Film Review: Ucho (The Ear) (1970)
Updated: Apr 6
Chilling satire of state's invasion into the personal.
In the late '60s, Czechoslovakia enjoyed a brief period of Liberalisation, known as 'Prague Spring'. Soon after, it was occupied by the Soviet forces that brought along their well-practiced totalitarian tactics that plunged the small nation into a wave of paranoia.
Fortunately, because of 'Prague Spring', this was also an era when Czech New Wave was in full force, with directors such as Milos Forman, Jan Nemek, Jiri Menzel, etc, making great, world-renowned satirical comedies. Ucho is something darker because it was shot immediately after the aforementioned occupation.
It was only in 1990 that Ucho was screened Internationally for the first time for an enthusiastic reception at the Cannes Film Festival.
Deputy Minister for Construction Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohaty) and his inebriated wife Anna (Jirina Bohdalova) return to their house from a government party. The bickering almost immediately starts as Anna seems to have lost the keys to the house. The couple later discovers that the house is already open. They attribute this to the careless behavior of their young son. Though as the evening carries on, we key into the fact that even they are aware of more sinister possibilities.
Soon, they also discover that their electricity and phone are cut-off, there is a car constantly parked across their house and there are also some men in their garden!
The film is about the disintegration of a marriage and the couple's initial interactions might remind the audience of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But unlike the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton film, this marriage is truckling under external pressures. The couple (and, probably, everyone at the party) is aware that their house is under surveillance. The condition is so pathetic, and the paranoia is so intense that they have taken to having sex in the kitchen, as Ludvic imagines that that is one area where the bugs (the titular 'ears') are not present.
As Ludvik recollects his interactions at the party to find clues that should have warned him about his fall from the party's favor, we see scenes from the party where the main topic of discussion seems to be how some key members have "sent away". These interactions occur between the scenes of the couple simultaneously fighting and trying to deal with a possible state repercussion, making the film's structure a symbol for the state's invasion into the personal.
I found The Ear most moving when the couple is desperately trying to remember what could have gone wrong, little realizing that under such regimes, nothing really has to go wrong. A word here, a gesture there, could land you in trouble. At one moment Anna's curiosity gets better of her and she ends up calling a disgraced Minister's house. Upon being rebuked by Ludvik, she calls the number again to say that it was her and her husband has got nothing to do with it. Their desperation is palpable and shows how state-sponsored fear results in paralysis of logical action.
Director Karel Kachyna's great visual flair also imbibes irony. The scenes at the party are lit very bright to show that there is nothing hidden. This, of course, is a joke. Such is the terrifying hold of the regime that rules the nation that potential good news sound even more dangerous.. There is no elation or relief when the electricity and the phone connections come back, no joy when friends visit.
No wonder that the promotion that Ludvic receives at the end leaves both even more confused and scared.
Yet beneath it all, there is a sense of an odd hope here. The couple seems really in love despite all their personal attacks on each other. There are tender scenes between them that suggest that however invasive and powerful any external force might be, it cannot fully corrupt a well-formed bond.
The Ear is sweaty, moving, and powerful.
Buy the remastered Second Run DVD here.