The Classics Shelf: The Films Of Jan Hrebejk

The Czech auteur deserves a stronger spotlight than what the arthouse has afforded him thus far

He’s earned Oscar nomination for one of his most acclaimed films and a prominent position in film festivals around the world, and yet Czech filmmaker Jan Hrebejk isn’t a household name in the arthouse circuit. My discovery of him came thanks to the 2001 Academy Awards, where his film Divided We Fall had no chance in hell of winning against Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But the nomination exposed him to us Oscar “death racers” and highlighted his name for future reference.

Hrebejk has yet to play in competition at any of the major festivals, an Ecumenical prize for Kawasaki’s Rose at Berlin’s Panorama sidebar is the closest he’s come so far, but he has returned to TIFF a number of times and, over the years, I made sure to catch his work there. I’ve always been impressed by his ability to draw the viewer in with complex characters and arresting situations.  At the end of a screening of The Holy Quaternity (sometimes known as 4Some) at the 2012 festival, a gentleman sitting ahead of me turned around and said, “I really enjoyed that…and you’re saying all his other films are good?”  I replied in the affirmative while reminding myself that I talk too loud in movie theatres and everywhere else.

Hrebejk’s complex characters, he says, were the basis of his education in film school. “Screenwriting in Europe,” he said, “is taught on the basis of complex movies, complex characters. In a Czech film academy, they make you analyze a Chekhov play rather than a Batman movie.” That education was attained at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) from 1987 to 1991, where Hrebejk met Petr Jarchovský, who would go on to become his primary collaborator on screenplays. In many cases, Hrebejk’s films open with the credit of it being “a film by Hrebejk and Jarchovský.”

Success was not too far in the future for the director. While he was still in school, he co-wrote the script for Ondrej Trojan’s Pejme písen dohola (Let’s All Sing Together), which co-starred future frequent collaborator Anna Geislerová. Trojan, a director in his own right (including the 2003 Oscar nominee Zelary), would produce many of Hrebejk’s later features.  After filming his graduate thesis, Hrebejk had his first major breakthrough in his home country with Big Beat in 1993, for which he won his first Czech Lion (the Oscars of his home country) for Best Film and Best Director. Hrebejk’s biggest success, Divided We Fall (2000), not only brought him to the Oscars but won him another Czech Lion, followed by another for Up and Down (2004), to date his most recent win, while  2013’s Honeymoon won him the Best Director prize at Karlovy Vary.

Why this general obscurity in the arthouse world, then? Perhaps his moral complications are too steeped in specific Czech politics and don’t speak to the wider world. However, as someone who is not particularly versed in the deepest ins and outs of that country’s turbulent twentieth century, I can’t say I struggle to understand the basics in his films. Perhaps his emotionally compelling tales read too much like soap opera and inspire a sense of derision for those who look down on melodrama. If that’s the case, it’s not surprising that the majority of Hrebejk’s filmography has concentrated on television in recent years, where compelling turns of plot that are expressed through conflicting characters rule supreme. He has directed eight miniseries since 2016 and only three features, and those are a trilogy about the post-war years called Garden Store that were also aired on television as separate episodes.




Divided We Fall (2000)

A brilliantly dense and morally complex look at Czechoslovakia during the war, as well as an exercise in the impossibility of categorizing human beings as good or bad. Jozef (Bolek Polívka) and his wife Mariska (Anna Šišková) are living under Nazi occupation when they learn that their Jewish neighbour escaped Theresienstadt and has returned home. Quickly hiding him in a secret compartment in their apartment, the couple do their best to keep his presence a secret while Jozef’s Nazi-sympathizing co-worker Horst makes frequent visits, but things eventually get complicated to comically absurd degrees. When the war ends and a new order takes over the country, it also flips the power dynamic on which character owes the other. It comes to light that everyone in this tale owes a secret and a favour to somebody else in some form or another. One of Jarchovský’s finest scripts, it’s often incorrectly cited as a Life Is Beautiful follow-up for incorporating humour into a Holocaust-themed story. (It’s more complicated than that.)


Honeymoon (2013)

Hrebejk’s most savage film, for which he took Best Director at Karlovy Vary, begins with a beautiful wedding on a lovely morning. A very happy couple, Tereza (Anna Geislerová) and Radim (Stanislav Majer), are both trying their luck at the altar a second time. When Radim’s son accidentally breaks his glasses before the ceremony, they have just enough time to run across the street and get a repair from the local optician. The man behind the counter turns out to be someone from the groom’s past, which he does not notice at first, but when the stranger follows the ceremony to its reception in the countryside, intent on crashing the party and ruining everyone’s good times with accusations of past crimes, Tereza is at a loss as to what to do. Keeping a wedding party going without incident is hard enough without a strange man showing up under an assumed name with evidence that you are marrying a man with accusations of historic crimes. Hrebejk makes sure the screws tighten and never let go until all is revealed at the right moment. Superb performances (Geislerová reading a confessional letter is simply outstanding) and exquisite direction from a man who can never hide his love of humanity, even when showing it at its very worst, make for a satisfying film. Rather than focus on revenge, retribution or any simple notions of justice, Hrebejk admits that there are wounds that can never be healed, that the vulnerability of each individual’s need to achieve their goals will always result in a moral compromise. Were you to read this as an allegory of a country that will never heal the wounds of the recent past, you’d probably be right, but even without the slightest knowledge of Czech political history, you’ll be riveted by the quality of drama on display here.


