70th Berlinale | 2020
"I was always fascinated by this period, as well as by the theme of collaboration with the power, which is the central motive in the film."
Služobníci / Servants
The Catholic Church is having a hard time in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s. The communist regime threatens to crush it unless it submits to strict control and accepts restrictions on freedom of belief and expression.
Ostrochovský has created an austere, overwhelming black-and-white work in which he artfully contrasts the pallor of marble, plaster and faces with the darkness of the night and the black cassocks. A frosty film noir in which, just a few years before the collapse of the totalitarian system, the forces of history and the servants of two powers and two belief systems collide.
Hey Ivan it's great to talk with you, how have things going?
Anytime somebody asks me about how I am or how things are going, I always in paradox think of the American soldiers preparing to land in Europe in 1944. They all had received a guide that was supposed to illustrate the differences between life in the USA and Europe. One of the notes also was: “When you ask a European about how he or she is, you're risking to get into a very long discussion...”
Congratulations on Servants being selected for the Berlinale Encounters, what does it mean to you to have this film at the festival?
A sort of a relief. When you're working on a film, many people are giving you their energy and time, one that they could've offered to their families, for example. So I do hope that having a film at the Berlinale is in a way a satisfaction for them, too.
Servants will make its World Premiere at the 70th Berlinale, does this add any extra pressure on you?
Not anymore. I'm arriving to Berlin for the third time, luckily I'm as nervous about it as when introducing a film for the first time. Of course, I'm equally thrilled, but I already know it's not a reason to stress out. We'll present the film, we'll talk and we'll return back home to work on another film. It's something rather calming than stressing.
Can you tell me a little bit about Servants, how did this film come about?
I was 16 years old when Communist lost their power over Czechoslovakia. I was always fascinated by this period, as well as by the theme of collaboration with the power, which is the central motive in the film. A theme universal and comprehensible around the world.
"I think it's usually approximately a half of the planned concept and dialogue that makes it into the final product."
What was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
Marek Leščák, one of the scriptwriters, told me the story of actor Vladimír Zboroň, who during the 80s studied at the theological faculty and was expelled. The secret police offered him to get back in, in exchange for him collaborating. Vladimír did not go back and actually is one of our actors in the film. We started looking into the history of the school and discovered a remarkable event, where a larger group of students started a hunger strike as a gesture of disagreement with the collaboration of priests through the Pacem in Terris organization.
How much about this history had you been aware of before you start writing your screenplay?
We used several of the real events from the 80s Czechoslovakia in the film: the mentioned hunger strike or the death of the secretly ordained priest Přemysl Coufar. But our goal wasn't to reconstruct these events. We interpreted them loosely to illustrate the era and the problems connected to the theme of religious freedom. Of course, we were meeting the former students of the school, as well as the members of the collaborant organization of priests, Pacem in Terris – not only to bring as many details of that period into the film, but also to present this time in history to Rebecca Lenkiewicz, our British co-writer.
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
The interrogation scene. This was because the two main characters, Juraj and Michal, were portrayed by non-professional actors, and it was sometimes difficult to create emotionally demanding scenes with them. We've re-shot the scene several times, because I wasn't satisfied with it. Eventually, it was our actor Zvonko Lakčević who solved the situation by taking the scene into his hands. Literally.
When working on a project of this scale are you about to be flexible with your screenplay or do you like to keep to the text?
While working I funnily enough go by the rules defined by the military theorist Carl von Clasewitz for leading a battle. Maximum of preparation and a precise definition of goals to achieve. And then, during the battle, a maximum of flexibility, which reacts upon the battle itself. This means that while preparing for a film, I like to plan out the very last detail as well as to polish all dialogues in the script, but as soon as I start to shoot, I alter everything according to the needs. I think it's usually approximately a half of the planned concept and dialogue that makes it into the final product.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I got into filmmaking by pure chance, actually. I always thought that I'll become a professional soldier. I have become one for a while, but as I'm an introvert, I don't like yelling and in the army it's all about yelling at a hundred other soldiers, to be heard. So I left the army and I started studying film theory and later film directing: only to become a filmmaker that yells during the shooting to be heard...
How much has your style and approach changed since your debut film?
My style has changed entirely, I think, but the directorial approach stayed the same. As much as this will sound trivial – I try to "speak with images". That's why I also stepped in as a production designer, to have the highest control over the image.
What has been the best advice you have been given?
Director Martin Šulík, who portrays the character of the physician in the film, told me: "Set the bar high enough to be able to walk under it with your head held up high."
What advice would you offer fellow filmmaker?
Probably the one I give to my students at the film school: "Don't be after making mistakes."
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Servants?
Pope John Paul II advocated the motto "Don't be afraid" during Communism. I think we're living in a time where our politicians, and the media, as well, intimidate the society from all possible sides and people live in fear of the future. I would be glad if the audience was a bit more courageous after watching the film, and wouldn't allow to be controlled by fear, purposefully implemented into them by politicians.
"I think we're living in a time where our politicians, and the media, as well, intimidate the society from all possible sides and people live in fear of the future."