The Joke

Jaromil Jireš

About film

Milan Kundera started writing his first novel in the early 1960s. Finished in December 1965, The Joke was approved by censors and published in the spring of 1967. Addressing a taboo topic, about the disruption of the collectivized rural areas and political oppression in the 1950s, the book quickly sold out. A total of 117, 1000 books were published in two reprints. Western readers showed great interest as well. Against the backdrop of the Prague Spring, a year after the book was published, it was awarded the Union of Czechoslovak Writers Award and made into a film.

Kundera had some objections to a previous adaptation of his work – the tragicomedy Nobody Gets the Last Laugh (Nikdo se nebude smát). That’s why from the beginning he worked on The Joke together with director Jaromil Jireš, the author of the emotional drama The Cry (Křik, 1963), who for years had been looking for a suitable next project. In the meantime, he only made the short The Log Cabin (Srub, 1966), the medium-length film Romance for the Hrabalesque composition Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně, 1965) and two documentaries. The film White Birches in the Autumn (Bílé břízy na podzim), which he had adapted together with Arnošt Lustig during his military service, was rejected. The historical screenplay Sky-Blue Rapids (Azurové peřeje) that he had made with Karel Michal was not executed either.

After the lyrical, cinéma vérité The Cry, Jireš wanted to try something else. With Kundera’s polyphonic contemplation of human powerlessness in the context of history, he could make – instead of an intimate individual story – a drama involving social criticism not unlike, for instance, Antonín Máša’s Looking Back (Ohlédnutí, 1968) or Evald Schorm’s Courage for Every Day (Každý den odvahu, 1965).

Jireš probably chose the story also because of his growing interest in South-East Moravia, where in 1967 he made his short film King Game (Hra na krále), capturing the Ride of the Kings, a Moravian-Slovak festival, in Vlčnov. He was in touch with Vlčnov residents when executing The Joke as well, and he again turned his attention to them in 1969 in his documentaries Grandpa (Dědáček) and Vincenc Moštek’s and Šimon Pešl’s Journey from Vlčnov to Prague in the year of our Lord 1969 (Cesta do Prahy Vincence Moštka a Šimona Pešla z Vlčnova l. p. 1969). The protagonist of The Joke comes from the same part of Moravia as well.

Jireš and Kundera were writing the screenplay while the novel itself was still being censored. The literary basis for the film hit that wall as well. The authorities were assessing the screenplay in April 1967. However, it was only approved for production in the following year, after the previous inspection structures had broken up. A similar fate befell Case for the New Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata, 1969) by Pavel Juráček, who described the complications with the approval of his and Jireš’s screenplays in his diaries from the time.  

While the novel The Joke has four different narrators, the film only has one main protagonist: Ludvík Jahn. During the Stalinist era, in jest he had sent a postcard to his girlfriend, a classmate, saying, „Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky!” However, she handed it over to the university officials. As punishment, Jahn was expelled from the Party and from the university and sentenced to do six years on a work brigade especially for enemies of the Republic.

The main part of the drama takes place several years later, with Ludvík still experiencing an inner crisis and unable to live in the present because of his past. He is a captive of his memories, old grievances, and disappointments, which keep interfering in his present due to the close connection of the different time lines. Ludvík encounters the old situations and their participants on the street, in his dreams or when looking in the mirror, constantly haunted by his past. When he happens to meet Helena, the wife of the former classmate responsible for the destruction of his career, he decides to seduce her to get revenge for his lost youth.

Even though the film only switches between different time lines, and not also narrators like the novel, Ludvík meets the different characters, and their confrontation gives rise to one of the central ideas of the novel: everyone has their own truth, lives in their own lies, opportunistically adapting them to survive and succeed in the given circumstances.

Jireš’s drama does not form a coherent system either, being rather a series of associated fragments edited by Jireš’s former fellow student Josef Valušiak, proving his talent in a feature film for the first time. Images and sounds are layered over each other rather than linearly placed one after the other. Expressing the subjectivity of human perception, the merging of time lines and the inability to anchor in the present moment is reflected by the camera as well, sometimes taking over Ludvík’s perspective.

