I Witnessed the Rise and Fall of Possibly the Last Social Utopia
Rajko Grlić: It was an early spring afternoon, the middle of April or so, in 1968. A large number of people gathered at Old Town Square, in the middle of the old Prague, their eyes lifted to the northern balcony where Dubček, the leader of the Prague Spring, was to appear and make his first public speech. The crowd was overwhelmed.
At the same time, at the opposite south side of the same square, a rather small group of people, mostly writers, actors, painters and directors was standing and waiting… They were looking at another balcony on which, at the same time when Dubček stepped on his, an old Prague tramp appeared.
Dubček’s speech was followed by thunderous approval coming from the crowd. Simultaneously, the tramp started uttering some disconnected phrases, incomprehensible words. On the whole, he was having as much fun as the audience who had brought him there.
That was Prague of 1968 and those were the Czechs. In the moment of huge historical significance, in an irresistible pathetic atmosphere, they played mockery on themselves.
Six months later, when the Russian tanks had already buried the Prague Spring, while retired Dubček was spending his days in a small Slovakian village, I happened to be on the same square. In a somewhat smaller but equally impressive crowd.
It was the day of the October revolution which had been, for already twenty years, celebrated by a military parade. The new presidential leadership had decided to renew the custom to commemorate big holidays by displaying not only Czechoslovakian but USSR flags as well. It was the first time after the occupation that the red flags could be seen in Prague.
Elmir Klos was teaching a class of directing at FAMU. It was dusk and it was drizzling. We heard a round of applause coming from the street. We looked through the window and saw a rather small group of people in front of the National theatre from the front façade of which two big, probably twenty meters long USSR flags were hanging. Several people had managed to reach one of them and, with significant effort, tear it off the façade. The round of applause was dedicated to them and to their success. Soon, the other flag came off, too.
We stopped the class and went out to the theatre. The group started moving. There were two young men at the front who were carrying an orange traffic cone with a revolving twinkling yellow light. The group was moving in silence. It would stop in front of every building with a Soviet flag, perform the same ritual and move on.
It was the first October parade in the Prague under siege. The police weren’t coming. Neither did the Soviet patrols whose jeeps were traversing the town day and night. The procession, which had significantly grown in the meantime, reached Old Town Square and its square on which, six months earlier, Prague Spring had been publicly celebrated for the first time.
The Police decided to interfere. They closed the square and surrounded the crowd. The situation became serious. Armored police buses meant to take away the arrested protesters were brought to the square. A clash could start at any point. Unexpectedly, I found myself in the frontline.
The policeman who was standing right in front of me was a middle-aged benevolent-looking man with a fat belly who spoke in a soft, pleading voice: “ Kids, go home. Do you think I feel like standing here? Please, do go home.” Soon, the crowd split apart without any big incident.
For me, born in the south of Europe where people have been falling for pathos for ages, where blood boils at much lower temperatures, these two scenes, one at the beginning and another at the end of the Prague Spring, served as eye-openers to a whole new world.
Between these two spots, I witnessed the rise and fall of possibly the last social utopia. It was a utopia I believed in, I participated in, and the fall of which determined my “political destiny”. Never since then have I again believed in any politics or any movement led by politics. For me, politics has irrecoverably lost its quality of utopia. I started seeing it for what it basically is: the exchange of goods.
And one additional note: the Prague Spring was not smothered only because the Soviet Union dreaded the impact that the act may have had on the rest of their system’s dependents. It was smothered with a silent but noteworthy “moral” support of the western governments. Neither they did support that mixing between “the black and white world of capitalism and socialism” which set a clear border between the interests of the East and the West, the “cold war game” both sides could profit from.
MRF: How would you compare the rebellion of 1968 in Czechoslovakia and in Yugoslavia?
RG: The students’ protests in Yugoslavia, which occurred mostly in Belgrade and to a lesser extent in Zagreb, represented a complicated sum of local social calamity and an international wish for a spiritual change of system lead by the world of “the adults”.
