'Servants' ('Sluzobnici'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Punkchart Films
Cold wars of the spirit, fashionably austere and terse.

Vlad Ivanov and newcomer Samuel Skyva star in Slovakian writer-director Ivan Ostrochovsky's sophomore fiction feature, premiering in a new competitive sidebar at the German festival.

Arriving between Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War and Limonov — the award-garlanded second and eagerly anticipated third segments of the boxy-monochrome trilogy begun with Oscar winner Ida — Ivan Ostrochovsky's steely drama Servants somewhat bravely adopts a very similar approach in terms of style and editing.

An austere, tersely economic study of oppression and resistance set mainly in a Bratislava seminary over a decade before the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic-Slovak Republic-Romania-Ireland co-production secured its North America premiere at New York's prestigious New Directors / New Films before premiering in the Berlinale Forum. Further festival engagements will doubtless follow, and perhaps even limited art house release in receptive territories on both sides of the old Iron Curtain.

If nothing else, the period picture represents an impressive change of pace from Ostrochovsky's hard-knock feature directorial debut Koza (2015), the decidedly contemporary story of a boxer who reluctantly returns to the ring seeking funds for his girlfriend's abortion. Here the battles are more spiritual, political and internal than a matter of mano a mano combat, as we follow teenage best friends Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) on the path to becoming Catholic priests. While religion was hardly encouraged under any 20th century Communist regime, the Czechoslovak rulers and their Soviet masters did allow the church to operate, albeit under careful control.

The primary form of this supervision was "Pacem In Terris," a real organization widely denounced as collaborationist, and here fictionally headed by the seminary's elderly Dean (Vladimir Strnisko). Underground seditionary elements are, however, somewhat abundant, leading the school to come under the surveillance of security forces personified by Dr. Ivan, aka Frantisek, aka Fero (Vlad Ivanov.) As the net tightens, Juraj and Michal find themselves drifting apart, the latter concentrating on his studies while his pal struggles with matters of faith, ethics and conscience.

Despite strong early indications, the relationship between the duo turns out not to be the main focus of the narrative. Instead, scriptwriters Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Marek Lescak and Ostrochovsky deliver elliptical fragments which use happenings at the seminary as a prism through which to view the wider dystopia of Czechoslovakian society post-1968. Exactly how long after '68 these events are taking place is far from immediately clear. A banner reads "Pacem In Terris 1971-1980," for example, but only attentive viewers will be able to pick up indications that the timeframe is actually 1980 rather than 1971.

Time seems to be standing still here, not least because of the stark, bare-walled timelessness of the seminary — half-school, half-barracks. The emphasis is on the frostiness of "cold war" times: Breath is visible, emotions are repressed, false faces are presented to a hostile world ("You need to understand, we're not here to be happy"). Working with cinematographer Juraj Chlpik, Ostrochovsky delivers a series of striking visual images, often from unusual overhead angles. Starting with the very first shot — which follows a car driving a forlorn road at night — his bold, confident strokes accumulate into a sharp portrait of restrained, stylish and brooding power.

By contrast, Miroslav Toth and Michal Novinski's sound design veers towards the clangorous, sometimes intrusively so, a concatenation of grindings, roarings and ominous gongings in tandem with Toth and Cristian Lolea's hardworking score. In a film which minimizes the verbalization of its themes, dialogue takes a secondary role. As the eponymous servants of varying stripes, the actors (in a nearly all-male cast) cope well with such restrictions — especially the older hands, with Romania's Vlad Ivanov contributing the latest in his ongoing gallery of dourly domineering Eastern Bloc bogeymen. 

Production company: Punkchart Films
Cast: Samuel Skyva, Vlad Ivanov, Samuel Polakovic, Tomas Turek, Milan Mikulcik, Vladimir Strnisko, Vladimir Obsil
Director: Ivan Ostrochovsky
Screenwriters: Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Marek Lescak, Ivan Ostrochovsky
Producers: Ivan Ostrochovsky, Albert Malinovsky, Katarína Tomkova
Co-producers: Oana Bujgoi Giurgiu, Tudor Giurgiu, Ivana Kurincova, Petr Oukropec, Pavel Strnad, Sam Taylor, Mike Downey, Marek Urban
Cinematographer: Juraj Chlpik
Costume designer: Katarina Holla
Editors: Jan Danhel, Martin Malo, Maros Slapeta
Composers: Miroslav Toth, Cristian Lolea
Casting director: Pavol Pekarcík
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Encounters)
Sales: Loco Films, Paris

In Slovak
81 minutes