UCHO (1970)

  • Director: Karel Kachyňa
  • Writers: Screenplay by Karel Kachyňa and Jan Procházka, Story by Jan Procházka
  • Starring: Radoslav Brzobohatý, Jiřina Bohdalová, Jiří Císler, Miroslav Holub, Milica Kolofiková, and Jaroslav Moučka  
  • Accolades: Shown at 1990 Cannes Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on the Criterion Channel

Today marks the Opening Ceremony, if you will, of our World Cinema Winter Festival. Over the next few weeks we plan to feature 19 films from around the world, a number that includes the 16 highest-ranking countries in the medal count of a certain winter-themed sporting event that is about to start, along with three additional “wild card” entries from less wintry continents. If you’re paying attention, at the end we’re hoping to have a vote for the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals at our Winter Festival, so remember your favorites.

Leading off the Winter Festival is a paranoia-laced entry from the old Czechoslovakia. If you have not heard of Ucho (The Ear), that is not particularly surprising, because immediately upon its domestic release in 1970 the Communist government of that country banned the movie and also prevented its release outside its borders. Watching the movie, this is not so surprising. Some films of the Czech New Wave movement, like Milos Forman’s Hoří, Má Panenko, became well-known for the veiled, allegorical criticisms of Communism that they were able to get past the censors. Ucho is not that, and watching it I was honestly left wondering how anyone involved could have had any expectation of getting away with this. There’s no veiled allegory, just criticism. It seems suicidal. In 1989, however, the regime fell and the next year Ucho suddenly appeared on the world stage, even being nominated for awards at Cannes as if it was a new movie.

Ucho might be described as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? behind the Iron Curtain,” but that is also, of course, an oversimplification. We start with a prominent party official (Radoslav Brzobohatý) and his angry, drunk wife (Jiřina Bohdalová) returning home from a party to their cavernous, if somewhat ramshackle, house, where, amidst the constant bickering, they start to realize something weird is going on. Why is their power out but nobody else on the block? Why are there three guys in trench coats standing out on the street? What happened to the spare house keys? It comes out that the husband’s boss recently disappeared, and officially no one is saying why. Over time, they start finding tiny microphones around their house, and panic starts to set in.

This is intercut with scenes from the party itself, a Communist function where the Party head shows up and gives a banal speech in the middle of forced frivolity. At one point, several drunk party guests start leapfrogging each other, which seems like the sort of thing that people actually having a good time would not do but people wanting everyone to think they are having a good time would do. Other than these scenes, Ucho is mostly a two-hander between the handsome-but-terrified Brzobohatý and Bohdalová as his wife. She knows what to say to hurt him, but she is hardly in denial about what is going on. Her reaction is just more bitter and angry, while his is desperate and fearful.

One thing I’ve mentioned here a few times is my belief in illuminating the general through the specific. One does not need to have lived under Communism or another oppressive regime to understand what director Karel Kachyňa is going for in Ucho, because, yes, the general feelings of paranoia ring true, but also because we are able to relate to them through the very recognizable feelings experienced by two people who feel very real. I would argue that Kachyňa is use the specifics of these drunk people’s marriage to bring us into that feeling of, not only deep paranoia, but deep paranoia where, if your fears were to actually be realized, you pretty much could do nothing about. Yet I also think that it’s important that we don’t really know, at least in a way I picked up on, why this particular guy would have attracted the Party’s attention. There’s no revelation of something he did wrong, of hidden political leanings, or anything of that sort. The most that we get is maybe he was too closely associated with his boss, but we don’t know what the former boss did, either, if anything.

Perhaps surprisingly considering the total ban placed on this film, Kachyňa mostly kept working, directing a few dozen films over the next few decades, but they were pretty exclusively small domestic dramas without any political content whatsoever. One gets the sense that he was ordered to cease doing anything like Ucho, or else. The movie did, it seems, cost him his teaching post at an arts college in Prague, a position for which he would be re-hired after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Strangely, had it not been for Ucho’s tumultuous history, Kachyňa might today be forgotten entirely outside his home country, but the movie’s sudden, late appearance on the world stage has likely caused more people to see it, in the end, than otherwise would have in places with more vowels in their names. Ucho is now by far his best known work, and, at least partially because of that history, is on the 1,001 Films to See Before You Die list, which is where I found it for its inclusion here. I would recommend it, not only because it has something to say, but because, while making a movie about people in danger from an oppressive regime, the movie itself seems so heedless of its own danger. It’s an interesting mix.

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