“We overestimate the importance of knowing where we are because in nomadic times it was essential to recognize the tribal feeding grounds. Why are we satisfied to speak vaguely of a red nose, without specifying what shade of red, even though degrees of red can be stated precisely to the micromillimeter of a wavelength, while with something so infinitely more complex as what city one happens to be in, we always insist on knowing it exactly?”
— Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (1930–1943, trans. Sophie Wilkins)
I, like many Czechs but not too many foreigners before me, have been tasked with speaking about a new film by Karel Vachek. I can offer, from the outset, only ignorance — an almost obscene ignorance, given the breadth of this particular film and the intellectual clout of its maker. Vachek’s films since the revolution have been concerned, above all else, with the particulars of Czech society, and with the obsessive mysticism of the people themselves. Communism and the Net’s often a hodgepodge of repurposed artefacts and trinkets from the rest of Vachek’s oeuvre. Sometimes they are truncated for the purpose, but just as often they are not. Having a firm grip on his previous work, then, might render these fragmentary excerpts from other cinematic investigations more legible in a new context. The most interesting skillset to leverage, critically speaking, is accumulated experience. Bringing some kind of expertise, one can offer guidance to travellers about to embark on the straits ahead, drawing from a depth of insight that presumably exceeds that of the typical viewer.
Turn the page to a confident reader of the Bohemian-Moravian tealeaves. Again for an historiographical heavyweight. Again for an expert on the sad life and tawdry death of Czechoslovak communism. Again for a shrewd mystic that can decipher the runes unearthed during Vachek’s epic archeologies of Czech life and culture. I can offer none of that. I am no cultural clairvoyant; I am but a slack-jawed movie-buff whose only claim to knowledge on these subjects is a fondness for the patchy history of my adopted motherland. Simply admiring the films as an outsider, for whom the material is unfamiliar, or at best vaguely familiar, may not be enough. For even a half-clued-up Czech or Slovak, one who did not spend their entire adult life in a sanatorium in the Alps or raised by wolves in Vysočina, the floor is higher. These are movies, Communism and the Net in particular, that reward a complete immersion in the goings-on of this nation. You reanimate beloved figures, recall melodies, recognise obscure streets and alleyways, relive national traumas. These are tools of intuition and cultural memory I do not possess; I had to turn to Google to find that it was Smetana playing over the opening. Thus, my time in the philosophical rainforest of Vachek’s imagination is a fraught one, where I can only distinguish objects by their basic outline, and make observations based on often incomplete impressions. My twelve months in the Czech Republic can only get me so far.
If I am here clumsily and elaborately imagining myself as akin to Musil’s man without qualities, it is not for the sake of false modesty. In this narrow context, this ignorance may be useful in establishing some distance. It might even be illuminating. All art is born into a matrix of complex and intertwined associations and the vagaries of reception and distribution in cinema today should not be ascribed a single reason for being what they are. That said, the gulf between Vachek’s reception in the Czech Republic, where he is justifiably considered one of the greatest, if most forbidding, of documentary filmmakers, and then abroad is unusually immense. No doubt it is at least in part a product of the staggering richness of detail that overwhelms anyone timidly venturing into each of the labyrinths to which Vachek has signed his name. And so in this sense, I do not feel that the cultural ignorance I have already professed is in itself totally worthless. This ignorance does in fact set me apart from the apparent majority of those who watch these films — which is to say, Czechs and Slovaks. I first saw Communism and the Net, or the End of Representative Democracy not here in Prague, but at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film was part of a miraculous programme of works by filmmakers in their twilight years, a once-in-a-lifetime act of curatorial courage and generosity on the part of programmers Olaf Möller and Gerwin Tamsa.
Before and after the screening, Vachek held forth exactly as the domineering, bombastic interlocutor seen throughout his work. But, unlike there or in screenings here in the Czech Republic, his presence in Rotterdam was ultimately an alien one. In the film as in real life, Vachek moves around confident that he is a permanent fixture of public life. We see him speaking loudly at public events. We see him sauntering freely around the room while introducing his films, refusing the conventional restrictions of space demanded of such an event. We see Czech people’s expressions as he grabs the microphone to offer a provocative insight into some aspect of the national mindset at a pregnant moment; these looks imply a certain acceptance, begrudging or not, of his role as one of the reliable public thinkers of and on the culture. In Rotterdam, the questions were put to him in English, translated live, and the process repeated, clumsily, for each of his characteristically discursive responses. It was odd to straddle this line as a listener, to have the odd privilege of being both inside and outside the sphere of discussion. The film is so specific to this one small country’s cultural and political consciousness that it was difficult not to contemplate how it would look to the average festival-goer—or simply to somebody who has not spent the last year playing catch-up on the history and philosophical constitution of a nation. In the short breaks between sections, my companions, though absorbed in the film, asked me sheepishly about the names that crop up throughout the film. Andrej Babiš, Miloš Zeman, Václav Klaus—even Havel.