In Czechoslovakia, “the adults” realized that their system represented a distorted copy of the Russian Empire and that if they wanted to remain in the position of authority, something had to be done. They called it “Socialism with a human face” which is self-explanatory: “Socialism” because they believed that it would guarantee such a social justice – and “with a human face” – because they knew that their socialism has but a little connection with people living within it, with human nature in general.
Only when the Soviets decided to exchange “the Prague utopia” with their own reality on August 21st, did the students’ strike go off in Prague in September. Together with Agnieszka Holland and Srdjan Karanovic, I was in charge of “cultural questions” at the students’ protest at FAMU. Those two weeks spent under siege in Lazan Palace irresistibly resembled a combination of Hašek and Kafka. That time was filled with some bittersweet irony which people in the Central Europa instinctively use in order to protect their own destiny from the unforgiving historical force.
In the course of the events, I filmed “Us, from Prague”, a half-hour documentary, about Yugoslav students at FAMU. Then forbidden, the film has never been released and doesn’t even exist in the television archives. It has simply disappeared.
Several years later, Srdjan Karanovic and I dedicated one of the episodes of his series “The Reckless Years” (“Grlom u Jagode”) to ’68 and the students strike. It was the only episode of the series that has undergone severe censorship.
Any further explanation regarding the differences – based mostly upon the hugely different mentality - between the way Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia survived the ’68 requires much longer analysis and delving into the depths of the most intimate memories. That is why I would now stop.
MRF: How much of an influence were the conceptual art currents of early 70s on Croatian cinema, including your early films, and on culture more generally?
RG: At the beginning of 1970, my studies finished and my professional engagement in film started. I was in Zagreb and I remember how those “ideas of ‘68”, not the political but the artistic ones, of course, slowly but inevitably started turning into “artistic reality”. My friends the painters, who I used to spend most of my time with, started setting up their installations which changed the perception of painting as art. Writers were starting newspapers and magazines, and began writing different kinds of books. First rock and then punk became more than music. The films used to have more and more difficulties to escape their “official reserve”. The only money was to be found in the Ministries of culture, which were strictly controlled.
One of the possible alternative routes was to swindle the administration. That was the method I used to make my first feature film in 1974, “If It Kills Me”(“Kud puklo da puklo”). My script passed the competition of the Ministry of culture but I significantly modified it in the last moment. A decent story got an anarchistic documentary twist. Having realized what was going on, Jadran film, the state’s production company, simply discontinued the filming. However, the film having been very cheap and completely different from anything they had ever done, they eventually let us continue. “Let the children play, we’ll see what we’ll do with it!”, they said and allowed me - and seven of my colleagues, debutants just as well – to enter “the official cinematography”.
There was another thing we learned back then. While Tito was firmly leading Yugoslavia, the Republics were led by the communist party’s central committees, each of which was in charge of the order on its own territory only. In effect, it meant that if you would fall out of grace in your own Republic and were unable to make your films or print your books, you could do it in another Republic. They wouldn’t care much about your activities since you wouldn’t be under their jurisdiction. For that reason, directors from Belgrade (Serbia) started working in Ljubljana (Slovenia), and those from Zagreb (Croatia) in Skopje (Macedonia). Those fleeing across the borders gave birth to some of the most important films of those times.
I applied that method in 1981. At that time, film “You Love Only Once (“Samo jednom se ljubi” – in USA distributed under the name “Melody Hunts My Memory”) got me blacklisted in Zagreb. Since my next film could not be granted at home, we decided to make the film “In the Jaws of Life” (“U raljama života”) – a film more attached to Zagreb milieu than any other of my films – with a Belgrade producer, “Art Film”. And it worked. We managed making Zagreb film in Belgrade production. It was the first film made without any money coming from the state, the film which was within the first three months seen by 1,700,000 people. It represented an amazing breakthrough into the realm of independent filmmaking. Unfortunately, the country soon fell apart.
That was yet another loophole amply used by my generation, at least as far as documentary film is concerned. The then young and inexperienced television had astonishingly nice and cultured people in charge of the so-called “cultural programs”. They used to let us make very ambitious documentaries even though they – as well as us - were aware that the majority of those would face the ban. I made nine documentaries in Zagreb under Angel Miladinov and all of them were forbidden. The same thing happened to my colleagues who were making films in Belgrade under supervision of Zora Korac. It was a great pity not to release the films but also a great luck for us to be able to do things no one would ever let us do anywhere.
