Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2019

Report by Alyda Faber, member of the Ecumenical Jury

This report gives a detailed analysis of Lara and Let There Be Light, the films which received, respectively, the Ecumenical Jury prize, and a commendation.  Three other films that especially impressed the Ecumenical Jury are also discussed.  The Jury included Peter Sheehan, Australia (Chairperson), Alyda Faber, Canada (Secretary) and Martin Horálek, Czech Republic.

The film festival invites us home

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) has a unique feel to it—that of being invited into a family home, and, as guests, being permitted to hear stories that mark this family, this place. 

This feeling seems to stem partly from the long dedication of the President of the Festival, Jiří Bartoška, and the humour and cinematic storytelling of the Artistic Director, Karel Och, for example, of the struggle of a guest trying to eat a popular appetizer, half an egg placed on a slippery splash of mayonnaise on a too small round of toast. It may also have to do with the rescreening of important films in Czech cinema history, The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia 1969), banned for decades, and the first film in a new style post-Velvet Revolution, Requiem for a Maiden (Requiem pro panenku, Filip Renč, Czechoslovakia, 1991), along with films about Czech social and cultural history.  These included, among others, Jan Palach (Robert Sedláček, Czech Republic, Slovak Republik, 2018), which creates a context but few answers for Palach’s protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, setting himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in January 1969, and films about Czech artists and the complexity of the decision to stay (Jiří Suchý—Tackling Life with Ease, Olga Somerová, Czech Republic, 2019) or to leave during the Communist era, a decision taken by Milos Forman, director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, among other films (Forman vs. Forman, Helena Třeštíková, Jakub Hejna, czech Republic, France, 2019).  As with any visit to a family home, what can be summarized about the visit can hardly touch the impressions one is left with afterwards: the felt weight of gestures, tones of voice, repeated vignettes, that tell more than one could say about this family’s resilience within an often painful and tragic history. 

The film festival does more, of course, than welcome the guest into the Czech Republic and its complex history and culture.  This is evident in the screenings, among others, of a great diversity of recent international fiction and documentary films; a retrospective tribute to the Egyptian filmmaker, Youssef Chahine; films in the competition “East of the West;” a selection of films “Future Frames: Generation NEXT of European Cinema;” as well as screenings of works-in-progress which allow emerging filmmakers to workshop their films.  The film festival encourages student participation with modestly priced student passes and accessible housing during the week of the festival at a nearby camping area.

Ecumenical Jury Prize: Lara

The Ecumenical Jury awarded its prize to Lara (Germany 2019), directed by Jan-Ole Gerster, also the Grand Jury’s Special Jury Prize winner, in addition to Corinna Harfouch being awarded Best Actress for her performance in the lead role.  In a film centred on musicians, music teachers and a composer, it is striking that the first sounds one hears in the film are noises that enter when a window is opened, a small bright frame within the frame of a dim interior.  The film opens with Lara lying on a sofa, musing.  Eventually she gets up, opens the window with the intent to jump to her death, bringing into the room the drone of traffic and counterpoint crow calls.  The scene, and Lara’s intention, is cut by the abrasive sound of the door buzzer.  From beginning to end, there’s an exquisite internal dynamic to the music and sound in the film, with the image cut to fit the music rather than the reverse, which is more typical. 

It is obvious from her former co-workers at the door, asking for a favour, that she is actively disliked, and this characterizes all of her relations, as ex-wife, daughter, and mother, leaving her isolated and frenetic in her suppressed fury.  The fine-tuned attention to Lara’s hidden pain—its mix of destructive impulses and attempts to forge a connection with her musician-composer son, who has stopped calling her—marks the beauty and compassion of this film’s point of view.   Images suggest the claustrophobia of Lara’s present life as a death-in-life: the repetition of shots with a compressed smaller frame within the frame, a shot of the side of the piano that looks like a casket on an undertaker’s metal stand, and a casket-like instrument case being pushed by a man who follows Lara.  She’s trying to bully her way into her son’s rehearsal, saying to her ex-husband (Rainer Bock) who tries to prevent her that she doesn’t intend to do any harm.  

