In 1968, Juraj Jakubisko, a graduate of Prague’s legendary FAMU film academy and recent employee of the Laterna Magika theatre, presented his adaptation of Waiting for Godot (Čekají na Godota, 1965) at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play had long been a worldwide cause célèbre, familiar even to non-theatregoers from its many parodies and imitations in various media. It was theorised as the touchstone work of the Theatre of the Absurd, that vaguely defined, catch-all ‘movement’ comprising works that responded to the horrors of World War II with hapless protagonists attempting to find or create meaning in a meaningless universe. Godot is set in a devastated landscape, wherein two derelicts fill the unforgiving silence by engaging in clownish patter and antics, their relationship oscillating between hostility and desperate mutual dependence. The only other figures they meet in this desolation is a bully who becomes blind with a companion who becomes mute, and whom he keeps on a leash, figuring ‘Man’ (and for critics of the time it was always ‘Man’ with a capital ‘M’) deprived of the senses – and sense – that could guide him through the void; ‘Man’ reduced to the level of animal, of brute instinct.

Beckett’s bowler-hatted tramps, dilapidated shelters, and blasted settings would continue to shape Jakubisko’s work, from his breakthrough features The Deserters and the Nomads (Zbehovia a pútnici, 1968) and Birds, Orphans and Fools (Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni, 1969), to Sitting on a Branch, Enjoying Myself.1 This was the last film Jakubisko made under a Communist regime that had banned his work and banned him from making features for a decade. Like many of its predecessors, Sitting on a Branch takes place in a time of devastation. Here, in the closing days of the war, the Nazis flee a Slovakia it had occupied with, as elsewhere, terror and genocide; the emancipating Soviet troops are already preparing the groundwork of replacing one collaborationist puppet regime with another, crushing dissent with its own forms of terror; while the US deliverance in the outside world culminates in the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, inflicting death, disease, and fear on a mass scale.

Emerging in this brief period of dangerous yet potentially liberating flux between totalitarian regimes, Pepe (Bolek Polívka) and Prengel (Ondřej Pavelka), their shared initials perhaps indicating that they are two halves of one whole. Veterans of Mauthausen concentration camp and the Eastern Front respectively, they scrabble for subsistence in a small Slovak town now serving as a holding site or displaced persons’ camp. They steal bread from children and engage in low level black marketeering, while trying to elude police, gangsters and trigger-happy locals hostile to outsiders. In a direct allusion to Godot, they are even at one point joined – or shackled – to each other like Pozzo and Lucky. The town’s wartime capitulation to and collaboration with the Nazis is implied by anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on the walls, the looting of the residences of murdered Jewish neighbours, and the comic presence of a native with an uncanny – and, perhaps, previously useful – resemblance to der Führer. 

At the time Sitting on a Branch was made and first released, Birds, Orphans and Fools was still banned, and it is easy to see the later film as a remake of sorts. Both centre on a trio of marginal characters who find a transient refuge in a sprawling, rundown mansion. One is a clown, a Shakespearean or Holy Fool with some license to lampoon the prevailing social orders, orders that would present themselves as natural and permanent, but which Pepe and Jakubisko reveal to be enforced and unstable. The second is closer to an Everyman figure, or the homme moyen sensuel – previously able to pass for normal in society through his work, his desires, and his behaviour. The third is a red-headed Jewish woman, traumatised by her physical and psychic degradation in the camps, the murder of her parents, and the decimation of her wider community.

If I have emphasised Beckett’s radically spare aesthetic in this note, it is to counter the usual reception of Jakubisko as ‘the Slovak Fellini’.2 Within the latter framework, Jakubisko’s films are merely self-indulgent carnivals peopled by grotesques, sound tracked to noisy folk music, ripe with bawdy humour, and constructed as a series of cluttered set-pieces. This Jakubisko has been celebrated not just by Fellini himself (whose wife and frequent star Giulietta Masina headlined Jakubisko’s Brothers Grimm adaptation Perinbaba [1985]), but also Emir Kusturica, who thanked the Slovak director when he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his contentious masterpiece Underground (Podzemlje, 1995). This film, like many by Jakubisko, also centres on two clownish male protagonists, a sexualised woman, a precarious house of refuge, a milieu of wartime devastation, and an allegorical narrative thrust – with the added fuel of dodgy politics. How do we rescue Jakubisko from such unhelpful friends?

What if the overbearing audio-visual spectacle of the typical Jakubisko film is not an end in itself, but a signification of the sound and fury created by his characters to cover the repressive nothing that is repeatedly pushed on them by forces beyond their control? Not by nebulous metaphysical forces, but flesh-and-blood forces with guns and tanks and uniforms, such as those issued to the Warsaw Pact forces who crushed the Prague Spring in an invasion that happened to be caught on camera by Jakubisko as he filmed The Deserters and the Nomads. Taken this way, Jakubisko’s closest ‘old master’ would not be Fellini, but someone like Andrzej Wajda – another man of the theatre – whose ‘baroque’ Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i diament, 1958) was set in the same post-war interregnum between Nazi and Communist occupations, and also features two men, a woman and crumbling mansions.

Even on its last legs, Eastern Bloc Communism – like capitalism – had learned to absorb and co-opt opposition. Sitting on a Branch was a huge critical and commercial success in Slovakia, cementing Jakubisko’s unofficial status laureate of the nation after the unprecedent success of his mammoth history drama The Millennial Bee (Tisícročná včela, 1983), voted by critics the best Slovak film of the 1980s. Sitting on a Branch even went on to win an award at the 1990 Moscow International Film Festival in what was still the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, by the end of the year of its release, the Eastern Bloc would be no more, although too late for the Pepes, Prengels and Esters it had crushed in the interim.

Co-presented with the Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia

Sedím na konári a je mi dobre (Sitting on a Branch, Enjoying Myself, 1989 Czechoslovakia & West Germany 108 min)

Prod. Co: Slovenská filmová tvorba Koliba (SFT) / Taurus Film Paris Dir: Juraj Jakubisko Scr: Juraj Jakubisko, Jozef Pastéka Phot: Laco Kraus Mus: Jirí Bulis Ed: Patrik Pass Art Dir: Stanislav Mozný 

Cast: Bolek Polívka, Ondřej Pavelka, Deana Horváthová, Štefan Kvietik, Markéta Hrubešová


  1. Although it was not widely known until after his death in 1989, Beckett had undergone similar traumas to those depicted or alluded to in Sitting on a Branch. He was part of the chaotic retreat south of refugees when the Nazis occupied Paris; he was a member of the French Resistance, evading the Gestapo on several occasions; he was forced into hiding with his partner when a close friend was captured, barely subsisting in a village in Provence; he volunteered for the Irish Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the war. Whether or not Jakubisko knew of this part of Beckett’s biography – a heroic part in sharp contrast to the abjection and failure of his characters – is moot; he intuited, like many in Eastern Europe, that expressed within Beckett’s stylised and apparently non-realist work was a direct experience of violence, pain, indigence, resistance and survival. Whereas most Western critics by the late 1960s had read Beckett’s plays as parables of a post-war ‘human condition’, Eastern critics, writers and audiences found in his work a subversive spirit of resistance and non-conformity that culminated in his writing the anti-totalitarian play Catastrophe in 1988 to support imprisoned dissident and playwright, Václav Havel. Within a few months of Sitting on a Branch being released, Havel would be elected the democratic president of Czechoslovakia.
  2. Despite the recent efforts of David Melville in this publication: www.sensesofcinema.com/2020/cteq/perinbaba-juraj-jakubisko-1985/

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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