‘It’s a pity – they take your entire life’: Jan Šikl recalls the bitter pill of oppression in Reconstruction of Occupation
P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Karlovy Vary 2021: ‘It’s a pity – they take your entire life’: Jan Šikl recalls the bitter pill of oppression in Reconstruction of Occupation.
It’s still hard to swallow. They came without warning under cover of darkness – in their tanks and armoured cars – nervous and trigger-happy, ready for trouble. By the morning of 21st August 1968 the optimistic clamour of the Prague Spring had been abruptly and brutally extinguished. It’s a familiar reversal to add to humanity’s immortal common stock yet no less shocking to behold. And prepare for more unpleasant surprises – they may be just around the corner – because sooner or later, in the words of late-cold-war technopunks, Cabaret Voltaire, ‘someone, sometime, cracks down.’
The sense of astonishment and dismay of the Cold War’s most infamous crackdown is vividly reanimated by Jan Šikl’s work. With the help of previously unseen footage, we see the events through new eyes, and even to experience them all over again. We also learn through the filmmaker’s remarkable encounters with veterans of that fateful day how the bitter taste of defeat lingers on.
It’s a quirk of collective memory that what is unexpected and astonishing in the moment is invariably rendered mechanical and inevitable by the passage of time and the craft of historiography. We do well to question this sleight of hand, this scholastic conjuring trick, if we wish to truly understand the past.
Šikl’s Reconstruction of Occupation (2021) provides a timely reminder of the random contingency of life as actually experienced. For, in the words of one witness to the Russian invasion: ‘They were doing impossible things.’ He, as many others, had learned to think of the Soviets as their friends, then watched in astonishment the bullying, indiscriminate violence of this treacherous invasion. A tank rams an innocent baker’s van, scattering his buns and loaves across the city street; troops open fire on peaceful protestors. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Authoritative interlocutors readily convey it all as the march of history, the unanticipated output, ironically, of a predictable political machine. Šikl’s brilliant documentary presents the half-forgotten lived reality of this merciless crackdown as more of a terrible mistake, a wilful atrocity – avoidable, execrable. That’s how it must have looked – and felt – when the counter-factual possibilities of another world still seemed close at hand, the promise of the Prague Spring almost within their grasp – for Czechs as much as the world-at-large.
The genius of Šikl’s work lies less in the previously unseen archive footage, however astonishing, and more in what he managed to do with it, what he made the forgotten film-reels do for him and, not least, for them: the immediate victims of the crackdown. The genius, in short, is in the method. Šikl himself describes the process as a kind of therapy for those subject to the trauma of ’68, a remedy still needed after all these years.
It’s no mean feat to reanimate the memories, activate the pain and find a way to work through it. In so doing, much more than a kind of therapy is achieved. The film performs a profound archaeology of human experience and meaning, establishing a novel narrative frame for these seminal events, beyond the neutralising straight-jacket of dispassionate historical or sociological analysis.
The film begins, artfully, with what we’ve lost, the joyful simplicity of the everyday – from the antics of grown men on playground swings and a tree-stump tossing muscleman to an exquisitely ordinary and intimate moment shared by grandmother and child. We even see the amateur filmmakers’ footage spilling from a rag-tag assortment of cannisters. The opening reflects the arc of Sikl’s own journey, from capturing strange animate fragments of ordinary lives to investigating the dark mark left upon them by a time of political-military manoeuvring and upheaval.
Then, casually, almost unobtrusively, a tank rolls by. The tone has shifted; the charm has been broken. An old man blithely turns his back, but the convoy rolls on, tracking through their lives and their souvenirs like a bull in a china shop. The caterpillar-tread interlopers are the disturbing harbingers of history, a stain on the celluloid in their unwonted intrusion.
And so our focus turns to those events of 1968 and the faces of youthful zest and confusion, captured in the grainy images flickering across the screen: the panic, the defiance, the fear. The ambiguity of ‘the moment’ is striking, the possibility as well as the danger of any crisis. One guy grins and chants and waves from the back of a scooter. Crowds of youngsters gather in excitement to defend the radio station. The spirit of the Prague Spring seems to shine in their eyes, immortalised in the moment of its extinction.
