New Hřebejk film Kawasaki’s Rose casts an unusual look at totalitarian past

Kawasakiho Růže or Kawasaki’s Rose is the newest film by the successful Czech director-screenwriter duo Jan Hřebejk and Petr Jarchovský. In Kawasaki’s Rose, Hřebejk, considered one of the leading directors of his generation, explores a story about family tensions, but as the conflict between the characters escalates, the film becomes deeply political.

Through the lens of a very personal story, it casts an intriguing look at the moral conflicts individuals sometimes found themselves entangled in during the communist era. Given the subject matter, the title seems startling at first, but it’s meant as a metaphor, Jan Hřebejk explains.

Jan Hřebejk
“Kawasaki’s Rose is one of the hardest figures in origami, and Petr Jarchovský liked this as a metaphor for the plot. In our film, we take a look at history, though without using flashbacks, but we do look at history from different angles and viewpoints. And though the overall shape seems simple, to really see all parts of it, you have to turn it several ways and take a closer look.”

To date, Hřebejk has been known mostly for comedies with a touch of the tragic, such as 1998’s Pelíšky or Cosy Dens. With Kawasaki’s Rose, he turns away from comedy in favor of taking on drama and a very complex plot. He says that shooting in a different genre also affected the casting process. The director has worked with amateur actors before, but in an unusual casting move for this film, he chose a famous Czech photographer to play the role of a Czech artist living in exile.

Film “Kawasaki’s Rose”
“In comedies, the character has to be liked by people and make them laugh, be charismatic, but in drama, it’s about being credible. I knew this was going to be hard, because this particular character appears relatively late in the film and had to win the audience over. In addition, its counterpart was well written and cast with the legendary actor Ladislav Chudík. Then I discovered Antonín Kratochvíl, a world renowned photographer who lives in New York. He has got a lot of experience with the totalitarian regime and he already had problems with the secret police at a young age. He also used to live in Sweden, where we shot that part of the story. So his quest was similar to the quest of the character I wanted him to play. He seemed to be a similar type and have a similar temperament, charisma, and so on. He just seemed like a perfect fit.”

In a recent phone conversation, the photographer Antonín Kratochvíl described his side of the experience.

“I was suggested to him by some guy in New York who I don’t really know, and then he saw a documentary about me that was done by Czech TV, and he liked my personality and thought I would do a good job. So he sent me the script and then we met and one thing led to another. And here I am, in a movie.”

Antonín Kratochvíl  (right) in 'Kawasaki’s Rose',  photo:
Kratochvíl plays the role of Bořek, a sculptor driven to emigrate by the StB secret police. As the plot progresses, it turns out that the film’s main character, psychologist Pavel, contributed to Bořek’s emigration. This is especially startling since Pavel’s character is also celebrated as one of the country’s best known dissidents.

“In Kawasaki’s Rose, we tried to expose the mechanisms with which the totalitarian power, more specifically the secret police literally destroyed people or got them to compromise their morals. Sometimes it wasn’t about getting rid of people or getting them to emigrate, but driving them to compromise themselves, and I think that there are a lot of myths surrounding that. Even people who lived during that time don’t have an exact memory of it. Or they never got into contact with the secret police and don’t understand the mechanisms with which the secret police worked.”

'Kawasaki’s Rose',  photo:
Both in exploring the StB and the dissident-collaborator, the film steers clear of a black and white take on the question of guilt. When Pavel’s daughter finds out her father was not the heroic dissident that he is believed to be, she confronts him with his past. In that personal conflict, the film explores where the line is between being interrogated and merely answering questions and becoming a collaborator.

In a film within a film segment, Kawasaki’s Rose shows a documentary crew working on a piece about the dissident-psychologist. We see the crew interviewing one of his former interrogators, agent Kafka, who explains that interrogation is a form of art.

“I thankfully never had to go through interrogation, but when they interrogated my good friend, the secret police officers would throw in questions like: How did you like the film Amadeus last night? And he had actually seen the movie. With questions like that, they wanted to create the impression that they were watching him everywhere. But later I found out that they didn’t know everything at all, but rather that they collected such small pieces of information to create the impression that they did know everything. So they’d ask you: Do you know this man? What do you know about him? And maybe you’d reply with something trivial, like: I know he has diabetes. When they went to interrogate him, they would then use that and say: You look like you need insulin. So with such trivial information, they’d create this impression of having power over everybody, kind of like in Orwell’s 1984, the idea that “Big Brother is watching you.” That was the goal: Keep everybody living in fear.”

'Kawasaki’s Rose',  photo:
Kawasaki’s Rose was chosen to open the esteemed Panorama category of the Berlin Film Festival which begins next week, and director Jan Hřebejk says he is hoping that it will catch the eye of foreign distributors.