Kundera was satisfied with the balanced composition and rhythm of the film, accentuating the tragic rather than the ironic layer of the novel and convincingly evoking the feelings of depression and defeat. According to him, Jireš managed to cast great actors, create an impressive atmosphere, and give the film a distinct rhythm, masterfully alternating emotions. Jan Žalman said that the author of The Cry had outdone himself. In his anthology Silenced Film (Umlčený film), he writes: “With The Joke, all speculation about Jireš’s artistic viability has lost any justification.”

Temporarily interrupting the shooting in Uherské Hradiště and Vlčnov in August 1968, the Warsaw Pact invasion suggested that the future of the film would not be an easy one. Because of his opinions, Kundera was high on the list of people whose public activities were no longer desirable. At the beginning of 1970, the novel The Joke was withdrawn from the market and libraries together with Kundera’s other books.

Jireš’s film was not among the most criticized works of the Czechoslovak New Wave, his further screening being even considered for a while; however, in the end, it had to be removed from the distribution list as well. Attempts to critically deal with the socialist past or present were no longer desirable.

Martin Šrajer

References and recommended reading:

Jiří Cieslar, Žert. Reflex 16, 2005, No. 27, pp. 64–67.

Milan Kundera, Žert. Brno: Atlantis 2008.

Antonín J. Liehm, Ostře sledované filmy. Praha: NFA 2001.

Stanislava Přádná, Zdena Škapová, Jiří Cieslar, Démanty všednosti. Český a slovenský film 60. let. Praha: Pražská scéna 2002.

Lukáš Skupa, Vadí-nevadí. Česká filmová cenzura v 60. letech. Praha: NFA 2016.

Jan Žalman, Umlčený film. Praha: KMa 2008.

Filmographic data

Jaromil Jireš

Milan Kundera, Jaromil Jireš

Jan Čuřík

Zdeněk Pololáník

Josef Somr, Jana Dítětová, Luděk Munzar, Jaroslava Obermaierová, Evald Schorm, Milan Švrčina, Miloš Rejchrt, Věra Křesadlová, Jaromír Hanzlík

Filmové studio Barrandov, 79 min.


“In The Joke, Kundera builds a motif of sexual revenge using means that are unique to the medium of literature, but that simply cannot be translated into the language of film (unless the film only pays attention to this moment and makes it into a long image analysis). However, the film version of The Joke necessarily reduces the story of Ludvík and Helena to a framework for another story and, in a nutshell, it is not able to express the perception of reality. Told as an epic framework, the paradox of Ludvík’s revenge loses its depth, becomes an anecdote and the film instantly starts limping on a very important leg.”

A. J. Liehm, Filmové a televizní noviny 3, 1969, No. 5, p. 5.


“The first thing to be sacrificed was the sophisticated structure of the novel and the plurality of views of the events. Jireš went for the modest language of the hero’s personal statement, constantly confronted with past experiences. However, this modesty has the power of a documentary testimony, cruel and immediate, where necessary, and light and funny, where it is useful as a counterpoint to a tragic situation. The modesty Jireš works toward is not a virtue made of necessity; I believe it’s remarkable maturity of the author who is able to absorb complex matter, not to drown in it, and to stand high above its swarming reality, picking the important things he needs to achieve his purpose. Will the main hero pay the price for this approach? He certainly will. Ludvík Jahn is more cynical, broken, and harder than his book counterpart; in his film life, there is no hopeful light named Lucie, and his defeat in the duel with Zemánek is more complex – but also more alarming. And I believe that this is the point today. After all, the duel Jahn – Zemánek has a different function today than it used to have under normal circumstances. I mean, the Zemáneks are rising their heads again today. Their conceited confidence and eel-like slipperiness is more dangerous as the waters they like to swim in have risen again.”

Gustav Francl, Kino 24, 1969, No. 7, p. 4.



Director’s explication

We met with Milan Kundera over another subject matter, and I happened to read the manuscript of The Joke. Even though I tend to work rather slowly, at that time, we wrote the screenplay for The Joke in an incredibly short period of time, long before the novel was published. But then I had to wait. Even though the screenplay was not banned completely, the filming was constantly postponed, and I didn’t know where I stood. Uncertainty is the worst thing and, in my case, it necessarily led to laziness. I wasn’t exactly idle, I made a short film now and then, but now making a feature film, I feel that I have forgotten what it’s like to bear all that responsibility. And yet the period of “idleness” has brought nice experience. When I was not filming, it was my friends making films in which I found what was close to me and what I probably wouldn’t have expressed with such intensity. I can be grateful to these lean years for this feeling of friendship.

