Visiting the local co-op to see his sixteen-year-old son at work, a father barks angrily “That’s not working! That’s just standing and looking!” But there’s a value to standing and looking when you’re employed – as the boy, Petr, is – as a trainee store detective. Miloš Forman’s Black Peter, released on Blu-Ray for the first time by Second Run, is a film that also sees the value in standing and looking. It is quiet, gentle and apparently uneventful, yet it is shot through with a real, painful insight into the experience of teenage life.
Jonathan Owens’ booklet notes that Forman’s Czech films are very different in style from the American ones – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The People vs Larry Flynt – that would bring him international acclaim. They tend to be more low-key, neorealist in style, based around long, unbroken takes. They also avoid any particularly dramatic plot developments, and perversely it’s the lack of any overtly tragic or farcical moments that makes Black Peter so sad and so funny. A Hollywood teen film about a doomed teenage romance would get Nicholas Sparks in to give one of them a terminal illness. In Black Peter, the end of Petr and Pavla’s relationship comes simply from a lack of communication. If nothing else, the film features the most casually heartbreaking conversation about gherkins in cinema history.
Forman’s perspective is close enough to let us know how devastating this is for Petr, while also being objective enough to make us realise it’s come about through the teenagers’ emotional inarticulacy rather than any conscious cruelty or acts of fate. Inarticulacy, that very teenage condition of being tongue-tied at a crucial moment, is the engine of all Black Peter‘s key moments. Sometimes it’s a comic inarticulacy, as in the famous scene where the apprentice bricklayer Čenda tries to intimidate Petr by bellowing “Hello!” over and over again at him. Sometimes it’s a tender inarticulacy, like when Petr and Pavla connect through singing song lyrics at each other. And sometimes, just sometimes, Forman shows that he understands the pleasures of the non-verbal, as in a haunting panning shot of Pavla in the countryside on a summer’s day, with the sun flickering through the trees and no sound other than birdsong. She doesn’t say anything to Petr. She doesn’t need to. It could only spoil the moment.
Owens notes this as one of two “conspicuous visual flourishes” – the other, the very ending, is a startling rupture that each viewer will have to come to their own conclusion about. This doesn’t mean, however, that the rest of the film is flatly shot. As Petr goes about his business in the co-op, the camera adopts a surveillance mode: peering over shelves, panning across crowds of shoppers. Miroslav Hájek’s editing deserves credit for helping to find the film’s comic rhythm; scenes like Petr’s low-speed pursuit of a suspected shoplifter or his boss repeatedly calling him into his office for advice wouldn’t be as funny if they were more rapidly cut.
One of the pieces of advice Petr’s boss gives him is a key to the film’s wider social context. He advises Petr not to wear a uniform as “the customers will know you’re part of the collective”. The idea of being part of the collective – an angering thought for any teenager, let alone one living in a Communist state – is what drives the quiet frustrations of Forman’s film. In a 2000 interview with Robert Fischer included as an extra, Forman admits he wanted to make a film about rebellion, but this was quite impossible in early ’60s Czechoslovakia. Perhaps one of the reasons why Black Peter is such a well-observed film about teenage emotions is that its creator was feeling as pent-up and frustrated as its hero.
Black Peter is too subtle a film to have an antagonist, but Petr often comes into conflict with his father, played wonderfully by Jan Vostrcil, who would go on to appear in both of Forman’s last Czechoslovak films (Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball). Vostrcil’s performance is not only good on its own merits, it also draws new things out of Ladislav Jakim’s Petr. In the co-op or at the dancehall, his quietness is merely hesitant; in front of his father it registers as beaten-down and heartbreakingly introverted. The characterisation of Petr’s father is an early indication of the kind of universal themes that would lead to Forman’s career flourishing outside his home country. “God help us if there’s another war!” is not, after all, a uniquely Czech sentiment.
Second Run’s move to Blu-Ray has seen a serious stepping up in their extras game, and Black Peter is no exception. As well as Owens’s booklet and Fischer’s interview, there’s a full and informative audio commentary by Michael Brooke, and an interview with Pavla Martínková about playing the character who shares her first name. One little anecdote in Fischer’s film might be a skeleton key to Forman’s entire worldview. He says the first films he saw were Disney’s Snow White and a silent film of an opera. Just as he was beginning to wonder what the point of a silent opera was, he says, the entire audience started singing along. The fascination with performance and group behaviour that animates all of his films might have started here.