Karlovy Vary 2024: ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…’  

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.


KVIFF 2024: Back to my people, my Brigadoon-style episodic community, my lovely, fragile, tragicomic festival! What follow are the confessions of a diehard festival-head. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead (including myself) are entirely coincidental.

It’s a tough itinerary on the definitive road less travelled, that is, the utterly non-existent one from my hometown of Tromsø to Karlovy Vary and its international film festival. Non-existent and yet familiar: Here we are again, exactly one year later. Somehow, there’s no alternative but to arrive at Prague airport in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay, except for the surprisingly comfy bench-seats in Burger King.

One night of restless half-cinematic dreams (with lousy scores) later, transport arrives and whisks us to Thermal, the Brutalist hub of the festival, an eyesore in a chocolate-box, testament to capricious human creativity. See how it erupts from the twee fabric of Spa Town’s otherwise emasculated craftsmanship, tethered to the time-honoured architecture required of palaces fit only for the rich and famous.

Paradoxically, many such rich-and-famous types will nonetheless arrive right here at Thermal, that relic of a now forgotten socialist dream, stepping out, to be specific, on its red carpet. There I actually spied that festival friend, ubiquitous cinephile and pioneering film-essayist Mark Cousins doing the very same. I gave him a tentative, hopeful nod. Later, he gave his own nod (prepared earlier) in the general direction of visual art, with his film in competition, A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things (2024). Even later KVIFF really gave Mark the nod and awarded its Crystal Globe for best film, apparently to the complete surprise of the man himself.

«A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things».

One week earlier: The KVIFF regulars are here again, the journalists, the festival reps, the film entrepreneurs. It’s that familiar time-slippage again! It’s like I saw them yesterday. I went to sleep in the KVIFF village and woke up a year later. Thus, the life of the community is telescoped. Sudden joyful reunion rubs shoulders with sudden tragic loss, like it does in a well-rounded movie.

We won second prize in the opening-reception ‘Who’s invited?’ contest and thus watched the ceremonies and plaudits on video-feed direct from Grand to Little Hall. The translation-headphones were defective, which I thought was a bad thing – until a miracle occurred! I slept – finally – my first time ever in a movie theatre! I’ve long been fascinated by the phenomenology of film: its bodily effects, how we physically experience things cinematic, so let me elaborate…

I can’t sleep in a film. Okay, I might doze off for a moment but then I will start awake in a panic, heart pounding, gasping for breath, as though sleep were a near-death experience. I’m hardwired by shame, or fear of disgrace, to stay awake, no matter how exhausted I am. I watch (from the corner of my eye) with envy the ones who drop sweetly into the Land of Nod – or listen to them snore. This, on the other hand, is a whole new experience, a first! I sat in the front row of the cinema and slept like a baby through the fanfare and speeches, and awoke refreshed and ready to go. My conscience was clear; I could sleep the sleep of the innocent.

I didn’t sleep through the opening film. Having lubricated ourselves with a few reception snifters, we ascended like rising stars and breached the Grand Hall for the latest from Scandinavia’s own American, Viggo Mortensen. His The Dead Don’t Hurt (2023) has much of the conventional Western about it, but leavened with humanist – nay, feminist – undertones, drawing on a little of the existential depth of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952). However, Mortensen’s film demonstrates the principle ‘more is less’ by giving us a little too much of everything.

The Dead Don’t Hurt (photo: Ymer Media).

Mortensen is a huge talent, writing, directing, starring and even composing his own score. The danger is that a talent of this stature, such a ‘complete renaissance man,’ becomes a raging megalomaniac. The warning signs are all too apparent. First of all, the protagonist is a little too heroic, self-consciously heading south to fight the scourge of slavery. Then there’s the music! I love music and I love film, so why does music in film so often seem like a sort of scourge? I find myself longing for silence, or at least subtle ambient sound, like I long for freedom. The musical backdrop so often manipulates us, tethers us to the One True Experience as deigned by the director/megalomaniac. The accompaniment to The Dead Don’t Hurt is pleasant enough; there’s just way too much of it, leading us along by the nose – I mean the ear – through every single scene.

This brings me, conveniently, to one of the best films of the festival, and I’m not just saying that because it’s Norwegian. There are plenty of Norwegian films that leave me cold actually. I won’t mention them here. It would be tough to be left unmoved by Lilja Ingolfsdottir’s Elskling («Loveable», 2024), as the standing ovation at the premiere would seem to suggest. Keep an eye on this magazine for more about Elskling (I much prefer the Norwegian title) from me and others. Elskling is an apparently conventional story of love going wrong and divorce looming. The film’s distinction and virtue, however, is its extraordinary psychological depth. It raises much deeper questions than how to navigate a break-up, questions about how to live, how to be.

In so doing, it gives us a masterclass in how to use – and, not least, not use – music in filmmaking. The boundaries of the phases of the story are marked out exquisitely by its changing soundscape. Music infuses the opening remembered montage like an operatic overture, then stops abruptly, as we are dropped unceremoniously into the cold hard reality of the present.  At its denouement the intrusion of the rousing score of her ‘Project Epiphany’ does not direct us but rather poses a question as insistent as it is open ended: Where can this lead…?

