The Slovak-born director Juraj Herz has a career in film and television that spans more than 35 years, working mainly in Prague but also in Slovakia, Germany and France. Although he first came to prominence in the 1960s, his work stands apart from that of other Czech and Slovak New Wave directors, and Herz has been far more willing to work in—or, perhaps, it is better to say around—set genres.
Despite the stylistic range of films he has worked on, horror motifs and use of the grotesque have been a recurrent feature of his work, and particularly in his most widely known films: Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968), a black comedy about the Final Solution; Morgiana (1971), which blends art noveau and the Gothic; and Pasáž (Passage, 1996), a Kafkaesque film that has invited favourable comparisons with Otto e mezzo (Fellini's 8 1/2, 1963).
Herz's eccentric vision is now attracting increasing critical attention, and several small retrospectives of his work have been held. Most recently, the director was the special focus of a season of Czech horror films organised by the London Czech Centre.
Kinoeye met Herz in Prague last December to discuss his work. Elegant and charming—and with a persona that is quite different to what you'd expect from a director of such morbid films—Herz revealed his tale of the ups and downs of his career.
Your first film Sběrné surovosti (1965) was originally created as a part of the Perličky na dně (Pearls of the Deep, 1965), the so-called "manifesto of the Czech New Wave." It's your only adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's prose, yet in his texts there are the kind of grotesque stylisations, bizarre motifs and ambiguous scenes that seem to be close to your conception of film. Did you have any plans to make another Hrabal adaptation?
I have to admit that one year before I started work on Perličky na dně I got a [Hrabal] script from Václav Nývlt. I didn't know Hrabal then, because his books had not been published yet. When I'd finished reading the script, I thought that Nývlt was teasing me. I didn't understand it at all, so I couldn't film it, and I refused the project. But I think that they wouldn't have let me make this film at that time anyway.
Jaromil Jireš came to me later and handed me Perličky na dně [Hrabal's collection of short stories published in 1963], which I liked a lot. Hrabal also gave me a novel to read that he was just getting ready to publish, called Ostře sledované vlaky [Closely Watched Trains, 1965]. I wanted to film it, but Evald Schorm, a founder of our generation who commanded great respect from all of us, told me that he would like to do it. So, I left it to Evald. I didn't hear about the project for about a month, and then suddenly I found out that Jirka Menzel was working on it, which was a little upsetting.
Your first feature film Znamení raka (The Sign of Cancer, 1967) is a psychological detective drama. Within the context of the period and the Czech New Wave, it is quite an unusual genre. Why did you decide on a detective story as your first film?
It was very easy. I made four films as an assistant director. The first two I made with Zbyněk Brynych and the next two with Ján Kadár. Brynych brought to my attention a book by Hanka Bělohradská called Poslední večeře [The Last Supper, 1966], which I quickly filmed and named it Znamení raka. Hanka Bělohradská was a nurse. Her book was interesting, not because of the environment of the hospital, but because of the mutual relationships there. It tells about the relationships between Communists who were installed in their high positions, doctors who become alcoholics and also senile professors who led the clinic. The murder that happens in the hospital is only a catalyst that unmasks the mutual relationships between the doctors and patients, patients and doctors. I was interested in these relationships more than the murderer.
The film almost finished in catastrophe, because the doctors who were irritated by the film character of an unqualified doctor-Communist (played by Ilja Prachař) were against the film, and they almost got it banned. If it hadn't been for [the intervention of] Professor Charvát, a friend of Zdeněk Štěpánek [the lead actor in the film] and also the chief of the clinic where we filmed, the film wouldn't have made it to cinemas.
But even this didn't help because there were lots of erotic scenes in the film that were also forbidden at the time. There was a doctor masturbating and a rape, and they cut all this out. In 1968, I was able to film these scenes again in Italy for an Italian producer, but I didn't have the opportunity to do the editing. I have never seen the final version, but I guess that it was done in a very commercial way.
At the end of the sixties you made your famous films Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968), Petrolejové lampy (The Oil Lamps, 1970) and Morgiana.
I made Petrolejové lampy in 1970 when Normalisation was starting. We avoided the recent period by using a story from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The administration didn't look on it very favourably. But they still let me make my next film Morgiana . Morgiana was supposed to be a completely different film than the one you know. It was based on a story by Aleksandr Grin, a [Russian] writer who died of hunger. He became an outcast, and lived in a park where he shot crows with a home-made bow to get something to eat.