As for Croatia, it had its “Croatian Spring” in 1971, a national version of “Prague Spring”. That spring was also interrupted in a rather harsh manner. For many years later it served, as well as the Prague spring, as a “spiritual base” of the dramatic events which followed the fall of the Berlin wall.
MRF: Your father Danko Grlić was a leading member of the Praxis group of philosophers and an organiser of the Korcula Summer School in the 1960s. How do you see the role of Praxis in 1968?
RG: More or less everything I learned in my youth I did in the semidarkness of his library. He was a passionate storyteller, a classic encyclopedic type of erudite, wholesome writer of philosophy, a man of enormous energy and, above all, a person who adored life and lived it to the full. As well as my mother, he went through the worst possible ordeals in a small Balkan country so often slashed by the history. He passed through wars and prisons in many political systems, pleasant childhood in the well-off upper-class family, poverty, the ups and downs. Even in Socialism as a cruel fulfillment of his youthful dreams. Throughout the struggles and prohibitions he never lost his joy and continued passing it on to the others. He was sharing it left and right as if he had known his life would be very short.
I was recently moving my father’s library. For more than a month I was going through thousands and thousands of books, manuscripts and notes, basically through all his life which, in a way, is the life of the people who created Praxis and Korcula Summer School, just as well. For, everything I would find, photographs, notes, 8mm recordings, all of that speaks of an extraordinary friendship that used to connect those people for more than twenty years. They used to spend their Sundays mountaineering, they used to spend their summer holidays together, they used to celebrate any possible occasion and at the same time worked together. And those gatherings, which I clearly remember, were an unusual blend of Dionysian feast, circus attraction and amazingly lucid philosophical repartees. They were, in a word, very cheerful people and only as such were they able to start a magazine and school which, in the middle of the 60ies and the 70ies Socialism drabness kept the little country on the European map of intellectual significance.
I have too much love for my father, for the Praxis editorial as a group of friends and for each and every one of them, in order to be able to give an objective judgment about their role in the intellectual history of south Slavic region. Briefly and objectively – if possible – I see their contribution as enormous and I think its significance has never been fully acknowledged. They were both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of socialism. Their “ruthless criticism of all the existing matters” never humored anyone. Both Praxis and the Korcula Summer School were banned forever. They were the black sheep of socialism which could end up in prison at any point. In the subsequent system, though many of them had already passed away, they turned into even bigger enemies of the new state model. Their analysis of the notion of national was never pardoned by the new national regimes. Moreover, the strictly controlled media of the 90ies threw a stigma upon them which is only lately occasionally lifted by some rare intellectual vagabond who, astounded, discovers their legacy.
And here is how I remember the 1968 and the Korcula Summer School. Somewhere around six o’clock on the 21st of August, my father woke me up saying: “Rajac, the Russians have entered your Prague.” We were sitting in silence listening to morning news on a small transistor radio. Then we went to the Community Center where the school sessions used to be held. The Praxis editorial members quickly wrote a letter of protest and they started signing it. Before long, a long queue was formed. I remember standing right behind Ernest Bloch and a few people behind were Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. That was my closest encounter with the history of philosophy.
Motovun Film Festival, which I started ten years ago with a group of my students, represents my small and private homage to that wise and cheerful Korcula Summer School.
MRF: What was the legacy of 1968, and its failure as a revolution, for the generation that came of age at that time?
RG: The 1968 provided me and my generation with a benchmark in our lives; a mark in time and space according to which we can measure ups and downs of our hopes. We may have been lucky enough not to experience what author Miroslav Krleža mentioned, ominously warning those to come: “You too will see the fulfillment of your dreams!”
Ours did not come true and they are thus now carried by every one of us as a very personal baggage.
MRF: What do you consider to be the most significant films of that epoch?
RG: Here is the list of 25 films I liked at that time:
Sergio Leone: “Once Upon a Time in the West” – ‘68
Rajko Grlić interviewed by Maja and Reuben Fowkes in early 2008.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes