The Party and the Guests [1966] – A Highly Relevant Parable about Bland Conformity

Jan Nemec is one of the influential film-makers of the outstanding Czechoslovak New Wave movement. He graduated from the famous Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) and made the excellent short film ‘A Loaf of Bread’ (1960). The themes and formal language of the short were expanded in his brilliant debut feature Diamonds of the Night (1964), a tale of two young men fleeing from Nazi death-camp. Around the same time, Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova and many others made formally radical films on the themes of political and social repressions. Although these Czech film-makers’ stylistic spectrum differed, their ideological parameters more or less remained the same. The extraordinary film movement was immediately suppressed following the Soviet invasion to crackdown reformist movements in Prague (the brief period of political liberalization in 1968 was known as ‘Prague Spring’). Nemec released his follow-up feature The Party and the Guests (‘O slavnosti a hostech’) in 1966, which the authorities banned immediately. It was again released in 1968 during the Prague Spring, but soon was 'banned forever’.

Jan Nemec creative flurry bestowed another gem of a film titled ‘Martyrs of Love’ and a documentary short, 'Oratorio for Prague' (Nemec captured on film the Soviet’s invasion in August 1968). Nemec always faced troubles with Czech authorities and the Soviet invasion almost brought his career to an end (he was in only in his early thirties). Soon, he moved to Paris, and other European countries, and eventually to US. But he found it hard to work in these film industries and mostly did TV movies, documentaries. He also worked as professional wedding videographer. Nemec returned to Czechoslovakia, but the years of marginalization didn’t allow his profound artistry to attain a foothold in the film industry. Nemec died on March 18, 2016 in Prague. Nemec’s three distinct, absurdist movies (all the three runs for little more than an hour), however, represents themes and issues that’s riddled with universality. The Party and the Guests – Nemec’s most political film – still remains as a testament to his great artistry.

Jan Nemec’s films are known for formal experimentation, unorthodox characterizations, and theatrical staging with surrealistic touches. He neither had desire for social realism nor conventional narrative approach. In the absurdist drama ‘The Party and the Guests’, there are no central characters. Movie historian Peter Hames mentions that parallels have been drawn between Nemec’s film and Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (although Hames states Nemec didn’t see Bunuel’s film or even Renoir’s Rules of the Game). The script for Party and the Guests with its overt allegorical representations was written by Nemec and Ester Krumbachova, a costume designer as well as a script writer, whom Nemec married. The film is set in beautiful Czech countryside, where a group of seven bourgeois city-people are enjoying their picnic. They have just had their feast and talks about things that are inscrutable. The group’s (3 couples and one man) interactions are shown through mid-shots of cross-cut faces. Despite the vast countryside, this approach creates a sense of claustrophobia.

The interaction almost comes to an end with the distinguished group observing the parade of boisterous wedding-party marchers on the top of the hill. The women quickly wash themselves and they all make their way over the hill. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a group of serious-faced guys (all of them stare at the camera) led by an eccentric young guy Rudolf block the path of bourgeois people. Rudolf’s arrival escalates the ‘party’ as he holds the ‘guests’ inside a circle-like mark on the ground. Surrounded by tough-looking men, Rudolf grills them with vague questions and deters them from leaving the circular ‘mark’ (two stones are kept to represent a ‘door’ for this interrogation room). One of the guests named Karel disdains the charade and walks off, who is harassed by Rudolf and his thugs. The chaos comes to an end, when the party’s host arrives, a benevolent man dressed in a white-suit. It is revealed that bourgeois couples are guests of this gentleman’s birthday party and Rudolf is the man’s adopted son. The situation is smoothed out and apologies are exchanged and accepted. The banquet takes place in a beautiful lakeside setting. But the party host’s delight doesn’t last long as he is announced that one of the guests (one of the picnickers) has run away (clearly annoyed by the absurdity). The ‘benevolent’ host wonders why this guest would refuse this ‘happiness’.

Obvious parallels could be drawn between host’s decision to track down missing guest and the picnic-goers, embroiled in passivity, with the totalitarian regime where dissension is frowned upon and where general public live under the pretense of ‘happiness’. But the non-specific situation, riddled with healthy dose of Kafkaesque abstract elements, doesn’t restrict Nemec’s parable within a rigid political framework (of the Czech communist regime). The actions, reactions, and passivity of the ‘guests’ could be transferred to different social or political context, without diminishing its relevance. Nemec and Ester’s characters face the dangers of becoming types than representation of real people. But the writers’ suggestion of the underlying basic human behavior makes it realistic. The film is a treatise on how irrational human nature can be sometimes; on how selfishness and the desire to be part of a ‘group’ can influence our behavior. It’s also a smart examination of how the ‘gentlemen hosts’ (all around the world) always demands full conformity (and rattled by little opposition).

Rudolf and the white-suited ‘host’ are the two different, but equally morbid personas of constricted political or social structure. By the time Rudolf’s antics reaches a peak, the host intervenes, and we breathe sigh of relief as if he is the savior. However, we soon learn how the host’s authoritarianism is equally unpleasant as Rudolf’s. The ‘tough-guys’ and ‘benevolent superior’ eventually join together to hunt down the single, non-conforming force (other succumbed to authority have the banquet to enjoy). The passive people (or guests) allow the existence of this ‘system’ which eventually turns them into victims (even they are afraid to cross a simple line marked on the ground). After the film’s release and ban, director Nemec clarified that his ‘depiction of authoritarianism could be applied anywhere’. With the final shot, where dogs’ barking escalates (as the end-credits roll up), we can reflect on how this timeless, absurd scenario could be applied anywhere around the world (in both ends of ideological spectrum); in any situations where non-conformist behavior is seen as a foolish thing.

One of the interesting aspects of The Party and the Guests is the confusing dialogues. The random bit of conversations never makes sense and rarely clarifies the character’s predicament. The interactions are designed to confirm the absurdity of the situation. Like most of the movies of Czech New Wave, Nemec denies conventional characterization where viewers identify with the characters. The only character whom we could consider as some sort of ‘hero’ – the non-conforming guest – doesn’t talk much and never explains about his decision to run away (even he runs away off-the-screen). These forms of dialogues and characterizations resonant very well with the distinct visual style, which has many strange montage shots of faces. All these aspects work in tandem to create a unique, unsettling atmosphere that doesn’t belong to a specific time.

The Party and the Guests (68 minutes) is a playful allegory on how people find it easy to enclose themselves within a rigid system of thought. It’s also an astute interrogation of the different masks worn by totalitarian regimes. 


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