Jan Gebert - Maker of new documentary on battle over monument to murdered Germans

'Stone Games'

Efforts to commemorate ethnic Germans murdered by Czechs during a wave of post-war expulsions have frequently led to heated debate in this country. One such controversy is the subject of Jan Gebert’s debut documentary Stone Games, which follows a vocal campaign by a group of locals to remove a monument to eight Sudeten Germans killed in the north Bohemian town of Nový Bor in 1945. The protesters are led by an eccentric would-be politician – and their cause attracts the attention of national figures, including now presidential candidate Miloš Zeman.

Jan Gebert,  photo: archive of Jan Gebert
Ahead of the cinematic release of Stone Games this week, Gebert discussed the background to the film, which he shot in 2011.

“The monument was erected five years ago, I think. The idea came from the relatives of the victims, who were tortured and killed right after WWII. They had the idea of constructing this monument to commemorate those victims, and asked the town hall for approval, and they gave it to them.”

And a couple of years later a group of locals started criticising the monument and calling for it to be pulled down?

“Yes, exactly. It’s funny, I have no idea why it became an issue, three years after it was erected. I think one of the strongest incentives was given by the former prime minister, Miloš Zeman, who visited the cemetery and started to back those protesters against the monument. So they felt more confident probably, and started to promote it as a big local issue in the town.”

What are their arguments against the monument?

“Their argument is that it is a monument to Nazis. Because they found out that three people out of the eight whose names are on the monument were members of Hitler’s party [NSDAP] and one of them was even a member of the SS.

“I think that roughly matches the proportion that was there during WWII. I think if you randomly took nine people, three of them would probably be members of Hitler’s party, because roughly a third of the population of the Sudetenland had membership in that party.”

'Stone Games'
Some people listening to this will say, OK, the massacres that were committed against Germans at the end of the war were a crime, but still, a monument bearing the names of Nazis in the town is a reason for protest, because it’s offensive perhaps to the memory of Czechs who suffered in the war, or maybe some of these protesters had family members who were affected.

“I don’t agree with that point, because I don’t think those people were killed for being Nazis. Those people were killed for being Germans. There was no trial. Those people were just tortured for one day and afterwards they were killed.

“The monument is not there to commemorate their membership in Hitler’s party or the fact they were Nazis. The monument is there to commemorate the atrocity that was committed by Czechs.”

“I don’t agree with the point that it’s a monument to Nazis. That’s just a pretext for some nationalistic games that I can’t relate to, really.”

Who are these protesters? What's their politics? Are they left-wing, right-wing – where are they coming from on the political spectrum?

“It’s a funny thing with all of the extremists, the nationalists, they are from both left and right. It’s just an issue that connects both extremes of the political spectrum. They are Communists, they’re members of the party of Jana Bobošíková, the candidate for president [Bobošíková is currently appealing her exclusion from the ballot].

“They are members of different movements and different groups. What they have in common is that they probably don’t like the European Union, they don’t like the Czech Republic to be part of the West.”

'Stone Games'
And they’re anti-German?

“Yes, they’re anti-German. That goes hand in hand with their hatred towards the West, I think.”

How did they react to you, a Prague intellectual coming to film them and not sharing their view on this issue?

“It had some disadvantages, really [laughs]. Because at that time I was working as a reporter for one Czech weekly and the first time I came there it was to cover that issue with the monument.

“I knew that sooner or later I would have to publish that thing, and afterwards there would be no way back, because everybody would know what my point of view is. And I was pretty sure about what I would write from the very beginning.

“So the thing is I started to film and I started to collect my material for my report for the weekly at the same time, but it had to be published. I wanted to keep it unpublished as long as possible so I could film everybody, because I knew that people would stop talking to me after it was published. And that really happened. Some of the people really stopped talking to me.

“On the other hand, it had the advantage that some people really felt that they could have confidence in me, and they could probably tell me something that they knew that I wouldn’t misuse against them.”

What’s the situation now? I guess you finished filming towards the end of 2011, and the situation then was kind of open-ended, at least from the point of view of the viewer of the film. What is the situation today?

“The monument is still there. Because it’s probably only an issue for a couple of people that I mentioned, for those nationalists. They really do not represent the majority in the town. The majority either doesn’t care about it, or they’re just OK with it, I would say.”

'Stone Games'
So the monument is still standing and it will keep standing?

“Probably it will, because the new leadership at the town hall, on the town council, is pretty much OK with the monument.”

Among the figures in the film is Miloš Zeman, who’s running for president next month and is one of the leading candidates, as is Jana Bobošíková, who may be running. Do you consider it good timing for your film that they are currently in the spotlight and are in your new documentary?

“I think what the film might show is that some kinds of politicians, like Miloš Zeman or Jana Bobošíková, are always attracted to those populist topics. And probably it reveals also that the presidency attracts those kind of populists today.”

One aspect of the film that maybe won’t come across from what we’ve been speaking about so far is that it’s quite amusing. Some of your protagonists – particularly this one guy called Pavel Danys, who is quite an eccentric character – are funny.

“Yes, some of the situations that Pavel Danys created were really like a one-man show sometimes. I was really happy to have him. It starts with his costume that he sometimes wore, he’s got a leather coat…”

He's got a little man bag, as well.

“Yes, a man bag that looks like a woman’s bag. And he was really funny. There was always something going on around him. It was really funny to follow this kind of character, who was going hand in hand almost with big politicians like Miloš Zeman, who was taking him seriously, or pretending to take him seriously.”

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Kristýna Maková
You were saying as well that Zeman told this guy Danys not to wear the purple leather coat.

“Yeah, because it was a kind of paradoxical situation, because the costume that I’ve roughly described really looks like a Nazi kind of uniform, so it was very funny that he was going against this monument to Nazis and wearing this. Miloš Zeman was probably aware of that situation being very strange, and he forbade him from wearing it at political meetings.”

Danys was in his party [Citizens’ Rights Party – Zemanites].

“Yes, I didn’t mention that. Pavel Danys joined the party of Miloš Zeman and started to make a career. He became a leader of Miloš Zeman’s party in the town.

“So when they were both attending political meetings he was sometimes wearing this funny Nazi coat and Zeman said, you shouldn’t wear it, it looks like a Nazi coat. But Pavel Danys still wore it sometimes, because he has his own…decisions.”

And style.

“His own style, yeah [laughs]. He’s very unique.”