INTERVIEW WITH MILOS FORMAN - 18/1/97
INTERVIEWER: So, Mr. Forman, what was it like for artists, filmmakers and personally for you after the (unclear) in Czechoslovakia in the Sixties?
MILOS FORMAN: Well, it was a combination of absurd theatre and hope mixed with the constant fear, because, you know, on one hand everybody had a sort of expectation that things can happen, but everybody in the past was proving to you, "No, no, nothing really can happen. They will just... it's like, you know, 'Let the 100 flowers...' you know, 'Let's open the door and let's see the first courageous people to go through so that we know whom to shoot right away,'" you know. But, you know, a few interesting things happened in that times. What was also important [was] that the borders opened a little, you know, a little crack: it was more possible to travel a little bit, you know, see the outside world. That was very important. Well... but they didn't have... You know, because the communists has every power and control which controls itself itself, and it's not controlled by a democratic process, you know, it has hiccups, has spasms, you know, so one day one thing is possible, the next day it's not possible, you know, but they don't tell you really. It was so funny, when we were at the film festival in Cannes in 1957, and suddenly, you know, it was '57?... sorry, '67, (Laughs) '67, and we were talking, oh, somehow more freely than usually we would do publicly, you know, on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel, and suddenly the secret service man who was with us, you know, came and said, "Oh, guys, you know, talk, talk - today it's permitted - just keep talking, today it's permitted." It felt so strange, we immediately stopped talking. You know, it was very strange that, you know, he would say that, he would say that. But nothing happened, you know, to us. Of course, it happened later when "Thanksgiving Day" arrived. (Laughs)
INT: How it was possible, then, in the Sixties, so many good films were made in Czechoslovakia, that actually the whole movement, the whole new Czech wave existed?
MF: Well, there was... you know, after Khrushchev's famous speech denouncing Stalin and like that, and he, among other things, said in that speech that "We have to give more confidence to young people," and this traveled very slowly - you know, it took a few years before it came to the heads of some Czechoslovak Communist Party bosses. And... all right, so... But you must realize one thing: that, you know, film school was producing four, five, six sometime(s), students very year, since 1946, right?, while, you know, Czechoslovakia was producing, before the war - a country of 14 million people - about 30 full-length features films a year, which, you know, only the 14 million people saw the language, right? Now, after the communist take-over in 1948, the amount of feature films produced dwindled to three a year, while the school was, you know, every year another three, four, five students. So in the Sixties, early Sixties, there was a real crowd behind the closed door of the Barandov Studio of the young people who wanted to make movies. So when after this Khrushchev's speech, you know, the door to Barandov opened a crack, you know, it was just a storm of young people going in, and the same year we started like six newcomers. You know, I think Khilova started the same, (unclear) star... no, Nemets, Jiresz, Paserni you know. And... well, before they realized that these films will not make them very comfortable... these films were recognized in the West, and this is one of the paradoxes, you know, of the... schizophrenia of the communist society, is that on one hand they just publicly and internally scorn the decadent, evil Western culture which is, you know, going to... it's... one leg is already in the garbage of history, you know; on the other hand, they were fascinated by any success with the Western intelligentsia, intellectuals, you know. So, thanks God, our films, our first films were suddenly being appreciated by the Western media; especially France was very good, and Switzerland was very good. The first time in Locarno, the French film critics, (three or four?) got involved and wrote some critics [sic]. And that probably saved us, because they were already... you know, they were getting ready to, you know, choke us, because we "took work away from old Party members, you know, who deserved to be working".
INT: So how did you get around the censorship? Because censorship still existed in this time.
MF: Well, it was different for every person. You know, I had it relatively easy because my films were considered like just comedies, you know, that's not... (Unclear title), that had a difficult time, because that was, ooh, they considered him like a philosopher against... counterrevolutionary philosophy you know. My last film in Czechoslovakia was sort of sheltered by the fact that foreign money were involved - you know, Carlo Ponti invested. But when the film was finished and Carlo Ponti saw the film, he was the first one who asked for the money back because he didn't like the film. And it's so funny, because he was using the same arguments as the communists are using, that you know, nobody will... he didn't say that it's ideologically wrong, but he said, "Nobody will go to see this film because it's making fun of the common man." Well, the moment he withdrew his money, the film was banned for 20 years, you know. So...
INT: What was their reason, which kind of reason the Communist Party gave you that...?
MF: The Communist Party gave... You know, this was a totally absurd situation, you know. In the Sixties, especially, where... after Khrushchev, you know, it became unpopular to administratively, bureaucratically ban, you know, which they were doing left and right before, you know. It suddenly was not very popular to do that, so what they were doing, thinking that they are very clever - they arranged a meeting in some small town for the working-class people of the film, and then they sent, you know, a few of their own people who said, "Oh, comrades, so here we are. We just saw this film, and we have to now talk a little bit (..?..). We want to know your feeling," and you know, knew how to slightly shift and indicate what kind of opinion they wanted to hear, so that somebody... "Oh, I think that this film is not really serving any noble purposes of building socialism in our country. I personally was offended, but ... I'm only a stupid working-class man, you know, but I was offended how they portrayed..." you know, and the film was banned. What they did with my film Fireman's Ball - they thought they are smart, because they... "We will be showing it in the town," where we shot the film, "but the local firemen who are so ridiculed by this film will attend, and I am sure they will..." you know, they were sure that they will attack the film because... So they even didn't allow me to go there for my own safety, (Laughs) [saying] that they will attack me there. They showed the film, and now the first speaker was supposed to sort of indicate what the communists want to hear. He said, "Oh, comrades, you know, I don't know - I'll tell you honestly: I have some problems with this film. I don't think our firemen... you know, they are saving live(s), they are heroic people, and look how this film portrays them, look what's happening in that film." And then suddenly one of the firemen who was in the film raised his hand and said, "Well, comrade, I don't know, I don't know - you know, we were just talking (Laughs)... this film is rather innocent, you know. Do you remember how that, you know, little barn with the goat, you know, was on fire and we couldn't get to the fire because we were all drunk?" And suddenly the whole theatre started to applaud, you know, and it was true. The communists forgot one thing: that in the moment, these firemen were not any more firemen, they were actors, and they were defending their film. This film will be here forever this film will... you know, for posterity, for their children to see, anthey were right behind the film. Well, it didn't help the film, although they did another screening somewhere else, and they banned the film for 20 years.
INT: What did you try to express with Firemen's Ball - was it a kind of political statement, was it metaphor, or was it your criticism to the society, what... how...?
MF: You didn't try to express anything; you just wanted to have fun, and somewhere back in your head you knew that you are bugging these idiots, you know, like Bilak and Jakes and Novotny and these totally corrupt people.
INT: What was the Party attitude in that time towards things like sex or alcohol? When you show it in the films, which kind of answer did you get from them?
MF: You know, I don't think this is one of these, you know, paradoxes which now I am watching happening, and one can only smile, you know, when Western politicians... and now in the United States a big debate, you know, Gingrich, Dole and Al Gore even, you know, and they're all calling: "Responsibility for, you know, for the film-makers, and they have to really tone down, you know, not to give so many bad examples to young people, you know, the violence and drugs and sex and things like that." You know, 20 years... the films of television when it started, the literature, radio in communist countries, they're clean as a whistle; there was no violence, no sex, no drugs, nothing.