Kundera’s novel is so good that it is foolish to even try and make it into a film; it is like fighting a losing battle in a way. But I am happy to take it on. The fight for the right form excites me. The novel had only inspired the film with the main motif – with the paradoxical fate of Ludvík Jahn. Paradoxes are symptomatic of the time we live in… The victims of persecution have a memory. But those who judged, punished, and killed under the pressure of noble ideas or fear suffer from an unbelievable loss of memory.

Albeit scary, a paradox also has its sad laugh. How many Pavel Zemáneks were born around us today… Ludvík Jahn keeps living in two periods, carrying his past like a ball and chain. People can be rehabilitated a thousand times, but their lives remain marked forever. In Ludvík Jahn – to whom actually not that much has happened compared to the hundreds of cases we read about in the paper – this stigmatization is reflected in sad humour and self-irony and it can be treated more freely in a piece of art than in truly tragic cases, which touch us most deeply in the form of bare facts.

It is not my intention to make The Joke a political film. I don’t believe that a film can directly change anything about politics, to improve anything. Films can either calm us down or unsettle us. Films touching upon serious social matters should definitely be among the latter. Politics is a profession, a domain of strategy and tactics – this is something even the most principled politicians must count on. In culture and creation, strategy and tactics have no place, always becoming famously fateful.

Jaromil Jireš

Filmové a televizní noviny 2, 1968, No. 14, p. 1.

Milan Kundera and Film

“I went to FAMU (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), and I remember my reasoning behind that decision: I renounce music and poetry because I am too fond of it and study film as it’s not very appealing to me. It will thus be easier for me to get rid of personal hobbies and focus only on a just art that serves.”[1]

After finishing grammar school in Brno, Milan Kundera studied literary science and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts in Prague. He didn’t finish his studies. It was probably because he was expelled from the Communist party in 1950. He later went to FAMU where he took up film direction and subsequently, under the tutelage of writer and dramaturge Miloš Václav Kocián, screenwriting. After completing his graduation project, the script of the feature film Božena Horová, and his diploma thesis, “Stalin in the fight against Trockyism in the Soviet literature and the situation on our artistic front,” he began lecturing at FAMU.

Until 1970, he lectured on world literature. First as an assistant, after defending his theoretical thesis on Vladislav Vančura and being reinstated in the Communist party as a lecturer without a doctoral degree and eventually, from 1964, as a principal lecturer. His lectures on the building principles of novels drawing among other things from György Lukács’ Theory of the Novel were fondly remembered by filmmakers such as Jiří Menzel, Agnieszka Holland and Antonín Máša: “FAMU lecturers were prominent personalities, and one is enriched by meeting a personality. For me, they were Milan Kundera, František Daniel and M. V. Kratochvíl.”[2]

Kundera also explored the links between literature and film and individual new wave directors in cultural periodicals such as Světová literatura, Literární noviny and Host do domu, which served as open discussion platforms and thus played an important part in the liberalisation of Czech culture and society

In the first half of the 1960s, Kundera, a former proletarian poet, started his career as a prose writer. Already his debut Laughable Loves (Směšné lásky) served as the basis for two film adaptations. Laughable Loves was actually published three times. The first edition was published by Československý spisovatel in 1963 and contained the stories I, the Distressing God (Já, truchlivý bůh), Sister of My Sisters (Sestřičko mých sestřiček) and Nobody Will Laugh (Nikdo se nebude smát). Another book followed two years later (The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire (Zlaté jablko věčné touhy), Harbinger (Zvěstovatel) and The Hitchhiking Game (Falešný autostop). Another three years later, shortly after the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the third and final book was published (Symposium (Symposion), Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead (Ať ustoupí staří mrtvý mladým mrtvým), Eduard and God (Eduard a Bůh) and Dr. Havel after Twenty Years (Doktor Havel po dvaceti letech).

All three stories from the first book were adapted for the big screen or television. The stories Eduard and God and Hitchhiking Game were adapted into several student films.[3]

The first one to adapt Kundera was Miloslav Zachata. His 30-minute-long television dramatization of Sister of My Sisters was broadcast on 2 August 1963. But the first feature adaptation of Kundera was made two years later by his former student Hynek Bočan.

