The Party And The Guests Review
When released in 1966, Jan Nĕmec’s The Party And The Guests was immediately “banned forever” by the Czech authorities and the director himself banned from making any further films for the studio that produced it. Consequently the film has long unavailable and rarely seen, gaining it a certain reputation. Released now on DVD for the first time by Second Run, the film is certified a ‘U’ and suitable for all by the BBFC, which suggests that the elements that the authorities once saw as dangerous and critical of the Communism were probably more perceived than overtly stated and perhaps only of relevance to a certain political regime during a particular historical period. It’s a measure of the openness to interpretation of Nĕmec’s allegorical film however that the message it puts across and the human characteristics it displays are still recognisable and relevant today.
Allegorical doesn’t necessarily have to mean difficult either, and The Party And The Guests is nothing if not clear in the situation it presents over its short running time, seeking not to be clever but to reduce its points to their simplest form in a way that only maximises their impact and reveals their underlying truths. The film focuses on a group of friends, mostly couples, who are having a picnic out in the country. They have just finished eating what they all agree was one of the finest feasts they have ever had, but when they see another group of distinguished-looking people making their way to a party, they can only imagine the treats in store there. Quickly washing and cleaning up, they make their way up the hill to join them, but are met with a group of tough-looking thugs led by an impish and eccentric young man called Rudolf, who block their path. They do not know why they are being held, as they have done nothing wrong, but they are subjected to a vague questioning and although not restrained by anything more than a mark on the ground, they are “discouraged” from moving or leaving. The host of the party, a distinguished-looking gentleman, intervenes and tries to smooth out the situation – after all, they are all guests at the party and equally deserving of respect. But as the party commences, the host’s apparent affability doesn’t last long.
If the very simplicity of the outline of the story doesn’t already hint at underlying meanings, the nature of how the film is shot should clearly indicate that The Party And The Guests has a larger and wider message. Everything takes place out in the open – there are no rooms other than those marked out as borders on the ground by Rudolf’s men, and even the great feast with its masses of guests, also takes place entirely out of doors. By doing so the film opens out the situation from the specific to a wider context, one that is not literal but symbolic. Without names, the guests also become types rather than real people, but this does not mean that the underlying characteristics are not realistic and true to human nature. Reacting to the situation with their inquisitors and with the host, some of the people are helpful, wanting to be accommodating, hoping to seek favour, others want to directly oppose and rebel, others keep quiet and try not to get involved, some are willing to step over the mark and others just “disappear”.
The non-specificity of the situation clearly shows the influence of Kafka in the way that it astutely observes human behaviour in an abstract manner. The actions taken by different people are archetypal and can be applied to any situation, and by removing them from any specific context, it reveals how absurd and irrational human behaviour can be, the nature of any purity of motivation being influenced and contaminated by such things as selfishness, by a desire to please and by a need not to appear foolish or stand-out from the crowd. The same kind of impulses have been examined in cinema by some of the greatest filmmakers with an interest in human nature, social interaction and conformity – by Buñuel in The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, to Renoir in La Règle Du Jeu and Haneke in Code Unknown and Time Of The Wolf.
The need to make the film allegorical is more or less a necessity for Nĕmec, as any overtly outspoken criticism of Communism or the political leadership of Czechoslovakia would evidently not be well received. Divorcing the film from any direct political statement however also allows the film to endure beyond the confines of the political context of the period. Politics change, but people do not – human nature, people’s attitudes, characteristics and behaviour remain essentially the same. The Party And The Guests is however perhaps too playful and almost frustratingly non-specific, floating in some middle ground between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. It was clearly enough to disturb the Czech authorities however who, despite protests that can be made and were made by the director about the innocence of its intent, still felt the necessity to permanently ban it.
The Party And The Guests is released in the UK by Second Run. The relatively short film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is not region encoded.
Some minor white marks and dustspots on the print are evident frequently throughout the film, as well as some of those typically large square black Czech reel-change marks, but there are otherwise no serious flaws with the transfer. Additionally some grain is visible, and it causes some minor shimmer of aliasing and artefact blocking, but never to any great extent. Otherwise the image is quite stable, clear and reasonably sharp, with a good level of detail and accurate black-and-white tones.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track of the original mono soundtrack is perfectly clear with adequate tone and presence. There is no noticeable distortion or analogue hiss anywhere on the track.
English subtitles are included and are optional in a clear, white font. The translation appears to capture well the allusive nature and the formality of the dialogues and speechifying.
The main extra feature on the disc is An Appreciation by Peter Hames (12:10), which serves as a good, concise overview of the film, its themes and its reception, calling it “the most subversive of all Czech New Wave films”. The enclosed booklet contains an essay by Michael Brooke which gives background information on Nĕmec, provides a detailed walk-through of the unfolding of the film, and looks at the subsequent career difficulties of the director, who is still making films today. Overall, the extras provide useful information on the background and history of the film and the director, as well as some level of analysis, which is as much as you could really ask for.
The Party And The Guests is a clever little parable, not only about the nature of a Communist state or an authoritarian leadership in general terms, but it is also a keen examination of how human nature reacts towards authority individually and collectively as a society. If the truths it reveals are delightfully and concisely represented, it is perhaps a little too non-specific and not particularly revelatory or challenging in its findings. Second Run have released this rarely seen film with a good transfer and their usual attention to detail in presenting it with informative and relevant features to put it into context.