, which the dawning day has done nothing to dispel. And now the film’s final moments offer an ironic twist. The now-restored phone line brings “good” news: Ludvik’s promotion to the position of his recently arrested boss. “I’m scared,” says Anna, and the film freezes on this moment, freezing on the sense of fear and paranoia that has been present from its first moments. The slow fade to black is to a darkness from which, it is now clear, this couple will never be free.