As this film patiently reveals, in the acuity of relations between mother and son, or music teacher and student, damage can happen in a few words spoken or left unsaid.  And the malignancy of such damage travels through the years, the generations.  Somehow, the son, Viktor Jenkins (Tom Schilling) finds enough trust in himself and his new composition to defy his mother’s criticism, and play the piano concerto for an audience, but also, at the end of the concert, the grace to praise her crucial involvement in his musical training.  There’s also the fact that he chooses Lara’s sixtieth birthday as the date of the debut.  The mother’s former music teacher (Volkmar Kleinert) attends the concert as well, laconic as usual, but in conversation later, he reflects upon Lara’s insane ambition, and indirectly comments on  the inner motivation she lacked to persist in her musical career without his praise of her talent.  One wonders at the perhaps unintentional cruelty of a pedagogy of withholding praise and how it marked Lara, and influenced her interaction with her son and his musical career.  So much is left unsaid in the tense relation of mother and son, so it is fitting that Lara’s response to the uncertainty of where the relationship will go, and her own future, is musically—wordlessly, sensually—expressed.

Ecumenical Jury Commendation: Let there be light/Nech je svetlo

The Ecumenical Jury made a commendation for Let There Be Light, directed by Marko Škop (Slovak Republic, Czech Republic, 2019).  Milan Ondrík, in the lead role as the father Milan, won the Grand Jury’s Best Actor prize.  Milan returns from his work in Germany to his family in a Slovak village for his Christmas holiday, only to become caught up in a complex mesh of violence.  A young boy commits suicide, and Milan’s oldest son, Adam (Frantšek Beleš), refuses to answer any of his father’s questions about how his involvement with a far-right paramilitary youth organization, The Guard, implicated in violence against the boy that appears to have led to his suicide. 

The narrative gradually builds up tension of a growing threat of violence that risks blasting into the open.   The family, the church, and the police all share some responsibility for the extreme violence of The Guard, or at least mimic it.  Milan’s younger son and daughter play a game in which she is humiliated by her brother, made to crawl around him like a dog and to obey orders.  Usually a kindly affectionate man, Milan’s efforts to uncover his sullen son’s involvement in recent events escalate into violence against his child.  The local priest (Daniel Fischer) who provides shelter for Milan’s son after Milan beats him, later advocates silence rather than Milan’s decision to pursue a risky truth-telling (even after the priest preached a sermon about light shining forth in the revelation of truth).  The viewer often sees Milan holding and cleaning guns from his gun collection housed in a locked case in the bedroom; his slippers are knitted tanks.  Like others in his village, including the priest, he believes that foreigners are threatening Slovak jobs.  Milan says, “international capital pulls the strings” despite being a economic migrant himself.  When the family goes to the police station to report what his son has finally confessed, a member of The Guard is there to assist the detective.  

These images and scenes in the narrative allude to past military violence, contemporary far-right fears about migrants entering the country, the upheaval of a masculinity associated with military violence and authoritarian father roles (Milan’s father), the mixed legacy of traditional religious and communal values, all of which meld to suggest a community and family adrift (in Milan’s living room, the sofa backs into a wall covered in a scene of the open sea).  In the midst of these uncertainties, against more reactionary responses, including his own, Milan and his family attempt to do the right thing.  New and old masculinities are subtly at play in a scene where Milan tries to persuade his son to return home from the priest’s house, where he has taken shelter.   Faced with his son’s silence, Milan proposes a physical contest, the winner of which will be able to dictate the terms of the relationship from then on.  Since both of them collapse at the same number of push ups, Milan says, we’ll have to listen to each other.  The boy begs the father not to leave the family again, not to return to work in Germany.  While the director comments on the importance of the theme of the “missing father” for the film, one might also inquire about the sidelined women.  There is a scene in which Milan’s wife Zuzuka (Zuzana Konečná) is silenced by Milan’s father at the dinner table (to which Milan objects), yet a part of the subtlety of the depiction of violence in the film (intentional or not) is how violence forces women’s voices (whether domineering, as with the priest’s mother, or silenced) to the periphery of the frame in the film’s narrative.


The richness and variety of the twelve KVIFF International Competition films left the Ecumenical Jury with distinct impressions of a number of other films that may foster useful discussion in church communities.  A brief commentary on three other films follows. 

