The Joke (Jaromil Jires, 1969, Czechoslovakia)

A still from Jaromil Jires' The Joke.
The Joke is Jaromil Jires's adaptation of Milan Kundera's seminal 1967 novel of the same name. Kundera's novel - his first - is one of his best, and launched him onto the world stage. It also introduced many of the themes that would come to characterize his later works. Notably between the publication of the novel and the release of the film, the mass protests of the Prague Spring occurred. It is hard to divorce the film's anti-Stalinist message from the volatile political setting in which it was released.

The film is remarkably close to the novel, mimicking its structure of flashbacks. The film tells the story of Ludvik Jahn, a man who was sentenced to six years of hard labor for a letter he sent to a love interest. The letter is the titular "joke," which is interpreted by the Stalinists as dangerous political subversion. This is one of the central themes in The Joke and in Kundera's work more generally - the absence of humor in totalitarian regimes, the total embrace of kitsch. In the novel, Kundera further examines this concept of kitsch in the form of a folk festival which the Soviet authorities have embraced for their own purposes. This folk festival also makes an appearance at the end of the film.

Josef Somr is perfect as Ludvik, conveying a cynicism and world-weariness that is perfect. Ludek Munzar is also great as his adversary Pavel. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps that its political aims are a bit too on-the-nose at times. The film's strength is its ambiguity concerning Ludvik - he is certainly not a heroic figure, and his retribution (adultery) isn't noble. Overall, The Joke is a compelling if somewhat minor film from a filmmaker who would go on to direct the great Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.


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