A common misconception in the West is that Věra Chytilová directed only a few significant, narratively and aesthetically adventurous films, and all in the 1960s – O něčem jiném (Something Different, 1963), 1966’s immortal Sedmikrásky (Daisies) and Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969).
That this misconception arose is understandable; Chytilová’s career was curtailed from soon after 1968’s Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia until 1976’s maternity ward-set screwball comedy Hra o jablko (The Apple Game), with her later output receiving scant exposure outside of Central and Eastern Europe.
Her 1979 comedy Panelstory aneb Jak se rodí sídliště (Prefab Story) was seldom seen in Czechoslovakia either until the 1990s. A scathing, semi-vérité skewering of Normalisation (1969–1987) and one of its utopian bedrocks, Prefab Story presents a frantic mosaic of life during the establishment of a housing estate – the super-colossal yet unprepossessing Jižní Město sídliště. Comprising countless paneláky (prefabricated concrete high-rise buildings), Jižní Město stands (still!) on the southeastern outskirts of Prague.
Prefab Story was Chytilová’s follow-up to The Apple Game, but wasn’t meant to be. She had been halfway through filming knockabout comedy Kalamita (Calamity, 1980) when production was summarily halted. The new director of Prague’s Barrandov Studios, František Marvan, and the studios’ chief commissioning dramaturg, Ludvík Toman, had decided that its lead, Boleslav Polívka, was needed instead on set of the musical Balada pro banditu (Ballad for a Bandit, Vladimír Sís, 1978), in order for it to premiere in time in Karlovy Vary.
Having only recently gained permission to make films again after lobbying Gustáv Husák (the Czechoslovak President throughout Normalisation) in an open letter, and fortified by The Apple Game’s box-office success, Chytilová’s response was typically combative:
I went home and wrote letters to the Ministry of Culture, the Central Administration and the Communist Party, stating how much had been spent on Calamity, and that I had promised to be financially responsible […] I told them I thought that since Comrade Toman and Comrade Marvan had shut it down, the money spent to this point should be deducted from their salaries. 1
While she would later complete Calamity, Marvan, who had moved into a housing estate himself, meanwhile put it to Chytilová that such an environment was a rich (read: ideologically sound) subject and setting for a film, and that she might like to divert her attentions accordingly.
Chytilová joined forces with Eva Kačírková, who had enjoyed a small role on-screen in The Apple Game; she’s excellent as the hypocritical moralising mother of a pregnant teen in Prefab Story too. Kačírková was a writer (of detective fiction); moreover, she was married to a builder, which granted her access to the construction milieu. A screenplay she’d been working on, “How to Become a Daddy”, featured a boy lost on a housing estate, which became the starting point and through-line for the film’s kaleidoscopic narrative.
In Prefab Story, a large ensemble cast including many non-professionals embodies the estate’s idealistic agglomeration of a cross-section of Prague society. However, if ever the residents are united beyond the accident of their forced sharing of underdone living quarters, it is either to engage in sexual infidelities, marital and family-unit breakdowns, theft, vandalism, self-pity or blame-shifting for industrial incompetence, or to advise one another that they each ought mind their own business – some community!
Gags emerge freely from the semi-built environment, riffing on the woeful lack of infrastructure and the impossibility of discerning one housing block from another. One running joke, perhaps an obtuse jibe at the interchangeability of the Socialist subject, is the constant misidentification of children’s gender by strangers – an especially fun gag through a 2010s queer lens.
A student of architecture before studying at Prague’s storied film school FAMU, Chytilová takes gleeful swipes simultaneously at patriarchy and the interiors’ unfitness for homemaking (“Some architects! I bet there wasn’t a single woman among them”). She has a lot of sport with the paneláky’s exterior ugliness too, frequently cutting to shots of poorly hewn concrete slabs being airlifted above the lower level intrigues, or of the barely traversable mud, dirt and garbage that hobbles the estate’s foot and perambulator traffic. Such scenes are reminiscent of Václav Táborský’s mini-city symphony Zablácené město (Mud-Covered City, 1963), similarly concerned with the settlement of a mass of families at a new Prague sídliště.
Four years before that, Jiří Menzel’s first student film, a short documentary called Domy z panelů (Prefabricated Houses, 1959), covered similar terrain; its cinematographer was Jaromír Šofr, later to become Menzel’s regular DoP. In quasi-vérité fashion, Šofr also shot Chytilová’s marvellous FAMU graduation short Strop (Ceiling, 1961) and follow-up Pytel blech (A Bagful of Fleas, 1962). Abandoning any restraint he’d exercised on either, or on the similar material in Menzel’s short, Šofr reunited with Chytilová to pepper Prefab Story with rapid zooms, whip pans, meandering tracking shots and wide-angle close-ups emphasising the constrained, fishbowl-like nature of life on the estate. Incorporating much unflattering documentary footage of Jižní Město’s construction, the problems plaguing the estate’s builders (and the film’s own production!) heavily informed the film’s narrative universe – failing utility services foremost amongst them.
Composer Jiří Šust was another Menzel mainstay and had already let loose with Chytilová on the score to Daisies. He furnished Prefab Story with a musique concrète score of great unease, matched by the breathless montage of Šofr’s footage by Chytilová’s then partner, editor Jiří Brožek. The finished product could scarcely have been at greater odds with the tenets of Socialist Realism …
One can only marvel that, given Chytilová’s celebrated intransigence, Marvan and Toman didn’t foresee that Prefab Story would cock such a vicious snook at Jižní Město and its Potemkin village pretensions to community building. However, come the revolution, Chytilová was even more unsparing in her takedowns of the putative gains of new capitalism, especially when burlesquing the rape-revenge genre with 1998’s Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps). For those for whom the name Chytilová is synonymous only with Daisies and New Wave avant-gardism, there is much work to be done to apprehend the full extent of her protean accomplishment and mischief. Much!
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Panelstory aneb Jak se rodí sídliště (Prefab Story, 1979 Czechoslovakia 96 min)
Prod Co: Filmové studio Barrandov Dir: Věra Chytilová Scr: Eva Kačírková, Věra Chytilová Phot: Jaromír Šofr Ed: Jiří Brožek Mus: Jiří Šust
Cast: Lukáš Bech, Antonín Vaňha, Eva Kačírková, Alena Rýcová, Jiří Kodet, Bronislav Poloczek, Dagmar Slivinská, Věra Uzelacová, Michal Nesvadba
- Věra Chytilová, interviewed in Cesta (Journey, Jasmina Bralić-Blažević, 2004). Translation my own. ↩