The Ear

Karel Kachyňa

About film

When you mention The Ear (Ucho, 1969) in a film discussion, many people will immediately think of a “vault film”. Hardly any Czechoslovak film embodies the term so much as this political thriller by Karel Kachyňa and Jan Procházka. Despite its delicate theme, the film was finished after the events of August 1968 but with the exception of several closed-door screenings for the Barrandov Studios management and party officials, no one was allowed to see it until 1989. Its fate was similar to Menzel’s Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti, 1969) – it was banned right after its completion.

The Ear was the last of a series of films in which Karel Kachyňa and Jan Procházka gradually and chronologically revised our national history. After debunking myths about the Second World War and its heroes (Long Live the Republic! [Ať žije republika!, 1965], A Carriage Going to Vienna [Kočár do Vídně, 1966]), their focus shifted on the collectivisation and show trials in the era of Stalinism (The Nun’s Night [Noc nevěsty, 1967), A Ridiculous Gentleman [Směšný pán, 1969]). The Ear takes place in an unspecified time but one of the characters is Czechoslovak President Antonín Novotný so it should be taking place between 1957 and 1968. While writing the script, Procházka drew inspiration from his own experience as in the early 1960s, he found out that he was followed and wiretapped by the State Security.

Procházka started writing the script in which included his own feelings aroused by constant state surveillance in 1969, a year after the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Together with Kachyňa, who helped him to write the script, they realised that in light of the changing political climate, they probably won’t have much time left to make the film. Bending under the circumstances, Procházka and Kachyňa finished the literary script unusually fast, in about two months. The production itself then took another two months. Kachyňa, who studied cinematography, had already devised a thought-out visual concept so the work progressed nicely. The interiors were built in the Hostivař Studios and according to Radoslav Brzobohatý, the film had to be shot partially in secret without any deviations from the script.  

The Ear’s protagonists are a well-of married couple – deputy minister Ludvík and his wife Anna. The couple was portrayed by Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jiřina Bohdalová who at that time formed a couple themselves, which only increased the intensity of the film’s tense dialogues. One night, Ludvík and Anna return from a government reception to their Prague villa. Already at the gate, Ludvík suspiciously inspects a car parking nearby. As they have lost their keys, Ludvík has to “break in” to his own home through the basement. When he wants to open the front door to let Anna in, he finds out that it’s already open and the keys are in the lock. The couple initially believes that it’s just a series of coincidences. But they slowly succumb to an atmosphere of fear.

Their house is the only one in the entire street with a power outage and Ludvík is convinced that someone broke in and planted bugs. He believes they are under surveillance and because of the ubiquitous “ear,” he starts to watch his tongue. He wishes to take back some pro-reform beliefs corresponding to Procházka’s progressive political orientation. At first, Anna doesn’t take him seriously and keeps trivialising the situation. But she jokes only to hide her fear which are getting harder to conceal. In the end, however, she faces it with more courage than Ludvík. This ambivalence reflected the attitude of Procházka and his friends who accepted “their” surveillance with a mixture of irony and genuine fear for their lives and freedom.

Even though the couple is well-off, has their own driver, house and plenty of high-quality food, the suspicion that there is an “ear” in their house reveals their helplessness. The state apparatus represents an unreachable entity which, just like a horror monster, can hypothetically lurk behind every corner and in every dark nook and cranny. Except for the toilet, where they don’t suspect the presence of the “ear,” the house becomes a dangerous place. That is emphasised by the visual stylisation of the film – grotesque and naturalistic – which was created by cinematographer Josef Illík and Ester Krumbachová. The characters seem to be trapped in confined rooms lit only by candlelight. Our view of them is often obscured by walls or furniture surrounding them. The used dominant framing method doesn’t give them much space. As if the house didn’t belong to them and they couldn’t be free in it. Private and public space merge into one. 

Ludvík, increasingly convinced of his guilt, tries to re-enact the party in flashbacks and wants to find out why others looked at him so surprised and what was it he said or did. In the end, it turns out the couple wasn’t paranoid. Their suspicion is confirmed when they find a bug.

It is for this very reason that Ludvík’s final discovery that he was promoted to minister without any prior notice is so chilling. One of the mechanisms the ruling party uses to remain in power is information control. No one can be sure what others know, who’s a part of the system and who’s not and who has got access to the current “truth.” No one can be trusted and the society crumbles into scared and suspicious individuals. The inability to make decisions in one’s own life is inflated to absurd proportions when Ludvík, consumed by the pressure, attempts to commit suicide. He fails because the secret police confiscated his gun.