Kundera’s tragicomic story Nobody Will Laugh was adapted into a script by yet another person who frequented his lectures – Pavel Juráček. Thanks to a recommendation from his pedagogue, he was offered a dramaturge position in the Barrandov creative group Šmída-Kunc in 1960.

The increasingly renowned writer defended new wave films and filmmakers many times. When for instance Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) became the subject of MP Pružinec’s interpellation in May 1967, it was Kundera who responded to the politician’s outraged criticism at the 4th annual meeting of the Association of Czechoslovak Writers.

Kundera summarised his opinion on the “Czechoslovak film miracle” in his essay about Forman’s film The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1967):

“The imbecility of commercial interests and the irreconcilability of the ideological dogma are two evils threating the art of film. When Czech cinema had been nationalised right after the war, it was liberated from the first evil, and during the 1960s, it was gradually shaking off the second one. In this brief moment of freedom (freedom so relative but so rare on our planet), many talented Czech filmmakers were born.”[4]

In the spring of 1967, two years after Kundera finished writing it, his first novel The Joke (Žert) was published. This polyphonic contemplation of human powerlessness in the context of history was a big hit among domestic readers, who quickly bought out all copies, and it also made Kundera’s name known in the West. A year later, the book won the award of the Association of Czechoslovak Writers and was adapted into a film.

Because of the absence of a reflexive dimension, Kundera had his reservations about Nobody Will Laugh, but in the case of The Joke (Žert, 1968), he collaborated with director Jaromil Jireš from the very beginning. The script was being written when the manuscript of the novel still awaited approval by censors. Kundera was satisfied with the compositionally compact film, which stresses the tragic elements instead of the ironic ones from the novel and reduces the number of narrators and timelines, as evidenced by his words published in Le Nouvel Observateur after the film’s first screening in France:

“In comparison to the film, the novel is much more extensive than the film, so I knew that it would be necessary to rewrite, simplify and condense. I think that I succeeded and my dear friend Jireš, whom I haven’t seen for so long, took care of the rest: he picked and directed actors (brilliant actors), created the atmosphere, gave the film a rhythm and masterfully, with an extraordinary sensitivity, alternated between individual ranges of emotions.” [5]

The last adaptation before Kundera’s emigration was his very first story I, the Distressing God (Já, truchlivý bůh, 1969). While writing it in the late 1950s, Kundera allegedly discovered himself as an author. The director of this adaptation was Antonín Kachlík, the infamous director of regime-conforming works from the Normalisation period. But in the 1960s, he made several formally good films, even though none of them received fame similar to the work of more talented new wave filmmakers.

Kundera once again worked on the script alongside the director. Just like in the case of the two years older television adaptation by Jaroslav Horan, they decided to use alienating speeches of the protagonist directed at the audience. He intersperses his commentaries with bon mots pulling us out of the story and corresponding with the metaliterary nature of the story. The critics couldn’t agree whether such a slavish and blatant adaptation was harmful to the film or whether it facilitated the nature of the story.

I, the Distressing God was made in the tense atmosphere following the invasion in a time of increasing repressions and censorship pressure. Already in April 1968, in a dispatch from the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kundera (alongside Václav Havel, Ludvík Vaculík and Pavel Kohout) was named as a member of a group seeking to overthrow socialism in Czechoslovakia. After the events of August 1968, he logically found himself on the top of a notional list of people whose further public activities were undesirable.

In early 1970, his novel The Joke was pulled from bookshops and libraires. Jireš’s eponymous film lasted only a year longer. Just like many other pedagogues and students, Kundera was forced to leave FAMU. The golden era of the 1960s was definitely over. In 1975, France became Kundera’s new home.

Only one more work written by Kundera was professionally adapted for the big screen. He gave his approval to American director Philip Kaufman to make The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, 1988), which was originally offered to Miloš Forman. But Kundera wasn’t very satisfied with this co-produced romantic drama and from then on didn’t allow any other adaptations of his work. That applies – among other books – also to The Farewell Waltz (Valčík na rozloučenou, 1972), a book which yet another one of Kundera’s former students, Agnieszka Holland, wanted to adapt.

Martin Šrajer


[1] Antonín Jaroslav Liehm, Generace. Prague: Československý spisovatel 1990, p. 54.

[2] Miloš Fikejz, Pokus o inventuru minulosti s Antonínem Mášou. Kino 45, no. 9, 1990, p. 3.

