The Joke, Jaromil Jires
Jaromil Jires’, The Joke is arguably one of the Czech New Wave’s most highly politicized films. As might be expected, it was immediately banned upon the Soviet reinvasion of Prague in August of 1968. When Alexander Dubcek was kicked out of power and Czechoslovakia was taken back into the Soviet sphere of influence, the film was considered so controversial that, although Jires continued to work, it was held from his official filmography.
Like many Czech New Wave films, The Joke can be seen as a film that foregrounds the importance of the individual subject despite the communist insistence on community and the de-emphasis of individuality. Also, like is common of Czech New Wave, the individual in The Joke is caught up in history. The struggle to remain individual against the powerful currents of history and community is a central theme in the film. The main character, Ludvik, struggles to cope with his life and the world around him. He is obsessed and haunted by his past. What he obviously considers the horror and personal devastation of his past is inseparable from the pull of history. The past that Ludvik was forced to suffer through was imposed on him by forces that were far out of his control. Ludvik’s obsession with his past is expressed in the film as much through dialogue and characterization as it is visually through montage editing. Jires uses the language of continuity editing, shot and counter-shot, to visually connect Ludvik, in the present, with the experiences of his past.
The Joke is a film that creates meaning through juxtaposition. Meaningful comparisons are constantly set up through the main character’s, Ludvik’s, perspective. Ludvik’s past is played out through flashbacks. Jires presents the viewer with the image of Ludvik in the present but constantly thinking about and obsessing over the past. A central event in the narrative of the film is the past event of Ludvik being kicked out of the university. The event is played out in three parts. First, Ludvik wrote a postcard to his girlfriend which included a joke. The second is Ludvik’s inquisition by a university board. Third, and lastly, Ludvik is subjected to a university vote that decides his expulsion from college. The result is that Ludvik is kicked out of the university and sent to forced labor in the mines for six years. No small punishment. The audience, though, is presented with each of these past events through flashbacks. Though they are past events, and communicated through flashback, they are simultaneously, through the editing scheme, projected into the present.
The viewer sees Ludvik in the present, in his hotel room, when the flashback to his interview with the board begins. The interview is shown literally from Ludvik’s point of view. The camera takes Ludvik’s vantage point; it shows the scene through his eyes. The board talks into the camera, and when Ludvik speaks, he is not shown, but his voice seems to emanate from the camera itself, as though the viewer is experiencing the event firsthand. To heighten the scene’s impact and to highlight its significance to the main character, the language of continuity editing, of shot and counter-shot, is employed and manipulated. Jires gives the viewer the shot of the board, in the past, the shot of Ludvik’s flashback, or memory, of the board, questioning him. Jires juxtaposes these shots of the board with counter-shots of Ludvik but the counter-shots of Ludvik are not of him in the past at the inquisition but instead of Ludvik in the present, in his hotel room. Through traditional continuity editing the shots are intended to match up and to clarify. However, in The Joke these shots do not match up, and instead of merely clarifying, they tend to complicate. They complicate both the film’s accessibility and Ludvik’s psychology, a central aspect of the film being to represent this interior psychology on the screen. Jires’ manipulation of continuity editing techniques achieves an equation between what is understood as past and present in the film. However, this combining and equating of past and present through flashbacks is made conspicuously clear to be particular to Ludvik. It is Ludvik’s obsession with the past that brings its significance to the foreground in the present. Other juxtapositions in the film render the past and present as being at odds with one another. The irreconcilable differences between past and present are the most significant result of showing them together.
Ludvik’s obsession with the past is intricately tied to his desire for revenge against those who kicked him out of college, sent him to work and forever changed the course of his life. However, it becomes amply clear throughout the course of the film that the past has become irrelevant to all except Ludvik. Ludkik is disconnected from the realities of the present. He is represented as a creepy, dark, brooding, disturbed middle aged man. His personal horror is unfounded in the present, and he is all but lost. When Ludvik finds one of his arch rivals from the past, a man from the board, he sees an opportunity for enacting revenge upon him. Ludvik sleeps with the man’s wife in hopes that he will be devastated to learn of her betrayal. When Ludvik does sleep with her he learns that she is separated from her husband. When the man finally shows up he is accompanied by his girlfriend, a woman half his age. He is wealthy and almost happy to see Ludvik who shrinks in his presence. The past is gone to this man and irrelevant, as it is to everyone around Ludvik. Ludvik’s revenge was in complete futility. Toward the end of the film, Ludvik finally decides to play with an old friend in his band to a crowd of gathered youths. They play old folk songs and standard traditionals. These are songs that represent the past. The crowd, though, doesn’t care. They are loud and disrespectful of the band and their music. The songs are meaningless to this youth that has had such a very different set of experiences than people like Ludvik. It is again reemphasized that the past is obsolete to all except the obsessive and embittered Ludvik. Finally in the film’s finale, a youth who was in love with Helena, the woman who Ludvik slept with, appears to fight Ludvik for having hurt her. Ludvik beats up the youth, and exclaims “it was not you who I wanted to beat up!” and the film ends abruptly. The ending is abrupt and sudden, but appropriate. There is no resolution and no release from the build up. The film’s entire action and course of events culminate in futility. The horrors of Ludvik’s past are unfounded in the present. Ludvik’s particular past, though it haunts him, is meaningless to everyone else. Ludvik is a memento mori, much like his channeling of his vain and futile anger into the fight with the youth, he too is displaced.