Best served old: Victims seek revenge for communist-era crimes in new Czech film

Film Old-Timers, photo: Czech TV

One of the most discussed Czech films at the Karlovy Vary festival is Old-Timers (Staříci) by Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník. It’s based on a real story from the late 1990s of two men’s plot to kill a notorious Communist prosecutor, Karel Vaš, who four decades earlier had secured prison terms for them and the death sentence for several of their friends. I discussed the film with its directors, starting with Dušek.

Film Old-Timers,  photo: Czech TV

Ondřej Provazník and Martin Dušek,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Dušek: "In about 2008 I saw this report where there was this very old guy and he was telling the whole story.

"They wanted to kill the prosecutor around 2000, and the man was free to say this at that time, in 2008, because it was not punishable any more.

"I came to Ondřej and told him it would be a great documentary or docudrama, about these guys. And he said, OK, but let’s make a real feature film about those events."

Your characters really are old timers – they’re in their 80s, I suppose – and there were challenges for them in trying to carry out this revenge that they have planned.

Provazník: "In the ‘50s they fought against the regime and against the army. They were fighters.

Film Old-Timers,  photo: Endorfilm
"But now they have to deal with their age, with their relatives, with things that are quite banal.

"For them it’s a huge issue to go on, every day, every hour. Every obstacle they overcome is a small victory."

Dušek: "Somebody might think that it’s kind of a simple, anti-Communist statement film.

"But in fact it’s not that much about communism and its mechanisms.

Film Old-Timers,  photo: Endorfilm
"It’s more about old people and what they bear in their minds and how that contrasts with the present world that surrounds them.

"It’s also about the absurd situation that somebody was once a fighter and went through the whole second world war, who was in the Gulag and escaped from a high security prison, is now a weak old man in a wheelchair but still wants to get his revenge."

The character Vlasta tells his friend Tonda, who was also a victim of the state prosecutor, that he is planning to kill the prosecutor. That raises the question – is it ever justified to kill?

Film Old-Timers,  photo: Czech TV
Provazník: "For us it’s obvious that they can, that these characters who went through so much suffering in the ‘50s, whose friends were killed in the show trials…

"They really don’t see any moral dilemma in their mission. From our experience, from all the research that we did, we think that these people would do it.

"We, Martin Dušek and me, probably wouldn’t kill anybody. But we don’t know, because we didn’t go through such horrible things in our lives as our characters."

Dušek: "We are living in peaceful times nowadays, so we don’t have any reason for revenge like that.

"But for them, as Ondřej, said, who suffered a lot, and somebody was directly responsible for the suffering, for them it’s totally reasonable. And we cannot judge them, really."

Provazník: "What fascinates us about the story, and probably should fascinate the audience, is that our contemporary society is somehow infected with relativism.

"People are confused about what is true and what is not. But our characters are not confused at all."

You guys were around 12 years old, I guess, in 1990, so it wasn’t a question for your generation. But still, how do you think Czech society dealt with the communist past and the crimes of communism, especially in the 1990s?

Provazník: "For sure there were lots of mistakes in that. Otherwise we wouldn’t want to shoot this movie.

"So I think lots of crimes of the communist times were not punished. I think they could have been tougher on the Communist politicians in the ‘90s."