[3] Eduard and God, (Eduarda Bůh, dir. Jan David, 1969), Weekend (dir. Rafal Mierzejewski, 1987), The Hitchhiking Game (Falszywy autostop, dir. Denis Delic, 1995), The Hitchhiking Game (dir. Shane Davey, 2002), Auto Stop (dir. Nasser Saffarian, 2003).

[4] Milan Kundera, Formanovo Hoří, má panenko. Iluminace 8, no. 1, 1996, p. 5.

[5] Quote: Jean-Dominique Brierre, Milan Kundera. Život spisovatele. Prague: Argo 2020, p. 117.

Modernism and Film Adaptations Directed by Jaromil Jireš

In art film, the 1960s will always be associated with the emergence of new waves and the second and final rise of modernism, which first appeared in cinematography in the 1920s in the form of various avant-garde styles and reappeared two decades later with Italian neorealism. While in the era of silent film directors looked for ways to make the film expression unique by working with the editing rhythm and various optical modifications of images, after the Second World War the public began to accept films as an autonomous art form, so the previously suppressed theatricality could return. Instead of music and fine art, filmmakers started drawing inspiration from theatre and literature[1] and used dialogues and stories to attract bigger audiences than they would with non-narrative and experimental films.

Literature also strongly influenced Czechoslovak modernist film, or rather the Czechoslovak New Wave – let us name the renowned duos Hrabal-Menzel, Körner-Vláčil, and Procházka-Kachyňa. A potential snag in adapting a literary work is generally the filmmaker’s tendency to transfer scenes from the book to the silver screen word for word without enriching the adapted material. Such an approach may be motivated by a fear of the reaction of fans of the original, who often perceive any changes as a betrayal and have their own clear visions. On the other hand, modernism in film is characterised by using original formal methods, and literature offered many topics whose mere existence was an extraordinary phenomenon within socialist Czechoslovakia. Their adaptations represented the extension of a gesture of going against the requirements of officially dictated culture. Sometimes, such explication could even outweigh other forms of interpretation. Director Jaromil Jireš also adapted several literary works – two of these films still rank among his best work.

Blazon Films of 1960s

There are not many culturally educated Czechs who don’t know Milan Kundera’s The Joke (Žert) – at least by name – whether in its literary (1967) or film (1968) form. The novel built around the writer’s favourite theme of interpersonal relations / romances tells the story of an ideological transition of a former active member of the Communist party and his subsequent quest for vengeance on Pavel, the culprit of the wrongs the main hero had to suffer. When the novel was first published, it signalled a change of the political climate, an opportunity to explore themes that were previously taboo. A year later, the second edition of Ludvík Vaculík’s Axe (Sekyra, 1966) appeared in bookstores. It explored a similar theme from a different perspective. Both novels have since attained the status of blazon books of the 1960s[2]. This was mainly due to the social rather than artistic bravery of the authors (but I don’t intend to cast doubt on either) that both novels were banned in the 1970s during the period of “Normalization”.

A comparable social significance and status can be attributed to the film adaptation of Kundera’s The Joke made by Jaromil Jireš in 1968 as his second feature film. “Compared to parables like A Report on the Party and its Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1965, dir. Jan Němec) and Seventh Day, Eighth Night (Den sedmý, osmá noc, 1969, dir. Evald Schorm), The Joke is probably the most open and historically precise criticism of the totalitarian Communist ideology,”[3] writes film historian Jan Lukeš. Taking a closer look, we find out that the rooted categorization of The Joke as a political book was adopted from the time of its writing, and it proves the necessity of a moral compass in tough times. But when we apply it to the film, as discussed in the following paragraphs, it is a considerable simplification. It doesn’t consider the genesis of the film and its context (even though politics naturally cannot be omitted) or its character of an adaptation of a popular novel.

The script was done already in December 1966, a year after the novel was finished and several months before it was published. The book was adapted by Kundera himself in collaboration with Jireš, who was at that time carefully looking for a theme for his new film. Critics[4] received his debut film The Cry (Křik, 1963) positively as a successful modern (“feeling”) film, but at the same time, it was officially praised as an example worth following, and the director wanted to avoid that in the future.[5] And that meant a long wait filled with a fruitless effort to push through several projects and making short documentary films.[6] Jireš was eventually allowed to start filming The Joke five years after the premiere of The Cry. By that time, he no longer felt the pressing need to adapt a story that, according to him, has lost its topicality and would rather have moved on to more personal themes.[7] His inclination towards subjective and poetic films, as evident already in The Cry, can be perceived as a thought-provoking impulse and the basis of an analysis of The Joke from a new perspective. There is no need to explain how the tragic events of August 1968 made The Joke topical again and laid the basis for its subsequent reflections.