The film is about two sisters, one good and one bad, played by one actress, Iva Janžurová. Why's that? Because where the film ends should have been just half-way through. In the middle of the original story, the good sister wakes up and she asks for her sister. But they tell her that she doesn't have one. It should be a schizophrenic story about a person who has a good and also a bad side. The administration couldn't accept that and they got rid of the whole second part of the story, and in addition I had to follow the first part through according to Grin.
After all was said and done, I received the Gold Hugo in Chicago for the film, which was very surprising. The Communists told me about this award seven years later, and something was written in a newspaper about it. Within a couple of weeks, somebody had broken into my studio and stolen the Gold Hugo because they thought it was made from real gold.
Was the international success of the film Spalovač mrtvol a help for your next work or was it a deadweight in Communist Czechoslovakia?
I heard about a book with an interesting title, Spalovač mrtvol, written by Ladislav Fuks. So I read it and I was actually disappointed. But I arranged a meeting with Fuks anyway, and we worked on the script for about two years. During shooting, it became clear that this was a unique chance which wouldn't come again. It was in 1968, and I had absolute liberty in my work. I could film whatever I wanted to. In Spalovač mrtvol, I was fascinated by the humour. I went to various projections of the film in many different countries, from the Netherlands to Naples, and I was keen to see how the reactions of the audience were completely different in every country. In Prague, people were depressed; in Slovakia, they laughed; in the Netherlands, it was a comedy from the beginning to the end; in Italy, the spectators went from the cinema right to the bar because cremation is just impossible, awful and unacceptable in their country.
After that, I filmed Petrolejové lampy and Morgiana. With Morgiana there was another problem, because the head dramaturg Ludvík Toman said that it was a sadomasochist film and it had to be banned. I was forbidden to make films for the next two years. In the end, the Russians saved me, which was kind of ironic. They saw Morgiana and they were excited that it was based on the novel of a Russian author. So, after two years I could film again.
You are often considered as a horror director. How do you see the horror genre within Czech cinematography?
For me, the typical horror film is a chainsaw massacre. And, of course, this wasn't possible to do during the Socialist era. I tried to derogate the scenes and use humour, because it largely counter-balances the horror. Humour was also a way to smuggle the film into approbation and projection. So it was very wilful to combine fright with humour. I think that you can see this best in Spalovač mrtvol. And I also think that horror by itself cannot exist. People need to take a breath during the projection and when there is no humour in the film they find it anyway and they laugh at scenes that the director didn't create as funny.
Your film Straka v hrsti (A Magpie in the Hand, 1983) was put in a "safe" for thirteen years. How did it influence your career?
Straka v hrsti was based on a script written by a forbidden author of those times, Antonín Přidal. We wrote it the way that the whole administration of Barrandov [Studios Prague] thought that it was supposed to be—a medieval fairytale. The studio director wanted to give me 20 million crowns because he thought that when it is medieval it has to be expensive because of all the decoration and costumes, but I asked him only for four million to create it my way. So they let me do whatever I wanted, they didn't control me, and all of us knew that it would be an enormous disappointment when they saw it.
I had never seen such a horror in the eyes of the administration when they saw the projection of the unedited film, because they had been expecting a fairytale. Instead of a fairytale they saw a stylised, unintelligible film with naked women and with the music of a hated rock group, Pražský výběr. The film was banned.
The film was the last straw for me and I decided to leave the country. After the film Straka v hrsti, it was immediately forbidden to me to make any other films. But at least I got an offer to make a film in Slovakia, it was just a stupid comedy called Sladké starosti [Sweet Cares, 1984] that surprisingly became one of the most famous Slovak comedies.
Even though you say you had been forbidden to film, you made another film called Zastihla mě noc (Night Caught up with Me, 1986), set in a concentration camp.
Yes, I was browsing in Film a doba [a leading Czech film journal] and there was a story by Jaromíra Kolárová, with whom I was forbidden to work [because of a previous film]. And I saw one word, Ravensbrück. So I read the story. Ravensbrück was a concentration camp where I was put when I was ten. So I went to the director of Barrandov and I told him I wanted to film this story. I completely rewrote it and filmed it the way I saw the camp. I decided to do it about Kafka's girlfriend, Milena Jesenská. I came to know from the prisoners in the concentration camp that what was attributed as happening to Jabůrková in fact happened to Jesenská, who was against Communism (in the beginning she was a Communist but then she visited the Soviet Union and she found out that it was a load of humbug). So I made the film about Jesenská, and not Jabůrková, which the administration didn't know.
