Czech Film

Vlastimil Brodsky: A Dog's Life

Vlastimil Brodsky
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Man's striving for success and status has been the motive-force of American tragicomedy; widespread affluence and social mobility, especially since the Second World War, have served as its backdrop. Of all places, postwar Czechoslovakia would seem to have little in common with the United States. It was a country where individual initiative or limitless horizons were conspicuously absent. And yet tragicomedy flourished here as well. One of its greatest practitioners was Vlastimil Brodsky, who died on April 19 at the age of 81. The film legend, who took his own life, was mourned equally by moviegoers in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the two countries into which his homeland split in 1993.

If notions of success and respectability have been America’s straitjackets, then Czechoslovakia’s were communist rule and the legacies of wartime German occupation. Within these constraints, Brodsky's most memorable characters struggled to find their way. His roles included Jacob Heim, an innkeeper in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland who lifts his neighbors’ spirits by telling false stories of advancing Russian troops (Jacob the Liar, 1974, a Czechoslovak-East German co-production), and Ocenas, a church organist-turned-local communist party chief (All My Good Countrymen, 1968).

Brodsky's final film role—as a pensioner named Frantisek in last year's Babi Leto (Autumn Summer)—earned him his first and only Czech Lion (a prestigious film award), for best actor.

The last of a generation of Czech actors who gained fame just after World War II, Brodsky made his mark on both screen and stage. He acted in more than 100 films and performed for many years at Prague’s Vinohrady Theater. His peers included Rudolf Hrusinsky, known to American viewers as the absent-minded doctor in Jiri Menzel's My Sweet Little Village (1986), and Milos Kopecky, the star of the 1984 release Secret of an Old Attic. Hrusinsky died in 1994, Kopecky in 1996.

This generation shared a common outlook on life, perhaps best captured by the following maxim (attributed to Kopecky): "Humor is the only dignified way to be sad." Indeed, so adept was Brodsky at using humor as a shield that his suicide, at his country home, came as a great shock to friends and acquaintances alike. They mistook his increasingly morbid utterances as mere comic relief.

In one of his last interviews, with Branislav Janik of the Slovak daily Narodna Obroda, Brodsky spoke frankly about his likes and dislikes. "I won't hide the fact that I see a lot of negative things in our society," he said. "I had an implicit faith in politicians after 1989. Gradually, I lost my faith, and I cannot accept what's going on today. I haven't voted, and I won't vote. Sometimes someone will write to me and say that I'm lacking in patriotism. Others believe that since I criticize politicians, I'm a fan of Stalin or [Milos] Jakes [Czechoslovakia's last communist leader]. Still others condemn me for my morbid humor."

Discontent, however, never led to political engagement. In fact, if his own words are to be trusted, passive resistance was his favorite mode of expression. "I thought about emigrating, but with my profession I probably wouldn't have made it. In the 1950s, I began to realize that something was the matter. The year 1968 revived my hopes, but then things took a turn for the worse. I couldn't find the strength or even the courage to emigrate."

In Jacob the Liar and All My Good Countrymen, Brodsky played characters likewise trapped by circumstances. Jacob Heim is a man born of the wrong faith in the midst of Nazi occupation. Powerless to save his coreligionists from Nazi designs, he can offer little more than fanciful stories of the outside world, supposedly captured by his illicit radio receiver. Jacob's fate, along with that of the rest of the Jewish community, remains an open question. Yet his elaborate lies—and his often-humorous efforts to conceal the fact that he has no radio—lend a bitter irony to the film's conclusion. The film closes with a shot of the sky as seen from the train bringing Jacob and other Jews to a death camp.

By contrast, Ocenas is a man in step with his times. Immediately after the war, he is shown leading a group of parishioners in a song celebrating Comrade Joseph Stalin's glories, only to switch to a more conventional hymn when the village priest drops by.

Three years pass, and the communists come to power. Ocenas no longer has to hide his beliefs. Instead he becomes—appropriately enough—the local party chairman (his name means "our father"). Gathering around himself the few who count as the local party faithful, he sets about appropriating farmland and workshops for the common good. Yet the lot of history's protagonist proves no easier than that of history's victim. By his actions, Ocenas earns the wrath of the villagers, and he is forced to flee the town he briefly led.

By all accounts, the real-life Brodsky had none of Ocenas’s ruthless ambition. His down-to-earth manner endeared him to the townspeople of Slunecna, a tiny village in Northern Bohemia where he had a cottage. “He visited here for over 30 years,” Marie Sourkova, his neighbor, told the Czech daily Pravo. “He was a terribly modest and kind man. Everyone here liked ‘Brod.’” Sourkova learned of his death when she brought him fresh bread and a newspaper, as she did every morning.

Another resident, Ladislav Pachta, said: “People are surprised that he took his own life, because from what we could tell, he was in fine spirits in Slunecna. The things he would say, that he was already old and would soon die, we didn’t take them seriously.”

Brodsky lived out his last days as though enacting his role in Babi Leto, resisting the stereotypes of old age while nevertheless preparing for the inevitable. In retrospect, his last words convey a sense of gloomy finality. He told Janik that Babi Leto was not his “heretofore” last movie, but indeed his final film. He expressed regret that he wouldn’t be able to read his own post mortems to gain insight into himself.

“In a future life, I’d like to be my own dog, Hugo,” Brodsky concluded. “We have a completely selfless friendship. There’s no jealousy; he never asks me with whom I’ve been. I don’t know a more tolerant creature. Actually, I’d rather have him constantly in my arms, like baby Jesus. When I’m sleeping, he licks my face, as though trying to soothe a wound. I’m afraid that when I die, he’ll devour me by morning.”