Lauren Kaminsky on The Unbearable Lightness of Being
“If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times,” Milan Kundera writes near the beginning of his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the Cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.” Director Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of this famously unfilmable novel seems to unwittingly fulfill Kundera’s prophecy a third of the way through the film, with a cut that bridges the gap between fiction and nonfiction, eternity and history. Like so much of the film, this cut makes literal what in the novel is philosophical, and some ideas made material are worse for the wear.
In the film, as in the novel, Tomas (Daniel Day Lewis), a Prague surgeon and an incorrigible seducer, is surprised to find himself in love with Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a bookish provincial woman who demands monogamy. To the extent that the story has a moral, it’s best articulated when Tomas tries to explain his situation to his artistic lover, Sabina (Lena Olin). Sabina is introduced by title card as the woman who understood Tomas best, presumably because she’s no more interested in monogamy than he is. (If their mutual understanding extends into other areas we certainly don’t see it, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Tomas explains that if he had two lives he could use one to invite Tereza to live with him and he could use the other to continue womanizing, and at the end of both lives he could lay them next to each other to decide which decision was best. Unfortunately, Tomas explains, he has only one life, and the film is a eulogy to that other life never lived, a bittersweet torch song to the one that got away.
Because it is not the primary story in this film, which the director calls “a love story with tanks,” the love between Tomas and Tereza feels unearned, unconvincing but for the sheer strength of the actors involved. Tereza appears in Tomas’s suave, sophisticated life like some sort of feral animal who’s never lived among people: as though a stray dog forlorn for its abuser, she waits by the window when he leaves for work. Later, she literally pins him to the floor and asks him to marry her. Tomas marries her to satisfy a sudden bout of jealousy, but he continues to pursue other women. This is supposed to be evidence of his “lightness,” the counterpoint to Tereza’s spiritual “weight,” but frankly without Kundera’s philosophical musings (which the film dispenses with entirely) this typology is more or less meaningless.
Tereza confronts Tomas’s infidelity one night in a compellingly tearful scene shot in one long, anguished take. She tells him that she cannot stand being left alone anymore and rushes out into the night. The only clue that something is afoot is a low rumbling underneath their voices and the insistent clinking of glassware, and what ensues seems lifted right out of Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We cut between Tereza’s face and the street, her face and the street, over and over again as a light in the distance grows brighter and brighter. Tomas catches up with Tereza and pulls her into an alley as the mysterious light reveals itself to be attached to a Russian tank (apparently borrowed for the filmmakers’ use) rumbling down the narrow cobblestone street. The blinding light absorbs more and more of the frame, capturing our focus and providing visual continuity as the film fades from mod 1960s color to stark black-and-white.
The transition to black-and-white smoothes the sharp turn that follows: a cut to archival footage of Russian tanks in the streets of Prague in ’68. The cut itself is not dramatic, thanks to the long lead-in and the fact that Kaufman uses black-and-white whenever action freezes to represent a photograph Tereza has taken. While the cut does not stand out visually, it’s so narratively jarring because it undermines plot, setting, and characters entirely. Without warning we are yanked from a love story and dropped into what might have been war, ripped from the safety of eternally recurring, fictional time and thrust into the gravity of causational, irreparable, and unrepeatable History. As Kundera might say, the buoyant narrative never recovers from the weight of these Russian tanks, all the weightier for being real.
According to film lore, 16mm cameras and film stock were handed out to film students in Prague after the arrival of Russian tanks, and within an hour or two of the invasion it was documented by partisans on the ground and in the crowds. These young documentarians tried to protect their film by distributing it among foreigners who could get it out of the country, triggering an explosion of film that left evidence scattered across Europe. The roughly seven minutes of borrowed footage spliced into the middle of Kaufman’s feature film was cobbled together from clips gathered in European archives, and in some cases shot and reverse shot were brought together for the first time in this film.
According to Kaufman, “the tank footage is the centerpiece of the movie,” but the trick was to integrate documentary evidence of the invasion into the body of the film. The archival footage is intercut with original scenes showing our characters standing in front of the borrowed tank, posed to look as though they were there in the crowd the whole time and only just stepped into the foreground. Thus a cameraman who shot some of the original footage himself appears in the film as one of the vigilante documentarians, as Tereza shoots him shooting the tanks from a balcony. Black-and-white is used to stand in for documentary truth, while color is used for, well, color. The sound of Tereza’s shutter is amplified to sound like gunfire, an aural pun appropriate for a photographer shooting soldiers. The archival footage sequence ends when Tereza takes a snapshot of a soldier’s face, which freezes in a photograph that is then lowered to reveal an interrogator confronting Tereza with her crime of documenting Russian invaders.
“To recreate it would have cost a fortune,” Kaufman has said in explaining his decision to use archival footage of the invasion. “The Russians staged it better than we could have done it.” This film about Prague Spring was shot during Glasnost, but nevertheless Kaufman was unable to work in Soviet bloc countries and ended up filming primarily in France. The archival footage is therefore the only part of the film actually featuring Czechoslovakia, lending a film full of ridiculously mismatched accents and cardboard-cutout vistas an authenticity it otherwise lacks. But for all that it buttresses the credibility of Kaufman’s film, the cut from fiction to nonfiction derails the narrative completely.