The film alludes to specific chapters in Czechoslovak history, such as the trial with the former General Secretary of the Communist Party Rudolf Slánský, which formed Procházka’s political awareness. In the film, Ludvík finds out that one of the apprehended politicians was of Jewish origin. Slánský was arrested in 1951 and executed a year later for an alleged Zionist conspiracy against the party. Other allusions reflect Procházka’s five-year-term as a Central Committee candidate and the period of insecurity following the Warsaw Pact invasion. In addition to exploring the methods of terror the party used on its own members, The Ear also gives an exceptionally suggestive testimony of the deformation of people facing a system limiting freedom.

Procházka and Kachyňa were also legitimately afraid of what was to come. In 1971, Procházka, a significant exponent of the Prague Spring, succumbed to the effects of an illness, political pressure and medial lynch. In March 1970, the television broadcast a programme titled The Seine Testimony (Svědectví od Seiny) based on manipulation of his secretly recorded statements. Procházka’s voice can be heard uttering sentences he never said. One of the pretences to discredit the author was The Ear.  Even though the film was directed by Kachyňa, the main responsibility was attributed to Procházka as the person behind its idea. As a skilled filmmaker, Kachyňa was allowed to continue making films despite his role in creating one of the most famous vault films.

A second version of Procházka’s script was created in 1980s. Exiled writer Pavel Kohout adapted it for the Austrian Television as Das Ohr (1983). He cast Pavel Landovský as one of the State Security agents. A third, more loose adaptation of Procházka’s story, was made by Ivo Trajkov in 2015. The Macedonian film Honey Night (Noc miodowa, 2015) was screened also in Czech cinemas. Procházka’s daughter Lenka also utilised the sharp dialogues from the claustrophobic film and adapted The Ear into a chamber theatre play in 2010.

Martin Šrajer

Filmographic data

Karel Kachyňa

Jan Procházka, Karel Kachyňa

Josef Illík

Svatopluk Havelka

Jiřina Bohdalová, Radoslav Brzobohatý, Gustav Opočenský, Miloslav Holub, Lubor Tokoš, Bořivoj Navrátil, Jiří Císler, Jaroslav Moučka

Filmové studio Barrandov, 94 min.


"It is an excellent analysis of one’s situation in a totalitarian regime and an exact psychological depiction of the phenomenon in which one becomes both victim and culprit as a result of fear (...) This way, Procházka and Kachyňa coped with the terrible police reality of the 1950s without apparently knowing what they were filming - the memories of the future. Thus, The Ear (Ucho) not only managed to anticipate, for example, Abuladze's Repentance (Pokání), but also took advantage of the brief relaxation of the regime to capture both timelines, which is something unique in world cinematography."

Jaromír Blažejovský, Rovnost, 1 February 1990.


"However, the right casting and the great leadership of the actors is not the only merit of Karel Kachyňa: although Procházka's script created the prerequisites for this, without Kachyňa's directorial mastery, without his brilliant work with light (the black-and-white material was chosen deliberately not only because it evoked the atmosphere of the 1950s, which is not being emphasised in real life), to which the cameraman Josef Illík deserves immense credit, without Miroslav Hájek's precise editing and without the contribution of other people involved, this tragicomedy would not have achieved the intensity and power of Shakespearean dramas."

Eva Hepnerová, Svobodné slovo, 30 March 1990, p. 5. 


"The Ear is stylistically balanced and genre-continuous, without unnecessary visual ornamentation, concentrating on the gradually revealed dramatic realities with which the characters must cope and respond to. The delicate storyline and the concentration on the acting, the masterfully written dialogues, aptly illuminating the situations evoked without being described or reported, have much in common with A Carriage Going to Vienna (Kočár do Vídně) – as does the sensitive psychological approach in all the changing stages that the characters undergo."

Jan Jaroš, Film a doba 36, 1990, no. 4, p. 224.


"Procházka's film story captures the mysterious hierarchy of powerlessness of the powerful with extraordinary insight. There is yet another motif which occupies a smaller space and is executed with less imagination and without the same craft bravura with which the main motif is constructed. It is the psychology of this “new class”. Ludwig's wife, who plays the same role as her husband in many of the story's peripetia, comes across at times as a character without depth, whose moody outbursts and vulgarities are clichés that do not shock. Here, Procházka is the reflection of the film as well as its inspiration."

Josef Vohryzek, Literární noviny, 1990, no. 9, p. 4.



