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‘A Squandered Sunday’ (1969): the UK Premiere – finally – of Drahomíra Vihanová’s banned political allegory
ceel.org.uk, Central and Eastern European London Review, 7 June 2016
Drahomíra Vihanová’s A Squandered Sunday, shown at the Barbican last week, was the UK premiere of a film made in 1969, but shown for the first time – for political reasons – only at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival nearly 20 years later.
Based on a true story, the film follows an ordinary Sunday in the life of army officer Arnošt, who lives at a desolate military base in an off-the-map town. Starting off with a flashback to the funeral of Arnošt’s mother, where he’s also given the elbow by a lover, we’re thrown into a sequence of wild dreams and memories, recalled by Arnošt as he wakes with a terrible hangover. There’s a fellow soldier who brings back two Polish prostitutes to the room, Arnošt’s unlucky affair with the local barmaid who loves him madly despite his abuse of her, and a grotesque masked party fuelled by wild dancing and alcohol. As he gets out of bed, Arnošt keeps telling himself he’ll stop drinking, and starts the day with a flashback-riddled game of Russian Roulette…
Yet in midst of this gruesome mixture of sex and violence, there’s a tiny glimmer of innocence: Arnošt’s sweet little neighbour, who buys him beer while he gives her money for chocolate. The two have a strong friendship, the girl unassumingly appearing throughout the film, bringing the soldier flowers and amusing him with childish questions.
Other than these touching moments, Arnošt’s ennui is only interrupted when two girls decide to sunbathe topless at the army base: he has to interrogate them and fill in a report. Otherwise, his day’s just daydreams and memories, and the search for money to visit the pub in the evening. It’s only when, despite his morning resolution to stay sober, he gets drunk with the barmaid a second time and finds himself pressed once again for a more serious relationship, that things take a darker – and more final – turn for the worse.
Underscored by biblical references, A Squandered Sunday is a harrowing and depressing portrait of a man who sees no purpose in continuing. Yet as the director explained in an interview screened after the film, it not only represents the feeling of oppression and helplessness in the army, but that of the whole Czechoslovak nation after the Prague Spring was crushed by the Soviets in August 1968. The most overt reference to the Soviet invasion is in the final scene, as writing on a wall announces ‘Forget everything you heard and saw – stay silent!’ before the screen goes black. In contrast to the humorous works of the Czech New Wave period before, Vihanová’s created a work that captures the absurdity and oppression of the brutal ‘Normalisation’ period that followed. The harrowing violence and abuse she includes, particularly against women, together with her portrayal of Arnošt’s disturbed and suffering mind, should be seen within a much more politicized, Czechoslovak context.
Unlike other female Czech film makers of the New Wave era, (Věra Chytilová, say) Vihanová here maintains a strangely ‘masculine’ style, particularly in her focus on a male character and his relationships with female stereotypes: the innocent child, the waif-like lover and the ‘desperately needy’ barmaid. Yet Arnošt is almost the exact opposite of what an army officer’s expected to be. The subversion of this upstanding and self-controlled stereotype into a solitary, depressed and erratic figure critically undermines 1960s ideas of masculinity, making it unsurprising the film was banned for the rest of the Communist period. Yet it’s exactly the desperation of the protagonist that makes A Squandered Sunday so telling of its time: it shows us, better than any historical document, what it felt like to see the promises of the Prague Spring so swiftly – and traumatically – evaporate.
The screening of A Squandered Sunday, and the subsequent interview via Skype were organised by the Czech Centre, London, in partnership with the Barbican and the National Film Archive, Prague.