The problem of what films to make in the communist block exercised the minds of the best filmmakers. Milos Forman struggled with the issue of how to create drama in a country (Czechoslovakia) which could not admit to any social problems. At one point he confesses to writing a scenario in which a worker volunteers for so many extracurricular activities he risks meltdown: the conflict between mere commendable social participation and exceptional commitment to going above and beyond the call of duty seemed to be the only avenue of exploration left to the dramatist. Even that story would probably have been censored; at any rate, it was never made.
Nikola Tanhofer, a cinematographer who began alternating camerawork with directing jobs, chose a different approach in Yugoslavia in 1958. The title H-8... refers to the first two figures in an incomplete license plate number, belonging to an unidentified driver whose recklessness has caused a fatal motorway crash. The film, "dedicated" to this anonymous assassin, therefore has a rather boring civic message to impart about highway safety. However, its methods allow it simultaneously to serve up a lesson in cinematic suspense.
Yugoslavia was generally the most liberal of the Eastern European countries, but the film's group jeopardy scenario plays it safe by focusing on the malfeasance of individuals rather than the flaws of society. The narrative follows a bus and a truck, unknowingly headed towards a collision to be caused by the H8 car, and deftly interweaves a series of mini-dramas involving all the passengers and drivers.
The film's opening establishes all of this, as twin voice-overs (perhaps mirroring the film's two screenwriters, Zvonimir Berković and Tomislav Butorac) give a rapid-fire summary of the known facts in the case. This forensic account is accompanied by an equally staccato montage summarizing the accident. Tanhofer's approach throughout the film will combine handheld swoops (the only convincing and dynamic way to navigate the confines of the bus aisle), a blurry, impressionistic use of rain and lens flare, emphatic music and emotive performances.
Of course, we're in seventies disaster movie territory here, with slender but forceful characterization for the ensemble. A couple of British antecedents spring to mind: Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus's hyperkinetic 1936 melodrama The Last Journey, which deals with a runaway steam train, and Train of Events an Ealing compendium from 1949 which takes a similarly backwards approach to its narrative. In H-8... the outcome is never in doubt, but the specific details of it are kept teasingly from us: we are told that the passengers in the front seats of the bus will die, but then the film has them play a fiendish game of musical chairs right up until the moment of impact.
It's exhilarating, nail-biting, and in dubious taste. François Truffaut remarked to Hitchcock that placing a fictitious child in jeopardy is practically an abuse of cinematic power. Here, the bus carries two little kids, a baby and an embryo, with another kid on the truck riding with his ex-con father for good measure. Since the culture is removed from us in both place and time, we can try to guess which characters a Czech filmmaker of the fifties would consider disposable, but it doesn't get us very far: Tanhofer is out to break our hearts as well as stretch our nerves.
And the added poignancy of the situation created by our foreknowledge of events has poetic value too: the empty front seats of the bus acquire a sinister power of their own, apparently inert yet malign, issuing forth threatening music whenever anybody so much as looks at them, assessing their comfort.
One more, devilish touch: a father leaving his family on a business trip is given a birthday card by his kids but told not to open it until after 8:15pm. The bus will crash at 8:30. What is in that card to draw its poor victim to the front of the bus, and his doom?
I couldn't guess. Can you?
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.