All My Good Countrymen
A rural, bawdy, political epic with magical realist fringes, full of drinking, singing and close-ups on weathered peasant faces, Vojtěch Jasný’s 1968 film All My Good Countrymen is exactly the sort of thing some people think of when you talk about classic European cinema. Following the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of seven friends over the years 1945 to 1968, it’s actually exactly the kind of carnivalesque vision of recent history Emir Kusturica was criticised for applying to his native Serbia during the Milošević era. Jasný’s politics, though, are unambiguously anti-totalitarian and much less troubling for it.
Not that the film wasn’t subject to controversy. Upon the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it joined a list of four films the authorities said should be banned forever. Given that the other films on the list included now-unanimously acclaimed classics like The Firemen’s Ball and The Party and the Guests, this could be seen as a recommendation in and of itself. Even during the ‘Prague spring’ of liberal reforms Jasný was aware that the film he was shooting would be controversial in its attack on Communist policies. He felt emboldened to make this film, one he had dreamed of for over a decade, when the reformist Czechoslovak president Alexander Dubček gave the script his personal approval.
If you want a snapshot of what the Soviet invasion did to the Czechoslovakian people’s national mood, compare All My Good Countrymen with Bohemian Rhapsody, the short film Second Run have included as a DVD extra. Bohemian Rhapsody was completed just one year after the feature, and it shares a lot with All My Good Countrymen. The two films even end during the same Czech folk festival. Yet the mood of Bohemian Rhapsody is so at odds with the main feature. It is flat, defeated, depressed, showing wave after wave of crushed, aimless people walking across barren fields to an uncertain future. The music, so rambunctious in All My Good Countrymen, is now a series of funeral dirges. Jasný kept the political commentary as subtext, not wanting another ban. It was banned anyway, and its despair is hard to read as anything other than a reaction to the invasion.
Despite the misfortunes that befall a lot of the characters, All My Good Countrymen is far from a despairing film. Even in its saddest segments, such as the ones depicting the nationalisation of the village farms, it has an energy, a vivacity, and a revitalising sense of justice and righteousness. Each chapter in this 23-year saga is introduced by a montage of plants and animals, and the message is clear; even dictatorships will be outlived by nature. (These montages are especially cherishable in the new restoration, prepared especially for this disc from the original materials, making this one of the most visually beautiful things Second Run have ever put out)
All My Good Countrymen is above all a film about cultural identity, beginning with a strange hymn that mixes Christian, Darwinist and pro-Soviet sentiments and ending with an eruption from the country’s pagan past – a metaphor for the hopes Jasný had for Dubček’s pro-democracy reforms. In between, drinking songs are sung and Jasný’s camera lingers on religious icons. The obvious implication is that even a dictatorship can’t keep a lid on a cultural mix as rich and fertile as this. Thankfully, this proved to be true. Less than half a century after it was banned for all eternity, All My Good Countrymen is available for us all to see, and feel the power and joy of its resistance.
All my Good Countrymen is available from 23rd November 2015 on Second Run DVD.
ALL MY GOOD COUNTRYMEN was also reviewed on EPISODE 45 of CINEMA ECLECTICA titled GASPER NO WAY! – you can subscribe here