Ji.hlava-winning doc shines light on “deleted” Czech composer

Kapr Code

The top domestic honour at this year’s Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, the Czech Joy award, went to Kapr Code by Lucie Králová. It explores the story of the once-celebrated but now largely forgotten composer Jan Kapr – in a highly original, colourful manner. I spoke to the director just after she picked up the prize. 

Jan Kapr,  Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

“Jan Kapr was a Czech composer who died in 1988 and who was officially deleted from the collective memory during communism.

“He was a very famous composer of propaganda songs, but step by step he shifted to a complete dissident position and to the avant-garde.

Jan Kapr,  Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

"He received one of the highest honours of the Eastern Bloc at that time, the Stalin Award and he decided to give the Stalin Award back in 1968 as a reaction to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, which is unfortunately now quite a current topic.

“That’s why he was officially, like, banned, and had to smuggle his compositions out of the country.

Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

“He was quite famous abroad, but in Czechoslovakia he was quite forgotten.”

Is there a lot of archival footage of Jan Kapr?

“There is a private archive, which is now in the flat of his daughter, Magdalena Vyoralová.

Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

“She opened for us all these boxes with personal letters, political letters, to the Czechoslovak president – and mainly more than six hours of 8-millimetre fantastic, very funny footage.

“This is not only common home movies but something like funny, staged sketches in which also Jan Kapr is the star as an actor, who is directed by his close friends.”

How did you come across him? Or what was it about him that made you want to make the film?

Lucie Králová | Photo: Luboš Pavlíček,  ČTK

“Jan Kapr is like a case study for some broader subject in the film, which is memory and desire to leave a trace for eternity.

“He’s forgotten of course and it’s common that you do not know him.

Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

“In a way the film is also a revealing story about Jan Kapr, but through this story – which is I think a typical story of the 20th century of a deep transformation on the personal level, political level, but also artistic level, because from a propaganda composer he became a very interesting innovator and composer of experimental compositions, though he’s also the author of 10 big symphonies, for example.

“So it’s something which is forgotten, but I think it’s for our life quite interesting, that we need to understand when we find such an archive how to relate to that.

“And that was the subject of our film.”

Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

How did you come across his story for the first time?

“It was quite a coincidence, because my friend Michala VVV, who is a great violinist and music theorist is part of the family of Jan Kapr

Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

“She told me about this archive and the first thing that I saw were actually shots from the 8-millimetre footage, which was excellent and funny.

“I saw Jan Kapr lying on the grass and eating dandelions.

“It was fascinating because, you know, such a political figure – let’s say a political animal – in the ‘50s and he’s eating dandelions!

“And that was something like a creative dynamic for me to create this film.”

Could you say something about the style of your film? You call it “documentary opera” – what does that mean?

Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

“It’s something like our invention.

“We created a libretto according to Jan Kapr’s biography, which we dig from the archive materials, meaning letters, secret police reports and a lot of stuff that was really authentic.

“Then with a great choir, which is the internationally renowned Czech Philarmonic of Brno, we reconstructed this story with 17 singers.

“And the choirmaster of this choir is the last living student of Jan Kapr, Petr Fiala.”

Does the music stand up? Is the music actually good from today’s perspective?

Kapr Code | Photo: Ji.hlava / YouTube

“You need to see the film, because I think our intention was not to judge not only him, his story, but also his music.

“His music has different qualities, but for example there is a great work from the ‘70s, which is an adaptation of poetry by [Christian] Morgenstern into a great vocal composition.

“I think that’s a very important piece of work, it’s fascinating work.

“So there are pieces which are really good.

“But it’s not about only a film about a famous or forgotten composer.

“This is only one layer of the story, so for me it is not essential.”