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Celebrating Zdeněk Svěrák´s 80th Birthday – ‘Elementary School’ (1991)
ceel.org.uk, 1 April 2016, Julia Secklehner
This year’s Easter Monday marked the 80th birthday of Zdeněk Svěrák, one of the Czech Republic’s most popular actors and film makers. To celebrate the occasion, 80 cinemas around the world showed his films, including London’s small Deptford cinema, which was all made up for the occasion with balloons and paper chains, announcing, in his honour: ’Všechno nejlepší!’- ‘Happy birthday!’ Before the film, a clip even showed one of Svěrák’s friends playing a birthday song, encouraging the cinema audience to join in, which they did – enthusiastically. And, for the celebration, Deptford Cinema screened Elementary School, one of Svěrák’s best known films, nominated for an Academy Award in 1991.
Elementary School is set in Czechoslovakia just after the Second World War, focusing on the daily adventures of two young boys, Eda and Tonda. They’re part of a school class feared for its difficult pupils: inattentive, doing whatever they want and seeing any kind of rule imposed on them as a direct challenge. When their browbeaten teacher has a nervous breakdown, the partisan Igor Hnízdo takes charge of the class, reintroducing physical punishment with the cane and ordering the pupils to thank him for it – it will do them good, he says.
Nonetheless, the students’ fear of their new teacher soon turns to admiration, and though it’s increasingly obvious Hnízdo’s stories of fighting for the wartime Czech resistance are fake, Eda and Tonda are smitten: Hnízdo is their new hero. Yet the teacher has a dangerous weakness: women and girls, charmed and impressesd with his mythical past and violin skills. From the bored wife of a tram driver and (briefly) Eda’s mother, to pretty teenage twins, women just can’t resist Hnízdo – and he can’t resist them either, causing his dismissal from the school when the jealous tram driver’s wife reveals the teenagers’ affair to their mother. Yet mysteriously, Hnízdo’s case is resolved at the very same time the boys plead with the headmaster in his defence. He returns to the school- caneless this time, telling the boys the need for a dictatorship is over…
While Elementary School is splendidly funny, its setting in 1945 and 1946 makes it tragic too: the incorrigible pupils are children of the war. Eda and Tonda play with a real tank left in their neighbourhood, the class finds a loaded bazooka on a school trip, and Tonda loses three fingers toying with a grenade. The legacy of war is ever-present, ingeniously incorporated into the film – never deeply discussed, but always in the background. While the incorporation of so much historic content in a 100-minute film is impressive, Elementary School has its downsides as well: gender stereotypes showing women as little more than passive bystanders, or the constant celebratory references to ‘the ordinary man’ and his civil values.
Inevitably, the film also addresses post-war politics: Tonda’s father, played by Svěrák himself, analyses Czechoslovakia as a ‘bridge between East and West’ that both Russia and the West have much to learn from. This idealization’s particularly hard-hitting, given that the communists won the national elections in 1948 with an oppressive regime that would last for 40 years. As such, Elementary School’s setting in the brief interlude between fascism and communism adds a bitter note to the film – we know what happens next.
Yet this is also what makes Elementary School much more than a schoolboy comedy: it shows a very particular time in Czech history, with a legacy strongly felt even today. It also contains a wealth of references to Czech nationalism – the Czech Legion, Jan Hus and the country’s idealized interwar democracy. It’s thus pretty obvious why Elementary School is one of ‘the ultimate Czech films’ – and why there’s no better example of Svěrák’s sterling career.
Celebrating Zdeněk Svěrák´s 80th Birthday was an event
co-organised by the Czech Centre, London.