In those heady days of early 1968 a world of possibility seemed be opening, the possibility of Czechoslovakia finding its own, independent way, a progressive socialist path, distinct but hardly deviant, which would receive the acceptance if not the blessing of its Eastern allies. Many could still recall how the Russians had liberated them from Nazi occupation but now, incredibly, they were back in a new and much less welcome role. Their friends and liberators had returned as conquerors.
If Šikl had simply assembled and presented his remarkable collection of unseen footage, he would have made a good film, but he wasn’t satisfied with this. He wanted more. Who were these people? What did it really mean to them? Where were they now?
The urge to address such questions led him to a kind of archaeology of lived experience and meaning. The quest, with the help of Czech TV, to track down some of the protagonists, the protestors, the banner-wavers, led him to still more footage and to a sort of ethnography of the ‘scatterlings’ of ’68, both near and far. The end-product is so much more than an archive show-and-tell. It plumbs the latent pool of the human experience and impact of that fateful crackdown and brings its enduring regrets and emotional scars to the surface.
So where are they now? Šikl went out and found them, so they could watch the footage together. One who was at the radio station talks of feeling everlasting humiliation since that day, ‘that someone just comes and occupies us.’ The guy on the scooter – so much older now – describes the strange despair combined with hope of that day, as tears form in his eyes.
Some fled overseas, others lived out their lives under new, more oppressive conditions. Some struggled to rebuild their lives in the face of the grief of tragic loss, like the woman whose brother was killed by an army bullet and whose mother later committed suicide. Their reflections and their pain are juxtaposed with the fateful moments already recorded on film. It’s good that the events themselves are further documented, but it is probably even more important to have documented the human impression and human loss they left in their wake, as imprinted on the very bodies and minds of these witnesses, expressed in their painful acts of remembering, in the emotional register of their responses after all these years.
One striking image among many in the archive footage shows a kind of manmade mountain with a Czech flag perched at the top, one small statement of defiance. The site is a slagheap left by the work of a uranium mine, digging out the resources of the satellite state to fuel the machine of Soviet power. The heap is still there. At one point, strangely, emotionally, the filmmaker himself begins to scale the ‘mountain.’ This is perhaps the most striking and important sequence in the film. So much is embodied in this moment, symbolically, emotionally and even physically, as the lonely figure struggles to scale this daunting pile of refuse, as we – as an audience – begin to realise how this feels and thus what it really means.
The hill is a Sisyphean symbol of the futility of the struggle but it’s also a physical reminder, through the sweat and toil of the filmmaker, of what that struggle meant and how it must have felt, embodied – literally – in the thankless task of carrying a national flag to the top of this dismal slagheap. He has reconstructed the doomed resistance in the strenuous efforts of this own body, in the sense of futility now palpably imprinted on his own mind – and convincingly conveyed to us, his audience.
Perhaps most importantly, Šikl has revealed the complex meaning of resistance, belying the dismissive Sisyphean associations. Of course, we all know ‘resistance is futile’ and yet… Those who clung to the hope of repelling – or at least dissuading – the invaders seem to live a little easier, half a century or more later, with their history and themselves. It is by truly engaging with their experience that Reconstruction of Occupation becomes great cinema as well as a remarkable form of ethnographic archaeology.
The premiere of the film was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the occupation. Thus, it continues to resonate with the Czech people, their history and sense of identity. It will always resonate – within and beyond the Czech Republic – as long as violence and oppression walk abroad. As Šikl himself emphasised when we talked in Karlovy Vary, it’s never been more important to remember what we have suffered at the hands of elites, and to continue to criticise and resist them, not least those who have perpetrated a new Russian occupation in Ukraine. In these terms, the film may represent a timely reminder of the caprices of power and their human costs and, perhaps above all, the costs of capitulation.