Spies Like Us: the return of Major Zeman

The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman

For many Czechs, the communist-era TV series "The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman" still leaves a bad taste, a reminder of some of the uglier excesses of the former regime. The series, largely ideological propaganda, followed the adventures of Zeman, a detective hard at work to uproot subversive and apparently criminal elements opposed to the Communist state. For some, a decision by Czech TV to rebroadcast the series a number of years ago still rankles. And although the affair eventually died down, it is now, once again threatening to resurface, as a Czech film company has promised to bring Major Zeman out of retirement.

The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman
The name of Major Jan Zeman is certainly a name familiar to most Czechs, not least those who grew up in the period following 1968. For four years in the 1970s, the character routinely entered viewers' living rooms, always uncovering a new threat to the Communist state. If it wasn't for Major Zeman, some have joked, communism would have ended sooner. But, many Czechs with little else to watch, let Zeman happily into their homes:

Jiri Penas is a critic who writes for the weekly Tyden magazine:

"In the 70s Czech viewers were starved for anything from the crime genre, especially detective stories. There weren't many movies from the west played here at the time, so audiences were grateful each time a revolver was drawn, or there was some shooting in a movie. Many were willing to completely ignore the series' overarching ideological construct, pretending it wasn't there. But, they also had to pretend to not notice how poorly the series was actually made. Episodes were slow, anti-climactic, often without any of the ingredients any good crime story needs. Namely, the series lacked suspense. If it was suggested at all, it was minimal, sandwiched between endless ideological stuffing."

Above all, says Penas, Major Zeman was a product of his time - the period that came to be infamously known as the "normalisation", after 1968. Following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the Prague Spring reforms, the regime needed new means of propping up its message. What could be more effective than a long-running TV show?

"Zeman served an ideological function, and what was important was reconstructing Czech history in a way useful for the regime. On one level you could say the series consisted of detective stories, but that was only on the surface. Above all they are an "attack" on the country's collective and historic memory. History was falsified. The show created a version of Czechoslovakia after 1945 "constantly" under threat. Countless saboteurs, revanchist Germans, the Church, as well as a slew of traitors who were little more than imperialist tools."

The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman
And perhaps one of the most chilling elements was the series ability to distort, for example, information about supposedly real people then opposed to the regime.

"Dissidents and opponents of the regime were portrayed in absolutely negative colours: they were crooks. And, these characters were made to somehow evoke a number of real people at that time. Not the same but reminding viewers of say, Vaclav Havel or writer Pavel Kohout or others. They were only alluded to and were never named and of course they were caricatures. But, these people were living, and they couldn't defend themselves at all. One example for all was one episode in which members of the Czech underground arts movement hijack a plane. The producers matched terrorism with the underground music scene. Evoking the band the Plastic People of the Universe, whose trial sparked the Charter 77 human rights movement. Ordinary people watching at the time, with little information perhaps thought: 'yeah, they really are criminals'."

The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman
So, the million dollar question is: why would anyone want to bring Major Zeman back? After 1989, the character seemed truly destined for the proverbial dust-bin, at most the subject of study for history papers or film dissertations. But, a film company apparrently hoping to cash in on the Zeman name, is determined to reinvent the character, with a completely unfamiliar twist. Producer Pavel Dvorak of Idefia films:

"We are planning for the picture to hit the cinemas in the spring of 2007 but I have to stress it will be a somewhat different Zeman than audiences will remember. Sure, it's Major Zeman Returns, but thematically it's different. It will be the same actor Vladimir Brabec, who has expressed enthusiasm, and yes, it's the Zeman name, but this character is different. He'll actually team-up with a female character from the CIA to help thwart a terrorist attack during a Prague NATO Summit. The film is in no way connected to former communist ideology. The Zeman name is just a brand."

The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman
Some people consider the strategy ridiculous, others immoral. Still others think it might just work. Critic Jiri Penas again:

"Major Zeman is starting to grown akin to a kind of 'folklore', the series is even viewed with humour through a retro lens. Some people, for example, know the lines by heart; some watch the series for moments that border on parody or are in and of themselves, bizarre. But, of course the series continues to provoke all those who suffered under the former regime, as well as those with a higher respect for the truth."

Cestmir Cejka of the Association for Political Prisoners says the character the character of Major Zeman was far too associated with the former regime to ever undergo a major change.

Cestmir Cejka
"I think it's a most unfortunate idea. There's not much you can change on the series today. It was perfectly produced state propaganda which manipulated the masses. You can't correct past wrongs like that, especially considering the crimes of an organisation like the Czech StB, the communist-era secret police."

But, producer Pavel Dvorak disagrees and says the new project will have to be judged on its merits alone.

"What's wrong with reinventing Major Zeman today? Our story is about an older detective who wants to shed light on [earlier events]."

Interestingly, Major Zeman's return is being planned just as the latest instalment of the James Bond series is being filmed in Prague. Zeman, on the opposite side of the ideological fence, has sometimes been compared to the suave but deadly British spy.

James Bond
"We had Major Zeman but I would hesitate to call him the Czech James Bond. The comparison is not fair to either character. Zeman's positive traits - and he had to have some for people to watch for 30 episodes - were actually very Czech: he was always reliable, had strong family ties, was a concerned father. But, he was certainly no action hero, flying around or leaping from helicopters. Zeman was a socialist ideal. And, he had no weaknesses, whereas Bond does."

At a press conference last week for the upcoming "Casino Royale", the film's director Martin Campbell promised the film would show the formative roots of James Bond; by comparison with Major Zeman Czech producers want to do the opposite: to invent a man who never was, while cashing in on the Zeman name.