Vojtěch Jasný – venerable film director and font of remarkable stories

Vojtěch Jasný, foto: Ian Willoughby

The Czech film director Vojtěch Jasný is a fit and active 82-year-old who clearly loves to tell a story. And what stories. After his father was killed at Auschwitz, the teenage Vojtěch joined the resistance and, he says, became a British spy. As a young filmmaker he was happy to serve socialism and, despite becoming somewhat disillusioned, enjoyed good relations with Communist leaders Antonín Novotný and Alexander Dubček. Other significant acquaintances included Tito, the great German author Heinrich Boll and Miloš Forman.

Vojtěch Jasný | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International
At his apartment in the New York borough of Queens, Vojtěch Jasný first told me about the fate of his father:

“He was the head of the spiritual resistance and he was the head of this folk organisation and the Gestapo knew. These people were sent in ’42…they were taken in ’41. Before my father was hiding for one year and we helped him to hide. But then he said, nobody will hide me any more, people are scared.

“He was taken by the Gestapo and never came back. When he died I was over 17 and they had put us from gymnazium [secondary school] to work in a factory for weapons and I was in the workers’ resistance - communist.”

Could you briefly explain please, to go back a second, what you mean by saying your father was a spiritual resistance…fighter?

“He was not fighting with weapons. He was working with the spirit of the people – morals, ethics and all that, what he believed as a man of Masaryk, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, our great president.

“I went home to our town Kelč. When father died I went to the garden and hugged a tree as old as me – father built the garden when I was a little boy. I went to his bees (laughs) and promised that I will go fight, that I won’t die like a slave.”

What did you yourself do in the resistance?

“I was in the resistance in a factory and I and other workers had some duties to prepare for some actions. The Gestapo found a letter written to me in little letters – it was leftist. And they started to go after me.

“I was called to the Gestapo chief of the Vsetín factory, and he wanted to interrogate me. I went to the soldier and said…my German was very good, therefore I was a good British spy… and I knocked on the door and went in and said, Heil Hitler!

“He smiled and said, he’s not the man as was reported to me. He said, sit down, will you have a cigarette? I said, sure. He said, we can speak Czech, I speak Czech very well. I said, let’s talk German. You know I will stay in this factory and become an engineer, you will win the war…and so I was saved.

“When I came back to the factory there was a call on the speakers from chief engineer Chrast: worker Vojtěch Jasný immediately to engineer Chrast…the Gestapo had asked him to find out who I am.

“I came there and he was in an English tweed jacket, blue eyes, rusty hair. He said, you need a good coffee. I said, sure, I didn’t have a good coffee for years. He had coffee made and said, I work for British intelligence – will you work for us? I said, immediately, but if you are Gestapo I’m finished. He said you will work for us because of your very good German.

“So I was sent at 18 to the trenches to organise maps for the Soviet army…then in the mountains Major Murzin and the Soviet partisans got my maps and they sent them to Moscow and he gave me a new job…But it was organised by the British.”

I believe after that you became a socialist. If we can move forward in time, you and the great director Karel Kachyňa made some kind of propaganda film together.

“Yes. We made these films, we believed that this is good stuff…but we both learned from a very good experience. In 1952 we were sent to China to with special 35mm cameras to shoot feature films and short films.”

I’ve read also that something happened to one of your team on the way across the USSR which maybe put you off socialism.

“Not socialism, but communism, the Soviet system.”

Could you possibly tell us about your friend who was killed, or apparently killed, in the Soviet Union?

“He was not killed in the Soviet Union. It was Radim Drejsl, the artistic chief, a great composer, and we were friends. He said he had to go to the Soviet Union and tell them the truth, that it is not what we believed. I said, don’t do it, they’ll kill you.

“So he went there, he told it, then he came back and was killed like Jan Masaryk. They cut his veins and threw him out of the window of his apartment, pretending that he was in unhappy love, but it was not the truth…I learned this and from then I had to be very careful and wait until Stalin will die and then I could make movies.”

