The Ear [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (31st August 2019).
The Film

Palme d'Or: Karel Kachyna (nominee) - Cannes Film Festival, 1990

Returning home from a Cabinet party one late night, Deputy Minister Ludvik (All My Compatriots' Radoslav Brzobohatý) and his tipsy wife Anna (Killing the Devil's Jirina Bohdalová) discover they have lost their house keys. Conscious of appearances even on a dark suburban street, Ludvik hops the gate and discovers the spare keys also missing while Anna discovers the gate is open even though Ludvik swears he locked it when they left earlier. They also discover that the back door is unlocked and their son is wandering around the garden. Ludvik blames the housekeeper who he believes went out on a date when they were gone but then finds out that she has been fast asleep. Inside the house, they discover that the power has been cut seemingly only in their home since Anna observes lights and seemingly a party in the Klepacs' house across the street; whereupon, Ludvik suspects something more sinister going on since he learned at the party that comrade Klepac was one of the men who arrest was rumored at the party along with steel Minister Kosara. Although rumors flew about the party that they were seized because they were Jews, Ludvik suspects that Kosara disappeared because he was resistant to the plans of the new Prime Minister to consolidate the building industries; and he starts to reflect back on the party and little details and remarks from colleagues that have him fearing for his own freedom since he was Kosara's right-hand man. As Anna steams with resentment that Ludvik has forgotten their tenth anniversary and deals with the practicalities of the power cut like keeping meet for the next day's dinner cool, Ludvik searches for all of his papers current and past that may suggest a closer involvement with Kosara's decision-making than Ludvik has claimed in light of the arrest. Once Anna sees men lurking in garden, she too starts to worry about what their friendship with the Klepacs might implicate for them, also reflecting on remarks by supposed friends and fearing as much for her husband as for the diminished social circumstances of the wives of those arrested (while searching for the papers among an aunt's belongings stored there after she was moved from her middle class home to an apartment block after her husband's arrest). Once both are on the same page, they start to worry about where they can speak safely away from "The Ear," the nebulous means by which members of the party may be spied upon, which soon becomes audience to their fighting as the failings of their marriage come to the surface as the cause or effect of Kosara's professional ambitions and Anna's social-climbing.

An indictment of the Czech government under the Communist regime all the more surprising in that it was produced not only after the Prague Spring but as the last of twelve collaborations between cinematographer-turned-director Karel Kachyna and writer Jan Procházka, many of which painted a grim portrait of life under the regime through outcast characters who were not supposed to exist in the party's idealized image (at least as victims of exploitation rather than deviants). Moving back and forth between noir-ishly lit present and party flashbacks that both presented with higher contrast but also seem evocative of the lengthy opening act of Alain Resnais's Alain Robbe-Grillet-scripted Last Year in Marienbad, it first appears to be a study in paranoia, but even before we discover that "The Ear" actually is a series of listening devices, we can "appreciate" how insidious the use of fear as subjects under such a system do half the work themselves dissecting every throwaway remark and imbue them with meaning (Anna initially puzzles over a friend calling up and asking if her home gets cold in the winter and then suspects that the government may intend to relocate her and reward her friend's family with her home). Although Anna perhaps lashes out at her husband out of her own self-interest and self-preservation, blaming his professional choices for where they have ended up, her accusations do reveals more so than Ludvik's flashbacks that his neutral attitude may have been a reaction to fear and confusion earlier on but has actually seen symptomatic of his willingness to play both sides of the fence and support anyone whatever their cause so long as it leads to his advancement. The film's sometimes unbearable suspense comes not so much from the imminent danger from agents of the party as from having one's know-how of maneuvering through this world radically altered. The ending seems benign but is actually incredibly chilling.


Banned before release and not screened in Czechoslovakia until shortly before the "Velvet Revolution," The Ear received international though still limited release in other territories – the film was picked by International Film Exchange in the United States although it did not appear to have been licensed for home video unlike some of the other world art films in their library – becoming easiest to see in the U.K. via Second Run's 2005 DVD featuring a serviceable PAL standard definition transfer apart from some color banding. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed widescreen Blu-ray, however, comes from a new 4K master, the heightened resolution of which reveals the different film textures used in the film via lighting and contrast that were all flattened in the older transfer; therefore, the image quality is variable, with most of the damage cleaned up but some inconsistent blacks and shadows remain as seemingly indicative of the original photography since the grayish blacks appear in the exterior scenes compared the noir shadows of the interiors.


The sole audio option is a Czech LPCM 2.0 mono option that is very clean, resulting in agonizingly quiet silences while the dialogue is clear and undistorted even at the wife's most shrill vocalizations while the deployment of the scoring of Svatopluk Havelka also has an appropriately icy presence. Optional English subtitles are free of errors.


The Second Run DVD's sole extra, an introduction by critic Peter Hames (13:03) is ported over in which he recalls the Czech screening in the late eighties that almost did not happen when the film was escorted to the theater, the doors locked, and the general public kept away. He discusses the filmography of Kachyna before meeting Procházka, how the latter having an in with the president may have allowed him to get away with the subjects of their films even though his political beliefs seemed to run counter to his previous reputation as a communist. He discusses the circumstances of Procházka's death in 1971 and how Kachyna was able to continue working in the aftermath because of his willingness to engage with non-controversial subjects, as well as his final collaboration with Procházka by way of adapting the latter's novel for his 1994 film The Cow. New to the Blu-ray is a Projection Booth commentary with Mike White, Ben Buckingham and Martin Kessler – not unlike the similar tracks featured on Case for a Rookie Hangman and A Blonde in Love – in which the usual opening remarks about how they first encountered the film include one commentator's mention that he saw the film as part of a film festival of Czech surrealist films, highlighting the difficulty in classifying the film – indeed, one of the BFI Movie Guides defines it as a horror film – leading to a discussion of how the film could indeed be considered surrealist. They do suggest that thirty seconds or so of black at the start of the presentations might have been the place for the distributor company logos and cards had the film been released at the time of its production, but the included booklet features the Czech script, English translation, and the English script for a disclaimer that was intended to precede the film stating that practices in the film were those of the past and not the current regime (it is just as well that the cards did not make it to domestic or international release). Lastly, the disc also includes The Uninvited Guest [Nezvaný host] (22:56), a 1969 satirical short film by The Ear co-writer Vlastimil Venclík which was banned by the State authorities in which a loving couple have their apartment invaded by a man placed with them by the party who they are at first annoyed by, dominated by, and then come to regard like a son in an ending that manages to be bitterly cynical, funny, and heartwarming. Included in the case is the aforementioned 20-page booklet featuring writing on the film by Peter Hames, author and producer Steven Jay Schneider and journalist Graham Williamson, appending Hames original twelve-page essay with two shorter essays as well as the aforementioned opening declaration from the Czech and English dialogue lists (and a translation of the former to show how it differs from the English).


Banned and even little seen after its international release almost twenty years later, The Ear proves just as timely as ever with Second Run's Blu-ray release.


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