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Karlovy Vary: An “A” Fest for the Former Eastern Bloc

Karlovy Vary: An "A" Fest for the Former Eastern Bloc

Karlovy Vary: An "A" Fest for the Former Eastern Bloc

by Michael Lee

On opening night at the Czech Republic’s premier 52-year-old Karlovy
Vary International Film Festival
(KVIFF) which ran July 3 – 11, Vladimir
Michalek’s competition film “Sekal Has to Die” had its world premiere.
Just before the screening started, renowned director Jiri Menzel
(“Closely Watched Trains“) beat one of the co-producers of the film with
a stick, right there in the twelfth row of the Great Hall, with all that
swinging room.

Seems that jury member Menzel was irate that the producer had secured
the film rights to recently deceased Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal’s
acclaimed novel “I Served the King of England” for a mere fifty thousand
crowns (about $1,600) with the understanding that the sixty-something
Menzel, a lifetime friend of Hrabal, would direct. Then he turned around
and sold the rights for four and a half million crowns ($150,000) to TV
NOVA, the Czech entertainment entity most likely to be admired by Rupert
Murdoch. The producer, for his part, insisted that he paid more and got
less, but didn’t for a moment deny making a profit.

“You may get lost in Berlin, you may get lost in Cannes, but you never
get lost in Karlovy Vary,” said KVIFF general manager Rudolf Beirmann –
a strange boast, but appropriate. Even Vary’s own hierarchy are
constantly comparing this festival to the flashier Cannes, the classier
Venice, the more commercial Berlin, which all (hereafter collectively
CVB) have more films, more stars, and most importantly, more money.

But Vary is still more accessible. Founded in the same year as Cannes,
the KVIFF spent decades alternating as east bloc film showcase with
Moscow. Four years ago, when dapper actor and ever-present president
Jiri Bartoska joined forces with Biermann to resurrect it, KVIFF’s
modern face began to be molded. It’s still seeking a solid identity,
trying to sculpt itself in its own image. “The best festival ever,”
Biermann called this year’s effort, and I, along with most others I
spoke with, agreed. But why?

1) The most films ever, 213 shown in 465 screenings. Also the best
films, although CVB’s films remain both more numerous and better, at
least their competition films, with the most interesting KVIFF choices,
as usual, out of competition, ineligible because they already won
elsewhere (examples: Pavel Chukrai’s Oscar-nominated “The Thief“, Shohei
Imamura’s Palme d’Or ’97 winner “The Eel”, Cannes Jury Prize winner
Celebration“, by Thomas Vinterberg, and “Central Station” (dir. Walter
Salles, Berlin Golden Bear 98).

2.) The best parties. In the immediate post-revolution Czechoslovakia
there is still no personal wealth. Now restitution has resurrected the
aristocrat, while the free market has introduced nouveau riche, and the
little white bread, mayo, and sausage that were top end banquet fare
here in the early 90’s have vanished in favor of raw oysters and roast
beef — food that at long last rivals the voluptuous sculpted halls of
the Grand Hotel Pupp [pronounced: poop], one of the finest
spots in Central Europe to crash a black tie function (see below).

3.) The fewest glitches. The only glaringly memorable one being the
arrival of von Trier’s “The Idiots” in its unsubtitled version,
subjecting the majority of the audience to choosing between a crash
Danish lesson and the ignominy of headphones bleating indecipherable
simultaneous translations.

4.) The second biggest attendance ever, at 120,000 admissions still
10,000 short of last year. They filled all 8,000 hotel rooms, uncounted
friends’ places, and private unofficial rentals, with the remainder commuting
or sleeping in the Thermal’s common rooms, on rugs, floors, and couches,
some even outside, under air ducts and overhangs, in tents, or out in
the open, getting slowly wet. Some found the simplest solution and
didn’t sleep at all, dancing and drinking all night every night in the
basement disco Hell, saving their naps, perhaps, for the plush darkness
of morning screenings.

But what really made this year’s festival special, besides all of the
improvements and increased professionalism, Vary still hasn’t snubbed
the young and restless. Of the 7,173 accreditations this year, nearly
5,000 bore the lowly blue stripe given to film students and film club
members, and the bulk of the audience at almost every film was young
Czechs. Sure, they had to wait in line two hours every morning for their
tickets. But they could get tickets, and in many cases could even enter
sold-out screenings just by flashing a pass, even if the photo on it was
of someone of the opposite gender.