Cooperation between Karel Kachyňa and Jan Procházka

To look for co-creations of Karel Kachyňa and Jan Procházka means exploring more than two decades of Czechoslovak filmmaking history. Both started their careers at the beginning of the 1950s, with their still independent projects being governed by the official culture and politics. The weaker the position of the Communist Party conservative wing, the sharper their criticism of the official culture. In the 1960s, they came close to the poetics and open-mindedness of the Czechoslovak New Wave films. What we can consider their peak period is the latter half of the 1960s, when they made films together that were both sharply critical and formally original.

Karel Kachyňa was among the first to graduate from the newly founded Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). In 1947, he started studying cinematography, along with classmates such as Zdeněk Podskalský, Štefan Uher and Vojtěch Jasný. With the latter, he made his graduate film Not always cloudy (Není stále zamračeno, 1949). He graduated in 1951, continuing his cooperation with Jasný throughout the 1950s. As convinced Communists, they were making documentaries celebrating the collectivization of agriculture or the friendship between Czechoslovakia and China. They were sent to China by the Czechoslovak Army Film studio. But travelling through the Soviet Union, they got to know what Stalinism really meant. After this experience, Jasný left the Army Film studio, while Kachyňa served there until 1959. However, already in 1958, he made his début as an independent director with At That Time, at Christmas… (Tenkrát o Vánocích).

Just like Kachyňa, the writer, screenwriter, dramaturgist and politician Jan Procházka was a convinced Communist. Starting in the early 1950s, he worked in the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Union of Youth in Prague. He wrote short stories already during his military service, with his first short story collection being published in 1956. In his first book, A year of life (Rok života), he still followed the ideological schemes of the time. His faith in Communism was shaken by the criticism of Stalin’s personality cult in 1956. Procházka realized that the ideals he had believed in – just like many of his peers – had been betrayed. A turning point came with his book Green Horizons (Zelené obzory), where Procházka appeared less as an enthusiastic builder of a shining Communist future and more as a critic of the regime. In 1957, the medium-length film What a Night! (To byla noc) was made based on his story.

Jan Procházka first started working at the Barrandov Film Studio in 1959 as a screenwriter and later became the head of a production team. He first replaced František Pavlíček in a team specializing in films for children and young people. He was assigned “children’s” films even after the Barrandov reorganization. Beginning in 1962, there were five production teams at the Barrandov Film Studio, each comprised of a head dramaturgist and production manager. As a dramaturgist, Procházka worked together with Erich Švabík. Even though their production team also primarily focused on films for children and young people, they pushed through some films for adults as well. At the same time, two to three films made based on Procházka’s screenplays were released every year in the first half of the 1960s.

In 1962, Procházka became a candidate member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Between 1963 and 1966, he was also a member of the Ideological Commission of the Central Committee. In that time, for instance, he recommended to take back and distribute the films condemned at the infamous Banská Bystrica conference (e.g., Three Wishes (Tři přání, 1958) by Kadár and Klos). It was mainly thanks to Procházka’s intercession with President Novotný that Jan Němec and Věra Chytilová could realize their artistically specific projects. At the same time, more and more voices arose saying that Procházka, as a member of the Communist Party reformist wing, was undermining socialism with his opinions. The State Security started following him and he was under increasing pressure. Procházka also politically engaged during the 1968 Prague Spring, becoming the head of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, among other things.

The creative paths of both artists crossed in the early 1960s. Out of the two films made in parallel, Fetters (Pouta, 1961), based on Procházka’s short story Regret (Lítost), was released first. Due to certain dramaturgic concessions, the writer wasn’t very happy with the result. Better and more successful from the points of view of both him and the audience was The Stress of Youth (Trápení, 1961), about a lonely young girl caring for an injured horse. The Stress of Youth was the first film made using the realization model that the authors would stick to throughout the entire 1960s: Procházka wrote the story. Together with Kachyňa, they prepared the literary screenplay. Kachyňa wrote the technical screenplay. Whereas Procházka wrote screenplays for several other directors as well (e.g., for Štěpán Skalský, Zdeněk Brynych, Karel Steklý, Karel Zeman, Věra Plívová-Šimková), up until 1970, Kachyňa based all of his films on Procházka’s stories.

One of the lines of their work comprised emotional and psychological dramas involving young outsiders, i.e., films mainly focusing on childhood and coming of age. In addition to The Stress of Youth, these included Vertigo (Závrať, 1962), The High Wall (Vysoká zeď, 1964) and Jumping over Puddles Again (Už zase skáču přes kaluže, 1970). In Christmas with Elisabeth (Vánoce s Alžbětou, 1968), we also follow the emotional maturation of a young heroine. The comedy Our Crazy Family (Naše bláznivá rodina, 1968) was taken over by Kachyňa after the premature death of the original director, Jan Valášek. Kachyňa would continue to explore the inner world of youth during the normalization period, after Procházka’s death. Earlier films for children tended to idealize the young heroes, viewing them from an adult perspective. Kachyňa and Procházka, on the contrary, were trying to get closer to children’s perception of the world, to understand how they think and feel. Rather than films for children, they were making films about children.

