Czech actor Jiří Macháček delivers one of his finest performances in the titular role of Zahradnictví: Dezertér (The Garden Store: Deserter), the middle installment in director Jan Hřebejk and writer Petr Jarchovský’s trilogy of 2017 theatrical releases.
And while Deserter is tighter and better-paced than its predecessor, The Garden Store: Family Friend – and packed with more incident and political drive – it ultimately lacks the emotional heft of the previous installment, and relies on the events of that movie for its most affecting moments.
But if Deserter is a lesser film than Family Friend, it isn’t by much – and despite a somewhat chilly reception by local critics and audiences for both movies, it marks a significant comeback for the longtime directing-writing duo, who last scored big with 1999’s Pelíšky and 2000’s Divided We Fall, two of the most beloved Czech movies of the modern era.
Picking up where the previous film left off, Deserter continues to chart the events in the lives of the Brünner and Rohn families during Czechoslovakia’s postwar years in the mid-1940s. The Nazis may have been booted from the country, but new threat lurks just around the corner as the communist party quickly assumes control.
Former prisoner-of-war Jindřich (Martin Finger) is vehemently anti-communist, something wife Vilma (Aňa Geislerová) urges him to suppress for the sake of his family. His brother Karel (Karel Dobrý), meanwhile, also a former P.O.W., is now gung-ho pro-Soviet.
Caught in the middle of the political ideals – but with no inclination of his own – is poor Otto (Macháček) as the titular deserter who abandoned his compatriots during the war rather than risk capture.
Otto runs the family hair salon where his wife Ela (Gabriela Míčová) and her sisters Vilma and Bedřiška (Klára Melíšková) are employed. Otto just wants to run a prestigious business and cut hair, and even resigns himself to serving his former brutish subservient (Štěpán Kozub), who walks in one day and exclaims that the business is now property of the people, and he will be running it.
But in the film’s centerpiece sequence – a wonderfully crafted piece of comedy with a terrifying undercurrent – a prank by Otto’s son results in three Soviet officials losing their hair, with devastating consequences on the horizon.
This sends the former deserter on an arduous journey that sees the wide-eyed, good-natured Otto beat down beyond submission by an unyielding regime. Macháček – best known for his comedic roles in films like Samotáři (Loners), delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance that runs the gamut and eventually results in the shell of a man.
Finger and Dobrý, too, are effective as the former brothers-in-arms who have become brothers at odds in one of the most significant political events that Czechoslovakia faced in the 20th century. Like the previous film, their sister Emilka (Lenka Krobotová) and her husband Miloš (David Novotný) run the titular Garden Store where the family convenes – this time, however, they aren’t spared from the communist regime.
Telling the history of Czechoslovakia through the eyes of these two families, director Hřebejk has swept through some of the most significant events in the country’s history while keeping the focus on how the lives of the average citizens are affected.
His Garden Store trilogy, to be completed next month with the release of Nápadník (Suitor) may not exactly be the Czech Republic’s answer to Germany’s Heimat, but it’s in the same vein. In any event, despite the chilly reception, it’s a significant achievement in Czech filmmaking.