Crime and Punishment. The Cervanová Case

Probably everyone in Slovakia has heard of the Cervanová case. Many questions surrounding the murder of student Ľudmila Cervanová in 1976 have not yet been clarified. Is it even possible to uncover the truth after so many years? The documentary tragedy by Robert Kirchhoff called Normalization (Kauza Cervanová) offers an interesting study of society… and fear. It is in Slovak cinemas since May.

At the time of its investigation and trial, the Cervanová case was the most closely followed of all cases. And, thanks to many ambiguities, the case continues to this day as a dark stain on the Slovak justice system. Was it really a miscarriage of justice? A well-orchestrated game by the secret services, a conspiracy of the communist regime and an abuse of political power? The idea for Normalization was born in 2004 when those convicted in this case were sent for retrial. “When I started getting interested in this case, only a few journalists paid any attention to it – mainly tabloid journalists,” recalls Robert Kirchhoff. “I had to dig everything up for myself. Right from the start I felt that this was a tragic and ludicrous story. I thought about making a documentary Twin Peaks or The Thin Blue Line. The plot: guilt, innocence, accusation – all that against the background of murder – appealed to me also because of its social aspect.” Ultimately, the shooting became an eight-year detective expedition into the hidden recesses of the case of a kidnapping, rape and murder of a young woman that has not yet been closed. “When you make this type of film, you always have to deal with someone trying to lead you by the nose. Phone calls, e-mails, anonymous letters and a lot of names, situations and facts, all that directed me towards a further, apparently endless search. Of course, I was seeking the truth. Objectivity was the only criterion,” emphasises the director. “The form was subordinate to it. I only gradually came to recognise that not everyone shared my ambition … And doors were closed…”

Eight years of investigation gave the documentary the form of a collection film, but not one that is purely collective. “This is partially a collection film. The Cervanová case is an organism, a monster that is still alive and kicking. It is a mistake to think that it has been forgotten. In 1982, it seemed that the case was over but the smouldering threads of doubts finally ignited a political cause. The seemingly closed case has influenced and still influences the lives of its protagonists, but not only their lives. I also entered this story and I had to become part of it. I believe that, in this sense, this is an engaged film. That means that from a certain moment there was no room for speculation.” This docudrama also contains elements of an investigative documentary, political and detective film. How to face up to a brutal and moreover mysterious crime in a period when the evening news overflows with violence? “It depends on how one approaches the topic. The mysterious background of the story is really shocking in its bizarreness,” confirms the director. “I protect and appreciate the most the trust of the protagonists and my sources. I consistently had to tread the thin line between suspicion and distrust. Winning over and convincing people was the hardest and took the longest. If we are seeking to uncover this tragedy, it makes sense to always tell the truth to people. I really wanted the film to be understood also by those who do not know the story. Therefore, I could not have omitted any of the details of the crime that form the basis of events and then later returned to the crime. It’s like a magnet.”

Does the film present all the available facts in a matter-of-fact and complex manner, or can a certain degree of author’s licence be found in the film with regard to the interpretation of some facts? “It is really difficult to strictly apply some author’s principle in this genre. The best is to get immersed within the topic. What I have experienced with this film cannot be transferred. But it is my life. When I started to think about it, I tried to figure out how to find some fixed points in the endless current. I eventually found those fixed points, at least for myself, after countless attempts. I suspect that you cannot simply leave this topic, like – look, this is what happened. Because this topic is still alive,” states Kirchhoff.

Despite the years that have passed, Normalization is not about the past. “It is a film about why it is necessary to doubt. Time distorts everything. Despite certain ramifications, it is exactly this case that changes in every period – like a chameleon. Why is it so? In this respect the film is unbelievably contemporary,” concludes the director.

Mariana Jaremková


3 + 3 = Velvet Terrorists

Three documentary filmmakers, Peter Kerekes, Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarčík, came together on account of the full-length project Velvet Terrorists. They made a film about three men who expressed their hatred towards the regime during communism. Nevertheless, this documentary is (also) about love. It is in Slovak cinemas since October.

Stano Kratochvíl, Fero Bednár and Vladimír Hučín are the protagonists of Velvet Terrorists. The film bears witness to deeds that they committed or planned in the 1970s and 1980s, but the picture remains in the present days and shows how former convicts sentenced for terrorist acts live today. “On the eve of May 1st, Stano Kratochvíl attempted to blow up the rostrum where the communist officials were going to sit. He didn’t want to kill anyone, he just wanted to eliminate the symbol. Fero Bednár planned to assassinate President Gustáv Husák, but no one in the CIA took him seriously. And Vladimír Hučín blew up communist billboards and display cases,” says director and producer Peter Kerekes by way of explaining the past of the characters.

The film consists of the separate stories of each of the three protagonists and the filmmakers collaborated in the making of all three of them. But while Kerekes was interested in linking the past with the present day, Ivan Ostrochovský was primarily interested in the present. According to the latter, the final film joins the past to the present time with a tendency towards the present. “Peter can direct on location and he likes it so he can afford to talk about the past which requires a certain type of reconstruction, hence a certain feature film logic which is inherent to Peter,” says Ostrochovský. “Pavol and I prefer a more cautious observational method of filmmaking which is related to events underway now. Hence, the reason for the tendency towards the present day. To put it simply, Peter likes to reconstruct old stories and I like to observe them.”