'Všichni dobří rodáci'
Among Vojtěch Jasný’s best known films is 1968’s Všichni dobří rodáci (All My Good Countrymen), which expresses the optimism and later hard reality of life in a Czechoslovak village in the decade after the communists came to power. It followed a string of other pictures, including Touha (Desire) from 1958 and the 1963 film Až přijde kocour (The Cassandra Cat). But it was another film that was to win Mr Jasný a powerful supporter.

“Antonín Novotný, our president and secretary then of the Communist Party, was during the Second World War in Mauthausen, a terrible death camp. But the Czechs had their specialty – there was a lagerschreiber who was a friend of the SS, but he was a communist and he helped all Czechs and especially communists...

“I made a film written by Jariš, who was also a survivor, and Novotný loved me because of this film.”

What film are we talking about now?

'Přežil jsem svou smrt'
“I am talking I Survived My Own Death [also known as I Survived Certain Death, Přežil jsem svou smrt] with a screenplay by Milan Jariš. I made it with my cameraman Jaroslav Kučera, and it is one of my best movies ever.

“Novotný loved this film. When he became president there later came a situation in which I needed Jan Werich [for Až přijde kocour], who was banned from acting because he talked on stage against the party. So I asked President Novotný to make him free. He did it, for me.”

Can you please tell us about Dubček and the making of All My Good Countrymen, which you had written years previously.

“I have to tell one thing first about Novotný. When the Cat was made there was a party in Lány Castle [a presidential residence], outdoors….He came to me in this firelight and he looked me in the eyes and said, Jasný, you can make any films after the Cat, you’ll get money, everything, but if you go against the party we’ll kill you. And I smiled at him and said, do you think I might? (laughs). And that was it.”

I was keen to hear about Vojtěch Jasný’s dealings with the reformist communist leader Alexander Dubček. But he wasn’t quite finished talking about Dubček’s predecessor, Novotný.

“The secret police called me to a special place, they had apartments in normal buildings. They put on loud music and running water, in case I had a special microphone.

“They said, you will now work for us and you will spy on all your friends and you will write us what they are doing, what they are thinking – and you will do it.

“I said, I will not do it. They said, we will push you. I said, let’s see, let me think about it. I left. I came home…and called President Novotný. I said, Mr President, they will push me to do it, but I will not do it. If they made me I would lose my face, morally, and moral death is worse than physical death…

“I had a knife from Algeria, for cutting sheep’s throats. I said, I will cut my throat…He said, don’t do it! I said, if you help me, I won’t do it. And he called the police…it was the time of Khrushchev, he was a friend of Khrushchev, so he could do it.

“I could go to all embassies and dine with the ambassadors and cultural attaches, and work for the new democratic order in my country.”

Speaking of the new democratic order, I believe Dubček – as I mentioned earlier – gave the green light for the making of your best known film, All My Good Countrymen.

Alexander Dubček
“I owe him everything. When he became chief of the party he was with Brezhnev in political school in Moscow. They were friends and Brezhnev thought he would obey him. But Dubček joined us, with his ‘human face’, and he was really, really for [reform].

“He called me himself and said, now Jasný, you can make your film and you’ll get everything for it. I waited for it 12 years. It was Dubček, I owe him my film. But to Novotný I owe my life. That’s how it is. It is not so simple with communism. They were also humans.”

Getting back to his pictures, Jasný has won several awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival – they include the Jury Prize for Desire in 1963 and Best director for All My Good Countrymen in 1969.

'Všichni dobří rodáci'
“I was awarded first for Desire in 1959, because when I could not make Countrymen, I wrote for producer Bohumil Šmída’s group…he said, you are a poet, write a poetic film. I wrote Desire and it was my first success.

“I became a friend of the president of Cannes. He was my mentor and protector – politically too…

“This film made me famous in Europe and in India, so I was invited to seminars, one month in Venice with Rossellini. I was invited to be in England with David Lean, Carol Reed, Anthony Asquith. And I was invited to Paris!

