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ZERT / THE JOKE (1969, ČSL)

This drama is considered one of the last films of the Czechoslovak new wave. Jaromil Jareš started shooting the film based on the novel by the famous Milan Kundera while Czechoslovakia was liberalized, but “Zert” or “The Joke” did not arrive in theaters until the beginning of the year. Very soon after the premiere, the film was, of course, banned and ended up in the drawer for the next twenty years, and that’s not really surprising because “Zert” unabashedly satirizes, criticizes and even openly mocks the communist elite and the regime. At the center of the story today is forty-year-old Ludvik Jahn, who twenty years earlier was expelled from the university and from the party because of an innocuous letter and a joke about Trotsky that he sent to his girlfriend at the time.

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Although he considered the entire team from the student union to be his friends, without much thought they torpedoed him from the university and from the party and thus directed his life, and two decades later, Ludvik received an opportunity for revenge. By chance, he will meet Helena, a woman who will turn out to be the wife of his former friend Pavel, who supported his expulsion from college. Ludvik will decide to seduce Helena and thus take revenge on Pavel, and in parallel, in typical new wave flashbacks, we learn the background story and why Ludvik was actually kicked out and what happened to him afterwards. How he ended up in re-education, in prison, in the army, and how he actually fantasized about the situation in which he found himself all his life.

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Although Helena will soon fall for his charm, his revenge mission will prove to be only half successful. And from the beginning it is clear to us that Ludvik only feels contempt for Helena (You become obsessed with the women you hate as well as the ones you love, we hear his thoughts constantly as the narrator), and like most new wave films, “Zert” is an impressive satire and a joke on account of the totalitarian system. Thus, even a completely harmless joke like Ludvik’s can cause incredible paranoia, and everyone can hardly wait for him to be exposed as an enemy of the system and someone who undermines the regime. It is interesting how one of Jares’s films (Krik or the Cry from 1964) is considered to be the first film of the Czechoslovak new wave, and five years later his film was also able to close probably the most creative period in Slavic cinematography.

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