Juraj Herz, the great Czech filmmaker who died Monday, is best known for 1969's The Cremator, and had a long association with black comedy, horror, and dark fantasy. His work deserves to be better known: certainly The Night Overtakes Me (Zastihla Me Noc, 1986) deserves to be seen in something better than the fuzzy off-air recording I was able to see.
Like many of his peers, Herz had a shaky relationship with the government censors under communist rule, and had been formally banned from making films in the mid-eighties. Then he heard that a project was in the pipeline dealing with the communist teacher Jožka Jabůrková, who perished in Ravensbrück. Herz had been trying for years to make a film about this notorious Nazi concentration camp, on account of his own imprisonment there as a child of ten (he and his parents were shunted through several camps, including Auschwitz, but miraculously emerged alive at the end of the war). His original desire had been to make a kind of black comedy: whenever he got together with fellow survivors, they always found themselves laughing their asses off, to the horror of friends and relatives.
Well, that idea was never going to be a flier, but a celebration of a communist martyr was more like it. Herz had to seize the project from two other directors ahead of him in line, one of whom yielded willingly to his superior expertise in the matter, the other of whom didn't like the script anyway. Herz then rewrote the film and merged the Jabůrková story with that of Kafka's girlfriend, Milena Jesenská. Herz claimed that his private researches told him that some of the noble acts of Jesenská, a Jewish anti-communist, had been attributed to the more politically acceptable Jožka Jabůrková. The film's heroine is still called Jabůrková, and her life outside of the camp is that of her real namesake, but Herz took some pleasure in putting one over on the authorities, not that anyone at the time knew.
Herz was a flamboyant stylist. It's always a tricky thing, the harnessing of cinematic beauty to real-life tragedy. If a film isn't in some way beautiful, how is it worth making? But at what point does the aestheticization of real suffering turn into its own form of exploitation? Or, as Fred Schepisi is said to have advised Spielberg during the planning of Schindler's List, "You'll fuck it up. You're too good with the camera."
(Godard once speculated that the only film to be made about the Holocaust would concern itself with the purely practical questions of how many corpses you could load on a cart, et cetera. Such a film, he theorized, would be unwatchable and, by implication, the appropriate choice.)
Herz just can't help but wallow in sumptuous, photogenic, vivid imagery and music. Intercutting desaturated, dark and sometimes distorted and blurred scenes in the camp with vibrant, blown-out flashbacks, all searing oranges and yellows, he creates a dazzling sense of life recollected in hell. A place where characters' one remaining ambition is to "get back" and "walk in the street." A single red flower burns a hole in the grey, suggesting a possible influence on Spielberg's much-criticized red dress in Schindler's List. The influence is more or less confirmed later when the prisoners' are sent to the showers and mistakenly think it's the gas chamber. Spielberg's version of that scene, which Herz experienced for real and which wasn't in Thomas Keneally's book Schindler's Ark, was close enough that Herz contemplated suing.
Much of Herz's lavish cinephilia works better than it has any right to, though a purist such as Claude Lanzmann would doubtless be disgusted by the whole venture into reconstruction. Some of it is, arguably disastrous: Michael Kocáb's score, incorporating pan-pipes, choirs and pulsing electronica, is gorgeous, but scenes of slo-mo, step-printed women accompanied by electric guitar have an inappropriate MTV quality that really does show how wrong you can get, even if you were there.
The film is still powerful, and we have to cut the filmmaker some slack and acknowledge his familiarity with the milieu: only one other camp survivor made a fiction film about their experiences (Wanda Jakubowska, with The Last Stage in 1948). We get the beatings, the medical experiments, the mass executions. A female clown, calling to mind Jerry Lewis' ill-starred attempt at the Holocaust film, is the only echo of Herz's ambitions for black comedy, but there's no shortage of tragedy. Ravensbrück was primarily a labor camp, rather than a death camp, meaning that death was merely a by-product. There were gas chambers, but far more of the prisoners died from starvation, beating and overwork.
Herz's bosses were overjoyed at his having finally made a film they could understand and be proud of. Though his intercutting of past and present reaches surreal proportions (a schoolteacher priest wanders through the camp and straight into a classroom 30 years earlier), there was nothing that was obviously off-message or disturbing to them. But rather than take advantage of his new industry clout, Herz left the country: for Germany, and freedom.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.