“Desire made me. Then the [Cassandra] Cat was a great success around the world, at Cannes and many festivals. I travelled two years around the world, only with the Cat.

'Cassandra Cat'
“Then my friend and mentor Jiří Trnka said, now after the Cat you have a special talent you can do a very simple film – do it! Do a very simple film, a very real film and I wrote [All My Good] Countrymen and I made it, thanks to Dubček.”

Did the success of the film in Czechoslovakia have an impact on your life? I believe a million people saw it in a year or two, it was very big – even today it’s still a much-loved film.

“I was famous in the world, not just in my country. Many think it’s the peak of my work – it is. But then I had to go into exile.”

What in the end pushed you to leave Czechoslovakia?

“It was life or death. I made one last film, Czech Rhapsody [Česká rapsodie], and sent it secretly to an exhibition in Osaka. It was a poetic film, 18 or 20 minutes long, about the [Soviet] occupation, without words, only pictures and music, and real people and the students around [Jan] Palach, who burned himself.

Vojtěch Jasný
“When the party found the film was against them they called me and said, what did you want to say with this film? I said, there are not words – what you see, you see.

“After the Soviet invasion Jiří Puš – who was my friend before – became the general director of Czech Cinema. He said, I cannot protect you any more. The situation is that you can save yourself this way – you will go on TV, radio and in the press and say that Countrymen is your worst film, and Czech Rhapsody too. You will make films written by others, you will take a secret police colonel and make him a hero, you will make these films.

“For me that would be moral death. I said, how much time will give you me? He said, four days. I came home and said to my wife and son, we have to leave in four days. And we left.”

Vojtěch Jasný has made films in many countries around the world. In fact, he says no director has shot pictures in as many different countries as he has. The director was based for several years in Germany, but before that he spent time in Yugoslavia, where he says he became a favourite of Tito, no less. Though he doesn’t outline why, the director says Tito protected him from danger.

“Tito gave me a bodyguard. Not telling me, he liked me, we knew each other. He saved my life too. They were sleeping in the hotel in front of my desk and there were always witnesses too – nobody could take me.

Ansichten eines Clowns
“But in Germany the greatest influence on me was Heinrich Boll. When he proposed to me after the Soviet invasion to make the film Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit [Christmas Not Just Once a Year, 1970] with him. It’s a beautiful, surreal film about a lady who is crazy – she makes every evening Christmas Eve and the whole family goes mad. It was one of the best comedies ever made.

“Boll said to me, will you make The Clown? I said, it is my great wish! So we made The Clown [Ansichten eines Clowns, 1976] together and it was nominated for an Oscar.”

Vojtěch Jasný, who this year received a Czech Lion film award for life-long services to cinematography, has now been living in the US for over 20 years. Miloš Forman, an old friend, was instrumental in bringing him to the country he is now happy to call home.

“In Germany they started to make mostly serials, and that was not for me. I would be a dead man. I decided to go to France and find an apartment, because of my success at Cannes, four times…

“Then a proposal came from Columbia University. Miloš made Amadeus and because of Amadeus I came to America!”

This is Miloš Forman we’re talking about.

“Yes, Miloš Forman [founder of the Columbia University School of the Arts Film Division]. I helped him with Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde, and he helped me in America. So I came to America and I stayed because I love it here!”

Tell us about your involvement with Stephen Spielberg’s project to make films about the Holocaust.

“I was supposed to go to Japan to create a film academy…and I wanted to stay in Japan, because I’m also a Zen Buddhist – I was trained by Herbert von Karajan in Zen Buddhism...

“A letter came from Spielberg and Miloš Forman asking me to make a film about Czech survivors – you are the only one who can do it….And because of this film [Peklo na zemi, Hell on Earth, 2001] I am now working on two Jewish stories, one is Terezín…

“Hell on Earth was shown in 64 countries and it is my horror. I put together a Beethoven quartet and Auschwitz…that’s my way.

“I’m working with a friend…we’re writing a cabala film…but it will take a long time. I have more plans, but I need more years.”