Though we may out of habit tend to dwell on their world-historical importance, for the purposes of this film the Russian tanks become little more than an obstacle for our lovers to overcome. The cut to archival footage therefore throws the profoundly anti-erotic wrench of objective truth into the gears of our intimate, subjective love story. This obstinate reminder of the world beyond the narrative makes clear Kaufman’s pretensions to historical importance in contrast to Kundera’s more complex preference for the timelessness of eternity. Mechanical reproduction and infinitely replayable documentary footage may overdetermine the film’s emphasis on History, but here repetition has the opposite, less dramatic effect of rendering banal the singularity of historical specificity eroded by overuse.
According to Karl Marx, history always happens twice: first as tragedy and then as farce. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Marx wrote. “And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” But today the weight of a not yet dead generation is even more unbearable than that of the dead, and we must contend with the massive bulk of that postwar generation of people who were young adults in 1968 and old enough now to venerate themselves in earnest.
The fables spun around the failed revolutions of 1968 are not baseless, but neither do they benefit from the harsh light of historical fact. The unbridled youthful optimism that characterized 1968 is best sampled in the form of tributes to “the spirit of ’68” rather than weighed down by documents, which beg uncomfortable historical questions about intention, precedence, sequence, consequence, and relevance. The romantic myth of ’68 is conjured today not because of its political importance but in spite of it, and an explanation of the historical circumstances that ushered in this singular cultural moment is often merely a means to an end. This distinction between the cultural and political effects of ’68 is as important as that between porn and sex education: both may be instructive and both may be about sex, but only one is meant to be enjoyable, especially with repetition.
Because the spirit of ’68 is in many ways more interesting and important than the facts explaining what happened that year, it is surprising to note the tenacity with which filmmakers cling to documentary evidence for the purposes of the almost ritualized retelling of the events of ’68. One notable example is Chris Marker's A Grin Without a Cat, which exclusively uses archival footage to capture ’68 and the New Left it spawned. Similarly, in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, documentary footage of unrest in Paris in ’68 is intercut with reenactments of les événements to integrate the lovers (another ménage a trois) into the action. Part of this reliance on documentary footage is doubtless an insecure need for authenticity felt by outsiders such as Bertolucci the Italian and Kaufman the American. Kundera, who left Czechoslovakia for self-imposed exile after ’68 (and whose claims to the authenticity of his story are therefore unimpeachable), does not feel the need to include the event of the invasion in his novel, which is more about the oppression of eroticism than about soldiers and tanks.
Films about the spirit of ’68 need sex if they lack politics and vice versa. Here the exception proves the rule: Marker’s very political documentary of ’68 is the least erotic of the bunch and the most dependent upon the respectable mantle of fact. On the other extreme, Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers, a film about Paris in ’68 that seems to be a direct response to Bertolucci’s Dreamers (even sharing a male lead, Garrel’s son Louis), is the most erotic, and is completely absent of footage that goes beyond the narrative. Far from skirting the issue of the uprising, Garrel’s film begins with it and allows it to set the tone for the narrative that follows. The effect is that the world of Regular Lovers feels like an inhabited reality unto itself, the truthfulness of which is never in question. This provides a stark contrast to Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which squanders whatever suspension of disbelief it garnered by holding the narrative up to the light of documentary fact for the purpose of showing us what’s really important (and it isn’t the narrative). After we’ve seen real tanks with real soldiers shooting real civilians whose real bodies are covered by real blood-stained sheets, the longing and suffering of our fictional characters can only pale in comparison.
Near the end of Garrel’s Regular Lovers, a street sign announces that we’re at “69,” and we’re taken inside to a dance party set to the Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow,” to inaugurate the Seventies a year early. Young friends dance with exaggerated exuberance as the poet François (Louis Garrel) watches from the couch, apparently of inappropriate temperament for this new era. The scene from Garrel’s film mirrors one at the end of Kaufman’s film, when Tereza and Tomas dance at the hotel on the last night of their lives. This is the second time we see Tereza dance, the first being in a Prague dance hall where the presence of Russian thugs and an instrumental version of the “Internationale” serves as shorthand for political meaning. Tereza’s first dance in Prague signifies resistance, freedom, and youth; at the end of the film, however, her dance is a retreat, a happy moment of escapism afforded by their agricultural exile on a farm in the country. But happiness and life are fleeting, and like Garrel’s François, Tereza and Tomas must perish when their historical moment passes. For all of the differences between these two films, what they share are characters borne of an era, characters who live, fuck, and die by the spirit of ’68. The biggest difference between the two films, however, is that Garrel’s film presents this as tragedy, whereas Kaufman’s film is too busy pining for the road not taken, the battle not won, the revolutionary possibilities that could have been.
Like tired pornography trotted out from under the bed again and again,’68 is a myth with which my generation came of age; we’re forever comparing our own disappointing experiences to it and fantasizing that its charms were ours for the taking. This envy on our part is probably inevitable in a world dominated by those now aging flower children claiming generational ownership to the “spirit of ’68” by virtue of birth, whether or not they’ve ever been to Prague or Paris. Ultimately none of these youth movements bore much fruit, and few succeeded in achieving the loosely defined aims articulated by hastily appointed leaders. But that has not stopped an entire self-congratulatory generation from mythologizing ’68 as a victory and using it to indoctrinate their children into the ethos of self-love. Sadly, my generation has tried dutifully to repeat the tragedy of ’68, and over time repetition has rendered it meaningless at best and farcical at worst.