The questionability of The Joke as a literary adaptation lies within its approach to the novel’s plot, which Kundera and Jireš trimmed down significantly.[8] For Bohemist and literary historian Tomáš Kubíček, the film has fewer layers and is therefore less interesting.[9] In relation to the novel, its story is merely illustrative. What are the concrete differences? First of all, there is no Lucie in the film, Ludvík’s sweetheart from the times of his military service, who in the novel acts as a psychological support during the protagonist’s transformation from an avid Communist to a cynic. Ludvík’s religious friend Kostka also wasn’t given much space in the film, and the storyline following violinist Jaroslav looking forward to his son’s participation in the folk tradition of the Ride of the Kings is missing entirely. The event becomes a mere setting for the film’s final act. There were probably two main motivations for these modifications. They aimed to shorten the story and tone down some motifs that could potentially cause trouble in the film’s approval process (erotic, religious)[10]. It’s not clear whether this included leaving out Ludvík’s political transformation, which was so important in the novel.

Subjective World of the Hero and the Body as an Instrument of Vengeance

“Jireš is a master of montage and I consider his The Joke to be mine. And by that, I mean that I like everything he introduced to my novel. (…) It’s rare when a novelist can pay tribute to a director who has adapted his book without any reservations. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to do that,”[11] said Kundera about the film version of The Joke in the early 1990s. The important thing is that he praised the film’s editing, which plays a significant role in its style and is simultaneously an exclusively cinematographic means of expression.[12] It can therefore help us to move from a comparison between the novel and the film to its analysis as an autonomous work of art. Sharp editing connects not only two timelines in which the novel is set, but also various perspectives from which we see the story. Four pairs of eyes are replaced by just one pair – Ludvík’s. That removes a problem so often thematised by modern art – the impossibility of recording the objective truth – and shifts to an equally discussed complementary issue – how to present the subjective world of the main hero to viewers?

The Joke is divided into two halves, both of which begin with the same scene of a bus arriving at a square. The first half is mainly retrospective. Through Ludvík’s memories, it reveals his motivation for revenge taking place in the second act and is therefore set mainly in his mind. We can identify some subjectivisation techniques (whether intended or not) in the omission of the exhaustively described circumstances from the book, unfinished sentences and “nervous” abrupt cuts disrupting for instance the flow of the scene with Markéta near the Vltava River. The montage of these scenes can be interpreted as a diagnosis of Ludvík’s current state of mind, aggravated by the notion of revenge, but at the same time as a symbolical portrayal of the past, which is “still with us” and influences us. The camera technique of shot and reverse shot shows Ludvík simultaneously in a hotel room and at a “people’s court” in a Faculty of Arts lecture hall. This amalgamation of two scenes and soundtracks creates meanings outside the framework of the film’s fictional world, just like when Jireš creates a humorous contrast by connecting the scenes taking place at the aforementioned court with scenes taking place during the “Welcoming of Newborns” ceremony, where the director puts the words of one of Ludvík’s judges into the mouth of a civil servant.

That moment is not just about realising how various collective rituals in totalitarian systems control and govern the lives of individuals, but that they’re also an update of older traditions (The “Welcoming of Newborns” as a profane socialist alternative of christening)[13] whose power and influence in the modern world declines rapidly. They lose their significance and become a mere background to other activities such as the Ride of the Kings in this film. The Joke uses the character of Pavel’s estranged wife, Helena, to point out the shallow relationships of the members of the Youth Movement to popular culture and culture in general, but at the same it reveals what motivates and drives human society. Unsurprisingly enough, it’s one of the basic needs – sexual instinct. The infamous letter about optimism and Trotsky which initiates the whole tragedy was written by Ludvík when frustrated by a romantic failure. His revenge on Pavel includes seducing Helena. The next day, when Ludvík meets Pavel, he finds out that his plan has failed. He learns that Pavel’s marriage has for some time now been only formal, and he is introduced to Pavel’s younger and sexually more attractive lover. The human body as an instrument of vengeance in the scene of “retaliation” is emphasised by focal shots and the dramatic stylisation of Josef Somr and Jana Dítětová in leading roles.

