Highly-anticipated thriller hits Czech screens

This Wednesday saw the premiere of the highly-anticipated Czech crime thriller Kajínek, partly based on events surrounding one of the Czech Republic’s most notorious convicts. Found guilty of two contract killings in the ‘90s, Jiří Kajínek would probably have remained forgotten behind bars had it not been for a daring escape from the country’s toughest prison. He has also always maintained he was innocent.

In the ‘90s Mr Kajínek was a professional thief but he was later found guilty for double murder, a charge he has always denied, maintaining he was framed by corrupt police. Following his highly-publicised but short-lived escape in 2000, investigative journalists uncovered material that, at the very least, raised doubts about the handling of his case. Kajínek, the film, stars Czech actress Tatiana Vilhelmová as the lawyer who won’t quit, the late Vladimír Dlouhý as a corrupt ex-cop pulling all the strings, and Russian actor Konstantin Lavronenko in the lead role. The polished production is the debut of former action film actor Petr Jákl, who I spoke to ahead of the screening. I asked him how he saw the Kajínek story.

“I wouldn’t say that he was a symbol for that time: he was just one of many thieves and nobody knew who he was until his escape from the Czech answer to Alcatraz, Mírov prison, in 2000.”

Why he was an inspiration for you?

Tatiana Vilhelmová, Konstantin Lavronenko, photo: CTK
“You know, I met for the first time six years ago – so around three years after his famous escape. During his escape there were all kinds of media stories about who Kajínek was, warning people to lock their doors and windows because Kajínek could kill you. That’s true and not exaggerated. But after the escape, things began to change and people began thinking about the background to the story. TV Nova’s Josef Klíma did an hour-long documentary looking into Kajínek’s past, uncovering many new details about the case. I decided to do this film on the basis of the new background uncovered. The main thing about the story is the power of will represented by the lawyer, player by Táňa Vilhelmová, fighting against the system. She tries to bring forward new evidence to get the case reopened.”

If we look at the real-life Jiří Kajínek, what were some of the difficulties faced by the actor who portrayed him, say in terms of physical presence?

“It was really difficult to find someone for the role, for a number of reasons. For one, everybody knows him, he’s a living person still in prison and everyone knows his face. We tried to find someone who was not Czech, who was a foreigner, because it would make it easier for people to believe that he was Kajínek. It wasn’t important to find someone who was really physically built but the role did require good physical condition. Kosta Lavranenko is such a person: not only clever but also in good shape and he was perfect for the part. He prepared for the role for two months and then he came to Prague to practice some of the fight scenes.”

Petr Jákl, photo: CTK
How difficult was it to film ‘within the system’? It was mentioned at the press conference that you shot at the actual prison…

“That was quite difficult to reach agreement but in the end they helped us a lot. In the end, we shot at the actual Mírov – the toughest prison in the Czech Republic. I think that there are 380 inmates there and 180 of them are killers.”

This was the last film that the actor Vladimír Dlouhý worked on: it must have been very emotional - what was it like to work with him at this point in his life?

“It was really nice because he was a true professional. He had some problems during the shoot but he didn’t let on: he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. Acting was his life and he pursued it to the last. I remember as a person who was always smiling and very kind to everyone and we were always happy whenever he was on the set.”

What was work like with director of photography F.A. Brabec? It seems some of the scenes that were shot, for example, when Kajínek was free were purposely very claustrophobic…

Konstantin Lavronenko as Kajínek
“I chose Brabec because he is an excellent cameraman and he works with long lenses and creates the right feeling necessary for this kind of a project. This is a crime thriller. In the jail cells we wanted the mood to be depressed; outside we used some longer lenses and cranes to cover the action and it was really nice to work with him.”

This is your debut as a director but you were a judo champion and also an actor in different Hollywood action movies: how did your background help you approach this project?

“It helped a lot. I have been in film for 15 years. I started as a stuntman, then I worked as actor, and then I had a lot of chances in American action movies. It all helped. I did this film according to my feelings: I didn’t read about directing and all that: I just did it. I followed my feelings rather than follow the rules, and maybe that’s one reason why the film is different.”

You made a distinction at the press conference between your film being inspired by the Kajínek story and actual events in his case and also mentioned some statistics… Could I ask you to talk a bit about that as well as whether you think the ‘truth’ will ever come out?

“There is a poll which was published on the internet today related to the case and whether you can receive justice in the Czech Republic: 93 percent said they believe the police are corrupt and 86 percent said they thought Mr Kajínek’s case should be reopened. Nobody is saying that the Mr Kajínek should be let go just like that. We just want his case to be re-opened and dealt with again.”