Karel Vachek

* 1940  †︎ 2020

  • “My philosophy has been constantly evolving. I've been raised Catholic, I had to go to Church every Sunday. One day, I told my father, I won't go there, and he agreed. It was quite hard for me to say things I would tell today about Catholics: that they have no idea what is going on. When I was young, I was so afraid of this God. This catechist gave me this picture of God, he was so angry. I would wake up at night, wondering what I did wrong, that this God was so angry at me. In some of my recent films I dealt with this, with Catholic institutions, and I was afraid to talk about it. Nowadays, I'm free to say how goofy those things are, things that bishop Malý says, for example. Back in the days I was afraid to do this. I still considered it an authority, depths of which I couldn't fathom, as I supposed. Now I think I can. The things we managed to process in my last film, thanks to my sister and thanks to my deceased wife... I am more and more daring. And I can do it, because I am sure of it. When I started teaching, Mr Gogola scolded me as a socialist. Now, I know that you can't do without socialists. We are all socialists: we all need to work and we all need the fruit of our labour to such a degree so we could keep working. It's this easy. As a reasonable person, you have to know that accumulation of capital isn't the best way. But you can be good at it, that's for sure. Those who accumulate capital, and they accumulate it in such huge amounts they can't even benefit from it, they keep buying useless things, or maybe cannons or fighter jets. That's utterly absurd. It's good to be a socialist, it's even something mankind needs for sure. And I wouldn't dare to say such a thing just a few years ago, as I would be expelled from society. The closer you get towards death, the less restraint you have. As they can't harm you any more. They may kill you, so you will die prematurely, but the amount of time you will lose isn't worth a consideration...”

  • “The decisive act – and the only one in fact - you can do as a pedagogue is to admit a person. That's all you can do for this person. You have to eliminate people you can expect to be conventional, maybe slightly unprincipled in their relation to the world, you have to get rid of them. After that, there's nothing you can teach them. They have to educate themselves! They have five years of work to better themselves. It doesn't matter who's lecturing them. My teachers were terrible. I used to leave lectures by Elmar Klos before the end, as I had to catch a fast train to Moravia. And he would let me go, he had no problem with it. And what's all this education about? Those people have five years to better themselves. They can read anything. The education at school is just of marginal importance. They can teach you some names, some connections. And you can remember that, that's good for you. But you can't learn the way the previous generation did it, as that's where all that stupidity is concentrated. No one in my generation did this, no one really good, and there were many of them, [Jan] Němec, [Evald] Schorm, [Věra] Chytilová, [Jiří] Menzel, [Juraj] Jakubisko, [Elo] Havetta… those people knew each other. But they didn't want to learn anything from each other. There was one thing we had in common: we didn't want to make films like the previous generation did – František Vláčil, Jiří Krejčík. We didn't care about them. That's something that has to emerge right in the class, that the students are learning from each other. As they try to find a different language. They have to speak of different issues. They have to speak of things in such a way it will lead them into serious trouble.”

  • “The third chance was a contact provided by this Jewish friend of mine, who had turned orthodox. He was a physician, this man who had to contact general Bradley, who was supposed to get money for us. But nothing came of it, as this physician just died. Then he found this Jarvis family. Mrs Jarvis brought Khrushchev to New York, they were quite a liberal family. I wanted to do Dalibor. But not in a way I did in Prague. My idea was that instead of being locked up in a tower, Dalibor would end up in a car. With all those coupons at his disposal, he could drive around, feeding on hamburgers, refueling and driving across the USA. At the same time, his friends who were sentenced for traffic violations, are reenacting car crashes as a punishment, not for fun, but for educational purposes. And I would let them watch some scenes from Dalibor. And I wanted to remake it as an opera. And they agreed. They invited me to meet their son, who was supposed to take care of this whole thing. They had a whole floor in this high-rise next to the Central Park, as most probably they were millionaires. So that was the second time I went there. And this son told me he wanted a Czech person to ascertain that I could do the job, that I was somebody. So I gave him [Miloše] Forman's number, so he could ask him. And believe it or not, Forman told him that it could wait! I was forty years old at that time. I wasn't young. So I got quite angry because of that. I had no idea he could do something like that. As in Bohemia, he treated me as if he appreciated what I did.”

