Director: Communists feared RAF men with good reason – they were courageous
This week sees the release of Good Old Czechs, a powerful new documentary about extremely brave Czech airmen in World War II. Entirely comprised of period footage and with narration read by actors, Tomáš Bojar's film draws on the memoirs of two aviators, RAF squadron leader František Fajtl and Filip Jánský, who initially escaped to France aged just 17. I spoke to Bojar ahead of Tuesday's premiere in Prague.
What was the original spark, the original idea, behind Good Old Czechs?
“To name just one, throughout the Covid period I’ve been reading a lot, and I’ve been concentrated enough.
“And among other books, I also opened the books by Fajtl and Jánský.
“I just started reading them with great pleasure; I came back to those books after some 20 or 25 years.
“I was just impressed, maybe even mesmerized, by the accuracy of the descriptions, by the really, really amazing observations, by the subtle sense of humour.
“And I thought, OK, maybe this could serve us – meaning me and my close collaborators, such as Šimon Špidla, my editor, and many others – as a great tool to make a film which will somehow serve as an homage to the heroes, but may be a bit different.
“Maybe, let’s say, more down to earth, more joyful and maybe even funnier than the second world war documentaries that we tend to see.”
Who were Fajtl and Jánský? Fajtl was relatively well-known, right? He was the first foreigner to lead a British fighter squadron.
“František Fajtl is definitely one of our national heroes.
“He was a fighter pilot. He was a very brave man who served both in France and in England.
“Later on he moved to the Eastern Front and also flew for the Russians.
“Filip Jánský – or Richard Husmann, which was his original name – was a bomber.
“What is very interesting is that he decided to leave the Protectorate at the age of 17…”
And he decided the quickest way to go to France was to go right through Germany?
“Yes, he was a bit of a rascal actually.
“Both these men were very good writers, and very good observers.”
“He had this very straightforward approach and he wasn’t really afraid of anything, so at the age of 17 he thought this would be the most elegant way to escape from the Germans – to Germany.
“But what is remarkable, or what is important for me, is that both these men were very good writers, and very good observers.
“And as I tend to say, if this is a documentary, then they, not me, had the actual documentary skill.
“So I’m just kind of using a skill which is not mine [laughs].”
The film is composed entirely of period footage, from many different countries. How did you manage to accumulate all that material and then start shaping it into the final film that we see now?
“Yes, it was quite a task.
“We obviously had some basic narrative structure already set: the way, or this odyssey, that Jánský and Fajtl took provided us with a basic framework, in terms of a storyline.
“But of course, having done this, my editor Šimon and I – and also our research specialist, Marta Nováková – we all had to go through tonnes and tonnes of footage.
“I’m still not sure whether I should call this activity work or a duty, because it was purely joyful.”
“These days it’s a bit easier, because all the archives are available online.
“So once you learn to use the keywords in a semi-professional way, let’s say, you get to an incredible of amazing footage.
“I myself am still not sure whether I should call this activity work [laughs] or a duty, because it was purely joyful.
“We were going through amazing pieces of footage, shot by the best cinematographers of that era.
“These are images that I would never be able to shoot myself and I felt kind of privileged to be able to do this, and to have the chance to do this and the resources to do this.”
How much of the material was by Czech directors, or news makers?
“There’s an important part of the footage which was shot by Jiří Weiss, the director, who escaped to England at roughly the same time as Jánský and Fajtl.
“He was not afraid to make propaganda, in the best sense of the word [laughs].
“Today we still know his films such as Den a Noc, Day and Night, and other great propaganda films of this era.
“We were lucky enough to get hold of the rough material, which is still at the National Film Archive in Prague – it’s still stored there.
“And we were lucky enough to work with this footage.
“Some of these shots haven’t been used prior to the release of our film, so we were kind of happy to be able to work with this.”
How much did you have to become an expert on WWII aviation and planes? Or did you already know your Spitfires from your Hurricanes?
“I’ve always been a bit of a reader, when it comes to the war, so I can’t say this has all been new to me.
“Also my grandfather served in the RAF, so when I was a kid I always listened to his stories.
“My grandfather served in the RAF, so when I was a kid I always listened to his stories.”
“He also actually provided me with the books by Fajtl, Jánský and many others, so this hasn’t been entirely new to me.
“On the other hand it’s fair to say that I’m not an expert on aviation.
“I was always more interested in, let’s say, the human stories behind it, but not in the actual airplanes.”
Tell us a little bit more about your grandfather’s experiences, where he was based and that kind of thing.
“My grandfather managed to escape from the Protectorate and after some very, very dangerous and very adventurous times with the Italian partisans, who he managed to join in the north of Italy, he got to Switzerland – and from there he was able to get to the Mediterranean.
“And through one of these big ships he got to the UK.
“He joined the RAF but as he was born with an eye defect he wasn’t allowed to actually join the air force as a pilot or a bomber.
“He was based in Cosford and he worked there as a meteorologist.
“And he stayed until August 1945. He came back with all the other airmen in August ’45.”
What’s terrible at the end of the film is that we discover what became of Fajtl and Jánský after the war. Like a lot of these airmen who had fought on the Western Front they were jailed by the Communists.
“Yes, this is the sad and scary part of the whole story.
“Some of them were imprisoned. Others were kicked out of their jobs or their faculties.”
“Not only that there wasn’t much gratitude, but moreover there was even suspicion, especially from the Communists.
“They obviously knew that these men were courageous, and they feared them for a good reason, I must say.
“So some of them were imprisoned. Others were kicked out of their jobs or their faculties, which was the case of Jánský, who studied law but was forced to leave the school.
“And I must say this is one of the moments when you really feel ashamed.
“At least after 1989, after the Velvet Revolution, we were somehow able to pay back something. At least something.”
For those who lived to 1989.
“For those who survived, yes.”
As you know in America they call the generation of World War II soldiers “the greatest generation”. Do you think that’s also a term that could apply to Fajtl, Jánský, your grandfather and all these other men?
“That’s how I feel. That’s how I feel about it, honestly, yes.
“I would say that they were prepared to sacrifice their lives, prepared to sacrifice themselves, and they did this without showing off.
“They did this in a really natural way. It really was natural for them. They didn’t even speak much about it.
“This is what I truly admire. And for me, to put it in maybe a bit strong way, this is a sign of a true elite.”
Also most of them died. I don’t know what percentage survived, but it was, what, 20 percent?
“Yes, this is incredible. You’re absolutely right.
“When you actually got in the plane, you always knew you were playing Russian roulette and that this may very easily be the last day of your life.
“But still, they didn’t seem to mind.
“When I was working on this film I once again opened a book by Jan Patočka, one of our leading philosophers of the last century.
“And I was so impressed by his essay on the war and the 20th century.
“He’s saying that in our lives there’s always a natural tension between what he calls night and day – life and death.
“And the war is a moment when the really, really brave people, who know that things such as day and life always come to an end… when these brave people have the opportunity to really do something for the others, and have little regard for their own life, and yes, show something that we could probably call great spirit.”