The film was surprisingly well-received by the audience even in the West, because the intellectual West was leftist. Even the studio director clapped me on my back and told me: "So finally you turned out well, and now you can do big films. Your next film will be 'Charles the Fourth.'" And I thought he could go to hell, because I had everything ready to leave for Germany. I'd met Terezka, my second wife, and I'd told her I wanted to leave. I was in Germany for twelve years and then I came back to the Czech Republic.
You mentioned that some scenes that you shot in the film Zastihla mě noc (1986) appeared in Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List (1993).
When I was in the concentration camp, I experienced one scene. The first day I came into the concentration camp they undressed us and sent us into the showers. There were only a few children and the rest were men who started a terrible panic. At that time, it was already known what the showers meant. I was there looking at the panic-stricken adults and I knew there was no gas in the tubes because there were glass windows in the room. It would be easy to break them and let the gas out. So I knew it couldn't be a gas chamber. After a while, water started to come out from the tubes, and all the men were screaming that it is just water and not gas.
This scene you know from Spielberg. But ten years before him, I shot this scene with women, in the film Zastihla mě noc. Spielberg copied the scene shot by shot from me. Also, the scene in Spielberg's film doesn't make any sense. I had two main characters in the showers, but in Schindler's List this is just an unrelated episode. I read the novel Schindler's List, and there is no such a scene. I asked for the script and there is also no scene like that there. I met an American lawyer and I sent him my scene and Spielberg's scene on videotape. He responded to me with a question: Why did I send him one scene from Schindler's List twice? When I explained to him the situation, he told me that I would win the lawsuit for sure, but I would have to put into it a hundred or two hundred dollars. I would get the money back, but I would have to have it in the beginning. So I had to leave it.
I think that the film Zastihla mě noc is my greatest horror. It is a real horror. There is no blood, but it is unwatchable for people with weak nerves. It is the atmosphere I experienced. There are two directors who experienced and filmed Auschwitz. One is Wanda Jakubowska and the other one is me. I wanted to make a black comedy from the concentration camp from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, but nobody wanted to produce it. The only country who wanted to do this project, but didn't have the money, was Israel. We went to Israel to meet the "boys" I was with in Ravensbrück. Terezka was completely horrified, because we were telling stories from the concentration camp from morning till evening, and we laughed all the time. All of the comic, absurd stories drown the bad times.
Your most recent feature film Pasáž (Passage, 1996) is based on the same concept as Jan Švankmajer's film Lekce Faust (Faust, 1994). The main character finds a mysterious building, he walks through its strange labyrinth and he ends up being hit by a car when he tries to escape. Is it an accidental similarity or is it a wilful reference?
Jan Švankmajer is my old friend and schoolmate. We studied together, we were in the army together, and we also worked in Semafor after the army. We are born on the same day, month and year. All his films I saw, in two of them I played, but I never saw Lekce Faust. We have similar thinking, we did some plays together. I helped him in his first films; he helped me with my films. He did the set design for Deváté srdce [The Ninth Heart, 1978], and his wife did the subtitles. We are connected in some way. So it was just an accidental similarity.
But Pasáž was a real disappointment. No other film was such a failure for me. In the Czech Republic, the reviews were very bad. The film was in cinemas for only about a week, because we had a bad distributor. But, I was at eleven film festivals (the film was at many more, but I was at eleven) from Palm Springs to Toronto, and it had great reviews where they said that "Bergman and Fellini shake hands," or that "it is the best Kafka-style film in the history of cinematography." Thanks to this film, I had lots of offers to make films in the West. In France, it was a great success; only here was it a catastrophe. I don't know, maybe it came at the wrong time, but since then I have not filmed.
Ivana Košuličová, 14 January 2002
This interview is a shortened version of one originally published in a special issue of Kinoeye devoted to Czech horror. Visit:
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1. Down to the Cellar: Horror and fantasy in the Czech Cinema, held at the Riverside Studios, 23-25 November 2001. Herz, as the "most notable exponent" of Czech horror, was due to introduce his films and appear at a public discussion. Due to concerns about flying in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 in the US, he cancelled the trip. ^
2. The punning title is untranslatable. The common phrase "sběrné suroviny" translates as "scrap materials," presumably alluding to Hrabal's use of overheard fragments of conversation. "Sběrné surovosti" itself literally translates as "scrap brutalities." ^