One very underrated angle when it comes to cinema about authoritarian states is the agent of state as protagonist, intimately dissecting their psychology as they set about their oppressive, antisocial workday. In 2006, The Lives Of Others won universal acclaim for its depiction of an initially cold and unpleasant East German Stasi captain who finds himself developing great sympathy and admiration for a dissident playwright, and resolves to use the powers at his disposal to protect the man and his loved ones from the wrath of the government. It is a fantastically humanistic and moving film about the power of redemption and the might of the individual, but what happens when you take the same format and forgo the redeeming aspects of the oppressor, instead portraying him as the self-serving, abusive sociopath that he more than likely would have been?
Antonín Rusnák is a deeply troubled, and troubling, man. The year is 1982, and Antonín enjoys a position as a captain in the State Security Department of Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia. Or maybe he once enjoyed it. An intense, wiry ferret of a man, he is now a cauldron of bitter nihilism and repressed anger, harbouring nothing but hatred for his work, his wife and his colleagues. He works himself into such frenzied rages that it has begun to affect his breathing, a brown paper bag for hyperventilation being the quintessential doctor’s orders.
As Antonín and his slovenly, idiotic partner Martin surveil two potentially dissident men, Antonín’s eye is caught by Klara, the carefree and self-possessed mistress of one of them, and his deranged psyche suddenly illuminates with a potential escape from his personal hell. He becomes obsessed with meeting her, but this isn’t born from some noble divergence in life philosophy or the misguided infatuation that a lonely life can bring. It is utterly selfish compulsion, Antonín no longer giving a toss about himself or anyone else, and with the kind of power he wields, he’ll do whatever he likes, when he likes. He secretly pulls favours for her, but it never once comes across as kind, sweet or beckoning of introspection. It is just downright creepy and disturbing.
The possessive fixation on a particular woman is highly evocative of Taxi Driver, Klara as something of a Betsy to Antonín’s Travis Bickle. Like Travis, he is a paranoid and violent man, and in his lunacy, he puts Klara on the angel pedestal, seeing all those around her as enemy scum who don’t deserve her the way that he does, and never hesitating to dispense threats and violence to any and all who dare provide an obstacle to his machinations. A particularly unsettling early sequence sees him spying on Klara at a bar, and subsequently following a man who chatted her up outside and mercilessly beating the shit out of him, before flashing his State Security badge to potential peacemakers. But even that is not in any way attempted to be disguised as a police matter, Antonín may as well have literally said ‘Fuck off’, he just did so wordlessly.
A point of interest is director Radim Spacek’s admission that his primary creative inspiration for the film came from Martin Scorcese’s 1995 organised crime epic Casino, in that he wanted to similarly depict the disintegration of a perfect clockwork empire, replacing gangsters with agents of communist state security. It’s a fitting juxtaposition insofar as Antonín being a perfect naturalistic depiction of somebody highly respected in a Mafia outfit. He has completely dead eyes, is constantly wound tightly and ready for violence, displays no empathy that could be misinterpreted as weakness, and never makes threats, simply acting. He is a man that nobody should take lightly, and they pay a severe price if they do.
In another stark difference to an abundance of films that depict the struggles of the citizen against totalitarian forces, the two central dissident figures, Tomáš Sýkora & Pavel Veselý, are depicted as less than savoury personalities. Tomáš is a complacent hospital porter who habitually betrays his loyal wife with Klara, and Pavel is an author who feeds Antonín information about other subversive individuals in exchange for immunity, including Tomáš, who is meant to be his best friend. It is a refreshing moral grey area, and consistent with the film’s tone, yet it also makes them hard to sympathise with, their smug, deluded selfishness making them ultimately no better than the government thugs hounding them. It makes Antonín’s contempt for them a little easier to rationalise, but it doesn’t excuse his actions or alleviate his culpability for being the absolute whackjob that he is.
The original title in Czech, ‘Pouta’, literally translates as ‘handcuffs’, but it also has a more colloquial meaning of ‘ties that bind’, and it couldn’t be more appropriate. Antonín’s tangible handcuffs and brute force cast a shadow over the severing of the ties that bind the dissidents together in friendship and activism, and his own reckless narcissistic fantasising wears down any attachment he had left to everyone in his own life. Even Veselý, who despises Antonín while being utterly terrified of him, displays some measure of puzzled empathy toward him during his warpath: ”All of this for some ordinary woman you don’t even know? What’s the matter with you?”
Whilst nobody is whiter than white in this affair, the film is careful to showcase the state as the ultimate wrongdoer. Being despotic is bad enough but, in another parallel to mobster films, Antonín’s department is shown to be little more than an outfit of utterly hypocritical bullies, caring not so much for ‘national integrity’ as they do about their paychecks and their ability to shove people around whenever it takes their fancy. Their speech is even peppered with phrases such as ‘keeping it in the family’. A truly zero-tolerance-to-treason organisation wouldn’t dole out favours or second chances to anybody, further cementing the reality that these people are merely state-sanctioned criminals, intimidating citizens into giving them freebies and obnoxiously swaggering their way about town.
An unapologetically dark and disturbing film, it nevertheless carries a torch of hope in the characters who attempt to appeal to the better angels of their nature, however impossible it seems to be. It’s ultimately a work about the various extremes of human folly, a facet that makes Antonín Rusnák all the more uncomfortable for the viewer; he’s not a demon or a comic book villain. He’s just a man. Maybe you’ll see bits and pieces of yourself in him.