Knoflíkáři and Cinematic Technique

6 Apr

Knoflíkáři (Buttoners) is a 1997 film directed by Petr Zelenka, which deals with the experiences of its protagonists in the post-communist Czech Republic. The essay below looks at the issues of irony and synchronicity in the film and what it suggests. Originally written in February 2010.

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Petr Zelenka’s 1997 feature Knoflíkáři (Buttoners) is often held up alongside Jízda and Kouř as one of the defining cult films of Czech cinematography of the 1990s. A black comedy divided into six separate, yet interlinked, parts; Knoflíkáři examines the experiences of various people in the new Czech Republic, as well as that of an American pilot who was responsible for dropping the first Atomic Bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Subjects such as relationships, society as well as life and death are explored within this framework, in an original and thoughtful manner. The lives of those portrayed, and indeed the stories they tell, range from that of a Prague taxi driver whose passengers wish to have intercourse in the backseat, to an unemployed man who takes much pride in his ability to spit under train carriages whilst lying on the track. Indeed, the film’s title comes from another character: with a penchant for ripping buttons out of antique furniture with the aid of a set of false teeth.

Two integral themes crucial to the film are employed both overtly and covertly by Zelenka: namely that of irony and synchronicity. These are highlighted through several different techniques, both in the film’s plotline, narrative and delivery. The question that this essay will be attempting to answer is not only based in identifying when such themes are employed, but to analyse the significance of their usage and why there is a high level of significance attached to them.

It is the structure of Knoflíkáři itself that makes the synchronicity aspect so effective. At first, it appears that the six parts to the piece are separate and distant from each other (perhaps reflecting the distance felt by Czechs between themselves and Western Europe after the collapse of communism), but gradually the audience becomes aware of how each story is linked on several levels. The most obvious of these linkages are those which are portrayed on screen, such as characters integral to one section becoming cameos in another, until by the end the full realisation occurs that these events were happening simultaneously. It is the final chapter, “The Ghost of an American pilot”, where this is at its most revealing – as its title suggests, the airman comes back as a ghost to the Czech Republic, and others such as the taxi driver and the psychiatrist are reintroduced through the storyline here. Any misconceptions to this continuous theme have been made crystal clear at this moment. Furthermore, within the sections several occurrences take place which link the unknowing protagonists themselves, thus there are connections between characters on multiple levels.

Perhaps the strongest example of this interlinking is in “The Taxi Driver”. As was mentioned earlier, this narrative begins with a taxi driver picking up a couple, who then wish to make love in the car (as the man can only fully perform while a car is in motion). After they leave, the car is hailed again, this time by a man who wants driven to an address in an attempt to catch his wife cheating on him. This proves to be unsuccessful, as upon entering the flat in which the supposed affair is taking place, the passenger finds an unknown woman instead. However, it materialises that the woman originally in the taxi was indeed his partner, whereas the wife of the driver is in fact the one sleeping with the man in the apartment. Romney asks that if it is “really possible that everyone in Prague that night ends up hailing the same taxi? In fact, you can imagine 100 ways that the narrative could fork off in other unexplored directions” (http://www.newstatesman.com/199901150035, accessed 24/2/10). Although a legitimate assertion, it is these random instances that make the synchronicity so strong and lingering in the viewer’s memory: ‘what if’ situations which add a psychological aspect and communicate the idea of the Czech Republic as a small, enclosed nation which is uncertain of its direction or its morals, a point often made in Czech cinema at this time. This skill is recognised by Allan who comments that “up until the final twenty minutes Zelenka maintains a tenuous grip on ‘everyday reality’, ensuring that the various stories are linked in a manner which, though occasionally a little outlandish, is nevertheless rooted firmly in the fact that such things could happen” (http://www.blisty.cz/art/13173.html, accessed 25/2/10).

In addition to using protagonists as a linking factor, several other techniques are employed to reinforce the idea of all these scenes being acted out at once. It is intentional that all chapters, except the greyscale first scene, are set in the evening. Not only does this highlight the continuity between scenes, but additionally it indicates that this film could dually be perceived as either a dream or nightmare, and that there is a lack of clarity that could perhaps be avoided if set in the daytime (in other words, that some of the coincidences may not have happened). There are also several replications and similarities in traits and character: for instance, the couples and individuals who have sex in taxis, act out warfare, spit under trains or are “buttoners” – these are all experiences which excite them; for sheer thrill, sexual pleasure, or otherwise.

The point of such replications ties in with synchronicity to communicate part of Zelenka’s social commentary on life in the post-communist Czech Republic. With his interlinking, he brings everything full circle – that the different characters, diverse in background and class, yet somehow sharing common features and values – are representations of the entire nation. By doing this, Zelenka creates a microcosm of the Czech Republic as a country struggling to deal with the new democratic, Westernised society it finds itself in. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are large amounts of strange behaviour and little morality amongst the populous, as such glimpses “into the moral idiosyncrasies of post-communist life” clearly demonstrate “fear of responsibility as the fundamental form of post-modern angst” (Stojanova, http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/4/buttoners.shtml, accessed 25/2/10). The director’s argument here is that such a struggle for identity is not something merely individual, but that everyone experiences it, and this is why there are so many coping mechanisms on display. Again, the structure helps carry such feelings; as although there is of course synchronicity and linking between each chapter, the mere fact that the film is separated into these instances carries the feeling that society itself is in a state of degradation and fragmentation. Thus synchronising events carries further the speed of this breakdown, carrying the weight to the viewer that all this is happening simultaneously and in real-time, and how these coping mechanisms are a result of not being able to keep up in a time of rapid change.

