Following the quasi-documentary Konkurs (Audition, 1964), Cerný Petr (Black Peter) marked the feature debut of Milos Forman, the most famous, arguably most important and influential director of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s. It was shot simultaneously with “Kdyby ty muziky nebyly “If There Were No Music”, the second of the two shorts that eventually made up Audition), and shares with this work a focus on youth: in particular on the awkward reconciliations of recreational and professional ties and responsibilities. The two young teenagers filmed in “If There Were No Music” repeatedly absent themselves from band rehearsals; whilst the titular protagonist of Black Peter works (clumsily) as a shop detective. His job of finding and following store thieves leads him away from the shop and into the city outside. And in the first flowering of the generational malaise that will animate all of Forman’s Czech films, this in turn leads to friction with his father, who chides him for a perceived lack of commitment and endeavour.
This particular dynamic is, in fact, a salient aspect of the Czech New Wave in general. Another landmark film of the movement, Jirí Menzel’s Ostre Sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1966), is similarly centred on a hapless young protagonist whose initiation into a new job at a small rural train station clashes with the increasingly romantic assignations that occupy his time. However, unlike Menzel, Black Peter echoes all of Forman’s work throughout the Czech New Wave (and also his American debut, Taking Off, in 1971), in that it is characterised by a conflation of opposing stylistic and narrative modes.
Like fellow New Wave directors Jaromil Jireŝ and Vera Chytilová, Forman’s early dalliance in discursive cinema fed directly into his features. Taking his cue from the British Free Cinema movement, especially the short films of Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, he reserves the most overtly discursive trappings for those scenes of recreational public gatherings, especially for those that would hereafter come to predominate in almost all his pictures: the dance or ball. Here, the actions of the protagonists are intercut with those of his fellow attendees in a flurry of telephoto shots in an extended scene that could easily have been taken from a documentary, and which contrasts with the more overtly fictive shooting and editing style of the sporadic scenes of Peter’s troubled home-life involving his clashes with his father. It is a potent dichotomy, one that becomes redolent of the contrastive patterns and pressures attendant on the domestic as opposed to the social sphere; and on private as against public activities and behaviour: a meaningful theme for a film made in a communist regime, especially one about a teenager’s awkward path to subjectivity.
Black Peter also anticipates Forman’s subsequent 1960s output in its wryly affectionate, gently satirical character-based comedy that laughs with and never at its typically extended cast of characters who orbit around the hapless titular teenager. Indeed, the distanced yet sympathetic eye that the director casts over all his characters, the fact that he tends to watch rather than appear to engage with them, to observe from a discreet vantage point rather than becoming one with their trials and tribulations, is highly significant. This approach functions as an objective correlative to the theme of spectatorial activity that pervades almost every scene of the narrative; as indeed it will in Lásky jedné plavovlásky (Loves of a Blonde, 1966), Horí, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball, 1967), and beyond: is any film as rife with the vicissitudes of endistanced observation than Amadeus (1984)?
In Black Peter this perspective begins with the hero’s job, which is specifically to watch the customers in the store in which he works; whilst other key scenes in the film revolve around other forms of spying, especially at girls as they get ready for the beach. It is a theme that doubtless has its roots in the social realities of communism, when petty theft in particular was so widespread that a popular saying contended that anyone who does not steal is in fact stealing from themselves and their family. However, the surreptitious viewing that defines the personal and the professional in Forman’s debut feature is ultimately given an ironic glaze when the protagonist’s father directs his son’s attention to a painting that he is delighted to say actually looks back, watches him no matter from where he views it. In a film so concerned with people under scrutiny made by a director at the mercy of a stringent ruling ideology, the metaphor of an art work that returns the gaze cast upon it offers a certain empowerment on Forman’s part, and a sly swipe at narratives intended to educate and indoctrinate.
All Forman’s early films and television productions were produced during the brief wave of de-Stalinisation and concomitant cultural and social liberalisation that defined Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring between 1962 and the Russian invasion of 1968. However, Forman nonetheless suffered considerable official disapproval of his work, culminating in the outright banning of The Firemen’s Ball a mere three weeks after its theatrical release in 1968. Black Peter was viewed with suspicion and contempt by the ruling communist party almost immediately upon its release. Its saving grace came when it was chosen to play in official competition at the 1964 Locarno Film Festival, where it went on to win the grand prize, the Golden Sail. It therefore received sufficient international acclaim to convince the Czech authorities that it was a worthwhile film and grant its stay of commercial execution. It would not be the last time that Western Europe rescued Forman’s work – François Truffaut and Claude Berri bought the rights to The Firemen’s Ball when its Italian co-producer threatened to sue Forman over his displeasure at the film – and it gave the director the last laugh by establishing his name and paving the way for the enormous success of his follow-up work, Loves of a Blonde.
Cerný Petr/Black Peter (1964 Czechoslovakia 85 mins)
Prod Co: Filmové Studio Barrandov Prod: Rudolf Hájek Dir: Milos Forman Scr: Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek Phot: Jan Nemecek Ed: Miloslav Hájek Art Dir: Karel Cerný Mus: Jirí Slitr
Cast: Ladislav Jakim, Pavla Martinkova, Jan Vostrcil, Vladimír Pucholt, Pavel Sedlacek, Zdenek Kulhanek