Religion & Liberty Online

When a Joke is the difference between freedom and tyranny

What can a 50-year-old movie about the communist regime in Czechoslovakia tell us about cancel culture and microaggressions today? Nothing, if we’re not willing to struggle.

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This year, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, the major film attraction in Eastern Europe, there was a memento of the Prague Spring: a newly restored version of the 1969 movie The Joke, directed by Jaromil Jireš and adapted by him and Milan Kundera from the latter’s eponymous debut novel. The Joke was a big success at the time and also acquired fame for being banned by the communist authorities during the period called “normalization,” that is, the restoration of totalitarianism, including censorship, after the brief interlude of freedom earlier in the 1960s. As a result, most people saw it only 20 years later, after the fall of communism in Europe. Now, finally, there’s a beautiful version of the film that highlights the cinematography and music.

The movie is set in early ’60s Czechoslovakia but constantly flashes back to the previous decade, juxtaposing the early enthusiasm many young people felt for communism with the general cynicism to follow. It’s the story of a bitter man, Ludwik Jahn, who suffered in a Stalinist show trial for a politically incorrect remark that was hardly more than a joke.

As a college student in the 1950s, Ludwik, angry that his girlfriend Marketa cares more about communism than about him, sends Marketa a postcard reading:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The girl turns him in to the communist authorities, more out of earnestness than anything else. This leads to Ludwik’s expulsion from college in a session in which his friends all turn on him and the students unanimously vote to exclude him from the Czechoslovak Communist Party, too. Further, Ludwik is imprisoned for this crime in a compulsory work battalion in the army, which includes drudgery in the mines, punitive drills, and other humiliations. For all this, Ludwik is neither a dissident nor a dissenter, but an ordinary communist, unusual only for his resentment at the demand for optimism and the related relentless control over private life. He would have liked to have had a life of his own but ends up having no life at all. His disillusionment with communism deepens into cynicism about love and justice, private and public things. He comes to flirt with nihilism, since he is smart enough to notice that he cannot consent to the injustices done him but, on the other hand, has no ground for opposing tyranny.

So much for the past. In the present, Ludwik cannot come up with any better idea than revenge on the friend who betrayed him and asked for his expulsion from college, Pavel Zemanek. Ludwik is now a successful scientist in post-Stalinist Czechoslovakia, but this has done nothing to restore his heart any more than it helped him learn how to live. The pursuit of revenge, however, ends up causing Ludwik despair, because he realizes that Pavel, once a shining young communist, the pride of the school, is now as bitter and cynical as he is himself, even though Pavel still lectures on Marxism. In short, there is nothing Ludwik can take from this man. Everyone has ended up disillusioned, whether by money and success or by prison and misery. In some way, Ludwik must have thought that the elite, at least, were happy and therefore had something to lose. For him to desire to get even with his former persecutors, he had to believe they were above the general demoralization. Worse, they don’t even care about the past, including the suffering they caused him. Realizing his mistake, he has an existential crisis.

Cinematically, the flashbacks are all filmed from Ludwik’s point of view, partly to emphasize that they are his memories, but also to suggest that the young man was passive, a spectator, in the events that determined his destiny. The contemporary action is not filmed from his point of view, however, but makes of him the protagonist, even as he fails to break free of his passivity. If both perspectives could be put together, he would acquire something like self-knowledge—presumably, this is for the audience to achieve by contemplating the difficulty of doing justice to a victim.

There is much more to be said about the movie and about Kundera’s novel; after all, Kundera is the most famous Czech writer after Václav Havel. But perhaps it’s more urgently necessary to reintroduce both book and movie now given our own situation. We have a cancel culture as well! At any elite institution in America, a young man sending a young woman a bitter joke that substitutes something about race, sex, or gender for Trotsky would also suffer excommunication, social annihilation—not merely the loss of a job or a career, but of friends, too. We are remarkably prone to the same injustices that plagued the slaves of totalitarian tyrannies, although the political correctness we face does not have the desired power to do violence or to imprison offenders.

Perhaps until recently audiences would have found it impossible to take seriously the scenes in which young Czechoslovaks marched and sang earnestly vapid ideological songs proclaiming the virtues and enumerating the promises of communism. It’s not just that these are all lies; it’s also that the gullibility is in bad taste. And yet that unvarnished mediocrity is part of the attraction! The same mad demand for enthusiasm is a big part of American life today. We may become much more willing to see how far we’ve gone down the path to tyranny and the abandonment of civilization by watching The Joke and comparing that strange European experience with our own contemporary predicament. We may then ask ourselves what beliefs we have lost to have become so vulnerable to woke versions of show trials.

Kundera’s analysis has a certain depth, going beyond merely blaming the mad, almost spellbound perpetrators of ideological terror. Their cluelessness does nothing to exculpate them, however, because they betray the little they do know of love and friendship, of ordinary decency and the duty not to harm others. And even though his protagonist is excluded from society and from communism, from the imagined future, from so-called Progress, from mankind’s promised unity—this fails to confer wisdom. Here, too, we would do well to take seriously the problem we’ll face with the victims of the woke elites or their many, many mobs. To be a victim of injustice does not make anyone suddenly wise about matters of justice, nor does the desire for revenge make anyone competent about understanding one’s persecutors, much less politically astute enough to fight and to win.

There is much to learn from The Joke, starting with respect for cinema and the artists who show us our predicament. To fend off despair, we’ll have to learn about our weaknesses and vices and make some allowance for the difficulty of changing things, including the dangerous delusion that the adversaries of freedom and civilization are such masters of events that all it takes to set wrongs right is to defeat them. They did not corrupt us; they merely took advantage of the corruption. Defending our rights and way of life require both a political conflict in which we prevail against this emerging tyranny but also a new way to think about what virtues might see us through to a new understanding of what constitutes the “good life.” Let us begin by recovering sanity, avoiding the situation in which the serene are oblivious to the tyranny and those who are not oblivious are merely bitter and cynical. Wisdom does not come automatically. It, too, requires struggle.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.