If you were forced to describe this film in a just a few words it wouldn’t be too difficult to figure out how to do it. Everyone would say something like “the whole film plays backwards”. That’s the conceit, and I can’t say it uses this premise to address any themes or ideas beyond that. But I actually admire it for playing it out so strictly and exploring so many possibilities of the idea while maintaining a fairly easy to follow continuous narrative. I say fairly easy, because its remarkable how our brains work and how easy it is, yet at the same time forcing such a wild mental juggling act. The consequences are naturally comedic, but also naturally quite a dark comedy at times.
Upon reflection I am rather baffled as to why the idea of this film seems like such and innovation and why as far as I know it had really never been attempted again after this. I’m baffled because the medium of film seem is so easily made to show events backwards. You just run the film the opposite direction! Not only that, but it’s amazing how well our minds are able to still put a story together watching events happen completely in reverse. I think this is because our method of operating in the world is to always be aware of cause and effect. We are always aware of where we just came from in realizing where we are. We are always piecing together how one thing lead to another. And in retelling stories, we are essentially always looking at them backwards. But film is the only medium I can think of where we can literally play it backwards and we can make sense of it. Really if you were to watch almost any narrative film that relies heavily on visuals to tell a story, but you were to watch played in reverse before you ever saw it playing properly, I think you’d still be able to sort out the entire story and be able to re-tell it forward. How amazing is that! If you were to take a book and start at the back and read every word backwards to the front you would not be able to make any sense of it. If you listened to a piece of music played backwards, most people would not be able to conceive of what it sounded like played properly. Even in theater if the actors endeavored to do everything backwards, it would really still be people attempting to pretend to do things backwards and would not seem right. In film you can literally reverse something that was recorded forward and still make sense of it.
But how many other films can you think of that do this? Maybe there are countless others out there that I haven’t heard of (and it would be great if this topic could bring them to my attention). Certainly seeing film played backwards is nothing new to any of us. It’s been a novelty since the beginning of cinema. It’s been used for comedy and to make other points such as portions of a film that was used in last year’s Director’s Cup, Kino-Eye. But this is still quite different as Vertov jumps around from one different camera trick to another to use as techniques to show larger themes. We aren’t really delving into telling a whole story backwards.
There are many notable films that use a kind of reverse chronology of scenes. Most of them are told as stories by characters in the film or through flashbacks. The Saragossa Manuscript is famous for taking the number of stories within stories to extreme lengths. There are so many that at some point you lose track, but that’s because most of the stories are not really connected.
Another film used in a past Director’s Cup, Peppermint Candy, tells the story of the protagonist with scenes in reverse chronology. But the overall effect is not to see individual moments to moments in reverse but to reveal how over the years the history of an entire country can affect the trajectory of a single person’s life.
The film of recent years that most people probably think of shown in reverse chronology is Memento, which is a film I love. But again the technique here is for a specific other purpose, to show what it is like for a person who forgets everything every ten minutes or so. It doesn’t really show a life lived in reverse, it shows a life stuck in a moment without any memory of the past or future except for physical clues outside of the person’s own mind.
The only other film I know of that is famous for playing itself out backwards is Irreversible, and I have not seen that film yet.
The closest thing I have seen to Happy End is an episode of the British sci-fi/comedy television series Red Dwarf. One on episode they travel to a planet where all of the people there live in reverse, while our protagonists are still living forwards. It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen it so I can’t remember the whole trajectory of the episode, but they do point out some things that would have made their way nicely into Happy End, such as how great wars are for bringing so many people to life, and what a horrible person Santa Claus is for coming into homes and stealing of the children’s toys.
Happy End appeals to me the same way meta-fiction or meta-film does. In a way it is meta-film. Any narrative that has you completely inside and completely outside the film at the same time is like that. What you are doing when you watch Happy End is playing two reverse narratives simultaneously.
One of the narratives you are following is what is really happening in the story if it were being played forward. In fact, you could play the film backward to make it actually be forward and there would be a very clear narrative going on. Because our minds are always aware that we are on this kind of timeline both looking at what happened right before the moments that lead up to the one we are in now, and anticipating what might happen next, we area already aware of this relationship of where we are on this timeline between past and present. Really we realize those two things aren’t that difficult to switch around.
