The Criterion Corner

A Report on the Party and Guests

Director: Jan Zemec

Year of release: 1966
Running time: 1 hour 11 minutes

Welcome to the first official edition of THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in the The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The first picture up for discussion is Jan Nemec's 1966 Czech New Wave satire A Report on the Party and Guests.

There's a wonderful moment early on in Jan Nemec's damning allegory of nationalism A Report on the Party and Guests, where a bureaucratic figure (Jan Klusack in a brilliant comic performance) stares at a group of blissful picnickers with a broad grin slapped onto his face while looming behind a desk. Of course, what makes the scene humorous is also what makes it distressing; a vision of authoritarian control dressed up in pleasantries set not inside a sterile office building, but instead, outside in a gorgeous forest glade. It's this kind of juxtaposition which forms the heart of Nemec's astute critique on regimes like Communism, which caused the film to be banned in Czechoslovakia after its 1966 release.

The plot is simple; a group of friends lounge around in a park, notice a bridal party in the distance, and toss out notions of joining these strangers in celebration. Eventually, a roving gang of men harass them into standing "trial" before an interrogator named Rudolph (Klusack) separates the men from the women, forces them to stand inside drawn lines, and jots down cryptic notations inside his over-sized notebook. What makes these scenes work, beyond Klusack's impish smile and strange gestures, is that Nemec films them in assured, matter-of-fact simplicity. The tone here may nod toward Kafka and Bunuel, but the film itself is shot in a quasi-realistic style, with crisp black and white cinematography and non-professional actors providing grounded reactions.

Eventually, the seven friends are rescued from Rudolph's authoritarian mind games by an older gentlemen who turns out to be celebrating a birthday party. What follows is a deft rendering of the way seemingly reasonable people can gradually be seduced by a certain kind of ideology hiding in plain sight. By becoming more enamored by the stranger's charms and calls for "brotherhood" and "democracy", A Report on the Party and Guests shows how fascism often joins hands with pleasant conformity in order to lull its members into a state of ignorant obedience. 

At 71 minutes, A Report on the Party and Guests packs a lot of subtext and detail into it's brisk running time. It's a funny, satirical, and disturbing work which goes out of its way to highlight the bright smiles and warm embrace inherent within dangerous methodology. The horror here isn't literal, but spiritual, and Nemec expertly narrows in on the appealing outward nature of systems which seek to suppress autonomy. As part of the "Czech New Wave" of the late 1960's, it's also a perfect edition to The Criterion Collection, and will hopefully be discovered by a whole new audience.