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Crimes and Misdemeanors, Czech-Style

Kawasaki's Rose, this year's Czech Republic entry for Best Foreign Film, is one part character study, one part morality essay.

Kawasaki's Rose: Jan Hrebejk


One of the more intriguing films to be released this fall that the average cinephile perhaps has not heard of, Kawasaki’s Rose is the sort of movie that, in a healthier distribution climate, would be getting a decent specialty release from Sony Pictures Classics or IFC Films. Instead, Film Forum, New York’s most canonized institution of cinema, has taken it upon itself to exhibit the film, which is the Czech Republic’s entry for Best Foreign Film for 2010. The film was helmed by the Czech directing-writing duo of Jan Hrebejk (director) and Petr Jarchovský (writer).


One part family drama, one part morality tale, and one part secret police thriller, Kawasaki’s Rose follows many different threads that diverge from a Czech family. The family patriarch, Pavel, is an esteemed dissident who long spoke out against the country’s communist government. His son-in-law, Ludek, is making a documentary about Pavel; Ludek is also conducting an affair with a co-worker, about which he soon confronts his wife (Pavel’s daughter). The plot begins to move in varying, shifting directions as, in the course of making the documentary about Pavel, Ludek uncovers documents that make clear that Pavel has skeletons hiding in his closet. A thoroughly composed film that artfully employs a cast of characters to hit upon varying themes, at its best Kawasaki’s Rose calls to mind the labyrinthine Woody Allen dramas, such as Crimes And Misdemeanors. Recently, Tribeca had the chance to chat with director Jan Hrebjk about that, and much more, at the Film Forum offices.


Kawasaki's Rose: Jan Hrebejk


Tribeca: How did the idea for the film originate?

Jan Hrebejk: Petr Jarchovský and I always have lots of story ideas kicking around, but we normally need something more than that, something that really fertilizes an idea for us. With this, we had a few stories: the story of a guy who is jealous of his father-in-law, and the second story was about an honorable man who, it turns out, was an informer in the past. We had these two stories, but we didn’t know how to put them together. We also saw a documentary about a guy who worked in the Czech secret police during the Communist era. The man was interesting, but a demon. We knew we needed to use that character to join the stories, so we created a character inspired by him. The other thing we found interesting was the idea of doing a story that takes place entirely in the past, all backstory, and the fact that we were inspired by a documentary allowed us to do something similar in a narrative context.


Tribeca: That’s right—and the documentary within the movie was an interesting device. What else did using that advice enable you to do, in terms of your storytelling?


Jan Hrebejk: Well, in addition to the way we dealt with backstory, the actor playing the sculptor is not an actor—in fact, he’s a photographer in real life. So by doing some of those scenes in the style of a documentary, we enabled him to get comfortable, to feel like he was really just a subject in a documentary talking about his life.


Kawasaki's Rose: Jan Hrebejk


Also, this was the first film I made with digital technology, on the RED, so we had two cameras, one for the movie and one for the documentary within the movie. So when that actor was being shot, it helped his confidence because we didn’t have to reshoot much, because we had so much footage.


Tribeca: I didn’t realize he was an amateur. What is it about working with an amateur that enables you to access something different in terms of the performance?


Jan Hrebejk: First and foremost, it’s the authenticity he brings to the film. Also, it’s partially his story—he really is an artist, he really did live in Sweden, in exile, for some time. So he brought a certain energy to the character.


Tribeca: It was interesting the way you shifted from one character to another as the film went on—characters who are prominent in the beginning become quite central by the end, and vice versa. How did you go about creating the shifting character structure, so that the film works without one central protagonist?


Jan Hrebejk: This isn’t the first film we’ve employed this sort of narrative structure for. With Petr, I put together the story, which has different levels and different characters. Then Petr goes and writes it, and it’s really long—it would last perhaps four hours. Sometimes the narrative diverges from the central focus, like when Ludek’s lover meets his wife—I thought that was interesting, so I wanted to put it in. From the point of view of dramaturgy, this is kind of an unprofessional approach. But for me, it’s a really entertaining way to work. It’s one of the reasons Petr is on the set while we shoot, because we’re playing with it as we shoot. I have a certain number of shoot days budgeted and whatnot, but beyond that, how I edit is really up to me. It’s great that I’m allowed to do it like that.


Kawasaki's Rose: Jan Hrebejk


Tribeca: So you get final cut on all your films?


Jan Hrebejk: Yes.


Tribeca: It’s interesting—when I interview foreign filmmakers, that’s often the case, but it’s extremely difficult for American independent filmmakers to get final cut. What are your thoughts on the necessity of final cut?


Jan Hrebejk: We make auteur films. Our market is not that large. Our producer is not coming to us and saying, “This isn’t going to work in China.” This film, for instance, cost about $1 million. My goal is to make films like Woody Allen. Not like his themes—I would love that, but not everybody knows how to make such films. But I like the approach where—for example, when he made Annie Hall, in the midst of shooting he all of a sudden took a different direction. I’d like to have the chance to work that way. You can’t do that with more expensive films.


Therefore, it’s better for me to make one film a year that’s not too expensive, but where I have full control, than one big film every few years where there are too many people talking.


Tribeca: Actually, your film brings Crimes And Misdemeanors to mind in a certain way—


Jan Hrebejk: It’s my favorite Woody Allen film.


Kawasaki's Rose: Jan Hrebejk


Tribeca: And the way that so many characters in the film embody different thematic ideas coming into conflict was reminiscent of that film.


Jan Hrebejk: This is one of the Woody Allen films that influenced me. For many years I had the poster in my bedroom. Match Point was a great reworking of it, too. What I really enjoy about those films is that they have this very skeptical point of view, but they’re also entertaining.


Tribeca: But rather than skeptical, there’s something kind of life-affirming about your film, in terms of how you wrap things up.


Jan Hrebejk: Yes, but the former secret police member, the grandfather, that’s the skeptical part. People suffer through their conscience, but only those who have a conscience.


Kawasaki's Rose: Jan Hrebejk


Tribeca: Yes. In terms of the themes of the film, it’s interesting to see how you explore the real reasons for Pavel’s conviction as a dissident. You deal a lot with the importance of memory and being honest with your past. What did you yourself learn about these themes through your cinematic exploration of them?


Jan Hrebejk: Pretty much everything I’ve learned about that is in the film. It expresses my and Petr’s life philosophy. So that basically, in the last scene, the sculptor’s action shows what our hope is for forgiveness, and what Pavel does is also something we would hope for, but in real life no one in the Czech Republic has done that. We would call it a Hollywood ending. So you present what you’ve learned about life in your film.


Kawasaki’s Rose plays at Film Forum through December 7. Find tickets. Hrebejk will be present for a Q&A after the Saturday (11/27) show at 7:50 pm.


Watch the trailer:


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