August at – Diaries and Novels by Pavel Kohout

Author and reformed communist Pavel Kohout says sorry. Again! It makes one wonder whether it is still necessary for him at the age of eighty. Made at the occasion of his venerable anniversary, the documentary film does not provide any answers to this question. It is rather a commentary, letting witness accounts and records about Kohout speak rather than himself.

Directed by Radim Procházka, the thirty-minute film captures Pavel Kohout on two levels. Pavel Kohout as a writer as well as his work, poetics and thinking are mediated by a theatre performance by J.A.Pitínský and his ensemble. The performance is created at the occasion of the writer’s eightieth birthday, taking up the form of a collage of both his literary and dramatic works. On the other hand, Pavel Kohout as a person is represented by his diary entries that have accompanied his life from the mid 1950s on.

It is surely interesting to watch a theatre director looking for the most effective expression for Kohout’s characters in a limited time, trying to approach and understand them though they may seem estranged. He is speaking to the actors, presenting his observations and ideas, asking questions, trying to dispel their fear that the performance is too “talky”. Together they subject the author’s work to a quickfire surgery at the war front when there is no time for pulling one’s punches and various amputations are necessary to preserve the most essential thing: life itself.

The interview with Pavel Kohout above his diaries is substantially less dramatic and telling. The decision to trace the writer’s past through various anniversaries of his does not really promise much drama. The journal recordings are stark and matter of fact, while Kohout does not go for much commentary. On the other hand, he is not asked such intimate questions that would provoke him to a more concerned response.

In the end, the celebration itself proves that it is rather the artistic interpretation than a simple and true record that becomes a powerful witness of a human story. Bringing alive Kohout the writer, the theatre performance (besides his most popular novels, it also includes a socialist song from the fifties about space occupation) represents a commentary on the author’s past that may be less true to facts but the more lively and provoking, even more that the one provided in the film by the author himself. The theatre stage allows the shadow of the past of both individual life stories and our country to come out. The author himself responds to this shadow after the performance is finished. His speech creates the climax of Procházka’s film. In his speech, Kohout gets back to his past, discreetly apologizing for his own past (hasn’t he done that many times before?). On the contrary, in the private interview he waves his hand about that shadow.

The documentary by Radim Procházka suggests that Pavel Kohout wouldn’t have to apologize if he didn’t want to be (and if he wasn’t) a public person. Or perhaps had he been but a communist and not the poet of communism. The power of an imprint of a witness account in art is great and provoking; any author is bound to consider what to bear witness to in his work. The socialist poetry of Pavel Kohout will continue to exist along his later (and much more interesting and better!) novels and plays. However, there is no need to take offence about that. One should rather take a lesson.


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