  • “I took those shots of Palach you see in every film. The ones this cameraman took as well, as he claims, this Smutný, who remembered just recently. But that's almost cute in a way. Before that, Mr Vadas even went to Paris to see Jožka Ort-Šnep to ask him whether he remembered filming Palach. And Jožka said he didn't remember. Those beautiful traps those people would invent. We took those pictures of Palach at the hospital. He was unconscious, they had him on some drugs for sure. His eyes were shut, he was just laying there. I told Jožka to go in and then out again, that was all. And that's this shot we got. Then we've been filming his funeral. It's in the last movie I made. After we did it, this man [Josef Hlavatý] self immolated in Pilsen. And later, they would screen him, as I was told, would you believe that? They didn't find him to be a hundred percent hero. In Pilsen, they said he had other motives, like his wife or I don't know what. But he did it – that's a fact. I don't know what you would like to investigate. We came to Pilsen and saw the terrible burns he had. I've never seen anything like that. The whole body was charred, it was all black, with those red cracks, those red scars maybe five to ten centimeters long, filled with blood. But we did it in black and white. As maybe people wouldn't even stand it seeing something like that in colour."

  • “Elective Affinities, well, I walked the street one morning, the year was 1968, it was in January. And I met Borovička, a script editor, who worked with me on Moravian Hellas. Meaning he was listed as a script editor in the titles. But he was an honest man. I told him: 'Could I make some movies?' And he said: 'Come tomorrow, we'll give you a camera.' So that's how I started making films again and I got it going immediately. [Josef] Smrkovský was the man I thought I would get on with most. So I went to see him and indeed he would let me film him. After that, all I had to do was to tell [Oldřich] Černík: 'I filmed at Mr Smrkový's house.' They felt unsafe, all those Dubčeks and Kriegels. So they wanted you by their side. [František] Kriegel even let me attend a parliament session, even when the others didn't want to let me in. [Ludvík] Svoboda was quite funny, he already campaigned for a president. He was already in his childish state. My friends told me, as I managed to get some quite long takes with him, where he was just telling things: 'Get this to the TV and he will never become a president.' As it was evedient he was quite senile already. Just like Zeman. Senility prevails. I was among them, they felt I liked what they were doing, so they let me in. It's always this short moment, before the new government gets established. Back then, they would break it up in eight months, this government. And my experience after the 1989 revolution was quite similar, as they would let me film at the Castle for maybe half-a-year, after that, they just wouldn't let me in. They would find out immediately that you were mocking them. And they couldn't allow this to happen. They have those Apache scouts of sorts for this job, who would find out, like this Žantovský and others. Žantovský screamed in my face: 'Get out at once!' I almost managed to record Havel while he was giving his radio speech. What could I have done to him...? But they would hate you with all their heart.”

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They would find out that you were mocking them. And they couldn‘t allow this to happen

Karel Vachek during the interview with Post Bellum
Karel Vachek during the interview with Post Bellum
zdroj: natáčení Post Bellum

Karel Vachek, a documentary filmmaker and a teacher at Prague‘s FAMU, was born on 4 August 1940 in Tišnov, where his father ran a hotel. Yet after 1948, the hotel was nationalised. Karel Vachek graduated from FAMU where he was admitted at the second attempt. During his first attempt, he wasn‘t accepted because of a denouncing letter by the National Committee in Tišnov which was included in his personal file. He got rid of this blot on his personal reputation with the help of an uncle, a former high ranking officer, who included a recommendation by the Tišnov‘s Street Committee in the file. At FAMU, Karel Vachek was in Elmar Klos‘s class, together with Věra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, Evald Schorm, Jan Němec, Juraj Jakubisko or Elo Havetta. After three years, he was expelled for a year, allegedly so he could “try” working in the industry. He graduated in 1963, creating a thought provoking documentary Moravian Hellas (Moravská Hellas), showing the two-sacredness and the consumerist spirit of Strážnice‘s folk festival. As the story goes, president Antonín Novotný didn‘t like the film, so Karel Vachek was banned from film-making for several years. Only in 1968 he could make Elective Affinities (Spřízněni volbou), a documentary about the Prague Spring and the mood before Ludvík Svoboda was elected president. He went to the streets with a camera during August 1968 invasion, he captured one of the last moments of Jan Palach‘s life and he was able to film another man who self-immolated in January 1969: Josef Hlavatý. But this short period during which he could return to film-making ended with the advent of the so-called ‚normalization‘. He had been working in an incineration plant in Vysočany and in 1979 both he and his wife, Dagmar, decided to leave the country. After a few months in Paris, he got to the United States of America and settled down in New York. There, Karel Vachek had been working at a photo lab processing photos for The New York Times and tried in vain to secure funding for his future film projects. Meanwhile, his wife‘s mental health had been deteriorating rapidly. As a result, they decided to return to Czechoslovakia in 1984. After that, Karel Vachek had been working as a driver, delivering soda drinks, and later worked as the traveling salesman at the Olympia Publishing House. After 1989, he could start making movies again and created several extensive documentaries. In 1994, he started teaching at FAMU‘s Department of Documentary Film, becoming its director after Michal Bregant was appointed a dean. He strongly influenced the whole generation of young filmmakers (Jan Gogola, Vít Klusák, Filip Remunda, Vít Janeček). He won the Best Documentary of the Year at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival in 2000 and 2002.