These particular cultural avatars are preoccupations for a man who has a thousand such preoccupations on his mind at all times. If his style can be reduced to anything at all, it is as an unceasing search for some form for these meditations. Vachek flings references and ideas and ironies at the screen with abandon, like a startled squid spraying ink. Ridiculous moments like Jean-Claude Juncker tripping on a step when moving to shake Zeman’s hand in Luxembourg; Putin lifting weights without a shirt on; Babiš giving a banknote to a beggar in the subway as an impromptu stunt for television cameras and later garrulously boasting about it at a cocktail reception, also on camera; Donald Trump body-slamming the chairman of WWE and then shaving his head after having him tied to a chair, all while we hear Mike Pence delivering a speech from 2017 that praises Trump’s record on cutting corporation taxes and his then-nascent plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Likewise, I never question his brazen use of explicit callbacks and quotations in text form, nor the screens that fill from one corner of the frame to the other with the assorted names of artists, scientists, and politicians, nor the semi-random appearance of a low-quality image of, say, the cover of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale or Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night superimposed over footage of Vachek’s various investigations, nor the scrolling banners that add even further information into the great mix. Vachek also likes to stage protracted set pieces almost as a counterpoint to these snippets. The precise meaning of each of these elaborate stagings is in the end elusive. We see a man with an accordion shuffling solemnly around a warehouse, singing and playing a melancholic tune, as the camera watches him from up on a forklift retreating steadily a few feet ahead of him. We see Vachek, dressed in a magician’s top hat and tails, climb into an inflatable ball made from transparent plastic and ride it down a stream in the snow. At the start of each section, we see Vachek’s granddaughter—introduced as such in another segment—dressed in early 19th century aristocratic attire and pacing in circles around a giant display of Paní Vachková’s paintings while the “Uhodila naše hodina” section of Brandenburgers in Bohemia plays on the soundtrack.These interventions suggest an emotional, poetic logic to Vachek’s investigation that often, on a strictly logical level, is somewhat foggy or even absent altogether. The sound of a gong being hit periodically throughout the film as a sort of punctuation to visual schema provides a rhythmic shift forward through the matrix of Vachek’s thoughts. With each arrival of this recognisable aural marker, Vachek suggests the long passing of time and the shapeshifting character of the work; we seem to lurch forward into a new evolution of the same basic concepts, pulled blindly through a blizzard of ideas and images, as if only semiconscious, as if with only a snow-bitten rope around our waist to yank us inch by inch through the storm. As the film descends in its final stretch into a slower, stranger register and lingers, in disturbing archival footage, on Jan Palach’s charred body being tended to by nurses, these gongs serve the same function as the voice of our very own bedside attendant, calling out to us as we slip in and out of a woozy historical consciousness. The film is like an extended jazz riff in some ways, like pure ramble in others; the tonal fluctuations and often nascent improvisations suggest that Vachek’s art is infinitely mutable, that he places no strict emphasis on deliberation and deduction over sprawling spontaneity and sprightly agility; there is, therefore, as much value in an idea half-chewed and spat out as in one reappropriated straight from geniuses like Dante or Jacques Tati. But the ironic, colourful, incoherent titles that plaster the screen point to the way his movies ought to be regarded: as elaborate reflections, reverberations, and representations of a winding thought process (thought processes!). All of which leaves ample space to sketch the author’s own serious limitations, none of which he shrinks from. At all times, there are twin Vacheks wreaking havoc on our senses: the pugnacious and energetic Vachek onscreen and the supervachek looming over it all as the guiding hand that shuffles the whole great mess into place like a deck of cards.
