Director Petr Zelenka discusses new film inspired by Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Some critics have already called it the most notable Czech film of the year – Petr Zelenka’s “The Karamazovs”. Inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel together with a famous long-running adaptation at Prague’s Dejvicke Theatre, the film opened in Prague on Thursday to wide anticipation. Layers within layers is one way of describing it as it focuses on actors performing the Karamazov story in a giant factory but it goes far beyond that, not only focusing on the actors on stage and off but also on one of the viewers. I sat down with the director a day after the film’s premiere and asked him to tell me more about the project’s beginnings and how it came to fruition.

Petr Zelenka,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“My original fascination with the Dejvicke Theatre was through this play. They offered me to do something for them back in 2000 and the performance I saw was The Karamazovs and I was absolutely thrilled, amazed, it was an absolute break through! So I thought, yeah, I want to do something for the theatre: so I wrote two plays but then I thought it’s time to repay the debt and capture the Karamazovs on film.”

The original play was written by Evald Schorm: could you tell us a little bit about the structure and how he put it together?

“Well he was a very clever guy and he made a decision to keep it simple, to focus on the four brothers and the father and the family issues and then to focus on the court. He focused on the family and with this very simple structure he plays with the idea of responsibility and God. The key to Dostoyevsky in theatre or film is to simplify him. He is so great that even if you reduce him you can still be left with very strong work.”

The Karamazovs
How did you begin working on the script for the film and at what point did you go beyond the play itself and begin introducing other elements to the story?

“Well, almost immediately. Because, it was obvious when you put a play in a film, you can not just film the performance, because then you would have viewers in the original hall, reacting to the show, and then you would have the film viewers themselves, who would feel kind of lost. So, I realised in the film we have to watch the play being performed, but we also have to get to know the ‘viewers’ who are watching the play in the film. So I built a story around a casual onlooker, one of the onlookers. The story unravels in a Polish factory which is the site for an avant garde theatre festival and we see a rehearsal of Karamazovs by the Dejvicke Theatre.”

“He’s a worker from the factory whose kid is seriously injured and being operated at that moment and waiting for a phone call to learn whether the child will live or not. And in the meantime he watches the rehearsal. That’s actually a motif in Dostoyevsky: Captain Snegiryov whose child is ill and then dies and, you know, he goes crazy. I borrowed that motif and built it in around the play in the film. Of course, it’s a tragedy, so it ends badly.”

How did you get to the idea of setting the story in this kind of factory, this industrial space?

“Originally we wanted to use a film stage, like at Barrandov Studio, but then we decided that would just be too sterile. And then we thought maybe the shipyards in Gdansk: so we went there and you know it has a great history, that place, but it doesn’t look that good for filming. Then somebody mentioned a steelworks, so we filmed at a Czech factory that represents the Polish Nova Huta in Krakow.”

The main image on the film’s poster emphasises enormous machinery and tools, elements that seem to dwarf the individual: is that also something you wanted to bring to the fore?

“I’d say so, yes. They feel very humble as a result. When they started acting in the hall, 70 by 40 metres and 30 metres high, they felt very, very small, something which helped the performance as well.”

How did you choose to contrast the ‘lives’ of the actors ‘on stage’ and ‘off’.

“For me that was the biggest beauty of it, that was something I didn’t plan. Originally I wanted to show the actors as a bunch of irresponsible kids, basically, who become somebody completely different when they come on stage. This element of irresponsibility was there but they acted so well… Ok, they were ‘irresponsible’ but they ‘acted’ so well that it became in a way an homage to acting itself. In the film you’re inside of the story, and outside of the story: you change your point of view all the time.”

Obviously you’ve worked with a good number of these actors before either in film or theatre; what was it like this time around?

“You know what? I’d actually worked with them only in theatre, with one exception in film, the actor Ivan Trojan. I didn’t know the others from the film set. And the initial reaction was ‘Why perform this play again?’ - this play they’ve performed hundreds of times, which they still run at Dejvicke Divadlo, I don’t know twice a month. It’s like a 130 times or something they’ve performed it! So the reaction was ‘we’re going to play it a couple more times in some f**ing factory! So they were not really happy. And some didn’t see the film until the premiere on Wednesday. But when they did they were happy of course. But actors are not really happy when you try to record something they’ve been doing for a long time; they aren’t always grateful.”

The Karamazovs
So if they weren’t eager at first, were they surprised by what they finally saw on screen? Because so far the film has gotten top reviews with critics especially for its emotional depth.

“Well you know, because they act in the show they never felt the impact, and so they saw themselves for the first time not only in the film, but also saw the play they’ve been performing eight years. It was fascinating, a kind of ‘double impact’. Of course, some of them are tough guys and they pretended they weren’t touched, so they wouldn’t let you know. But they were. ”