Upír z Feratu: cult normalisation film

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2018 is a year of anniversaries for Czechs and Slovaks. 1918 heralded the first republic following the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire. It’s also twenty-five years since the Czech and Slovak republics went their separate ways. And then there was 1968. 1968 was a pivotal year for unrest and upheaval across the world. In Czechoslovakia, the arrival of Russian tanks signalled a clampdown on the flourishing cultural activity that had emerged in the first half of the sixties, most famously in the New Wave of Czechoslovak cinema.

A recent retrospective in Brussels showcased the New Wave, showing eighteen films over 6 weeks. Eleven films from ’62-’67 covered the emergence of the new wave. The impact of the Russian invasion was showcased with five films made in ’69-’70, and “banned forever”. Most of these were not screened again until 1990. That leaves the film that brought the season to a close: Upír z Feratu (Ferat Vampire), made by the late director Juraj Herz in 1982.

It was a strange film to choose to finish the season, the other films are earlier Czech New Wave films, or banned after the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. It could have been a tribute to Herz, who died in April, but Ferat doesn’t normally feature in lists of his best films. In fact Herz was the only director with two films in the programme. The other being The Cremator, regarded as his best.

It does serve as an example (a very good one!) of the longer term impact of “normalisation” on the Czech film industry. Normalisation sought to roll back the reforms that the Czech New Wave films had been made under, and preserve a Soviet-friendly status quo.

The film is an emerging classic, already a cult film in Czech. Last October, in time for Halloween, Prague based model car firm Fox Toys released a scale model of the star of the film, the car Ferat.  Made in a limited edition (I got my hands on mine last week), early sales were accompanies by a cardboard sleeved copy of the film.

Ferat is a Škoda Super Sport prototype from 1971 that lives at the Škoda Museum in Mlada Boleslav. It was based on the iconic Škoda Š110R, a coupe that still has a thriving fan base and owners club in Czech and Slovakia, and the countries to which it was exported.

On the surface it’s a straightforward normalisation film: “look, you won’t even miss decadent western capitalist horror films, because, well, we can do our own!”. A simple plot: a new car from the Ferat Corporation appears to drain its drivers of energy, life even. Our investigative hero sets out to find the secret of the car and the corporation…. I won’t spoil the plot here, although one slightly cruel review suggested it needed a transfusion in the middle.

It’s not as simple as that, though. The team that made the film, for instance, looks decidedly dodgy:

Director: Juraj Herz, whose films included The Cremator, banned “forever” by the communist authorities.

Lead actor: Jiri Menzel: director of the banned “forever” film Larks on a String.

Bit part: Played by Vít Olmer, maverick Czechsploitation director, later to make Bony a Klid, banned on release until it’s black market distribution made a mockery of the ban.

Uncredited contributions from surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer, then banned from film making.

Actor Petr Čepek, later to take the lead in several Švankmajer films including Faust.

So, a group of film makers that are not in favour with the regime make one of the few Czechoslovak horror films. It’s tempting to make analogies with the activities of those in Hollywood, USA, during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 50s: the uncredited roles by those banned, and works rich in metaphor and references. Cy Endfield’s Hell Drivers for example.

Švankmajer’s contribution to the film is signalled by the clip of one of his films (ID please!) shown on a TV. In any case, the Faustian nature of the plot sits comfortably within his oeuvre. He is now credited with the creation of the visceral elements of Ferat, including the scene where Menzel’s character approaches the car, slices the throbbing bonnet with a knife, and is drawn to slide his hand into the wound, Cronenberg style (predating the hand through TV screen in Videodrome), only for the car to attempt to pull him inside in the classic Freudian manner. This scene uses Švankmajer’s hallmark use of raw meat as living flesh, and originally included a complete meat engine that was censored.

It’s tempting to credit another animation segment to Švankmajer. The scene is played by Menzel on a home movie projector and includes Juraj Herz hamming it up as a Dracula style vampire.

The title of the film obviously alludes to Nosferatu, it’s also possible to see Ferat as a play on Fiat/Ferrari, pillars of the decadent western car industry (although Fiat had widespread collaboration with the communist car industry, especially in Poland and the Soviet Union).

The car itself is real: a prototype built as the Škoda Super Sport, based on the S110R coupe, as are the Škoda rally cars seen in the film. The car, in common with the S110R, had its engine at the rear, the front bonnet covering the luggage area. Bony a Klid, Vit Olmer’s film about gangsterism at the end of the communist era, has a long opening scene filmed at the Škoda Factory in Mlada Boleslav.

Theodor Pištěk, who gave the car it’s makeover, drove on the racetrack competitively for Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. The Super Sport also made an appearance in the film Tomorrow I’ll wake up and scald myself with tea (1977). Both films are based on short stories written by Czech science fiction author Josef Nesvadba.

The car as star may well explain the cult status of the film, it predates the similar role of John Carpenter’s Christine released the following year, but we should to the role of the film in Czech normalisation to explain it’s conclusive role in the Brussels retrospective. It shows the extraordinary lengths film makers went to help and support each other in the worst of times. It also shows the subversive possibilities of a genre film. American horror films of the 70s and 80s are now seen to engage with cold war and other political issues such as race, gender and economy in a way that it was impossible to do directly at the time. Perhaps Ferat took on the same challenge in 1980s Czechoslovakia.