Zdenek Sverak and Andrey Khalimon in Kolya
My mother invited me to see the 1996 Czech film, “Kolya,” in Fort Worth soon after it premiered. She had been going to the Czech Republic since 1988, but I’d never been. I enjoyed it on an artistic level, but I realized then that there were a lot of points, both humorous and serious, that the movie was making which I did not understand. I asked my mother a lot of questions and that helped me comprehend some of them. This film opened in me a new compassion for the Czechs, who have survived so many indignities to the soul.
Every few years, I watch it again and marvel at how many new clues are unlocked for me. There are things I did not understand until I visited my relatives in Moravia the second time, or until I’d refreshed my history education or until I became a focused student of my Czech heritage.
It’s a beautifully-made film. The photography, lighting, compositions and music are poetic and thoughtful. The story is so emotionally universal, I believe it would be understood without any words at all.
Watching it again recently with a new generation, I found myself explaining things to them that I’d missed the first time. For example, why the hero, Louka, a famous cellist with the Czech philharmonic is in severely reduced circumstances was not clear to me the first time, nor to my fellow viewers on this, their first time.
Roger Ebert wrote that “in a moment of unwise wit, he wrote a flippant answer on an official form.”
Wikipedia stated that he had been “half-accidentally blacklisted as ‘politically unreliable’ by the authorities.”
But, this time, due to my own experiences since the last time, I heard what was clearly laid out in the script, which for some reason, I had missed before. Louka’s brother defected to West Germany and Louka was punished for it. I’ve heard this story more than once from people I've met in the last few years, in both personal and eyewitness accounts. The last time I was in Prague, our driver told us he had an uncle in Fort Worth. We thought this was a nice connection. But, then he told us how his uncle’s emigration prior to the 1989 Velvet Revolution had been the reason this young man, who had qualified for a superior education, was denied one – and a good career - by the communist authorities.
The first time I visited our relatives, we went to the home of the mother of our cousin, Jiri. She was a kind host with a warm home. The second time, Jiri took us to see her at a cemetery. Her black marble monument was freshly painted with gold leaf. I thought of Louka’s side hustle as a monument restorer.
While watching “Kolya” recently, a new question emerged for me. Although I could understand why Louka would so desperately want to buy a car, why would he risk so much for a Trabant? Why not a Tatra or a Skoda? Tatra, based in Ostrava, Moravia, is the third oldest continuously-operating car company in the world. The Skoda’s interesting story seems more likely though. Founded by Emil Skoda, in today’s market, it has a reputation equivalent in quality to Mercedes. Even though the brand fell behind during communism, the car was generally known as reliable. (The typically Czech humor piece to the story though, is that the word “skoda” means “it’s a pity.” It's a useful pun.)
Louka’s automotive dream however, is a Trabant, described as one of the worst cars ever made. Louka was willing to sell his bachelorhood in order to possess the car reviewed in the video below. After watching this, I think I need to go back and watch “Kolya” again to see what I missed.
What are your thoughts and experiences on these topics? I’d love to hear your comments!
- Susan Chandler