44th Karlovy Vary IFF
July 3 - July 11, 2009
Tribute to Peter Solan
A film testimony of the uniqueness of man
Retrospectives of films by Peter Solan are always something of a dubious adventure. After years of being classified among the ideologically unreliable, after various phases of being cast into the spotlight and then marginalised, Solan maintains an ironic attitude towards annual awards ceremonies, honours and attempts to stage "major comebacks”. In the now forgotten film episode The Anniversary Day (Deň výročia, 1971), which he based on one of the many satirical short stories by dramatist and screenwriter Peter Karvaš on this theme, he reveals his conviction that a person’s life and work cannot simply be summarised or, indeed, taken for granted.
In Solan’s case this is reflected in a gradual move to profile himself as someone who favours the creative quest and, on principle, rejects the idea of a one-way, ready-made career. "The moment we feel secure in what we’re doing, we will have lost the battle”, he stated in 1967, ten years after he began fighting the regime to retain his right to his own film beliefs, a time when he still had the enthusiasm to do so – for example, in The Boxer and Death (Boxer a smrť, 1962), subjected to four years of administrative sabotage, then in The Barnabáš Kos Case (Prípad Barnabáša Kosa, 1964), which took seven years to solve, or the film which suffered the longest delay, with eight years of approval and postponement, Before Tonight Is Over (Kým sa skončí táto noc, 1965). His strong definition of life attitudes and his distinctive creative signature, the persistent development of his own brand of film ethics – film as a statement of civil or social commitment – made him a "typical case” of a filmmaker with a question mark attached to his name. According to film critic Pavel Branko, during this particular period Solan was the most persecuted director in Slovak film.
Despite enduring a regime of scrutiny and punishment throughout his career, Peter Solan was nevertheless responsible for several firsts in the history of Slovak cinema, particularly with regard to genre. He made the first Slovak film satire (The Devil Never Sleeps / Čert nespí, 1956), the first detective story (The Man Who Never Returned / Muž, ktorý sa nevrátil, 1959), and he established a name for himself with the first psychological drama set in a concentration camp, The Boxer and Death. Then, after a period of exile during the Normalisation era (working at the Short Film Studio from 1970) and after returning to features, he finally surprised the industry by turning out a children’s film, And I’ll Run to the End of the World (A pobežím až na kraj sveta, 1979). These works were suddenly placed in the spotlight on the strength of a series of films Solan had made by the year 1965, yet he refused to see them as competing against one another or transcending past masterpieces – in particular, The Boxer and Death and Before Tonight Is Over. Focus on unresolved (sensitive) ethical issues continued to be a fundamental parameter of Solan’s films, along with his discreet direction, cultivating an inconspicuous "style of tension” and intensifying the film testimony with a depiction of the strengths and weaknesses of people in extreme situations. He did not rely on effect, controversy or trends – he simply made quiet films.
Peter Solan states that he became a filmmaker by accident, after interrupting his studies in medicine and also thanks to the post-war cinema in his native Banská Bystrica. There he was still able to absorb the impact of American film as well (Capra, Ford, Wyler). In 1949 he began studying film direction at Prague’s FAMU, where Soviet film was now discussed in more depth (Kalatozov). He graduated from the film faculty with a portrait of the writer Fraňo Kráľ (1954) and subsequently – after the death of Stalin and Gottwald – joined forces with the likes of Štefan Uher, Tibor Vichta and Martin Slivka to create the first "dangerous” wave of university educated filmmakers who, in their own country, inevitably came up against the parochial management and artistic sterility of Slovak film.
After returning home from his studies, Peter Solan made several short compulsory exercises (documentaries, feature propaganda pieces) under the umbrella of the Documentary Film Studio, where novices would try their hand at feature film. With his transition to features and also with the risks involved in entering a new cinematic genre, Solan could only really be sure of a successful debut with the satire The Devil Never Sleeps (1956) if he teamed up with a filmmaker who already had some experience, namely František Žáček. The adaptation of three short stories from the book of the same name by Peter Karvaš not only provided Solan with an opportunity for legitimate criticism of society in a communal satire about the ills of Socialist building (young people’s accommodation problems, alcoholism in the workplace), but it also opened up his lifelong filmosophical theme, namely the quest for contradiction: resolution and ambivalence, the typical and the unique, or the normal and the stigmatised – all in relation to the individual and society. From 1957 onwards he extended his screenplay collaboration with his compatriot Karvaš to include a similarly intensive creative dialogue with Tibor Vichta which, however, was problematic right from the start, when they were working together on their first screenplay for Before This Day Ends (Prv než sa skončí tento deň). During the 1970s, after his ideologically motivated expulsion from the Feature Film Studio (together with Juraj Jakubisko), Solan was only allowed to team up with Vichta for harmless film commissions (Why They Avoid School / Prečo chodia poza školu); otherwise it was a case of embarking upon projects that were almost "illegal” (Nemecká Process/ Nemecká).