Indeed, few men have burrowed deeper into the ever-shifting cultural detritus of a society than Vachek has for the Czechs. With Communism and the Net, he mostly takes stock of the state of the country 30 years after the revolution—and frets about the nature of a representative democracy that would follow a brutal utopia whose own failure birthed its imperfect, often equally violent successor. As is well-known in this country, Vachek’s entire life as a filmmaker has been caught in the changing political winds of first the Czechoslovak and then Czech state. Having been banned from making films by the communists after 1968, the majority of his work, following this lengthy exile and later mere artistic absence, was made in the shadow of the Velvet Revolution. The freedom that came to Vachek thereafter seemed to trigger an abiding obsession with the on-going implications of that pointedly anti-Communist transformation of Czech and Slovak society. As the title of this film suggests, the core question with which Vachek is still grappling is the nature of this transformation; what it meant for communism, what it meant for the new liberal market society that has been engineered in its absence, what responsibility those who benefited from the revolution hold for the make-up of the country going forward. As always, Havel is an obsession here, for Vachek a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of free market, social democratic, and philosophically highbrow influences. Despite his intellectual and dissident roots, he also came to embody the tokenistic symbols of a peaceful revolution and then, at least for Vachek, the spurious triumph of market capitalism in Czechoslovakia. For this filmmaker, perhaps, the fact that Havel was a serious thinker and lover of literature made his betrayal of these values for the chaotic inequality of the market an unusually painful one. At least toads like Klaus or Zeman never had any such values to betray.
And so, this trauma is at the heart of the film’s provocative pairing, of “communism” and “internet”. In that sense, there are the two central theses in this, a film otherwise without a proposal or evident pattern: that the revolution of 1989 was a twisted inversion of the defeated reforms of thirty-one years prior and that the limitless sprawl of the internet contains the promise of a more direct democracy. Neither is a revelatory observation in itself, though each sets the stage for the giant hydra that bursts onto the scene in their wake and is really what ought to be marvelled at. Vachek has said that the people do not need representatives. He has said that democracy can be something far more a case of voting one way or the other on issues. That is an idea that does not jibe with how I experience the film as a whole, in which “representatives” factor heavily in Vachek’s worldview, and to whom he often delegates important visual representations, drawing from their work. It seems he can hardly propose anything without reference to the masters to which he clearly feels indebted; the four names that appear at the start of each section, D.W. Griffith, Luchino Visconti, Jacques Tati, and Charles Chaplin, are like north stars for Vachek—never explained, seldom drawn from in the course of this more than five hour work. Indeed, for me, the idea of the internet as liberatory force is rendered somewhat moot by Vachek’s own evident obsessions. We see books, we see libraries, we see staged interventions, we see parades and marches, we see lengthy debates in a classroom context. None of these are unmistakably improved upon by “the net” as democratic tools, even by the logic of the film. Vachek joins with internet anarchists and pirate theorists in imagining the future of democracy as something made up of direct citizen participation in digitally-hosted referenda and the private use of cryptocurrencies to subvert government power in extracting taxation. These forms of political pseudoscience of course do nothing to empower citizens in their workplaces and in their lives. Where the internet has thus far improved the operations of democracy is in providing a means for registries of constituents to fund grassroots campaigns without the need of an intermediary. This, for instance, restores the idea of “representative” democracy to some kind of desirable state: the representative is an autonomous avatar of the people whose freedom from business interests means they can make remain flexible to the needs of the moment and to their constituents both. The historical contrast between the socialist reforms of 1968, instigated by Dubček and quashed by the USSR, and the market reforms of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, are more interesting—a Manichean dualism Vachek makes explicit in the slow, even ominous rotation of the “68” in 1968 in an on-screen superimposition to match the date of the later reforms. For Vachek, there could have been a reformed Czechoslovakian communism closer to Masaryk than to Stalin were it not for violent intervention. And as such, the speakers in the film Vachek seems to give the most credence to are modern communists, all women, whose lucidity of insight stand out among an often obscurantist whirl of half-formed ideologies and theses. The path for Czechoslovakia evidently did not need to lead through the tyranny of a police state up to a squalid society of unthinking consumers.
Like everything in this impossibly dense film, the ghost of Havel is an irresolvable mystery. We understand him and the sea change he represents and represented as that: a puzzle left unsolved, a wound still in need of tending to, an oxymoron whose mere existence throws so much into doubt. Vachek makes his sense of the former president plain through ironic contrasts. We see a goofy scene, presumably from an advertisement for a cinema or theatre, in which Havel rises from beneath the surface of a swimming pool like a vodník and instructs the audience to switch off their cell phones. Then later, we see Havel speaking to aides about the scandal that ensued when he sold the Palác Lucerna to Václav Junek’s Chemapol Reality in 1997—his characterisation of the affair, even in off-hand remarks, is poetically precise in only the way a playwright-president’s could be. As such, Vachek reserves for him a respect he withholds in almost every other case involving a politician, including Zeman, who one senses Vachek maybe, at least long-ago, held some admiration for. This is by no means a film about Havel, but his treatment of the first post-communist leader of the country is typical of Vachek’s drive to pack every second of a 335-minute film with ideas, visualisations of ideas, and verbal-visual references, and to do so in a way that suggests the mutability of his own conceptions of the subject at hand. This visual and aural flora and fauna can be both understated and ostentatious. They seem to stem from an apparently irrepressible urge to complicate any equation, to sully the urge to partition thoughts into tidy philosophical or political categories. He is not so much proposing a utopian alternative to any of it, instead acting as a court jester whose undermining of the entire sham has a significance in itself. Vachek bristles at philosophical tidiness and spurns the often well-advised strictures of good taste. Implicit in his filmmaking process is the idea that these subjects are too mysterious to be reduced to a thesis, even a brilliant one. Communism and the Net is as much about the messy, diagonal process of working through all the implications of an idea as it is about that idea itself.
