The 2020 Czech drama “Servants (Sluzobníci)” could not be a more timely home streaming release, it being a drama set not long after the 1968 Warsaw Pact, aka “Soviet Union” aka “Russian” invasion, “regime change” and occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Director Ivan Ostrochovský’s austere black and white tale is a story of Czech passive resistance running up against fearful, over-eager collusion in the aftermath of that “keep the satellite states in line” assault. It’s a parable-as-crucible for the country as a whole, a timely reminder of past-and-present Russian repression set in a Catholic seminary.
Juraj and Michael (Samuel Skyva and Samuel Polakovic) are friends who join the prestigious Prague Catholic school for priests together. It’s around 1970, and priests and Party bureaucrats alike are obsessed with interpretations of the late Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, “Pacem in terris.” Priests at the seminary, and some of the more tuned-in and activist students, take that edict to heart, determined to stand up for human rights in the face of a brutal crackdown on civil liberties.
Those doing the cracking down, led by a government minister (Vlad Ivanov) “in the churches department,” are hellbent on interpreting the encyclical as an order AGAINST activist priests. This party-member/minister is determined to ferret out dissent in the seminary in order to please his Russian overlords.
We’re shown unanimous votes in the now-rubber-stamp legislature, and the seeming compliance if not downright collusion by the chancellor (Vladimír Strnisko) who faces “visits” that are more like “inspections” from this Ivan apparatchik.
When the chancellor cautions the new class about “some of our brothers strayed from the righteous path” (in Czech with subtitles) the previous year, he’s not talking about sex or any of the modern church’s biggest scandals. He’s talking about putting up the wrong sort of Biblical reference and call to action on the bulletin board.
Just such a note gets all their typewriters impounded, as if the goons can ferret out a dissenter this way.
As the film’s opening scene is a car pulling into a tunnel to reveal a body in the trunk, we know the stakes. Do the young priests?
One friend is approached, recruited and joins the secret group within the school which obtains and passes on smuggled-in books, and when crackdowns start, knows which payphone to call Radio Free Europe’s tip-line about this crackdown, that arrest, a suspicious death-in-custody or a clergical hunger strike.
The other friend? He might feel left out. And as the surveillance outside and interrogations inside ramp up, very young men face life or death consequences head-on as the chancellor does all in his power to “keep this school open.” But at what cost?
Even the man doing the persecuting is paying a price. He’s 50something and looks much older, living alone, in poor health with what we can see is a worsening case of stress-exacerbated eczema.
Ostrochovský’s film, which he co-wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Marek Lescák, isn’t a Cold War thriller or account of espionage behind the Iron Curtain, although there are hints of those genres around the edges. “Servants” is about those literal “servants” weighing what they know about right and wrong against what their elders — teachers, either conspiratorial or cowed, and the Russian-controlled government — are demanding of them.
The interrogations are quiet and coercive with just enough menace to heighten the moral dilemma such victims faced. Just a generation before, their parents had lived under German Nazi occupation, and strained to resist it. Now, it’s Russian communists. Are they up to the challenge, prepared for the mortal consequences if they’re ratted out, caught or falsely accused?
Ostrochovský never quite achieves “riveting” with this narrative. But he’s made a chilling reminder of the Bad Old Days, when the Cold War might have given the world moral clarity about who was for freedom and civil liberties and who sought to quash them. There was a cost to that clarity. It came with the price of a planet living on a nuclear-tipped edge and ordinary people on the front lines facing prison, torture or death for not sitting by and waiting for rescue from the Free World, but speaking out and taking the consequences when the stakes could not have been higher.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Samuel Skyva, Samuel Polakovic, Vlad Ivanov, Vladimír Strnisko
Credits: Directed by Ivan Ostrochovský, scripted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Marek Lescák and
Ivan Ostrochovský A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:20