The Teacher (2016)

Savage comedies are Hrebejk’s stock in trade, and this hilarious exposure of the short-sighted egotism of his country’s communist project is among his most excoriating. An elementary school hosts a meeting between the head teacher and the students’ parents to decide the fate of a particular instructor who has gotten under many peoples’ skin. As a high-ranking member of the Communist party, Mária Drazdechová (a magnificent Zuzana Mauréry, who was nominated for a Czech Lion and won Best Actress at Karlovy Vary) makes requests of both her students and their parents to do her favours that extend from cleaning her house to sending packages to her sister in Moscow. All said requests are put forth in a seemingly innocuous manner as befitting an unhappy widow. The families who comply with her requests see their kids’ grades fly high while those who resist her passive aggressive bullying tactics find themselves failing until one student’s dire expression of self-harm brings the need for the meeting into being. Hrebejk saves his best jokes for last, riling up your emotions through flashback sequences that reveal the villain’s misdeeds before pointing out that all discussions are pointless. He observes that forces for good are done as much in backhanded and secret ways as those of the selfish and self-interested. A system upheld as morally righteous for four decades is revealed to be little more than a series of petty favours fighting over trinkets and luxuries, but, as we see in the conclusion, is the present that much different? It’s a film that ultimately doesn’t feel as grand as it should, but considering it could easily be reduced to a one-joke lecture, it’s incredible how much it draws you in, a great deal of it thanks to the expert performances.




Beauty in Trouble (2006)

One of the finest examples of Hrebejk’s talent for creating rich and complicated characters, so much so that it matters little that he doesn’t quite find enough to do with them by the end of this engrossing comedy. Mechanic Jarda (Roman Luknár) and his wife Marcela (Anna Geislerová) struggle to make ends meet after a flood devastates all of Prague and destroys their home. Her frustration with him reaches a boiling point when he is arrested for stealing cars. The latest victim of his theft is a well-to-do business magnate named Evžen (Josef Abrhám) who lives mostly in Italy and has come back to reclaim a house that was taken from his family when his parents defected to the West, but which is now embroiled in a scheme where a pastor who owns a portion of the property is trying to extort a high price out of him to let him own the entire thing.  Evžen falls in love with Marcela and they strike up genuine sympathy as he helps her move away from her mother’s apartment, where she has been staying and suffering her cantankerous, mouthy stepfather’s criticism. The conflicts between these characters, who won three of the four acting categories at the Czech Lion awards that year, is deeply involving as they figure out the ways in which we must all get along with the thorny, selfish people around us while acknowledging the fact that we are ourselves not that much better.


Innocence (2011)

Hrebejk experiments with form in his manner of presenting his ensemble in this drama, starting us off with a collection of characters before surprising your expectation of who will be the focus. Milada (Zita Morávková) is raising her mentally challenged son and is close with her sister (frequent Hrebejk collaborator Anna Geislerová, who won a Czech Lion for her performance), both of them looking after their increasingly senile old father (Luděk Munzar), but it is Milada’s second husband Tomáš (Ondřej Vetchý) who turns out to be the protagonist, an orthopaedic surgeon whose teenage patient accuses him of sexual impropriety. The detective on the case, Láďa (Hynek Čermák) is Milada’s first husband, but even this complication turns out to be misdirection: you might think you’ll get something along the lines of Thomas Vinterberg‘s 2012 drama The Hunt, an exploration of humanity at its most petty and exploitative, but the lead character turns out to be someone completely different in the film’s daring last third. Limited perspectives and our inability to see people as little more than our own needs are the focus here, and while the experiment doesn’t as a whole pay off thanks to an underwhelming conclusion, it does hold on to your attention throughout.


The Holy Quaternity (2012)

Two Prague electricians are employed to restore the infrastructure of a Caribbean island destroyed in a hurricane. They decide to take their wives along with them and, finding themselves stranded in paradise, they swap partners and start enjoying group sex. Hrebejk’s movies always employ a deliciously light tone while dealing with humanity’s most affable frailty, and this sweet tale of pushing boundaries (which includes casting a real life brother and sister as a married couple) is among his lightest offerings.


Garden Store Part 1: Family Friend (2017)

Hrebejk’s triptych seeks to cover his country’s experiences from the German occupation through to the immediate experiences that follow, beginning his first absorbing drama in 1939 as war is declared and Czech citizens are having to do with Nazis in their midst. The ensemble cast centres around three sisters, two of whom are married to men who have been arrested for their activities in the Resistance. The third sister strikes up a romance with her husband’s best friend, a kindly doctor who escapes arrest and takes care of her and her family throughout the war years. She learns that her husband was executed and it only strengthens her relationship with her lover, but ironic twists abound that represent the complications that World War II brought to many a European life. The tensions are more exciting in the second part but the set-up gets you right from the beginning of this epic experience, aided particularly well by an outstanding cast of actors.


