CS, 77 min
the End of August at the Hotel Ozone
Konec srpna v Hotelu Ozon
Director Martin Sulík’s The Key for Determining Dwarfs, or: The Last Travel of Lemuel Gulliver (2002) is a docudrama based on the diaries of the late writer and occasional film director Pavel Jurácek (1935-1989). During its limited release in North America, the picture sparked an interest in Jurácek’s cloudy, brief tenure in Czechoslovakian cinema, and inspired museums and cinematheques to show some of the work he was involved with just prior to the Soviet invasion of his country in 1968. Included was the rarely-seen post-apocalyptic science fiction drama, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1966). Now on DVD from Facets, this unpleasant but spellbinding gem may finally find the audience it deserves.
Opening with a striking montage of the final countdown to global nuclear war, the picture jumps ahead half a century and a précis tracing mankind’s gradual regression to barbarism. It’s related by an elderly earth mother (superbly played by Beta Ponicanová) to the homeless girls she’s adopted over the course of her journey, decades searching for men and the hope of reviving the human race. The one they eventually meet (portrayed by Ondrej Jarichek) is old, impotent and bordering on dementia. As he informs them of the leukemia outbreak that took the lives of the other men in his family, it becomes apparent that this small group may be all that’s left of humanity.
Previously, Jurácek wrote the screenplay for Ikarie XB 1 (1963), an epic space picture (ruinously trimmed by nearly half an hour by its American distributor for release as Voyage to the End of the Universe); The Jester’s Tale (1964), a sociopolitical fantasy directed by master visionary Karel Zeman; and Cernobílá Sylva (1961) and the Kafkaesque Josef Kilián (1963), both co-written and co-directed by Jurácek with Jan Schmidt. They collaborated again on Hotel Ozone, with Schmidt receiving sole credit as director. His style is lean and honest, and Jurácek’s script rarely digresses from the grim situation of survival.
The movies have seldom been successful with the aftermath of Armageddon. Many use the event to pontificate on hot social issues of the moment, or fall into the hands of uninspired scriptwriters and hackneyed melodrama, static power plays, or contrived romantic conflicts worthy of daytime television. One recent exception, Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003), realized the human condition in shock following an unnamed nuclear occurrence. People forage for food and water while enduring the stinging absence of electricity, plumbing and gasoline. (Has any film of this type ever recognized the craziness of nicotine and caffeine withdrawal under such circumstances?) More importantly, though, Haneke scrutinizes the tenuous nature of security, whether we’re at the mercy of governments at war, terrorists, or a neighbor imposing his will with a gun.
Similarly, Schmidt and Jurácek forgo dramatic convention to consider the attitudes and deportment of people a few generations beyond Haneke’s comparatively civilized world. In Hotel Ozone, the old woman rambles on and paints verbal images of outmoded values from a past that’s otherwise dead and buried. Her audience, the girls range in age from twenty to thirty and listen with blank disinterest of things completely beyond their comprehension: dreams, ambitions, culture, medicine, law, even sex. Ironically, roaming a land free of obligation, wonder or desire intensifies their isolation. By the end, all they’ve got is each other.
With the exception of Jana Novaková, the young women were all played by nonprofessional actors—quite possibly soldiers recruited from the Czechoslovak Army, which oversaw the film’s production—providing the vacant expressions the filmmakers were likely after.
Filmed in black and white using limited sets and special effects, the meager budget is camouflaged by an unsettling, poetic aura and a keen awareness of human nature. The neutral tones of Jirí Macák’s cinematography (framed in 1:37, the Facets DVD standard screen format is correct) casts a dreary pall on the women’s droning routine, but Schmidt is fond of fluid traveling shots of hands and legs in action. (Combined with the frequent close-ups of these limbs suggests a debt to Bresson.) A curious and objectionable shock device is the gruesome on-screen killing of live animals. Used to amplify the girls’ primitivism, this gimmick would overpower a lesser picture and permanently distract the viewer. But Hotel Ozone survives the assault with the eerie dignity of a mad prophet…and our eyes never want to leave the screen.