Which is to say, it would take a lifetime for me to absorb enough detail about this society and culture to feel like I have a real sense of what is going on in any one of Vachek’s films, and this one specifically. Here I am, standing before an imponderable object so wedded to another place and time and people. I live in the country that produced it; I have taken a lightning course in so much of what crops up here; I like to think that I have some critical faculties of my own. Yet there is an odd comfort you feel in watching this, in being able to acknowledge and internalise the unknowability of all political artworks on this scale. Watching it, I can comprehend the lifespan—the birth, maturity, and death—of an idea. I see Vachek as maker, performer, and thinker as he is, with all the contours of his personality, his way of existing in the world, untouched and observable. Seeing a colossal, dazzling artistic and intellectual process so enmeshed in an ethnic and historical context at least somewhat foreign to my own only further emphasises the process itself, a level of insight about the genesis of a work that is far more valuable than any individual idea. Even a creation as great as this one, which finally provides little in the way of a definitive roadmap for rethinking communism and digital utopias in 2020, draws its power from an altogether more mysterious kind of internal logic. And in the end, this immense film of stagings and re-stagings boils down to one more epic and enigmatic performance, the greatest and most affecting in the whole thing. A mime performs an old Russian routine in which an absentminded janitor, distracted from his sweeping of the corridor in a hospital, theatrically performs an impromptu operation on a dying man in a trolley. He unzips the man and roots around inside. He trims and stitches. He drags an intestine out like a firehose and wraps it lengthways from palm to elbow, as if it were a XLR cable heading for storage. The whole thing is funny, of course, but also stark and oddly moving. The mime, performing for Vachek and his students in a cramped classroom, stands out from so many of the most memorable presences in Communism and the Net for one reason: he does not speak. Even more startling than that: neither does Vachek, who chews his pipe from his seat nearby, merely observing the scene. The students too are absorbed in this strange routine. Some record on handheld cameras, GoPros, and other devices, the varied images of which are split in four quadrants on the screen.
Each of the mime’s gestures have a certain density as he moves in and seemingly between these four parallel dimensions. When he turns and reaches comically for a (non-existent) prop, he seems to stretch through time and space, the doubling, tripling, or quadrupling of the act alone amplifying his every movement. We witness a creation, from birth to death. It is a concoction, a fabrication—that much is evident. Like a sports event or a pop concert, we see the show from many angles at once; we know every inch of the spectacle is well-orchestrated fiction. The mime’s act, like the finest of spectacles, is involving in itself, more so when we observe it through the simultaneous vision of several different people at once. The quiet in the room, punctuated only by brief guffaws and giggles at the punchlines, is exaggerated by the same effect. We cannot help but wonder what the implications are of being so involved in a performance that, in the end, is merely a series of blank movements of the body freighted with our own sense of their meaning. There are no tools on display, there is no useful context. This skilled shapeshifter is manipulating our feelings through the most shrewd movements, tics, and eye-rolls. We know there is nothing there. We know what we are seeing is merely a show, is nothing but effortless gestures in thin air. That does not stop us from believing in some part of it all the same.
Christopher Small is a writer, filmmaker, and programmer, originally from the United Kingdom and currently based in Prague. He is on the Selection Committee at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and curated the festival’s 2020 retrospective strand, Reimagining the Land, for in-person screenings and online. Christopher is also the Project Manager of the Locarno Critics Academy, a respected workshop in film criticism that runs during Locarno Film Festival. He has helped launch the VOD platform Doc Alliance (DAFilms) in North and South America. His writing has regularly appeared in numerous international publications, and has been translated into Czech, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. He is the co-host of the podcast We Can’t Go Home Again.