Garden Store Part 2: Deserter (2017)

The trilogy continues, the second (and best) part taking place in the immediate post-war years as Prague citizens settle into the restoration of what they lost in the war before finding out that a new, more terrifying enemy exists. The men who survived detainment camps and death marches are now tested by the success of the Communist Party as it turns citizens into informants of capitalist sedition. Otto’s successful hair salon is taken over by a disgruntled former employee, while Jindrich discovers that his love for American culture makes him a target at the airport where devotion to the ruling party is becoming more important. Their volatile personalities rage in their own ways against the inevitable while the women in their lives try their best to keep them from turning their families into greater targets. Hrebejk has never been more outspoken in his criticism of the failures of the socialist years, in which people who insist that they are looking for equal justice are actually out for petty vengeance, but at its most obvious the film is never less than captivating, as always the filmmaker creates arresting melodrama that is never shamelessly manipulative. The version on Amazon Prime is better for image quality but its subtitles are persistently out of sync. You’re best to stick to the version streaming on Hoopla (which is the only service in Canada that also has the other two parts of the trilogy).




Cosy Dens (1999)

A major box office hit in its home country, this early film in Hrebejk’s filmography shows his fascination with Czechoslovakia’s political transitions in the post-war years that occupy many of his future works. The action takes place for the most part in a Prague apartment building where two families of opposing values live on separate floors, beginning at Christmas in 1967. Upstairs, a short-tempered former Resistance fighter and anti-Communist dwells with his fragile wife (the exquisite Emília Vásáryová) and their rebellious teenage daughter, while downstairs a family is headed by a diligent military man who is at odds with his moody teenage son. The events of the season set things up for the tumultuous year to follow, as all the interactions of these characters have their futures increasingly proscribed by the optimistic atmosphere of Prague Spring and the invasion that would follow that summer. The actual events of the film aren’t particularly interesting, and will only hold the attention of those with direct experience of the subject. However, the personalities that Hrebejk and longtime screenwriter Petr Jarchovský create eventually work their way deeply into your heart. The power of the ending speaks a great deal to their ability to make these people feel alive and important.


Pupendo (2003)

This comedic character piece takes place in 1984 where once prominent sculptor Bedrich Mára (Bolek Polívka) now subsists on the profits of the piggy banks he mass produces, his teaching position long abolished thanks to his open opposition to the Communist regime. One of his best friends, Míla Brecka (Jaroslav Dušek, Divided We Fall) sympathizes but tows the line outwardly and is rewarded by the party with a position of prominence, the principal of the school that both of their children attend. When Mára meets elderly art critic Alois Fábera (Jiří Pecha) who decides to write a piece on him, it sparks interest in his career for the first time in years and speaks to the possibility of his returning to prominence. This, in turn, inspires Brecka’s wife Magda (Vilma Cibulková) to hire Mára to create a statue for an important project. The critic’s article, however is featured in a publication that is not favoured by the ruling party and leads to disaster for all involved. Darkly funny and subtle in its intelligent examination of the turgid human emotions constantly bubbling beneath the hearts of the ideologically resolved, this film’s nuances are a bit too obscure for anyone not already aware of its political context. It isn’t the best way to enter Hrebejk’s magnificent career.


Up and Down (2004)

One of Hrebejk’s most celebrated films in his home country that won him his most recent Czech Lion at press time, but one whose finger-wagging lecture about a country struggling with EU tensions and fears of globalization seems too message-laden now. The title refers to the two spheres in which the film takes place, the High and Low of Kurosawa including the kidnapping plot. Among Prague’s strivers are an ex-con security guard and his lonely, slightly unstable girlfriend who is miserable without a child and jumps at the chance when a baby separated from his undocumented immigrant mother is put up for sale at her local pawn shop. In the world of intelligentsia, a professor who has just survived a near-fatal heart attack asks his bitter wife to give him a divorce and seeks to reconnect with the son he rejected, who has been living in Australia for decades. The acting is superb, particularly an award-winning Emília Vásáryová as the professor’s xenophobic first wife, but the message is too plainly spelled out. The drama simply isn’t captivating enough to disguise the filmmaker’s intentions.


Garden Store Part 3: Suitor (2017)

The impressive epic project comes to a conclusion with its weakest but still engaging chapter, taking place almost a decade after the events of the previous film. Daniela is now grown up and is the bane of her father’s experience. Her strong will seems to be more of a challenge to him than Nazi death marches or being labelled a dissident rebel by his own government. She insists on keeping up her romance with a handsome but, according to her father, low-minded suitor and he does everything to get in their way. The film depicts the decade before the shaking up of Prague Spring at the end of the sixties, but it presents the period as an almost idyllic era of sleepy political idealism, with the characters’ personal drama focused on things with much less political background against which their lives play. As a result, it’s not as complex as the previous entries, but our affection for all these magnificent personalities, brought to life by an outstanding cast, remains intact.