Jiří Sequens, a gifted filmmaker who compromised his talents
The life and work of Jiří Sequens, a Czech film director who died in Prague on Monday at the age of 85, could well be the subject of a movie. A skilled filmmaker with a special gift for action adventures and detective stories, Sequens created one of the most popular and best received crime series in the history of Czech Television. But he also put his talent in the service of communist propaganda, filming the infamous '30 Cases of Major Zeman' which distorted modern Czech history in an unparalleled way.
“His filmography contains a lot of deadwood; the most striking example of this is of course the ’30 Cases of Major Zeman’ series. He also shot films you can laugh at today but which used to make us angry. Those films are really totally useless, such as ‘Bitter Autumn with the Scent of Mangoes’, or his early films from the beginning of the 1950s which nobody really knows any longer.”
Jiří Sequens, who was born in Brno in 1922, studied film directing in Moscow and Paris after the war. He shot his first movie, Cesta ke štěstí, or Road to Happiness, in 1951. It tells the story of a young woman who assists the collectivization of private farms in her village, a process now considered one of the worst crimes of communism in Czechoslovakia. Film historian Pavel Taussig explains that as a member of the Communist Party, Jiří Sequens understood well what was expected of the nationalized Czech film industry.
Jiří Sequens made what is undisputedly his best feature film in 1964. Its name is Atentát, or Assassination, and it tells the story of the assassination of one of the highest ranking Nazi officials Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942.
“The film was very successful in the dramatised document genre and I have to say it was very well made. But perhaps few of those who have seen the film noticed that it distorted history and even expressed certain disrespect towards the brave soldiers who carried out the assassination. Their real names were changed in the movie; he stripped them of their identities. The film was also heavily influenced by the communist interpretation of history which claimed that the assassination was no good for the resistance and that on the contrary many innocent people died as a result.”
Set in 1930s Prague, the 13-part series follows the career of Chief Police Inspector Vacátko – based on a real life detective from before the war – and his murder squad cracking serious homicide cases in the capital city. Jiří Sequens shot the series and four additional full-feature episodes in black and white achieving an atmosphere of the idealized First Republic. Pavel Taussig again.
“His series ‘The Sinful Folks of Prague’ which he made in 1968 turned out very well. The viewers were very excited because the show went back to the 1930s in a kind of Čapek spirit, with a sort of nostalgic retro hindsight. The casting was exceptional, and there were a plenty of good roles. The show also dealt with very expressive criminal cases.”
The creators of the series picked real criminal cases from the period but often changed the plot to fit the official interpretation of history. In the very first episode, Zeman returns from a Nazi concentration camp only to find out that his father has been murdered. The murderer, as the cunning young man discovers, killed his father to conceal his collaboration with the Gestapo – and he happens to be a member of a democratic party banned by the communists after 1948.
“That’s difficult to say. He could have believed the ideology and shared some of those attitudes. Another possibility, and a more viable one, too, is that he just wanted to make films. This is why a number of directors served the communists then. Many others found a safe haven making children’s movies where the pressure was much smaller. But Jiří Sequens wanted to go on making movies – you would hear the same answer from Otakar Vávra – and he accepted this as some kind of trade-off.”
“The Major Zeman series, so much debated now, shows that Jiří Sequens knew how to make a good movie, how to build up and shoot a good detective story, and how to work with actors. The question of course is if you can separate the episodes with straight forward propaganda from those that are still considered to be excellent detective stories or even thrillers, such as the famous Studna episode.”
Indeed, the episode entitled Studna, or the Well, haunted my generation for years. A famous scene depicts a man witnessing his father murder his mother with an axe, and then forcing him to slash his wrists and throwing him down a well.
“For us Sequens was a practical teacher. He knew how to teach us the way we needed it in the first and second year in the academy – how to put shots together, how to keep the pace, how to structure a scene – these basic things. We all thought that he was a good choice and we were glad that we were instructed by such a professional.”
Zdeněk Zelenka stayed close to Jiří Sequens even after the revolution in 1989 when he was criticized especially for the Major Zeman series and many of his colleagues turned his back on him. Did Jiří Sequens ever regret wasting his talents in the service of the communist ideology?
“I think that he changed his worldview. He stopped believing in the ideas he once supported and promoted. But he didn’t want to just write his life off; he would not admit it. He wanted to play the role he chose until the very end, which I think was a mistake.”
When Jiří Sequens died on Monday, many obituaries pointed out that he was not the only director who made films to suit the ruling totalitarian ideology of the time. But what distinguished Jiří Sequens from those other filmmakers was the superiority of his style and his exceptional willingness in the 1970s, several years after the Soviet-led invasion of his country, to serve a regime imposed by tanks.