Soon after the 1968 Soviet invasion that crushed reforms which had liberalized the state, Karel Kachyňa’s Ucho bravely addressed the atmosphere of fear that had overrun Czechoslovakia. A corrosive satire of paranoia and of all that justifies this paranoia, somewhat in the Polanski mold, the black-and-white Czech film marshals expressionistic and surrealistic techniques to create and detail a couple’s waking nightmare as they discover that officialdom is hearing everything they say to one another through a network of barely concealed electronic bugs in their home. An official ban on the completed film remained in place for two decades.
Ludvík, a senior ministry official, and wife Anna return home in the wee hours from a government party. The gate is unexpectedly locked, and Anna cannot find the key in her pocketbook; on the other hand, a door they had locked is now suspiciously open. Moreover, both the electricity and the phone aren’t working: an unnerving coincidence—and yet their next-door neighbor’s lights plainly work. Meanwhile, throughout this pitch-dark homecoming, which they navigate with the use of sparkling candelabras that conjure, for us at least, a phantasmagoric spectacle, they bicker and continue drinking—Anna especially.
Kachyňa brilliantly riddles this dark, frightening material with flickers of the big party earlier that night. Ludvík is piecing things together; the subjective camera, representing him, meets and greets other guests when suddenly, in a shift in perspective, the closeup is of his own worried face—at the party, but a matter of his anxiety at home being projected backward in time by several hours. Now everything is ominous at the party, as Ludvík “relives” it, as well as at home. This includes just about everything that everybody said to him—and also every laugh he heard, which he now fears was at his expense. (Recall the hallucinated laughter in church in Buñuel’s 1952 Él?) In the background of one glorious shot, a large circular chain of guests, hand-in-hand, dance, projecting the noose that Ludvík worries is closing in on his neck.
His superior at the ministry has been arrested. Will Ludvík be the next to be taken away?
The lights come back on; the phone works. Anna screams into the phone, and into electronic bugs before getting rid of them. Anna and Ludvík grow closer; after a harrowing bit of violence between them, their love for each other becomes startlingly apparent. There is panic each time a car goes by in the street below—or when the phone rings. The last phone call: Ludvík has been promoted. This may or may not be the case; but even if it is true, like his predecessor can’t he be arrested at any time? “I’m scared,” Anna tells him. The couple will not be celebrating Ludvík’s promotion.
This is not an empty piece of rhetoric like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s worthless The Lives of Others (2006), about East Germany’s police state; Kachyňa’s film makes the viewer’s skin crawl and heart jump. However, we also on occasion nervously laugh at the film’s very dark humor.
Jiřina Bohdalová plays Anna. Bohdalová resembles Giulietta Masina. This doesn’t help her performance; we may begin to expect her to act as well as Masina, and this is not possible. Whereas Bohdalová ranges from being histrionic to very good (she has one piercing moment), Masina ranges from being very good to sublime. The intermittent resemblance is indeed a distraction.
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