And it was easier than ever for the youth with some gumption and a
sportcoat or black cocktail dress to crash the best parties. More
nervous about offending the wrong person than admitting them, the KVIFF
hierarchy this year hired the relaxed Nobody security company (no joke –
not even a translation from Czech), and the midnight banquets at the
Pupp were again a chance to stick it to the chemical-cigarette-gas
sponsor triumvirate, nine consecutive nights of drunkenness and gluttony
as a moral act.

Even the Festival cars, a fleet of new Mercedes S420s, E290s, E430s,
E320s, minivans, etc. the dark blue and gray tones of bank suits,
running 16 hours a day between the Thermal and Pupp, up and down the
mile of colonnades, and supposedly reserved for VIPs (“the silver and
gold people” as one driver called them) could be — and were — commandeered
by anyone assertive enough. At Vary, you can still fake stardom pretty
easily. Partly because the list of stars at the entire festival would barely
fill a Cannes hotel room cocktail party: Lou Reed, Michael Douglas,
Terry Jones, Ornella Muti, Tim Roth, Lauren Bacall, Rod Steiger, Nick
Gomez, Bob Gosse, and a cast of dozens, most in town for a night or two.

Despite the strident efforts to glamorize Vary, it’s still a festival
for commoners, students, the literati more than the glitterati – before
Mike DiJiacomo’s competition film “Animals”, Roth asked the audience
where to go drinking afterward; unfortunately, the crowd took it as a
joke, laughed, suggested nothing, and Roth went home early, not even
checking out Hell.

The most achingly obvious difference between KVIFF and CVB is in the
Closing Ceremonies. Vary has developed a policy of using this slot to
spotlight major films about to open locally. Last year, it was “Shine”,
a year late. This year, “The Big Lebowski,” only a few months off this
time, but oddly appropriate. For KVIFF could be called the Big Lebowski of
European festivals: grandiose, inventive, ambitious, more stylish than
ever, but ultimately lightweight, plotless, confused, off-kilter,
striving higher than it can reach. As its creators, in their deep
hearts, know.

Whatever the eventual soul of Vary, if we’re lucky it will be formed
through the nitty-gritty of events and sections unique to it. Which this
year included:

* An expansion of the Forum of Independents to 24 films and 10 shorts,
which again consistently sold out the preciously rickety “Cas” cinema.

* VARIETY’s “Critic’s Choice” slate of 10 of the best films from other
recent festivals, which in fine quirky Vary form somehow
became 11 films. Glitch being, most ran only once, 8 on a single Monday,
only one of those repeating, and all but two were gone for good by the
fest’s halfway point. Critic’s Choice chief Todd McCarthy pointed out
that while barely 500 films were released in the US last year, Variety
reviewed over 1,000, implying that Variety was also the world’s most
important force in the success of foreign films and films released only
on TV or video.

* The producers’ panel, a discussion of filmmaking in the region held on
two consecutive mornings in the Bohemia Room of the Pupp. The heavily-LA
laden panel discussed the role of co-productions in financing and
distribution, and the appeals and dangers of Euro Stew. The casual
seminar was anchored by friendly heavyweight Saul Zaentz (“Amadeus“),
who tossed off equal parts wisdoms (“no one is totally independent”) and
witticisms (“banks will lend you money if you can prove you don’t need
money”). “Independence is mainly a state of mind,” contended Dale
Pollock, a gray-goateed beachcomber whose company, Open Door, is the
main American film presence in Poland, and is the producer of next
year’s “Killer“, to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld for Hollywood
Pictures based on last year’s Polish thriller “Kiler“, a $400,000 film
slated to be remade for $40 million.

* The film market, even more of a non-force than last year, or at least
a more removed presence, almost impossible to find, even harder to
access, a long angled elevator ride up to the pool that discouraged many
from even bothering with the blue-credential parties there, much less
the dullness of folding-table business. A “highlight”: Dutch distributor
Contact Film acquired the rights to three Russian films from the
festival program for release in the Netherlands. No, not exactly CVB

[Michael Lee is a filmmaker and writer, based for the moment, in

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