Jiří Sequens, a gifted filmmaker who compromised his talents

Jiří Sequens, photo: CTK

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.

Jiří Sequens,  photo: CTK
Some might compare Jiří Sequens to Leni Riefenstahl, the famous German filmmaker who used her talents to promote the values of the German Nazi movement. But the films Jiří Sequens made during his early career in the 1950s will definitely not be remembered for any elegance of style. In fact, they will probably not be remembered at all. Mirka Spáčilová is a film critic for the daily Mladá fronta Dnes.

“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.

Pavel Taussig,  photo: CTK
“Jiří Sequens was a major protagonist of the post-war and especially post-1948 era in film. As a very active communist, he would make every effort to make Czech cinema start producing all those propagandistic and political “products” as I can’t really call these films movies. As a director, he would often work with the action movie genre, but even these adventurous films he would always lace with political propaganda.”

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.

Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Security Main Office and one of the main architects of the Holocaust, was sent to Prague in 1941 to bring down the local resistance. He was assassinated in May 1942 by a group of Czech paratroopers flown in from Britain by the Czechoslovak exile government. While many critics consider Atentát to be one of the best Czech war movies ever made, Pavel Taussig says Jiří Sequens exploited the theme within the political boundaries set by the communist ideology.

“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.”

Hříšní lidé města pražského
Another favourite of Jiří Sequens, besides action drama, was the detective story. He shot his first in 1955 but it was only 13 years later that he filmed what was to become a classic of the genre: Hříšní lidé města pražského, or the Sinful Folks of Prague.

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.”

Major Zeman
After the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the new communist leadership was looking for ways to improve the image of the police force, often employed in suppressing public protests against the occupation. The federal interior ministry commissioned a TV detective series to commemorate the 30 years anniversary of the foundation of the communist controlled police. Jiří Sequens was not the first film director they approached but he succeeded in getting the lucrative job of filming the 30 episodes – starring Major Zeman as a bright, tough and loyal police officer.

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.

Mirka Spáčilová,  photo: CTK
In another episode, a member of the wartime Czechoslovak army in Britain becomes a ruthless spy against his own country. Many episodes feature nuns and monks piling machine guns and other weapons to be used in a civil war against the communist regime. I asked film critic Mirka Spáčilová what made Jiří Sequens, the director of an idyllic retro crime show, take part in such a blatant propaganda.

“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.”

Major Zeman
The Major Zeman series, despite its propagandist message, or perhaps because of it, has developed a cult following in the Czech Republic. One of the tabloid dailies issues a Major Zeman DVD every week and the show has its fan club. And as Mirka Spáčilová explains, some of the episodes were after all good detective stories.

“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.

Jiří Sequens shared his outstanding filmmaking skills with the students of the FAMU film academy in Prague. Film director and screenwriter Zdeněk Zelenka, who was one of his students in the late 1970s, says he was very good when it came to the practical side of the craft.

“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.