Registered on file as a complicated case, Solan thus gradually developed his own form of film expression from the end of the 1950s onwards – his own micro-genre, film as a case. His reconstructions of social cases, often with references to court trials (A Face in the Window / Tvár v okne, …And Be Good / ... a sekať dobrotu!), were not accusatory or judgemental. Film as a case is, for Solan, above all a certain type of testimony. "I don’t want to be a prosecutor or judge. I simply want to be an honest and moral witness who is prepared to speak of what he knows about the case,” he declared in 1966. To testify through film means to take issue with the way things are – to call into question clear standpoints and quick judgements, to bring new contexts and contradictions into play and, by introducing several possible views, to prompt the audience to ask its own questions. Film ought to point to life’s limited options and forgotten consequences (Seven Witnesses / Sedem svedkov, Balcony Full of Nappies / Balkón plný plienok). Solan’s film testimonies document various "situations of choice”: when a decision has to be made, what, in fact, makes us decide? Commitment in Solan’s case is not about taking sides, but about defending true impartiality, i.e. multi-vocality.
For Solan, film is an instrument which allows him to focus on his quest for uniqueness and spontaneity in human behaviour, decision-making and actions – whether this is the boxer Komínek (The Boxer and Death) or the mother who has to decide about the fate of her disabled child (Small Opinion Poll / Malá anketa). He strives to maintain an open (ambiguous) mind with regard to the state of things and constantly questions the boundaries of personal responsibility. The more films he made, the more the viewer sensed the true measure of his dedicated yet unobtrusive participation. Above all else, his perceptive, intimate film style reflects his respect for others and for the uniqueness of their life experiences (choices). This constitutes the defining mode of his film conception.
Filmografia / Filmography
Negativní vyvolávací proces / Negative Development Process, 1951 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Vianočný dar / Christmas Present, 1953 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Fraňo Kráľ / Fraňo Kráľ, 1954 (stredometrážny dok. / medium-length documentary)
Komu dôverovať? / Whom to Trust?, 1954 (krátky hraný / short feature)
Deti mieru / The Children of Peace, 1955 (krátky dok. / short documentary, r. / dir. – P. Solan, Roman Kaliský)
Trať voľná / The Track Free Process, 1955 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Čert nespí / The Devil Never Sleeps, 1956 (r. / dir. – P. Solan, František Žáček)
Muž, ktorý klope / The Man Who Knocks, 1956 (krátky hraný / short feature)
Muž, ktorý sa nevrátil / The Man Who Never Returned, 1959
Boxer a smrť / The Boxer and Death, 1962
Tvár v okne / A Face in the Window, 1963
Prípad Barnabáš Kos / The Barnabáš Kos Case, 1964
Kým sa skončí táto noc / Before Tonight Is Over, 1965
Sedem svedkov / Seven Witnesses, 1967 (TV)
... a sekať dobrotu / …and Be Good, 1968 (TV)
Burza / Exchange, 1968 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Dialóg 20-40-60 (40 – poviedka z filmu) / Dialogues 20-40-60
(40 – story from the film), 1968
Malá anketa / Small Opinion Poll, 1968 (TV)
Špinavé ruky / Dirty Hands, 1968 (TV)
Pán si neželal nič / Sir Did Not Ask for Anything, 1970
Deň výročia (z cyklu Súboje) / The Anniversary Day (from the series Duels), 1971 (TV)
Nadprirodzený dar (z cyklu Súboje) / Supernatural Gift (from the series Duels), 1971 (TV)
Slávny pes / The Famous Dog, 1971 (TV)
Nepokradneš / Thou Shalt Not Steal, 1973 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Nemecká / Nemecká Process, 1974 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Poradila teta Beta / As Aunt Beta Advised, 1974 (krátky hraný / short feature)
Prečo chodia poza školu / Why They Avoid School, 1976 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Rozhovor o jednom centimetri nádeje / Talking About One Centimetre
of Hope, 1976 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Všetko má svoj čas / Everything Has Its Time, 1976 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Architekt Dušan Kuzma / Architect Dušan Kuzma, 1977 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Len lístok poľnej pošty / Only a Note from the Field Post, 1977 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Balkón plný plienok / Balcony Full of Nappies, 1978 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
A pobežím až na kraj sveta / And I’ll Run to the End of the World, 1979
Seď a poď / Sit and Come, 1981 (krátky dok. / short documentary)
Záhrada plná plienok / Garden Full of Nappies, 1981 (TV)
Tušenie / Anticipation, 1982
O sláve a tráve / About Fame and Grass, 1984
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