More on this and other questions percolating in and around Elskling a little later. For now, suffice to say it was a rousing success, cleaning up the Crystal Globe for best actress, the Special Jury Prize, together with the FIPRESCI, Ecumenical and Europa Cinema Label Awards.

Lilja Ingolfsdottir (photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary).

For there are many more films. They just kept coming, interspersed with rendezvouses with old friends as well as occasional strange encounters with new ones. This is the social-cinematic rollercoaster ride I love so much, the magnet that drags me back here year after year. As cinephiles we hunt voraciously for anything new and different, and yet are also drawn to the melancholy charm of the half remembered – or forgotten – gems of the past. The dusty old thing that perhaps made its biggest impression on me this year was really a lucky accident.

I devoured Kafka in my youth. He seemed to speak directly to me in all my hormonal confusion, cutting through the teenage angst, the existential crisis of the looming road-accident of having to become someone, that is, a proper person with a fixed identity, with proper adult attributes and pastimes. The centenary of his death was the impetus to a Kafka series at the festival. I wanted to check out an old German-TV interpretation of the man’s most iconic short story, Czech director Jan Němec’s Metamorphosis (1975).

First: The net has made point-of-view-shots fashionable again. Yet you’d be forgiven for assuming that Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1946) had killed it off forever, along with Montgomery’s own career. This experiment in letting the camera substitute for the eyes of the protagonist proved what a tiresome straitjacket this was for the beloved instrument of flights of fancy. Early in its ‘lifetime’ it had already produced something as gloriously unbounded as Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929). The latter is a joyous mobile kaleidoscope; the former is a ponderous visual prison, rivalling the worst moments of bare human existence. Let me put it this way: As interesting as real life, perhaps even less so. The film’s only saving grace is provided by those fleeting moments of pure surrealism when we ‘accidentally’ spy the protagonist (or is it ourselves?) in a mirror.

This is a long and perhaps unnecessary preface to the simple point that Metamorphosis doesn’t quite work (either). It seems like a good idea, to prompt us to imagine the horrible creature poor Gregor has transformed into instead of showing it, but it really doesn’t work – again, as we/he should have known. The visual product just seems like an annoying contrivance as well as a constant reminder of the misguided vanity of the filmmaker.


Almost hidden as a sort of B-feature, the filler before the shortish main attraction, is an absolute gem, however, Pavel Juráček’s Joseph Kilian (1963). The film doesn’t adapt Kafka: it channels his ineffable spirit. I am humbled by the genius of this tiny (39-minute) masterpiece of existential confusion, which also manages to take a cutting if oblique swipe at the contributing role of the state. Human existence is a trial at the best of times. Do the authorities need to formalise it? The genius premise is a store specialising in cat rentals – with hilarious results!  Well, not exactly, but dark humour ensues.

Meanwhile, there is something new in the ‘Kafkascape’: new edifices of power, new structures impeding or warping the unfolding of our lives. That apogee of commodity fetishism, the net, continues to bind us, one mobile after another, into a prison of production/consumption. It remains unyielding, pitiless, irresistible. Something strange happens in the cinema-scape in this context. Films increasingly pop out of the fully contemporary into a kind of ‘not long ago’ or alternative-universe zone. This seems to be a way to erase that enemy of the human narrative, the smartphone, from their stories.

A new Italian film, Carlo Sironi’s My Summer with Irene (2024), is a good example. It is the story of two young women seizing their chance while they can in the sunshine and the moment. It unfolds like almost any beautiful, melancholy, one-last summer, in a strange, indeterminate space of ‘not long ago,’ back before the closing fist of global capitalism took us a little more firmly in its grip.

«My Summer With Irene».

Time itself now seems warped by commodification and its corruptions. Time is in any case compressed in Festivalworld, the parallel universe I sort of, and wish I could, inhabit. Yet how can this be: The man who is a kind of spontaneous festival institution personified, an irreverent filmic counter-star, has finally retired. Say it ain’t so! Lo and behold the master of the physical-flourish-turned-physical-theatre, who has wowed audiences for years with his creative approach to equipment management: Petr Folprecht.

His final bow at once prompts a smile and a tear in the manner of the most touching of cinematic moments. For one last time this week, he cleared a mic stand away to make way (once more) for a screening, and once more received a standing ovation from his adoring public. Folprecht is the unsung superstar of Karlovy Vary hiding in plain sight. How we will miss him when he’s gone!

Another loss hurts more though. My favourite festival cinema, Drahomira, with all the beer and snacks you ever dreamed of, big practical fold-out tables, and a delightful adjoining café, has lost its lovely manager. It was a great shock to learn that just last week Dalibor Chum aka Dalik had sadly departed this world for the next. I hope and pray he knows somehow how much he is missed. Rest in peace, dear friend!

In Vincente Minnelli’s cultish musical oddity, Brigadoon (1954), starring Gene Kelly, a magical village in the hills offers a miraculous escape from the travails of modern existence. Sadly, the travails of 1954 seem to pale beside our own. This is hardly the time to run to the hills, but it is the time to find the magic dust that gives us community, and human connection. In this way, maybe Karlovy Vary and its festival could be just the latter-day Brigadoon we lost souls of the 21st century are looking for…


Peter Folprecht (photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary).
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