At the time of its premiere[14], Czechoslovak critics frequently reflected The Joke as an attempt to come to terms with the past and pointed out the limitations of such efforts. But no one questioned Ludvík’s right to vengeance and the way he decided to obtain it. They attached much more importance to the social and moral value of the film, which was put alongside other thematically daring films such as The End of a Priest (Farářův konec, 1968) and Case for the New Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata, 1969).[15] The critics directed their attention towards values imbued in the film by the contemporary social situation; they found it important to condemn the behaviour of an opportunistic Pavel. They didn’t comment on the omission of the of book’s political undertones. It wasn’t until 1991 and the film’s return to cinemas when Pavlína Kubíková mentioned the omitted political layer[16] and Jan Jaroš rightfully described Ludvík’s behaviour as cowardly and unworthy of following.[17] But the topicality of Pavel’s character perhaps surprisingly remained: “with his behaviour, the character of the hero’s main enemy reminds of today’s attitudes of similar officials and once again proves that such people are incapable of change.”[18]

Aesthetically Independent Valerie

While The Joke, despite Jireš’s expectations, was made at the right moment and became one of the canonical films of the New Wave, his third film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů, 1970), based on a novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval made not long after The Joke, isn’t paid a lot of attention. At least not in the Czech Republic. There were several DVD and Blu-ray[19] versions published abroad, and the film is often mentioned as the director’s most important work alongside The Joke.

Trying to describe the plot of either the film or the literary version of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is utterly futile: “it’s like a dream that may not have happened at all.”[20] Suffice it to say that the story revolves around the 13-year-old titular heroine, who has just crossed the threshold of adulthood and is experiencing a magical week. She meets young Orlík, who would like to become her lover but can also be her long-lost brother, and other significantly more dangerous characters: the lustful priest Gracián; the archvillain Tchoř, who can change his shape; and Valerie’s own grandmother. The film makes a rather consistent use of a dreamy logic, so each viewer/reader must discover for themselves who is who or what “actually” happened (if it happened at all). Those who haven’t read the novella will be surprised that the film is a rather literal/illustrative adaptation of the original, which is so economical that it didn’t have to be (significantly) shortened. Jireš wrote the script together with Ester Krumbachová and toned down some motifs.[21] But what’s important is that together they turned the text into a perfect film.

Naturally, we can’t forget the essence of the material. Nezval, a member of the Děvetsil Union of Modern Culture, had a penchant for film, just like other avant-garde writers in 1920s, and he even worked on several film scripts [22] and was familiar with a visual style of thinking. In graphic artist and costume designer Ester Krumbachová, his work found an ideal “intermedia interpreter”, and with its stylisation, it ranks among the best imaginative films of the New Wave.[23] The strength of these films lies in their imaginative approach to the scene composition and mise-en-scène as well as the technical aspects, such as editing. Unlike The Joke, the montage in Valerie doesn’t compare, look for parallels or conform to the purpose of telling a comprehensible story, but uses many poetic digressions to set the mood and take viewers into a dream state with their eyes open. The authors achieve the coveted effect through deliberately sharp colour and sound transformations between scenes and various “peculiarities” to which the characters don’t pay any attention (for instance, the letter by Orlík is written in rainbow capitals). As Russian director Alexander Sokurov puts it, the film stakes a claim for aesthetic independence.[24]

It’s a rebellion against the dictate of style or the aesthetics prescribed by the totalitarian regime, a phenomenon which David Bordwell uses to explain the origins of “poetic film” within the politically-critical movement.[25] It’s no coincidence that the manifestations of this phenomenon can be traced to the countries of the Eastern Bloc (with the exception of Italy).[26] The 1960s were an ideal time for it, not only for social and political reasons, but also for technological reasons – the film format started widening, colour film became more accessible, and the colours themselves were richer than ever. The “dance” scene of coloured figures against a black background in Vojtěch Jasný’s The Cassandra Cat (Až přijde kocour, 1963), filmed in an extremely wide format (with aspect ratio 1:2.35), can be labelled as the initiation scene of this style. But some gymnastic training scenes from Something Different (O něčem jiném, 1963), which is traditionally associated with the opposite trend of combining live action with documentary, can also be seen as abstract fine art. With Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which demonstrated its independence by rejecting genre conventions, daringly portraying eroticism and a general distrust of institutions (religious and family), imaginativeness leaves Czechoslovak cinema. It reappears occasionally in fantastic films but doesn’t return until the late 1980s with films such as The Prague Five (Pražská pětka, 1988) and Pilgrims (Poutníci, 1988).

