“Cinemarxism” – The Joke Falls Flat

“Cinemarxism” – The Joke Falls Flat

TWO RECENT FILMS illustrate the problem of art and politics under sharply differing social circumstances. The Joke is a Czech film made in 1968 by Jaromil Jires who, in contrast to some of his colleagues, so far has elected to remain in his country. The other, I + 1, dealing with rebellion in America, is the first English picture by Jean-Luc Godard. Apparently delayed by difficulties with the producers, it is being shown in a slightly different version under the title Sympathy for the Devil.

The Joke is sad and bitter, haunting the life of Ludvik Jahn, a student and later a researcher in biology. To his girl friend who had preferred a Political Training Course to the private pleasures of a vacation with him, the young student had sent a jocular postcard proclaiming: “Optimism is the opium of mankind. Healthy spirits stink of stupidity. Heil Trotsky!” This rash defiance of solemnity led to his expulsion from both the Communist Youth group and the university, a proceeding sponsored by his best friend, and then to a year in a punitive army brigade and three years of hard labor in the mines. Ever since, he has lived in a sort of private hell, diffident and aloof.

Current situations evoke in him images of the past: a communal Communist “baptism” ceremony brings back the expulsion session at the university; the joyful cooperation in a small orchestra evokes contrasting memories of harsh labor in the mine gang. Old scenes answer the new questions, often in contrapunctal fashion.

Ludvik is waiting for revenge. It comes during the “Prague Spring,” when he is interviewed on his biological research by a radio interviewer who turns out to be his former friend’s wife. Like the hero in Gunter Grass’s Dog Years, Ludvik decides to get even with the bastard by seducing his wife, only to learn afterwards—next joke!—that the two had already been estranged. In the end, Ludvik is attacked by the woman’s young lover; he batters the boy savagely, only to realize—last joke— that “it wasn’t you I wanted to hit.” Futility forever.