It is telling that the young couple featured in “Civilised Habits” are the most ‘normal’ of the people in Knoflíkáři; and ironically, the people that die. Yet themes of irony and mystification act alongside synchronicity as crucial to developing not just the atmosphere the director intends to portray, but also to aid his arguments on the state of the Czech people. This is often used by means of mock documentaries that Zelenka inserts into the film. The viewer is introduced to this concept at the beginning, with mock footage of Japan in 1945, shortly before the first Atomic Bomb blast. In this instance, irony is obvious: a Japanese businessman who has recently returned to the town of Kokura teaches his friends about how Americans enjoy swearing (we are told that there are no swear words in Japanese), and this is directed towards the torrential rain outside. This is moments before Japan is bombed. Paradoxically, the airplane headed to drop the Atomic Bomb on Kokura is diverted due to the rain, and instead the warhead is discharged on Hiroshima. The second piece of faked footage is the American documentary highlighting how scientists have sent sperm from four million men into outer space, as an attempt to save the human race. It should be noted that “unlike the generation of their parents, Zelenka and his peers do not idealize (sic) America as a beacon of freedom, but view Western values suspiciously and as an object of irony” (Stojanova, http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/4/buttoners.shtml, accessed 25/2/10). This is a definite contrast to many Czechs in the immediate aftermath of 1989, and attempts to embrace Western democratic ethics and values as well as free market capitalism. By doing this Zelenka serves to portray American and Western European culture as having an unsettling effect on the Czechs, contrasting with the numerous nods to what citizens are used to (one such instance of this is the petrol station pump still operating in Czechoslovak Crowns). Discussions surrounding the footage, such as the unemployed former train worker as a “man who has not contributed” echo communist rhetoric of the working class contributing to the building of the socialist state. This sets up the viewer for the American pilot coming back as a ghost, ironic in the sense of the Czech idea of ‘returning to the West’.

The director’s use of irony enhances Knoflíkáři in its exploration of the human condition. There is certainly irony in how, as documentary footage, we take the farcical notions of sending sperm into space as fact; and this is intended to reflect further on collective ideas with reference to all characters in the film, and thus all residents of the new Czech state: there is often a lack of clarity of what is happening, a lack of factual recollection, and this has resulted in a crisis of direction and identity. Because the director is careful to “strike a balance between the social groups he parodies: the young and the old, the middle class and the working class” (Horton, http://www.ce-review.org/kinoeye/kinoeye15old1.html, accessed 25/2/10) the conclusions are able to reflect on transition as a national rather than a personal problem. Anyone in the film who tries to take control of his or her destiny, is cruelly punished by coincidences and turns of fate, and in turn this adds to the element of unpredictability that inevitably arises from any change of system or state. Again with irony, the insecure psychiatrist, himself a caricature in the film, is almost right when he remarks to his patient that “it is not within your power to change”; indicating that there must be something more than the personal, and how difficult it is to move on from the past. Such a concept is almost made explicit with the young couple symbolically destroying their keys on the rail tack – this symbolises a moving on from the past, but just as what happens with the keys, it is difficult to break them completely.

From the use of both irony and synchronicity, Knoflíkáři becomes much more than “a film as crazy as the whole of the twentieth century” as the press release describes. In fact, it is a complex and on the whole successful exploration of the individual and the collective, of chance and coincidence, and how this has an effect on the Czech experience post-communism. From what on the surface appears to be a fragmented story of several vignettes, Zelenka crafts both overtly and covertly concrete links between the characters on physical and behavioural levels, as a method of suggesting the shared experiences of Czechs at this time. By synchronising these events and with the use of omnipresent darkness, the viewer gets the impression of a state which is morally confused and torn between the old and new, and of how as a typical occurrence in ‘real time’, the events of the film are hardly extraordinary to characters whose surreal idiosyncrasies are their coping mechanisms. The liberal use of irony helps to create a sense of mistrust to the West but is just as important in emphasising the unpredictability of what is happening in everyday life. Therefore to conclude, Knoflíkáři is another important film of 1990s Czech cinema in dramatising the problems of identity in the backdrop of rapid alternation of political and societal phases; and serves to provide an insightful commentary of a central European state in the period of transition.

Sam Beaton, February 2010

Online Articles

  • Horton, A. (1999) The Discreet Charm of the Czech Bourgeoisie: Petr Zelenka’s Buttoners

http://www.ce-review.org/kinoeye/kinoeye15old1.html, accessed        25/2/10

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