Petr Zelenka: readmitting that 'Kundera is an idiot'

Article published on April 26, 2007
Article published on April 26, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The 40-year-old filmmaker from Prague - one of the most renowned screenwriters of his young generation - on loneliness, sadness and European identity

It is thanks to his parents who worked in national television that Petr Zelenka first got into the world of filming. Having graduated from high school, he was torn between mathematics and script-writing. Admiration for movies prevailed, and Zelenka became a student of the famous Prague film school FAMU. Today he is an internationally recognized prize-winner, with plans in the pipeline for a contemporary version of the Karamazov Brothers.

Unbearable happiness?

We meet in 'La Casa Blu', a popular club haunt amongst Prague's students and one of the sets for the first big movie he wrote, Loners. Originally conceived as a documentary about his own group of friends and their toxic relationships, Loners became a succesful feature movie in many European countries. Is loneliness a typical symptom for the young Czech generation?

'No, loneliness is typical for Europeans. According to one survey I read, 85% of Bangladeshis consider themselves happy, while in Germany only 35% do. What does it mean? Nothing. Because what is happiness? I think that our capability of changing things is very insignificant. I don’t believe in strong personalities changing the world. That’s why my characters are indifferent.'

The best incarnation of such a character is drug addict Jacob from Loners (2000). While listening to the Czech national anthem, he says: 'I must have heard it before somewhere'.

Loners was supposed to be sadder, but the film's director David Ondricek chose to revive the eight characters a bit. But where does all this sadness come from? 'Thinking about life makes you depressed. Thinking about failures, relationships, people you miss or who are already dead, before we got to know them. All of this makes you sad, and we, human beings, always tend to think about deplorable things. This is what the sadness of the whole world is about.'

Illogical life

The characters portrayed in one of his earlier films, The Buttoners (1997), don’t grapple with loneliness. It is a movie about characters with different obsessive-compulsive disorders.' Where did such an idea come from? 'It is just a gimmick. People keep a character in mind thanks to the little peculiarities depicted throughout the whole movie. Sometimes I meet strange people, though sometimes I invent them. I invented the character who destroyed upholstery by tearing the buttons out of it with his dentures. However 'the spray guy' is based on on a guy I know who uses 30 various kinds of aerosol, each for a different part of the body, for a different piece of clothing. He carries them in a special suitcase and every now and then sprinkles his hair, his shoes, the air. All together it makes a terrible smell.'

Zelenka is full of contradictions. He smiles throughout when he speaks about sadness, which makes it difficult to figure out whether he is being serious, or if his reasoning is just a surrealistic joke.

Next, Zelenka is due to finish up a new play. 'It is a recent project in Krakow. It will be exclusively performed in the 'Old Theatre' within 18 months. 'We perform in May and October. I am moving out to Krakow and learning the language to be able to communicate with the actors. Not everybody speaks English, and I want to be able to have a personal conversation, without an interpreter’s help.'

Learning a foreign language just to be able to stage a show? Why not. Zelenka is very realistic about working outside the Czech Republic. 'I wanted to work in England, but the British people are a very hermetic society. And so are the French, in my opinion. I was very frustrated and then Poland opened to me. But life is illogical itself, so I follow this path in search of happiness in Poland. Krakow is a big turn in my life. It’s also the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so it’s almost like Prague. Although smaller. But the atmosphere there is great.'

Prague in the heart

Despite this adoration, he doesn’t conceal his warm feelings towards his home town. 'Compared to some other big cities, it is a sheer paradise. The beginning of the nineties and the arrival of many Americans marked a golden era for Prague. It was crazy. Everything had been restored, new clubs had been created. Yet the ambience has been lost, though you can still manage to live here. Prague is peaceful, cheap and has the best means of public transport in the world. Just everything that a writer needs.'

As for the disadvantages, he replies briefly: 'homeless people. There was an Abel Ferrara movie called Driller Killer (1979, US), about a guy who killed a homeless guy with a driller. They should think here about such solutions. Unfortunately our government is too soft to do that.'

Zelenka is compared to the greatest names of the Czech literature: Hrabal, Kundera, even though he vividely disagrees with this opinion. 'It’s ridiculous to compare me to Hrabal, because ha was such a phenomenal author. While know that I dislike him.' During the meeting in the Theatrical Institute in Warsaw, he called him an 'idiot'. 'Yes, and then I admitted it was wrong and tried to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), but I wasn’t able to. And then I readmitted that he was an idiot. He steals things from other authors, he borrows them from his own books and what’s more he’s a bad writer. Istn’t it obvious?!' A sort of disgust clouds Zelenka's face. 'His novels are technically good. He knows how to put things together in a cunning kind of way and you can say everything about him but that he’s honest.'

Last of the romantics

Zelenka is also very critical about heirs of the Velvet Revolution. 'The problem of the Czech intelligentsia is that they are all but intelligent. I remember that in the seventies it was very popular amongst educated people to use a foul-mouthed language. Why? Nobody knew. I think it was very Czech, such a self-denigration through the language.'

And the young generation? 'They know what they want. They are deprived of any romantic feelings. Being romantic is not about going in the mountains, you can live like a dog, because your favourite novel character was living that way. Finding some pieces of beauty in the terrible Communist world was romantic in a way young people don’t accept.'

Does the artist succesful in Europe perceive himself as an European? 'To my mind, Europe is a question of money, of police co-operation, of different programmes. I don’t feel European, because I wasn’t brought up that way. These things are inculcated in the childhood, you can’t just learn them.'

Scene from Loners by Petr Zelenka, director: David Ondricek