Saturday, August 23, 2014

Strange Lands: The End of August at the Hotel Ozone

Jaromír Vejvoda’s “Roll Out the Barrel” (a.k.a. “Beer Barrel Polka”) is probably the bestselling polka tune of all time. Will Glahé hit #1 on the U.S. charts with his traditional recording before it was reworked into the Andrews Sisters’ wag-waver “Here Comes the Navy.” It is also the only record to survive the apocalypse in Jan Schmidt’s The End of August at the Hotel Ozone, which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center current series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

Frankly, a beer might help those settling in to watch Ozone, because Schmidt presents a distinctly bleak and vaguely absurdist vision of the future. Years after some sort of nuclear Armageddon (the details are hazy), an old woman with implied military training leads a band of unruly women born post-apocalypse through the Doupov Mountains. It seems the end of the world hit men the hardest, due to their higher vulnerability to the subsequent diseases. The old woman honestly doubts there are any left, but she keeps looking anyway, in the vain hope one of her rag-tag troupe will become the Eve to his Adam.

Unfortunately, the younger women do not inspire much confidence in humanity’s future. During most of the rather aimless opening half, the teen to twentysomethings mostly quarrel with each other in between random acts of animal cruelty (Peta would have a conniption fit if anyone ever tried to reshoot some of Schmidt’s sequences). However, their wanderings eventually take them to the “Hotel Ozon,” which is still maintained by its old caretaker. Yes, he is a man, about the same age as their leader. Initially, he is overjoyed by their company, especially that of his fellow doomsday survivor. However, ignorance will inevitably lead to tragedy.

Ozone is a dashed hard film to get one’s head and arms around. Presumably, it was green-lit by the Party authorities with the expectation it could serve as a pseudo-peacenik propaganda piece, attacking the capitalist warmongers. Instead, it is a politically neutral indictment of human nature and a sharp rebuke to utopianism in any form.

Considering the grave circumstances, it is difficult to understand how the younger women could be so reckless and wasteful with scarce resources. Perhaps we are supposed to ask whether they are any different than those who caused the end of the world. Still, the film brings to mind a famous Reagan story. Reportedly, while still governor, his official motorcade was briefly blocked by protestors, one of whom tapped on his window holding a sign saying “we are the future.” Without skipping a beat, he jotted the response: “then I’m selling my bonds.”

Indeed, there is little by way of character development for any of the post-Armageddon women. In contrast, Beta Ponicanová’s performance as the old woman is unusually mature and subtlety shaded. Likewise, Ondrej Jariabek is achingly tragic as the old man. Their scenes together carry real weight and power. Nevertheless, the film leaves us feeling sort of confused and stranded.

So yes, youth is wasted on the young. Happily, the world did not end in 1967. In fact, then Czechoslovakia successfully threw off its Communist oppressors during the Velvet Revolution. Unlike the almost feral younger generation of Ozone, Vejvoda’s son Josef would honor his father legacy and respect his musical tradition, becoming an accomplished jazz drummer and composer. Check out his arresting “Angel’s Cry in My Head, Angel’s Laughter in My Heart” here. The recording quality is not so hot, but the venue is quite fitting and the quote from “Barrel” makes it barely relevant to the discussion at hand. Granted, Schmidt’s Ozone is an interesting relic from the past, but the music of both Vejvodas is more strongly recommended. Not exactly unmissable, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone screens this coming Thursday (8/28) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.