First screening of restored Joke among early Karlovy Vary highlights

One of the big events on the opening weekend of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival will be the world premiere of a restored version of Jaromil Jireš’s 1968 movie The Joke, based on the novel of the same name by Milan Kundera. On the eve of the screening, I spoke to Michal Bregant of the Czech National Film Archive, which carried out the restoration.

Michal Bregant | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“The Joke has a special place in the Czechoslovak cinema of the late 1960s, not only because it’s an adaptation of this book by Milan Kundera – which was already very successful when it was published for the first time in Czechoslovakia.

“But the other reason is that this film is dealing specifically with our political memory.

“And no matter the plotline – the rather philosophical topic of revenge and the trap in which the protagonist finds himself – it’s also about our social consciousness and social memory.

The Joke | Photo: NFA

“Because it’s dealing with the very sensitive topic of the political situation in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and how the young generation was dealing with the political, totalitarian pressure, and what was the very meaning of the change during the Prague Spring.”

In my view The Joke is a relatively good, or very good, adaption of a novel. Do we know what Milan Kundera himself thought of the film?

Milan Kundera | Photo: Elisa Cabot,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“Milan Kundera himself called Jaromil Jireš, the director of The Joke, a very close personal friend.

“I think that the main reason was that he liked the adaptation so much.

“He really appreciated the way Jireš was able to follow not only the storyline, but also the structure of the book.

“So Kundera was more than satisfied with this adaptation.

“And he also liked the adaptation of one of the stories from another book, which was adapted by Antonin Kachlik [1969’s Já, truchlivý bůh/I, Mournful God from a story in the collection Laughable Loves].

The Joke | Photo: NFA

“So these two adaptations were always very much appreciated by Kundera himself, unlike the adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was a horrible experience for Kundera.

“He said after this film that he would never, ever allow anybody to make a film adaptation of any of his books again.”

Every year for maybe a decade the National Film Archive has a restored at the Karlovy Vary festival. What does it mean for the NFA to have this association with Karlovy Vary and to know that every year you will be having a screening of one of your restored films at the Grand Hall at Hotel Thermal?

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“This is a great opportunity for us as a heritage institution, that we can get so much attention to our restorations.

“And it’s great to see the Grand Hall at Thermal full of people who want to look back at our own history through the perspective of cinema.”

At the 56th Karlovy Vary IFF the National Film Archive is also screening a restored version of The Prague Executioner, a silent film from 1927. It was directed by Rudolf Měšťák and stars strongman Gustav Frištenský, one of the most famous people in Czechoslovakia in his day.