There and Back Again

The comparison of The Joke and Valerie and their literary versions results in several remarkable observations. We can see how modernism in film drew inspiration from literary sources, but also how it returned from realism back to imaginativeness. It also shows how a film can breathe new life into an accurately (or perhaps word-for-word) adapted screenplay and how strongly its perception is influenced by social circumstances. A political aspect has always been and will always remain significant for any work of art born in a society lacking freedom. And what lessons taken from the two films are still valid to this day? If The Joke’s story is not just about revenge but also about an effort to come to terms with the past, it’s point ironically adds that something like that is impossible. We must learn how to work with the past – that’s where the timeless value of Kundera’s work lies. And if we want to perceive Valerie and Her Week of Wonders as a surreal variation of a fairy-tale, there’s a very distinct lesson to be learned: whatever it takes, do not trust the authorities!

Jan Bergl


[1] András Bálint Kovács, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. The University of Chicago Press 2007, p. 53.

[2] Jan Lukeš, Orgie střídmosti aneb Konec československé státní kinematografie: (kritický deník 1987–1993). Prague: Národní filmový archiv 1993, p. 167.

[3] Jan Lukeš, Žert. Iluminace 8, 1996, no. 1, p. 164.

[4] Lukáš Skupa, Moderní, nebo jen módní? Reflexe počátků „nové vlny“ v Československu. Cinepur 21, 2014, no. 91, p. 59.

[5] Antonín J. Liehm and Jan Lukeš, Ostře sledované filmy: československá zkušenost. Prague: Národní filmový archiv 2001, p. 246.

[6] One of them, The King Game (Hra na krále, 1967), is often mentioned as Jireš’s preparation for Joke. But apart from the motif of folklore tradition, these two films haven’t got much in common.

[7] Antonín J. Liehm and Jan Lukeš, Ostře sledované filmy: československá zkušenost. Prague: Národní filmový archiv 2001, p. 249.

[8] According to an article published in Iluminace, the changes were made mainly by Kundera. In: Milan Kundera, Můj přítel Jireš. Iluminace 8, 1996, no. 1, p. 6.

[9] Tomáš Pancíř, České knihy, které musíte znát. Available online at: [published: 11th November 2020; quoted 28th February 2021]

[10] As referred to in an article in Filmový přehled, 1969, no. 2.

[11] Milan Kundera, Můj přítel Jireš. Iluminace 8, 1996, no. 1, p. 6.

[12] The Joke was edited by exceptional Czech editor Josef Valušiak who collaborated with Jireš on his other films. He also worked with e.g. Karel Zeman, Jiří Svoboda and Miloš Zábranský.

[13] see Jiří Cieslar, Žert. Reflex 16, 2005, no. 27, pp. 64–67.

[14] In the theatres from 28th February 1969.

[15] Ludvík Pacovský, Třikrát Žert. Kino 24, 1969, no. 2, p. 2.

[16] Pavlína Kubíková, Žert. Záběr 23, 1990, no. 24, p. 6

[17] Jan Jaroš, Odvrácená tvář žertování. Scéna 15, 1990, no. 17, p. 6

[18] Žert, Filmový přehled, 1990, no. 8, p. 46.

[19] By prestigious publishers Criterion Collection and Second Run.

[20] Cinema 6, 1996, no. 10, p. 91.

[21] Peter Hames, Československá nová vlna. Prague: Levné knihy 2008, p. 226.

[22] For example From Saturday to Sunday (Ze soboty na neděli, 1931) by Gustav Machatý.

[23] For example Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966), Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromů rajských jíme, 1969), Killing the Devil (Vražda Ing. Čerta,1970)

[24] Sokurov mentions it in the documentary The Vocice of Sokurov (2014).

[25] David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Dějiny filmu (Film History, An Introduction). Praha: AMU: NLN, 2011, p. 575.

[26] András Bálint Kovács, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980. The University of Chicago Press 2007, p. 182.