Ever since its beginnings, cinema has been linked to literature. But, despite the long-standing influence of the latter on the former, the problems of adapting a written work for the screen are many, and no other style of film-making has been more full of potential pitfalls. And the more intensely literary the book, the harder it often is to translate into moving pictures.
Vladmír Michálek, therefore, must be a brave man to attempt to put on celluloid Jáchym Topol's 1995 novel of drug- and alcohol-addled love and betrayal, Anděl (literally "Angel," but in this case a reference to a Prague Metro stop), which for the film version becomes Anděl Exit (2000). Topol's first novel Sestra (City Sister Silver), published last year in English translation in the United States (the British publication occurs later this year), has already attracted comparisons with Finnegan's Wake from American reviewers for its encapsulation of street life, with the roughness of language as it is really spoken in a highly literary prose form. Clearly, if there is a difficult contemporary Czech novelist who stands out as being equally difficult to adapt for the screen, Topol is the one.
Fortunately, Michálek is not only experienced at the task of converting paper works to moving images, having shot Franz Kafka's novel Amerika as his first film (in 1994), but he is also good drinking buddies with Topol himself and the poet and novelist collaborated with Michálek on the screenplay. In fact, this is the pair's second collaboration: the first being Michálek's "The Cards Are Dealt" episode in the five-part Praha Očima... (Prague Stories, 1999).
High as kites
The substance of Anděl Exit is very much one of a bad trip. Mikeš, a hip drifter, is set to kick his drug addiction once and for all. His
The relationship between Kája and Mikeš becomes ever more strained, culminating in a viscious argument which ends in knives being drawn and considerable bloodshed. In the aftermath of the argument, Mikeš finds he has accidentally made a drug which gives the ultimate high. The stuff is so powerful that it attracts an impossibly large order from the local mafia. Mikeš cannot replicate the serendipitous discovery and flees, first with Kája and then abandoning her to return to Prague 5 and Jana.
Despite the fact that Jana, who is pregnant, seems prepared to forgive his folly, his troubles are far from over. Jana is rushed to hospital when her pregnancy undergoes complications, Lukáš threatens to kill the baby if Mikeš doesn't go back into drug production and Kája catches up with him, desperately trying to recover the hit she once had.
A cold view
Topol has no desire to romanticise Prague, something which, historically, Czech film has been very keen to do. Previous Czech films which have shown the country's capital in its true colours have either met with a wave of negative reaction from audiences (for example, Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora, 1997, which exposed Prague's sickenly active child prostitution scene), been ignored (Ivo Trajkov's truly innovative Minulost / The Past, 1998) or diluted the impact of gritty realism by wrapping it up in "crazy situations" (David Ondříček's Samotáři / Loners, 2000). The Czech film magazine Kinofil, for example, approvingly noting that Topol had removed most of the original book's screwball craziness for the screenplay, intoned that Czech audiences are fed up to the teeth with such whacky comic capers. Topol's reappraisal of Prague is, therefore, timely.
The film, though, is no mere representation of a city as an architectural ensemble. Topol's script is a sardonic analysis of the urban experience and
If Anděl Exit has one weakness, though, it is that the microscopic level of
This all makes Anděl Exit something of a mixed bag—disappointing on some levels and absolutely exhilarating on others. But the disappointments
Whether Anděl Exit will make its mark on the international scene is another matter. Lacking in any form of optimism and deliberately demanding in its presentation, Anděl Exit is not easy watching, and it is hard to appreciate its genuine merits without understanding the context it has come from. At its core, though, the urban experience is a global one and being parochial is the last thing this film could be accused of.
Either way, it will be interesting to watch how Czech cinema responds to the gauntlet Michálek and Topol have thrown down.
Andrew James Horton, 29 January 2001
Also of interest:
- Read the first chapter of Jáchym Topol's City Sister Silver
- Read Caroline Kovtun's review of Jáchym Topol's City Sister Silver
- Read Caroline Kovtun's review of Tomáš Weiss's interviews with Jáchym Topol
- Reading Topol: A list of available literature
- Kinoeye Archive of articles on Central and East European cinema
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and East European cinema through CER
- Return to CER front page