Berlinale 2020: An Interview With ‘Servants’ Director Ivan Ostrochovský

Director Ivan Ostrochovský joins us on Close-up Culture to tell us more about his latest feature, Servants.

The film will have its world premiere (24 February) at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival

Q: You came to Berlinale with ‘Goat’ (‘Koza’) back in 2015. How does it feel to be returning to this festival with ‘Servants’?

A: A sort of relief. When you’re working on a film, many people are giving you their energy and time, one that they could’ve offered to their families, for example. So I do hope that having a film at the Berlinale is in a way a satisfaction for them, too. 

Q: What is usually your favourite part of being involved in a festival such as Berlinale?

A: I will close the curtains in my hotel room, switch off the phone and go to sleep. But then I’ll try to make Vlad Ivanov join me for a visit to the aquarium at the Berlin Zoo. 

Q: Can you tell us about the story of ‘Servants’, the themes it explores and why you hope it will appeal to audiences?

A: It’s a story of two friends coming to study at the theological faculty in 1980s Czechoslovakia and they’re confronted by priests collaborating with the Communist regime. Their friendship starts to break, because both of them react to this pressure in a different way. The theme of the film is, however, more universal and is not necessarily only connected to Communism – it is about if we choose the path of compromises, or, regardless of the risks, we’ll follow our own values. 

Q: Experienced Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov plays one of the lead roles. What was your experience like working with Vlad and the rest of this cast?

A: To work with Vlad was an incredible lesson for me, as I’ve only worked with non-professional actors until then. In this case, it was a combination of professional and non-professional. Vlad learned his Slovak dialogues so wonderfully that we didn’t have to dub him into Slovak, and even though he doesn’t understand Slovak, he could magically sense when the non-professional actors altered the text and he was supposed to follow next. While working with him I understood what kind of possibilities a professional actor can offer to a film.

While working with non-professional actors, you quickly get used to having to express emotions differently than by acting – with atmospheres of landscapes, for example. But Vlad taught me that one doesn’t exclude the other. 

Q: The film is shot in black and white and in a 4:3 ratio. Why did you make these stylistic changes for ‘Servants’?

A: During the location scouting for the film I realised that the environment of a theological school is essentially black and white by default. The students wear black cassocks, contrasting with the white walls. I’ve also always loved old black and white Czechoslovak films, too, and I had a feeling that the film should be led toward the visuality of genre film, so that the viewer would have a feeling he/she is watching a horror. Because horrors evoke the feeling that external powers that we can’t control are commanding us. This is something I felt while listening to what was happening at the school during the ’80s in real life. So we tried to bring a feeling of irrationality into particular images and make the audience feel a psychological constraint or even the fear of the characters. 

I knew that the particular locations would have to co-create the emotionality of the characters, especially in the case of non-professional actors. That’s why I decided to become my own production designer, to control the image as much as I can. We tested several formats. Our cinematographer, Juraj Chlpík, preferred the 4:3 ratio, as most of the story takes place in rooms with high ceilings and this format helps to dominate the vertical lines. 

Q: Did you face any other challenges in making this period piece and transporting the audience back to Czechoslovakia in the 1980s?

A: The most difficult thing was to estimate the level of comprehensibility: what is and is not important to tell. I don’t know any other film addressing the issue of priests collaborating in Eastern Europe. The young generation does not remember this era anymore and the Western European audiences can get easily lost in detailed explanations, feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the facts. We tried to bet on the emotions and feelings rather than the facts. You can always look up the facts if the film emotionally effects you. 

Q: Marek Leščák and Rebecca Lenkiewicz joined you as co-writers on this project. What was your collaboration like with them?

A: It was an interesting and informative co-operation. I think it was very enriching to have a person from an entirely different context work on the film, one that is approaching our storytelling with an entirely different perspective. We were aware of the risk that the viewers who didn’t experience this era won’t understand. But I think that our co-operation with Rebecca helped us to create a film that is clear but not literal. 

Q: I understand that ‘Servants’ has been in development since 2014. How have you found the long journey to make this film?

A: Well, it does sound like a neverending story, but of course, this was caused by me working on various other projects at the same time – for example, I’m finishing up a film that takes place in a female prison in Ukraine and a kindergarten placed there. I do also work rather slowly. I often re-shoot, because I feel I can do it better after some time. I edit for a long time – I had three editors on this film, four on the one before. We use a saying: “Hurry slowly.”

Q: What impact do you hope ‘Servants’ has at Berlinale and beyond?

A: Impact sounds so fatal. I don’t know – I do hope it will travel, so as many viewers see it as possible. The films speaks about how we should not be threatened, be controlled by our fears. That we should negotiate with our fear. Not to look for rational reasons to abandon our values. 

We’re living in a time where our politicians, and the media, as well, intimidate the society from all possible sides and people live in fear of the future. I would be glad if the audience was a bit more couragous after watching the film, and wouldn’t allow themselves to be controlled by fear, purposefully implemented into them by politians. It’s important that we stand by the values for which we won’t have to be ashamed in front of the future generations. Pope John Paul II once said: “The history teaches us that democracy without values quickly transforms into a clear or disguised totalitarianism.”

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