Movie Review: The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street
Note: this review originally appeared on Expats.cz
At the height of Prague Spring and what was being called the Czech New Wave film movement in 1968, three Czech directors were at the Cannes Film Festival with films competing for the coveted Palme d’Or.
There was Miloš Forman with The Fireman’s Ball, which would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film the following year; Jiří Menzel and Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer), a perennial Czech classic; and Jan Němec with O slavnosti a hostech (A Report on the Party and the Guests).
According to The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street (Vlk z Královských Vinohrad), the new and final film from director Němec, who passed away earlier this year, Czech producers had reached an agreement with Cannes organizers and a Czech film was destined to win – the only question was which one.
But in true Kafkaesque fashion, the 1968 Cannes festival was cancelled due to a worker’s strike; it was the was the only year since 1951 the festival was not held, and to this day Czech directors still haven’t won the Palme d’Or (unless you count the debut 1946 festival, in which the grand prize was shared by 11 films including František Čáp’s Men Without Wings).
In The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street, Němec recounts the events in his life that soon transpired after the cancelled fest: Soviet tanks rolled into Prague mere months later, and the director was able to capture some of the only footage of the invasion on film.
He made it out of the country almost by pure luck, and his coverage of the Soviet invasion of Prague was seen by half a billion people after being broadcast on TV and turned into the famed documentary Oratorio for Prague.
But then a funny thing happened. At the time, the Czech Cannes contestants were (perhaps) the three most celebrated directors in the country.
Forman emigrated to the States and found great success in Hollywood, where he won Best Director Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Menzel remained in Czechoslovakia, but became one of the country’s most celebrated directors with his continued adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal novels.
Němec, on the other hand… well, he wound up making wedding videos for minor Hollywood players in Southern California. For the next 20 years, he didn’t make a feature film, and the movies he made after returning to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s weren’t exactly as celebrated as his New Wave work.
The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street, on the other hand, ought to be an exception. A fast, loose, often-improvisational (on the filmmaker’s side as much as the actors) narrative that covers the events in Němec’s life in rat-a-tat fashion, it’s both a briskly funny one-off and an indispensable document for anyone interested in the director and the Czech New Wave.
It’s also served with a dollop of fiction; just so you don’t take everything as fact, an early scene features Němec bludgeoning still-living French director Jean-Luc Godard to death.
Karel Roden narrates the proceedings as an older version of Němec, and Jiří Mádl stars as a younger version of the director.
Madl seems to ape Leonardo DiCaprio to some extent – the film, as evidenced by the title, is modelled somewhat after Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street – but gets a chance to strut his stuff in scenes where he bullshits his way out of delicate situations, including an interrogation by a Soviet official played by Martin Pechlát.
The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street is loose and lean and (relatively) low budget, and the seams show at numerous points. But it’s must-see stuff for fans of 1960s Czech cinema and anyone who wondered whatever happened to Jan Němec.
It’s also a fitting swan song the director, who passed away earlier this year before his film premiered at the 2016 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.