Vol 0, No 11
7 December 1998
Slovakia Discovered (Part III)
Juraj Jakubisko's Sedim na konari a je mi dobre
Andrew James Horton
With all the excitement that 1989 brought with it to Central Europe, it's all too easy to forget how it was that a large chunk of Europe managed to get lumbered with an ideology as unpopular as Communism in the first place. Juraj Jakubisko's 1989 film Sedim na konari a je mi dobre (I'm Sitting on a Branch and I'm Fine) shown as part of the recent Slovakia Discovered festival in London allows to see how one revolutionary generation viewed another.
In common with other films documenting the era, such as Vojtech Jasny's Vsichni dobri rodaci (All My Good Countrymen, 1968) or Goran Paskaljevic's Vreme cuda (Time of Miracles, 1990), Jakubisko's film deals with characters who innocently become caught up in the idealism of communism only its practical side see it turn against them.
Pepe and Prengel are two happy-go-lucky scoundrels, wandering around in the aftermath of World War II. Their desperate search for food leads them to steal a bicycle which, it transpires, has stolen Jewish gold hidden inside its frame. They take the gold to Prengel's hometown, where they settle down in the deserted house of a Jewish baker and deeply infatuated they give the gold to a girl they assume to be Ester, the baker's daughter, who has regressed back to a childlike state from the shock of enforced service in a Nazi brothel.
The gold brings those who hold it bad luck. Ester is murdered by the band who hid the gold in the bicycle in the first place, whereupon the gold is given to her daughter, Esterka. A light-fingered postman is blown up by a remaining German landmine and a Communist official whose raw passion was previously spurned by Pepe in favour of Ester's passive mysterious sensuality packs Esterka's "two daddies" off to prison and places Esterka in an orphanage to brought up as a good citizen of the new society.
On being released the two daddies are reunited with Esterka. To celebrate they indulge in one of their favourite pastimes - tree-climbing. As they climb the branches they grow progressively older until Pepe and Prengel are grey-haired and Esterka looks like a happy reincarnation of her mother. The camera recedes up into the air to reveal the trio in the highest branches of a tree looking out over the stunning Slovak countryside, glowing in the evening sun.
What is interesting about Sedim na konari a je mi dobre is not the story it tells about Czechoslovakia in the post-war era, but the story it tells about post-1989 Slovakia. When in the film the Communists take part in the 1948 elections Pepe and Prengel are eager to lend a hand in the election campaign. Being firm believers in social justice, they of course are glad to support the Communists and thus drive around in a converted armoured vehicle with a gingerbread bust of Stalin perched on top and offer free gingerbread hearts to everyone.
It would surely be easy to fall for their promise that one day, everything will belong to everyone and soon it will be wine or even champagne they are giving away for free, not gingerbread. Such exuberance can only be explained as a naive fantasy, reacting to the bitter bleakness of the tragic years of war. Desperation leads them to seek out radical solutions and their optimism is so unfounded that they can only be disappointed. Eventually they find that they can only be happy when completely removed from politics and society, either in the secluded bakery in the woods or high up on a branch, where as the smug and complacent title of the film suggests, they are fine.
Bearing in mind the film was made in 1989, we can draw some interesting observations about the future of Slovak politics at that time and the prevailing political attitudes. Whilst Pepe and Prengel offered wine and champagne, 1989 offered MTV, Coca Cola and McDonalds. Can we really say the later was any more realistic than the former? Prices in Slovakia have skyrocketed while wages have for all but a small entrepreneurial class remained more or less static.
Surveys are increasingly showing, and not just in Slovakia, that the Communist era is looked back on with a degree of nostalgia, and many people perceive that they were better off in that period. Many Slovaks now complain about the price of milk, nevermind the cost of a BigMac and fries. Doubtless their disappointment is a not so different from those who believed Stalinism would pull Czechoslovakia out from the rubble of the Second World War.
Opting out of the system
Removal of yourself from the system was undoubtedly a way of coping with the harshness of Communism. Jakubisko's film makes Pepe and Prengel's isolationism look positively admirable in the context, and I would not be one to disagree. However, was this really an appropriate strategy for coping with the harshness of capitalism? Jakubisko obviously thinks so, since he performed the ultimate Slovak method for removing yourself from a political system - emigration.
He now lives and works in Prague and during the Meciar days, went on record as saying he was happy to be living in a country where you didn't have to worry about politics, perhaps implying that he had absolved himself of fighting for his country's future. Jakubisko is by no means alone on this branch. Recent research has shown that most young people in Slovakia have little interest in politics and see emigration as an answer to the problems they encounter in the society they live in.
Even the sexual plane in Sedim na konari a je mi dobre glorifies retreat and non-involvement. Both men fall for Ester, whom the horrors of war have infantilised. Pepe fantasises of her as a wild cat-like sexual play-thing, crawling around the house naked, driven by desire and not exactly after a chat. It is hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that Pepe and Prengel are drawn by the fantasy of a woman who will satisfy their sexual desires but with whom they won't have to go through all the tedious business of conversation.
Pepe after all has Prengel to talk to and doesn't see his ideal woman as someone to provide him company. Indeed, when a beautiful, but conversational woman, throws herself at Pepe, he rejects her proactive approach to love, sex and socialising. When Ester dies, the pair's feelings are transferred to her daughter, who is equated with her mother in the closing sequence. Esterka is everything a father could want in a daughter, and what a lot of misogynists fantasise about in a woman: young, attractive, faithful and obedient.
This attitude to women is very similar to that in Abram Room's silent classic Tretia Meshchanskaia (Bed and Sofa, 1926), the difference being that in Room's film the heroine doesn't stand for being messed around and packs her bags and leaves the two men to play chess with each other and realise that they are rotters.
With such an attitude to life, the last decade of Slovak political life suddenly becomes horrifyingly understandable. As problem set in, many retreated to their branches and refused to get involved, thus allowing Slovak politicians to rule unrestrained.
All is not bleak, though. Jakubisko captures the spirit of 1989 and the early nineties perfectly, but things have changed since then. The current trend in the political thinking of society is towards engagement. This reached its greatest manifestation when the Slovak elections this September produced an amazing 85% turnout of eligible voters fighting for what they believed in.
This active approach might be connected with a new non-governmental organisation Foundation for a Civil Society, which started a "voter motivation" campaign, just one piece of evidence that Slovaks are increasingly using non-governmental organisations as a means of shaping society, rather than sitting back on their branches and moaning that the government is doing a terrible job. In this respect, Sedim na konari a je mi dobre is an out-dated film. What direction Slovak male fantasies have taken since 1989, though, I am not qualified to comment on.
Andrew James Horton, 7 December 1998
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