Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Review of The Ear (Ucho)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to combine “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “1984”? It would be like “The Ear” (1970).

Conjugal strife and dystopic paranoia make for a high-strung film, set in the height of Czech suppression circa 1970 and even filmed amidst Gustav Husak’s political purges and brutal “renormalization.” Unsurprisingly, the film was banned for nearly 20 years, but when the wall came down, the curtain came up and the film received its long overdue theatrical debut. Today it is considered one of the great masterpieces of the Czech New Wave, though its stateside unavailability has made it something of an obscurity. I’m getting pretty familiar with that pattern.

The film is a two-actor show, an intimate night spent with Ludvik and Anna as their crumbling marriage and imminent imprisonment vie for their increasingly panicked attention. The film begins with the couple returning home after a high-class gala where revelry and camaraderie whitewashed the recent arrest of Ludvik’s boss, a minister, and most of his cabinet. Even though he’s just about the last man standing after the political cleansing, Ludvik doesn’t realize quite how vulnerable his position is until he finds his front gate unlocked and his power cut.

Ludvik’s bickering and backbiting with his inebriated wife in the darkness of their spacious home initially distracts him from connecting the dots, but when he notices the secret police lurking in the garden outside, he realizes that he may only have a matter of minutes to destroy his reams of compromising documents. Sobering to the danger at hand, Anna helps her husband burn his months of hard work, but soon lapses back into anger and resentment. Though a shared cause almost reunites the couple, fear washes over and gradual erodes a wider chasm between them.

Relief seems to come when a drunken delegation arrives and Ludvik learns that it’s his neighbor who has been arrested. Not wanting to seem suspicious, Ludvik invites the partiers in for a loud and rowdy nightcap, much to Anna’s consternation. Just when the last guest has left and the long night of terror appears to be over, Anna discovers that the house has been freshly bugged. They suddenly grasp that the unexpected visit was no casual accident; the revelers were spies come to continue Ludvik’s investigation. In Director Karel Kachyna’s nightmare vision of the communist regime, hope is just another mind game.

It is already too late to destroy any evidence of guilt – it was seized before they arrived home – and even Ludvik’s gun has been removed to prevent a self-inflicted escape. “When they want, they’ll do it themselves” he speculates, but nothing can prepare them for the listener’s real intentions. Kachyna’s final pitch black twist leaves them totally dumbfounded, with Anna final line, “I’m scared,” left to linger over the credits.

Throughout the film, Kachyna moves from shouts and screams to frightened whispers, as the battling duo constantly recalls the presence of “the Ear,” the nearly-omniscient network of spies and recording devices that force the population into a life of fear and self-censorship. The atmosphere of paranoia, where even on the balcony a bird’s nest may hide a bug, drives the maddening tension and the need to somehow defy the Ear. It reminds me of “Careful,” in which love, murder and betrayal take place in an alpine village where even the slightest sound might trigger a deadly avalanche.

The film’s structure neatly compliments the nagging anxiety of the protagonist. Though set within a single night, the film does not unfold with a simple real-time linearity. Instead, frequent flashbacks revert to the party earlier in the evening as Ludvik wracks his memory for hidden meanings in the gay frivolities and social niceties. As he awakens to his terrible plight, the flashbacks take on a desperate hue. “Did he call you Anna?” asks Ludvik, hoping that if the party officials addressed his wife by name, they couldn’t be planning their extermination mere hours later. Could they?

The contrast between the dazzling whiteness of the party and the power-outage darkness of the house helps us feel the friction between outward appearances and inner fear and highlights the abruptness with which fortune can change. One gets the impression that the film would be black and white even if it were shot in color.

The cinematography is dead-on, not quite on the level of “The Fifth Horseman Is Fear,” but carefully modulated to the action. It keeps us tightly bound with medium shots and close-ups, all the better to watch the eyes and lips for faint clues. The crude histrionics of husband and wife at war are captured with the same attention to details as the subtle gestures of social mixing. It may all be part of a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. As one guest at the evening banquet mentions, you can tell the “trained waiters” are all spies by watching their hands: they don’t know the proper etiquette for serving such fancy dishes.