Make the quince jam

Kristina Grozeva’s and Petar Valčanov’s film The Father (Bashtata, Bulgaria, Greece, 2019) winner of the Grand Jury prize for best film at KVIFF, begins with visual and aural contrasts.  We hear the solemn, beautiful liturgy of the Orthodox rite of burial as a voice-over with a dark screen.  The camera pans in with close-up shots of the mourners gathered around the grave as the voice of the priest continues its solemn intonations during escalating disruptions: the late arrival of Pavel (Ivan Barnev), the son; frog-ribbits (the ring tone of the son’s cell phone); and the father’s demand that the rite be halted so Pavel can take photos of the mother.  The son initially refuses (a pattern repeated throughout the film), but is finally compelled by his father’s increased stridency in making the request.

The increasingly mad quest of Vassil (Ivan Savov) for a message from his deceased wife—a visit to a psychic, a night spent sleeping in the woods in a crater, naked, Vassil’s near-commital into a psych ward—strain the relationship of father and son to the breaking point, visually and dramatically realized by a movement of the narrative into some scenes of comedic farce.   Conveying the deep fractures of guilt following a death, the film portrays the complicated attachment of father and son, husband and deceased wife, and includes moments of luminousness within the difficulties.   In a suggestive, visually beautiful scene, strained words pass between father and son, their faces barely illuminated, as the power has gone out in the house in the middle of the night.   There’s also a suggestive interplay between Pavel’s miscommunications with his wife, a disembodied though insistent presence through repeated calls to her husband on his cell phone, and Vassil’s attempts to receive a message from his wife after her death, complicated by a neighbour’s insistence that the deceased wife has been calling her cell phone.  The message from the wife beyond the grave, it turns out, is not the ethereal message the father expected, and not through a psychic, but an immanently practical one left on a friend’s voice mail: make jam before the quince rot. 

You didn’t lose a thing

Felipe Rios’s The Man of the Future (El hombre del futuro Chile, Argentina, 2019), filmed in Chilean Patagonia, portrays the lifestyle of the long haul trucker, and the damage done to both the workers and their families.  Antonia Giesen, the actress playing the role of the daughter, Elena, received a Special Jury mention from the Grand Jury at KVIFF.  In his comments on the film, Felipe Rios observes that as he worked on the film, Elena, not the father Michelsen (José Soza), became the focus, a process of contending with his feelings in relation to his own father.  For Rios, Elena is the man of the future.

Faces are often filmed in close-up, and contrasted with shots of vast lush landscapes traversed by fairly rudimentary roads.  This contrastive approach to filming conveys both the isolation and the beauty of truckers’ treks from one part of the country to the other, and the complexity of the human relations in the narrative.  A stunning shot of the elderly trucker, Michelsen shows his face in fractured dissolve behind a rain-spotted windshield.  Throughout the film, his acting radiates an intense silent presence.

His estranged daughter Elena learns about her father’s lifestyle from another trucker when she hitches a ride south with him to a boxing match, and while there meets her father.  She loses the fight.  To her father’s congratulations, Elena retorts, “I lost the fight.”  You didn’t lose a thing, he tells her.  Is the same true of her father-less home?  When he offers, “ask me anything you like,” Elena accuses him of leaving the family.  What does it mean that he replies, “I didn’t leave.  I work on the truck”?  When asked, “didn’t you love us?” the answer is such an open-hearted yes, that Elena has to leave to smoke a cigarette.  The complexity of these and other conversations in the film may have something to do with the surprising ending, or it may simply reveal once again the strangeness and the strain of efforts of persons to hear each other. 

How to look at a mosaic

Zhai Yixiang’s Mosaic Portrait  (Ma sai ke shao nü,  China 2019) is a beautifully shot, complex narrative about a pregnant fourteen year old girl Ying (Zhang Tongxi) who names her teacher as the father.  While many characters, including a sympathetic journalist, persist in asking the girl about the identity of the father, this appears to be the wrong question.  And the right question may not finally be the issue either, but rather, the ability to see, and to persist in looking despite the blurriness of what one is looking at.  In several scenes, the girl is shot behind corrugated glass, breaking up her image as if in a mosaic, or as a reflection in water that looks recognizable at first, but drifts into greater unclarity—so that the more that one looks, the more unrecognizable the image. 

Not everyone will like the slow pacing of this meditative story (without a clear story-line) but the film may be an opportunity for viewers to encounter the non-definite terrain of a great deal of human communication, and its losses.  As well, the question of what it may mean, in the girl’s chorus that ends the film, to see “hope ahead” or how life may “lead me to a bright place.”