However, on top of that narrative, we have the other narrative, the one given to us by the narrator. The narrator seems to be aware of what life normally is like to some extent, how times works and cause and effect relationship, but he doesn’t seem to realize that what he is seeing as the effect is the cause and what he is seeing as the cause is the effect. So when we listen to him and follow his narrative we are contemplating and laughing at the peculiarities of getting such things confused. When we realize what a strange thing the concept of “time” really is and the fact that we can’t really explain why we seemingly only go through it in the same direction at the same constant rate, we have to contemplate if there isn’t really a whole other world occurring backwards in time or in some other direction we can’t conceive of. If you get sick of the convention of this film very quickly you may not delve into really examining the meta-physical questions this film could bring up. For me there’s a certain humor in stepping back and completely reexamining the fundamental natures of our lives. There are so many unexplainable things that we take for granted that can really give us a whole new perspective and insight on our life if we can just take them completely out of context and put them in a new context (like being backwards). The concept of going forward through time with a certain sense of cause and effect is one of these things.
Of course the whole time we are laughing at or contemplating the second narrative are minds are constantly trying to keep track of this original backwards narrative. I truly love this kind of stuff, trying to find the perfect way to have a film live in these two worlds and both make sense. I can’t say this film does it perfectly. Some of the forward and backwards stuff doesn’t line up perfectly to scrutiny. The director pushes the limits a little too far on how funny he thinks people eating or drinking backwards is. But it does it about as perfectly as I could probably hope for.
Now I know this is a world cup, but I can’t come up with too much about what this film says about the Czech people or the nation of Czechoslovakia at the time, and I wouldn’t want to make anything up. But this is certainly an unusual film with a different way of doing a movie that had been or has been done (that I’m aware of), and it came from Czech filmmakers. So let that say to you what you want.
Great review Riss!! I am looking forward to seeing this one.
Well, thankfully the Czechs make films, because every one I’ve seen from that country is so excellent and wildly different from the last.
This film was a joy—not because it plays out backwards, but because of how the director uses that conceit to play with the audience—the visual and also the script. So many times the words being spoken are hilarious if considered within the context of what came before, which is actually what came after. Yes, this sounds confusing, but anyone who’s watched it will get what I mean.
And to comment on whether the narrator is “confused”—I don’t think that’s it, really. For one thing, he’s dead at the time the narration begins, so the narrative is coming from compromised synapses. It’s him remembering how he got to this place and making up a better ending for himself. It’s a fun way of saying, always look on the bright side! Even when you’re dead.
You certainly could never say that they are a people that lack imagination.
Good point. He essentially identifies that comedies often start out with things going bad and end up with things going well. Tragedies start out with things going well and end up with things going bad. His life ended up being a tragedy, so he decided to reverse it and make it a comedy.
I’m going to guess that it’s dangerous to base an entire film on being clever, every frame. Technique, acting, story boarding forward, let alone backward, dialogue, narration, all clever. I think Woody Allen has probably tried it, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Mel Brooks, others I’ve forgotten or don’t know. Usually it’s a bust. The list of successes is very short, and rarefied. Cleverness in comedy is of course it’s life’s blood, but generally pacing is used to go in and then out of this constant ingenuity. The audience gets tired, the jokes aren’t funny after a while. So, how in the hell did Oldrich Lipsky’s HAPPY END do it? It was as charming and funny at the end as the beginning, maybe more so as it takes a little while to understand what we’re watching, and in which direction. Once we’re in sync with the director it’s a delight until the last frame. I wouldn’t want to dissect the movie scene by scene, I’d get dizzy and start talking in tongues, but the narrator’s lines had me captive, especially when they seem in counterpoint to the action from one cut to the next (former, but not really). Just how talented was the Czech New Wave roster of talent in the mid 1960’s? Lipsky isn’t a household name, and this little gem is barely written about in the few resources I have on Czech film, but what a treat it turns out to be. Like getting drunk on sloe Gin, I’ll probably not do it again, but the screening was a joy. The entry from Morocco has a fast and strong foe.
I’m going to guess that it’s dangerous to base an entire film on being clever, every frame. Technique, acting, story boarding forward, let alone backward, dialogue, narration, all clever. I think Woody Allen has probably tried it, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Mel Brooks, others I’ve forgotten or don’t know.
I was going to say The Marx Brothers too, but then remembered most of their films have a few sincere moments with some “protagonists” to push the story along. And there’s always a sincere moment of harp playing as well.
Yes, the madcap Marx Bros seem to come close, but usually have a romantic subplot around between handsome star-crossed lovers. Often one or both sing a song which causes us to remember how long ago these films were made and how music has changed. Seems like it’s a holdover from vaudeville’s variety show format. And as you pointed out, Harpo always provided a non-story harp recital in fright wig and hat. Chaplin and Keaton normally had non-comedic interludes as well, but most of those were also silents, removing a rather important ingredient (I rescind my first use of them as examples except perhaps in some early one-reelers). I still think Oldrich Lipsy pulled off a marvel, and though it looks rather effortless, I’ll guess it had more than its share of difficulties.
bump for match starting today