With regard to Velvet Terrorists, Pavol Pekarčík highlights in particular the extreme life experienceof the protagonists. “It was not common for someone to want to cancel the May 1st celebrations, kill the First Secretary of the Communist Party or even eliminate the entire communist dictatorship. This is what the main protagonists had been through during the normalisation period.” And Peter Kerekes adds, “Ultimately, we made a film about love. After years of living alone, Stano is seeking a partner. Fero has settled down with his wife and two children; he reminisces about the romantic ‘terrorist’ period. Vladimír is courting a young woman; we watch how a relationship develops between them.” Communism and terrorism just became the backdrop of the film about love because each of the protagonists also had romantic reasons for doing what they did. “Stano wanted to impress a young lady in Sereď, the other two had partners who they used to go shooting with and prepare activities, almost like Bonnie & Clyde,” says Peter Kerekes who also made the full-length documentaries 66 Seasons and Cooking History.

As regards Velvet Terrorists, the audience will not have to live through the full utilisation of archive materials, but the film deviates from the serious rigidity of talking heads and contains humour. Even though Pavol Pekarčík notes that, if someone was imprisoned for the crime of state terrorism because he disseminated pamphlets declaiming “Away with communist dictatorship” or tried to topple the May 1st rostrum at night when absolutely drunk, this invokes laughter jointly with tears. “Peter and Pavol know how to create funny situations and they do create them,” thinks Ostrochovský in turn. “On the other hand, the topics of resistance and heroism encompass a layer of pathos which we wanted to minimise and we used humour as a weapon against pathetisation,” continues the director. In connection with humour, he also refers to the risk of mocking the protagonists who do not deserve to be ridiculed as they managed to present their opposition to the totalitarian system and risked not only their personal freedom but also their lives. “Many times we encountered the opinion that their deeds were futile and their ideas unrealistic. We were enthralled and, to a certain degree, even inspired by their courage. It is not only their life stories that prove that they are really courageous, but also the fact that they played along with us; we send up their stories slightly but we do not ridicule them. They are simply ‘terrorists’ who can make fun of themselves,” concludes Ivan Ostrochovský.

Daniel Bernát


We Are to Believe a Miracle

Director Juraj Lehotský made his début in 2008 with the full-length documentary Blind Loves and his first film already became a small miracle. Its international première took place at the Cannes IFF in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) section; it won the C.I.C.A.E. (International Confederation of Art Cinemas) Award at the Festival. It was also screened at other prestigious festivals, foreign cinemas and TV and received awards in Slovakia and abroad… Five years later, Lehotský is back with a new film. It is called Miracle and this time it is a feature film. It is in Slovak cinemas since September.

In the documentary Blind Loves, Juraj Lehotský moved empathetically in the vicinity of several sight-impaired protagonists, he observed everyday situations in their lives and at the same time he tried to show what they were going through on the inside – their ideas, their desires, their view of the world. And love plays an important role. There is a lack of love in Miracle in a certain sense, although it is not totally absent from the second full-length project of director Lehotský. This time, in collaboration with screen-writer Marek Leščák (he also co-wrote the script for Blind Loves), he recounts the story of the problematic teenager, Ela, who is placed in a juvenile re-education centre. It turns out that, after running away from home, she took up with a thirty-year old boyfriend, Roby. She moved in with him and she loves him. But they are not allowed to meet so Ela decides to run away from the re-education centre. “I had to make the decision whether I was going to continue with the tried-and-tested documentary method or to enter the new arena of feature film, which would perhaps be more difficult for me,” explains Lehotský on his search for a creative path after his successful documentary Blind Loves. “Eventually, I opted for the feature film but I wanted to hold on to something that I liked from my previous work, I wanted to base my new work on what I knew intimately. Primarily, I didn’t want to leap into something which was moving away from the veracity, authenticity and brutality of life. I think that I was tempted to create a new ‘life’, a film story which would become real,” continues the director. Before this film story came to life, Lehotský and Leščák visited re-education centres where they familiarised

themselves with the real destinies of abandoned and lost girls. “These stories had one thing in common – the parents failed to find a path to their children, they did not build a relationship and did not give them what children are expected to get – love, the ability to comprehend what is and what is not right in life. We heard many stories of girls who experienced really atrocious things and we strove to transfer some of the details into the film,” explains Lehotský. However, the film is not based on any specific real-life story.

The cinematographer of the film, Noro Hudec, noted during the filmmaking that there were only a few simple images in the script with regard to the story, choice of characters and shooting method. “On the basis of the script, we decided to shoot this film realistically, i.e. we sought to apply a cinematographic approach reflecting a realistic view of the world. Hence, we tried to make the camera a part of the story; it was not to call attention to its presence unnecessarily for artistic or other ambitions, and at the same time we did not want just to film the reality crudely, we wanted the camera to be accessible to the viewer’s idea of modern aesthetics,” reveals Hudec.

The filmmakers wanted to make an evocative and, at the same time, a broadly authentic film. This also led to their choice of the main character which is played by a non-actress – Michaela Bendulová. Experienced actor Robert Roth plays the leading male character. “In our case, it was quite impossible to consider a professional actress aged 15; we had to rely on a non-actress. But I think that, even if we had chosen a young girl with acting experience, her performance would have reeked of theatricality and artificiality,” says Lehotský. “It was important to find a credible girl coming from a harsher milieu. At the same time, however, the girl was expected to be talented, to be able to perform in a civilised manner, to remember her lines, to play the tenser and more dramatic moments… Today I can reveal that our non-actress mastered everything wonderfully. We cast a girl from a re-education centre who was able to bring something peculiar and miraculous to the film,” reflects the director and co-screenwriter of Miracle.

Daniel Bernát