Narrated with the remoteness of a passing thought and edited with the swiftness of memory, The Joke wrestles between the mirth of youth and resignation of middle-age, laying bare the narrow divide between love and hate and the fragility of human relationships. By ensnaring beauty and song in the prison of the past, Jaromil Jireš uncovers the swelling rancor within communist Czechoslovakia, revealing student politics as a bourgeois social club held over from the Third Republic, corrupt in its blind faith and detached positivity.
Repurposing the revenge thriller as wistful rumination, Jireš exchanges the prerequisite rage for mournful misanthropy, permeating the dejected Ludvik’s (Josef Somr) notions with poetic turns of phrase, transforming his sarcastic barbs into acts of opposition. Passages of reminiscence even carry a whiff of this sardonic subjectivity, morphing communal events into a singular, bitter mindset, further intensifying revelations of betrayal and collusion.
Enkindled by a chance encounter with an ex-comrade’s spouse (Jana Dítětová), Ludvik plots a game of sexual humiliation to compensate for a decade of ostracization, reliving his college years in panicked flashes that pour over into the banality of adulthood. As sentiments from his hopeful past rush into the bleak present, Jireš expounds upon the permanence of Ludvik’s expulsion from the Communist Party, constructing a broken character from the taunts of his harshest critics and scars of his most traumatic experiences.
The cruelty of Ludvik’s memory, which maliciously inserts his middle-aged body into adolescence like a thorn, wholly contaminates the form, introducing acerbic irony into the anthems of yesteryear, perverting them as the soundtrack for aberrant sex and chain gang labor. This juxtaposition not only stirs up a sober, unsettling ambience, but exposes the hypocrisies inherent in socialism, exhibiting the chasm between the privileges of the educated elite and the desperation of the working poor with each edit between hymn and hardship.
This fatalistic approach deliberately drains politics and vengeance of their cinematic intrigue, leaving behind a diatonic, acrimonious declaration of human disconnection. Its lack of paranoid hysterics and mercurial lighting, which benefited kindred spirits like The Ear, nurtures thematic continuity at the expense of rising action, stranding the narrative in a metaphorical limbo without the capacity to illustrate its intellectual conceits on screen. Left without an emotional or visual anchor, astute points about the treachery of nostalgia and persistence of social class are trapped behind glass, suffocated beneath the scowl of a stone-faced gallery piece.
The Joke (Barrandov Studios, 1969)
Directed by Jaromil Jireš
Written by Milan Kundera (novel/screenplay), Jaromil Jireš (screenplay) and Zdeněk Bláha (dramaturge)
Photographed by Jan Curík