Servants. One Step Behind the State Security
In October 1980, the students of the “Sts Cyril and Methodius” Faculty of Theology in Bratislava went on a hunger strike as a means of protesting against the planned visit of Pacem in Terris to the seminary. Pacem in Terris was a religious organization that was founded and financed by the Communist state, whose true aim was to surveil the members of the clergy and to implicitly limit the influence of the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia. This event serves as the inspiration for director Ivan Ostrochovský’s newest film, Servants. Ostrochovský was only seven years old in 1980, but it’s clear from the very first shots that his latest work is not preoccupied with the kinds of pseudo-affective scenographic artifacts which litter many of the recent features that are set during the communist era. Servants bills itself as a parable, and as in the case of Pawel Pawlikowski’s recent Cold War, it’s shot on black-and-white film stock, in the 4:3 Academy ratio. This specific visual formality gives the film a certain aura of universality, in which objects like crochet doilies don’t belong – the film’s beginning, with its industrial allure, looks like it could very well be set in the 1950s, the 2000s, or even in a dystopic 2050s.
The first face that we see in the film is that of Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov (is there any wonder?). I would like to take this opportunity to place a bet on the number of foreign languages in which we will end up seeing Ivanov performing variations on the same theme. Because (of course, setting aside the tiny specifics inherent to this role), in Servants, Ivanov is the same as always – if not an intimidating dean who is ruling the seminary with an iron fist, then a member of the Secret Police who is intimidating the former. And so on, and so forth. Truth be told, though, it must be a piece of cake to speak in Slovak after learning to talk in the whistled language of La Gomera.
Not that Ivanov would need to speak all that much in the film. Instead of dialogues, Ostrochovský oftentimes opts to let the soundtrack and sound design speak over the shots. But what starts as a promising stylistic choice rapidly turns out to be working against the film, and that is because the one thing that music and sound design cannot convey is exposition. However, a film’s expository phase must be laid out somehow. As such, when the characters actually end up speaking to each other, Ostrochovský finds himself in the position of making them deliver faulty lines, such as the following ones, exchanged between one of the seminary’s priests (who is otherwise played extremely well by Milan Mikulcík) and Ivanov: “Aren’t you satisfied with the fact that you made me break the mystery of confession?”, the priest asks. “If it wasn’t for us, you would be rotting in jail. You killed a man in that attack”, Ivanov replies. Paradoxically, for a film that seems so preoccupied with the way it looks, Servants rather puts the events into words than shows them.
The verbal austerity of Servants is doubled by its visual austerity – about three-quarters of the film takes place inside the building of the theological seminary, and Ostrochovský’s film has something of a Kammerspiel feel to it. As a matter of fact, despite being shot long before the pandemic, Servants is actually the kind of project that would be easy to shoot in such present conditions. But it’s precisely this classic-austere aesthetic (which, of course, is a visual and auditory delight) that turns the film’s characters into mere clichés – the zealot student, the politically involved dean, and so on. During the film’s one-hour-and-twenty-minute-long run, the director doesn’t give his characters enough time to become actual characters. The young protagonists’ inner conflicts and ethical dilemmas can be guessed at, but they never seem to seep through to the camera; of course, as opposed to his protagonists, the director himself doesn’t rush into any moral value judgments.
The film seems to suffocate a little under the pressure of its assumed heaviness – Ostrochovský seems to really want his film to be taken seriously and makes the mistake of believing that everything must, in turn, be serious for this to happen: the main topic is thus a tragic one, the visual compositions are heavily constructed, the music has the constant air of a requiem, and the lines are grave. It’s true that, at times, this strategy manages to match the director’s aims. Ostrochovský has a fine sense when it comes to representing the characters’ anxieties, and scenes like the one in which the young seminarists call the offices of Radio Free Europe while, at a distance, two foggy figures are slowly and menacingly approaching them, are masterfully crafted and are true lessons in the art of film noir. But, even more so, moments such as the candid contest between the protagonists in the seminary’s bathroom are much more accomplished, and are, in their essence, much more serious than, say, the grotesque shot in which a priest is – in satanic, sinister fashion – jumping on a trampoline (? The only thing missing here is a bunch of dead birds).
In 1979, a year before the students of the “Sts Cyril and Methodius” Faculty of Theology went on hunger strike in Bratislava, Bob Dylan released his first gospel song. In it, Dylan sings: “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”. This seems to be the key of interpretation which Ostrochovský places in the film’s unarticulated title – from the priests who are running the seminary to the Secret Police officers, and all the way to the young students, everybody is serving somebody. It’s too bad for the story behind the film, as it itself could have been served much better.
Vlad Ivanov, Milan Mikulcík, Martin Sulík
Slovakia, Romania, Czech Republic