Despite its political pedigree as an incendiary anti-government work, or perhaps because of it, “The Ear” is no grueling history lesson. It continues to work as a brisk noir thriller and claws-extended drama even outside of its original circumstances. Far from being light entertainment, it will nevertheless keep you in its tight, uncompromising grip.

Sadly, “The Ear” (or “Ucho” as it’s known in Czech) has never been released for the region 1 market. DVD distributer Second Run, sort of the Criterion of East European films, has released an excellent region 2 transfer with an intro by Czechspert Peter Hames and a great insert booklet. Second Run’s collection has been one of the motivating factors in my purchase of a region-free DVD player, which I’ve quickly fallen deeply in love with. It’s a highly a recommended investment.

Walrus Rating: 9.5


Mad Dog said...

Way to tease me with awesome movies I can't see. :(

FilmWalrus said...

Well think about how bad blind people must feel after they read all of your movie reviews.

But seriously, I should never have put off the region-free player for so long. It's already paid itself off with the rare movies it's opened up for me. I'll add a link in my original post to where I bought mine. Sketchy website, great player.

Mad Dog said...

If I wasn't already up to my armpits with Netflix movies I need to see, it'd be sort of tempting...

I'm a bit confused by the whole NTSC/PAL thing, though. If you have a regionless disc, if the disc is PAL, it still won't work?

FilmWalrus said...

Yes, if you're not careful. Your TV is likely NTSC and can only handle NTSC resolution (unless you have a swanky new digital one) and, more problematically, it can only play NTSC standard 30 fps. PAL is 25 fps. Incidently, the conversion from film, 24 fps, is much simpler.

So even with a region-free DVD player, your NTSC TV can't handle PAL or SECAM (a standard used by some former Soviet bloc countries and older French stuff) discs unless you convert it. There are four ways to do this:

1) Buy a PAL TV: Don't be stupid.

2) Use a software converter: This has the advantage of being free, but it means that you have to rip the movie to your computer, which is a pain. If you are going to do this, you might as well not buy a region-free player because free software will also remove region encoding while you are at it. This is what I did for about a year.

3) Use a hardware converter: This is a device that you plug in between your player and your TV to convert the signal. This is an expensive and clunky choice, but the best option if you love your current player.

4) Buy a player that handles the conversion automatically: I now think this is the best choice. I would only buy a region-free player that is also NTSC/PAL/SECAM compatible (like the one in my link). Most of them are these days, but do check. Even a lot of regular region-1 DVD players are fully compatible (I have no idea why).

And remember that regions, encoding and framerates are a technical and distribution issue only. There is no legal basis. You can not get in trouble for converting signals, stripping off region codes or importing DVDs from legitimate distributers in other regions.

Hope that helps clarify things!

Mad Dog said...

Yeah, sort of. I only ask because the Funny Games remake got a PAL Blu-Ray release but not a NTSC one yet. The PAL is regionless, but I was fuzzy on how the compatibility worked in that regard.

Might as well wait for Warner to release it domestically at that rate.

Anonymous said...

Actually, one of the great things about Blu-Ray (and high-definition formats in general) is that they abolish the PAL/NTSC distinction - US and European discs should contain exactly the same 1080p transfers, which is a different format altogether. So if the British Funny Games disc is region-free, it should play back perfectly on any Blu-Ray setup.

That said, there's a potential regional problem (aside from the region code), which is to do with extras in standard-definition video - these obviously will be PAL or NTSC.

The problem from a US perspective is that European systems are much friendlier towards NTSC than vice versa - I've been multi-region since 1999. My British PS3 has no problem playing NTSC material on a British TV, but I understand that US players won't handle PAL extras, regardless of whether the TV can cope.

FilmWalrus said...

Thanks for the help Michael! It was actually while reading through your blog that I finally decided the region-free player was a must. Your reviews got me excited about so many films (I already regard you as my Eastern/Central European film idol), but few are unlikely to get US releases any time soon (or at all). I guess that is one of my worries with Blu-Ray: that it will just mean better quality blockbusters, but will remain too expensive to risk on old and obscure films. VHS still has more titles than DVD and I fear Blu-Ray will end up with even fewer.