A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Ear (Karel Kachyna, 1970)

Radoslav Brzobohaty and Jirina Bohdolová in The Ear
When an older movie I've never heard of by a director I've only vaguely heard of (and whose work I've never seen) turns up on Turner Classic Movies, I feel obliged to check it out. So it was with The Ear, which turns out to be not only a fascinating bit of political history but also unnervingly relevant to our own current political situation. It's not that I expect the United States in 2017 to turn into Czechoslovakia in 1970, but these are anxious times when a film about political paranoia can't help but touch nerves. Karel Kachyna was part of the Czech New Wave, filmmakers like Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, and Jiri Menzel who took advantage of a looser attitude toward dissent on the part of the Communist Party in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, The Ear was made toward the end of that period of relative tolerance, and it was suppressed by the government under pressure from the Soviet Union. It wasn't released until 1989, after the collapse of European communism. It turns out to be a remarkable portrait of a marriage stretched to the breaking point by political tension. Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohaty) is a mid-level official in the Communist Party bureaucracy. He and his wife, Anna (Jirina Bohdolová) come home from a Party function one evening to discover an unlocked gate and other signs that someone has entered their house while they were away. When they also find that the phone doesn't work and the power is off, they suspect the worst: The Party has been snooping. They know the consequences well: exile or imprisonment at the least. They already suspect that their home has been bugged -- they call it "The Ear" -- all along, but figure that it was confined to their bedroom. Ludvik recalls events at the party they have attended and begins to put the worst interpretation possible on them, signs that he's about to be purged. To make matters worse, they haven't been getting along. Anna is an alcoholic and has had an affair. So as Ludvik begins trying to destroy papers that the Party might find incriminating -- burning them and flushing them down the toilet, to the point that he sets the toilet seat on fire -- Anna keeps up a steady stream of resentful accusations. Eventually, they discover that "ears" are everywhere: listening devices tucked in every nook and cranny of the house. Their rancor turns to mutual support and even affection. It turns out that Ludvik is not being purged after all: He's being promoted. But that only causes them to realize that their plight has worsened: If they were under surveillance before, how much more will they be subjected to now? The relationship of Anna and Ludvik has been compared to that of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but with the added political tension, and Brzobohaty and Bohdolová play it brilliantly. The screenplay is by Kachyna and his frequent collaborator Jan Procházka. Cinematographer Josef Illik shoots many scenes as if lit by the candelabra Anna and Ludvik are carrying around the darkened house, creating a visual correlative for the uncertainty that surrounds the couple.