In addition to the private microcosm, the two authors gradually started exploring dramas of individuals in the context of a societal crisis. They defied the norms of socialist realism by turning from large historical events to intimate stories, showing how dramatically “great historical events” often affect the lives of ordinary people, who are moreover far from the ideal 1950s heroes (in The Hope (Naděje, 1963), it is for instance an alcoholic and a prostitute). They emphasized feelings, reflecting the effect of the external world on one’s privacy. Moreover, some of these films revisited the past, soberly explored the dark sides of Czechoslovak post-war history, and questioned the concept of heroism.

In addition to the contemporary Fetters and The Hope, the socially critical line also included the intimate thriller A Carriage Going to Vienna (Kočár do Vídně, 1966) taking place at the end of the Second World War, and three films going back to the 1950s. Depicting the collectivization of agriculture in the raw, the drama The Nun’s Night (Noc nevěsty, 1967) was based on Procházka’s novel Holy Night (Svatá noc). A Ridiculous Gentleman (Směšný pán, 1969) also takes place in the 1950s, reflecting the judicial murders of the time. The last official joint film by Kachyňa and Procházka was the psychological thriller The Ear (Ucho, 1970), which was banned for depicting methods used by the State Security and their effect on people’s psyche and relationships.

The sixth joint project by Kachyňa and Procházka, Long Live the Republic (Ať žije republika! 1965) lies in between the “adult” and “children” categories, filtrating the April 1945 events in a Moravian village through the perspective of a 12-year-old boy. Procházka’s book was published in 1965 by the Státní nakladatelství dětské knihy publishing house. Just like with other projects, the book was written in parallel with its film version (when writing, Procházka often imagined what a scene could look like in a film and modified his style accordingly). Made to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the liberation of Czechoslovakia, the two-part widescreen drama was one of the most expensive Czechoslovak films. It was made in co-production between the Czechoslovak State Film and Czechoslovak Army Film studios, and even involved two production teams.

A Carriage Going to Vienna depicts the developing relationship between the widowed Krista, whose husband was executed by the Nazis, and a young German soldier, who makes her transport him and his injured friend over the border. Like in Long Live the Republic, the state of affairs in a specific period is presented through an individual story and a very subjective perspective. Equally uncompromising towards enemy soldiers, partisans and the Red Army, the screenplay was not approved by the Central Press Supervision Office, which considered the conclusion politically harmful. The film could only be finished and realized after President Novotný’s intercession. However, he didn’t approve of the finished film, which led to a split with Procházka. In the end, the film was distributed, but a few scenes had to be modified or removed.

Production plans were set up well in advance. Due to an imminent collapse of domestic film production, even films contradicting the new political situation could be finished after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. Openly critical to the State Security practices and based on Procházka’s own experience with wiretapping and surveillance, The Ear was finished, but it could not be released. It only premièred in January 1990. Procházka was gradually removed or withdrew himself from all public functions. The State Security continued to follow him, and Czechoslovak Television broadcast an inflammatory documentary called Testimony from the Seine (Svědectví od Seiny, 1970). It included a deliberately edited wiretap of Procházka’s visit at Professor Václav Černý’s. Procházka succumbed to the increasing pressure and a serious illness in February 1971.

Jumping over Puddles Again was the last film he was involved in before his death. The idea to film the book by Alan Marshall was born with the first Czech edition of the Australian novel published in 1962. However, since priority was given to other projects, the filming rights were only purchased, and the film was realized seven years later. Procházka not only wrote the screenplay, but also consulted on the casting and selection of the cinematographer with Kachyňa. His name could not appear in the credits, though (it was Ota Hofman instead). The apolitical family film was passed and distributed throughout the normalization period. Except for The Stress of Youth, the other films by Kachyňa – Procházka were gradually removed from the distribution list.

Kachyňa had to promise to the new Czechoslovak State Film management he would distance himself from his cooperation with Jan Procházka. This was one of the reasons he could continue filming without a significant break, contrary to many of his proscribed colleagues. He could only make another two films based on Procházka’s stories, St. Nicholas Is in Town (Městem chodí Mikuláš, 1992) and The Cow (Kráva, 1992), after the 1989 revolution.

Martin Šrajer