“Pals, I don’t like it in football when it’s 6-0 or 5-1. That’s no drama. What I like is when the result’s 6-5 or 4-4 – in short, when the better team loses the match of a lifetime, in which they fail to convert two penalty kicks, hit the crossbar three times, the post twice, and finally lose on an own goal.”1
Juraj Herz’s Sběrné surovosti (The Junk Shop, 1965) sits off to one side of the Czechoslovak New Wave’s cine-manifesto, the omnibus film Perlička na dně (Pearls of the Deep, 1965). An adaptation of short stories from the titular collection by the revered (but at that point relatively unknown) author Bohumil Hrabal,2 the production was an opportunity to showcase a new style of Czechoslovak filmmaking; one that was a far cry from the primarily socialist realist work then emerging from the state-owned Barrandov Studios.
Along with the other directors initially involved in the project – Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Ivan Passer and Evald Schorm – Herz would go on to become a key figure of the New Wave. However, just as his entry (like Passer’s) was eventually cut from the finished film and released separately due to concerns over running time,3 he has sometimes himself been excised from that movement’s history; and, indeed, was something of an outsider from the beginning.4 While his Pearls of the Deep co-directors all hailed from Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts, Herz – the only Slovak member of that group besides Jireš – had come to filmmaking via a more circuitous route: first, by studying puppetry alongside Jan Švankmajer,5 then turning to acting after the latter cast him in a production at the avant-garde Semafor Theatre.6 The Junk Shop marked his directorial debut.
Several sequences from The Junk Shop – most notably, an unexpected burst of stop-motion animation – call to mind Švankmajer’s own then-nascent cinematic work. Like many of the great works of the Czechoslovak New Wave, and nearly all of Švankmajer’s early-career animations, the film also derives much of its rhythmic energy from Zdeněk Liška’s often-anarchic score. But what The Junk Shop shares most with Švankmajer’s oeuvre is its interrogation of objects; of both their assigned meanings and the way in which those meanings can be altered and reconstituted.
Herz’s film is set over the course of a day in a recycling facility populated entirely by eccentrics: the high-strung, put-upon manager Bohoušek (František Ketzek), the roguish, insouciant Haňťa (Václav Halama) and a parade of equally bizarre customers who drop off bundles of paper in exchange for either money or raffle tickets. It is Haňťa’s penchant for tall tales which is presumably alluded to in the title of Bohumil Hrabal’s original story, Baron Prášil – a reference to the fabulist 18th century literary character more commonly known as Baron Munchausen. The world that surrounds him, however, is no less absurd: a boy becomes lost in a mountain of paper and is later rescued from a trash compactor; a statue of Christ looks around in alarm before being decapitated; a woman carrying a goose in a handbag steps into a hole and disappears without anyone noticing. Much like the original Munchausen stories, though, there is a grain of truth to the film: Hrabal actually worked in the facility in which The Junk Shop was filmed.
A recurring theme in the film is the gulf between an object’s value and its material composition. “This here’s a collection centre, not an auction,” an employee chides an elderly woman who protests after being offered a pittance for her love letters. “Even if Hemingway or Churchill wrote you, it’s the same: five kilos of letters, one crown.” Likewise, formerly expensive books are thrown together with packaging and waste paper. These items are all destined for the compactor, where they will be destroyed and cease to exist as separate entities. First, however – by being exchanged for their worth in weight, no less and no more – they have had their meaning stripped from them.
Some objects are saved and given new life. Haňťa smuggles out pulp romance novels to the local barmaid; a mechanical toy featuring a tableau of singing cats appears among other salvaged curiosities adorning the shop walls. According to Herz, Hrabal himself claimed to have amassed “a whole library of philosophy and literature”7 from the real-life junk shop. But given the mounds of rubbish that his characters must sort through every day, the decision of what gets kept is a necessarily capricious one: admiring a photograph of a customer as a young beauty, Bohoušek can only sigh and tear it up.
Books and love letters are not the only meaning-laden objects to be deconstructed in the film. In a memorable sequence, Haňťa is charged with recovering a devotional statue of Jesus from an abandoned church and, under the pretense of allowing for easier transportation, chops it to pieces with blasphemous glee. Religion, like art and ardour, is thus depicted as being reducible to the sum of its parts. This is a thesis that Herz would take to its final, much more disturbing conclusion in Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1969): the dissolution of the human body.
The dominant ideology of pre- and post-1960s Czechoslovakia was, of course, one of dissolution; one in which communism could strip away meaning from a once-oppressive society and reconstitute it. For a brief moment in time in the mid-1960s, that process was occurring anew, as a combination of a post-Stalinist thaw and unprecedented artistic liberty ushered in a movement of glorious cinematic experimentation, in which the old rules could be dispensed with at will.
But to what end? Why create anything when it and you are destined for the pile in the junk shop, nothing but physical mass without connotation? Bohoušek’s answer, given wistfully while observing the desecrated statue he has reassembled, remains as good as any: “resisting the onslaught of eternity: only genuine creation can do that.“
Acknowledgements: Much gratitude to Cerise Howard for assisting me with finding research materials for this piece.
Sběrné surovosti / The Junk Shop (1965, Czechoslovakia, 31 minutes)
Prod. Co: Filmové studio Barrandov Dir: Juraj Herz Scr: Juraj Herz & Bohumil Hrabal, from the original story by Bohumil Hrabal Phot: Rudolf Milič Ed: Jaromír Janácek Art Dir: Oldrich Bosák Mus: Zdeněk Liška Prod. Mgr: Jordan Balurov Snd: Dobroslav Šrámek
Cast: František Ketzek, Václav Halama, Libuše Palečková, Bobina Maršátová, Jan Vlček, Karel Veselý
- All dialogue quoted is adapted from the English-language subtitles created for the film by Karagarga user steyskal. ↩
- Hrabal’s writing formed the basis for a number of important Czechoslovak New Wave works, perhaps most notably Jiří Menzel’s Ostre sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1969). ↩
- From the interview conducted with Juraj Herz in the documentary Zlatá Šedesátá: Juraj Herz (The Golden Sixties: Juraz Herz, 2009), directed by Martin Šulík ↩
- Daniel Bird, “To excess: the grotesque in Juraj Herz’s Czech films,” Kinoeye, Jan 2002, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Jan 2002, http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/bird01.php ↩
- Bird 2002 ↩
- Šulík 2009 ↩
- Šulík 2009 ↩