Štepán Altrichter • Director of National Street
“The story is just not that important”
by Marta Bałaga
- Cineuropa met up with Czech director Štepán Altrichter, who, after Schmitke, returned to the Cottbus Film Festival with his second feature, National Street
After picking up the Best Debut Award at the FilmFestival Cottbus for his 2014 effort Schmitke [+see also:
film profile], Štepán Altrichter has come back to Germany with National Street [+see also:
interview: Štepán Altrichter
film profile]. Presented in the Feature Film Competition, it shows the misadventures of the violent Vandam (Hynek Čermák), who is fighting to save his favourite local bar while clearly drawing inspiration from the “Muscles from Brussels”.
Cineuropa: Your film is based on a novel by Jaroslav Rudiš, which is quite famous in the Czech Republic.
Štepán Altrichter: It was my producer Pavel Strnad [of Negativ]. He saw my debut feature, which I think he liked, and suggested I adapt it together with Jaroslav. I found it interesting, but even my mother said it was impossible – and she has nothing to do with cinema! There is this sentence by Miloš Forman, saying that if you want to adapt a book, the first thing you should not do is to shoot it the way it is. They just don’t work the same way. Ironically, I found out that working with the actual author of the novel gave me more freedom to change it. Film is like literature’s stupid little brother – everything needs to be simpler.
It feels like a Czech take on Tortilla Flat sometimes, with all of these odd characters in the background, forming a community.
For me, it was more important than the actual story. It’s strange because if you were to ask me about my favourite films, I wouldn’t be able to say what they are about. I know everything about the images, the sound and the characters, but the story? It’s just not that important.
There is this film from the 1960s called The Cremator [by Juraj Herz], and when I first read the book, that was my idea – to go inside this guy’s head. But Pavel said: “Sure, that will work for the intellectuals, but what about other people? Let’s make sure that even Vandam could watch it.” You first access it with him, and then you take a step into the unknown. The first part is more of a comedy, and the second is drama. It was important for us to get people to see Čermák being the “cool guy”, and then realise that what he is doing might not be so cool after all. This character is so ambivalent – he is likeable, but he is an arsehole. Some people have a problem with it, writing that we give too much screen time to a half-Nazi and that we didn’t take a strong enough position against him. Which for me is the most progressive part of the movie! It was all about getting through to the Vandams.
But given what is happening politically, weren’t you afraid that most of them would just feel encouraged? Seeing one of “their boys” fighting the fight, so to speak?
I was. Even the actors were. Just think about Joker – apparently there are alt-right guys trying to re-enact it, claiming it encourages them to commit acts of terrorism. It’s the same situation. I actually went to cinemas in small towns outside of Prague to introduce the film, also because I wanted to see if I had managed to pull it off and hadn’t ended up making a right-wing movie!
For leftist intellectuals like me, it’s certainly more dangerous, but then I asked guys who are bald and wear Bohemia Hammerskins T-shirts: “Did you like it? He’s a cool guy, isn’t he?” Perhaps to provoke them a little. I would always get the same response: “He’s a good character, but he fucks it up.” It’s simple – when he beats that guy up in the sauna, when he treats the girl the way he does, even if these are homophobic chauvinists, going into the film thinking he is one of them, they leave feeling like he is a loser. I guess some of them can still read it in a different way, but that’s why this movie is so simply done – they follow him and they go on this journey, while they wouldn’t last five minutes watching Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. And they don’t laugh when he beats somebody up. For the “normal” audience, for the Vandams, it works. I don’t think films have that much of an impact, but some seeds have been planted, for sure.
It helps that he is rather complex and, for all the bravado, actually not that strong. He’s certainly not the “national hero” he gets called here a few times.
He has this Eastern European macho image of himself. But it’s just on the outside because he helps his friends out, and he is nice to the girl and really loves her until – well – he fucks it up. I mean, he called himself “Vandam” and keeps wearing this stupid jacket. A lot of people create this false exterior. I saw a documentary about flat Earthers once [people promoting the belief that the Earth is flat], and instead of laughing at them, it showed that some of us just don’t feel included. They want to find a community, any community, and some human contact – even if it comes with some bullshit like this. Given my Antifa past, I am not trying to sympathise with it. I just hope that people gravitate towards things like that because they are frustrated, not because they actually believe in them.
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