“We’ll have hamburgers, but not morals or art,” a man on the street laments, captured by Czech documentarian Karel Vachek’s roving camera on the eve of his country’s Velvet Revolution. A longtime dissident, Vachek attended the Prague Film Academy in the early ’60s and got into trouble with his very first film: Moravia Hellas (1964), a satire of Communist-sanctioned folk culture. During the 1968 Prague Spring, when Soviet controls were loosened, he made Elective Affinities (1969), about behind-the-scenes politics, but the film was banned in the ensuing crackdown and its maker exiled to New Jersey.
This series presents the three documentaries he’s made since the revolution of 1989, which allowed him to return to filmmaking in Czechoslovakia after years of working as a driver and traveling salesman. New Hyperion (1994) focuses on the enormous social upheavals surrounding the elections of 1990—the first free vote in decades, which put Vaclav Havel in office. Over three hours long, it’s both enervating and fascinating, like an all-night discussion with disgruntled intellectuals over beer and cigarettes in a Prague café. “It’s still like some script, a puppet show,” an actress comments about the political circus, where the Communists and the Friends of Beer are among the 27 parties competing for national attention. Twenty years of corrupt government, she says, have left her with an immense hangover. Vachek presents events unfolding verité-style, with little or no explanation. The pope visits and enormous masses seek absolution, in a country rife with former secret agents; one gives an interview from his hospital bed, having been forced out of government. “Who here hasn’t paid a bribe to get a car?” someone asks while standing in the halls of the new parliament. Vachek’s contrarian intellect revels in the ironies, even as he seeks the revolution’s elusive moral center. And he also includes a bit of nostalgia. “Those were the days,” a former apparatchik reminisces, “when we were told what to say, and we could go shopping.”