Sometimes when films are banned it’s difficult in retrospect to see why. For instance a lot of the so-called ‘video nasties’ that the British government took exception to in the early 1980s now look laughably tame. In the case of the Czechoslovakian film The Party and the Guests, you can see exactly why the Communist regime put it on their official ‘banned forever’ list, and regrettably why it’s director, Jan Němec, wasn’t allowed to work in movies again for several decades.
The film isn’t a critique of communism per se, rather a general attack on authoritarianism. Like many works of political satire produced in countries where censorship was commonplace, the movie works by exposing the injustices and absurdities of the system, along with pointing out how quickly and easily people are willing to conform to them.
The plot is deceptively simple. A group of friends, made up of three couples and a single man, are enjoying a picnic in the countryside before they attend a wedding reception. As they walk through the woods they are waylaid by a gang of thugs and their ringleader, Rudolf. While not directly threatened, they are herded into a clearing where he interrogates them from behind a desk. More bemused than scared at this point, they allow him to separate them by gender, before he sets down a series of bizarre rules they have to follow. When one of the men breaks the rules he is assaulted.
These scenes come across as a surreal mixture of Kafka and the creeping unease of Harold Pinter. A lot of this comes from Jan Klusá’s performance as Rudolf. Looking like a cross between a young Ian Holm and Holly Johnson of Frankie goes to Hollywood, he radiates menace and manages to be childlike, sly and sinister, all at the same time. He was probably the sort of boy who enjoyed pulling the wings off flies.
Luckily they’re saved by the arrival of their host, who chides Rudolf for going to far, before escorting the guests to the wedding reception. At some point during the journey the husband of one of the women slips away and isn’t seen again. At the wedding feast Rudolf becomes increasingly agitated at the missing guests absence, until the host allows him to go and find him. This quickly evolves into a full manhunt with most of the men taking part equipped with guns and vicious dogs.
The film is unusual in that it doesn’t have a hero, or even a single protagonist. The nearest thing it has to a standout performance is Jan Klusá. The important point is how each character reacts to their situation and the parallels with wider society. Most of the party are happy to forgive their earlier treatment in return for the banquet offered by the host. Others make a show of defiance on small matters before being bought off with gifts. I’m usually quite keen on films that critique the role of intellectuals in society, and here the main ‘thinker’ of the group, is also the first to attempt to find accommodation with, and appease his hosts. In return he’s flattered and allowed to sit at the head of the table, and is actually the one who persuades the party that the missing member should be returned by force. The host himself is representative of any number of petty tyrants, superficially charming unless he doesn’t get his own way, while Rudolf is the sort of bully who always tends to do well in police states.
It’s easy to see why the communist government were unnerved by the film. It’s subversive message about power and conformity is difficult to miss. The fact that the dissenting guest who chooses to leave the party is played by Evald Schorm, a Czechoslovakian director whose own work had earlier been banned, simply underlines this point.
As a final note, I’ve got to query the ‘U’ rating given to the film by the British Board of Film Classification. ‘U’ stands for universal, or suitable for all. Given the surreal nature of the movie, plus the sense of menace generated throughout, there’s no way I’d let anyone under the age of 10 watch it. Equally though, I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in politics, as it’s a damning indictment of everything wrong with authoritarian governments and those who go along with them. In this sense The Party and the Guests is a better anti-communist film then anything the Americans ever managed.
Here is a brief clip where the guests quickly confirm their commitment to democracy while the dissenter remains silent: