Foreign Film Friday: The Joke (1969)

The Joke
The Joke

This weekly series discusses the cultural and artistic implications of a selected foreign film.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a new Milan Kundera short story in The New Yorker. One of my favorite authors, I was intrigued to learn Kundera was releasing his tenth novel — the first in 15 years — later this year (in English; it was previously released in French). Though I enjoy reading Kundera’s work, the Czech author is known for taking umbrage at his books’ English translations. I began to wonder how he felt about his novels that have been translated onscreen, to film. 

Some quick Googling revealed he had served as either screenwriter or consultant on the only adaptations of his works, 1988's Unbearable Lightness of Being and 1969's The Joke, films that bookend the communist regime in the Czech Republic. Disappointed with Unbearable Lightness of Being, an American film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, I turned to The Joke. A film by auteur Jaromil Jireš at the crest of the Czech New Wave movement, its political tides swept the country during the end of the Prague Spring, a brief elision in the Soviet regime where democracy seemed attainable for a fleeting moment. 

I wasn’t disappointed. Not surprisingly, The Joke is inherently political, but its lofty themes of freedom thinly veil a more nuanced, personal narrative of intimacy and revenge. Told in effective jumps from the past and present, the film follows Ludvík, a man who sends a sarcastic jest in the mail to his romantic interest, Markéta, mocking Trotsky. The letter is read by his university comrades in the Party and they sentence him to six years in prison and the army, where he becomes the butt of his own joke. 

Jump to the present: Ludvík attempts to get revenge by seducing Helena, the wife of one of his betrayers from the Party years ago. The film unsnarls with an arid humor as Ludvík’s pessimistic outlook is upended by revelatory moments, often soundtracked by the film’s traditional music. The polyphonic chapters of Kundera’s novel are traded here for colliding tonalities between now and then, as the helixing of the visual tenses instill a sense of upheaval, of never truly being able to escape the past.

Cinematographer Jan Curík frames the imagery with a monochrome staccato to complement the frenetic visual grammar, and Jireš intercuts archival footage with the action to suggest the reality of the atmosphere. Voiceovers are capitalized on frequently, and add a dimension of helplessness that was shown in the book through multiple points of view. As Ludvík narrates his fruitless schemes, there’s a false sense of omniscience, even though it becomes clear that he has no control over his destiny. Jirês captures Kundera’s inimitable brand of existential romance, and Josef Somr plays the protagonist with an understated brilliance and ennui. Trying to convince Helena of his love, the godless Ludvík tells her, “It’s as strong as fate.” 

Kundera has suggested in interviews that all of his novels could have been titled The Joke or Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I found that true in this case, even though there is a clear heaviness to the causes and effects, in and outside the screen. Jireš was exiled after the movie was banned, and was pressured to erase The Joke from his filmography, a film whose weightlessnesses arrive in the form of old Folk songs, a practice that allows the characters to never forget their heritage. Cinema was Jireš’s way to remember, and his second film survives, thankfully, for us. 

It was alleged, in 2009, that Kundera was an informant for the Chezch secret police as a student, and turned over a Western spy who served 14 years after almost facing a death sentence. Whether or not this is true, it intensifies the texture of sin and ambiguity within the film, which Kundera co-wrote. Maybe it was a type of catharsis, a way to cope with his guilt. Or maybe it is the film’s final joke, leaving no one to have the last laugh. 


THE JOKE is currently screening on hulu plus as part of their Criterion Collection. hulu.com.

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