In one of the opening scenes of Po strništi bos (Barefoot in English), a stuttering elderly man is forcibly removed from his Prague apartment complex by the Gestapo, and his small dog is gruesomely killed.
It’s a shocking moment that caught me off guard, not so much for the content but for the tone and presentation, which is (almost) dryly comedic. The film is a nostalgic remembrance of youth seen through the eyes of a child, but one that also happens to take place during the waning years of World War II.
While the setting carries along with it all the appropriate horrors, it also gives the film an interesting dichotomy: we’re witnessing the events through the eyes of a young boy who doesn’t quite grasp them, and get an unusual perspective of coming-of-age life during wartime.
Po strništi bos reminded me greatly of Hope and Glory, director John Boorman’s wonderful film about growing up in London as bombs fell around him. The horrors here are real – but so are other universal truths about adolescence. War colors the memories, but does not diminish them.
This film has been culled from the life of writer and co-star Zdeněk Svěrák, one of the most beloved actors in the Czech Republic and co-creator of the iconic Jára Cimrman, and directed by his son and longtime collaborator Jan Svěrák.
The duo previously won an Oscar for their heartwarming 1996 movie Kolja, and Po strništi bos is at least a spiritual follow-up to that film; it’s also a direct prequel to their excellent 1991 movie Obecná škola (The Elementary School), which took place just after the war ended in 1945-46.
Po strništi bos opens in 1943, and the Nazi threat is still real; precocious young Eda (Alois Grec) opens up a world of trouble when he inadvertently reveals that his father (Ondřej Vetchý) has been listening to resistance broadcasts over the radio.
Together with Mom (Tereza Voříšková) the family packs up and moves to Dad’s family home in the countryside for the indefinite future to live with an extended family that includes a serious-minded grandfather (Jan Tříska), a soldier uncle (Hynek Čermák), and a loud-mouthed aunt (Petra Špalková). Both Vetchý and Tříska starred in the earlier Obecná škola, but in different roles.
Throughout Eda’s time in the countryside, US bombers fly overhead, German soldiers march through the village, then Russians, and finally German civilians march out of the country.
Without some background, you might not keep up with the historical events. WWII surrounds Eda, but his window into the conflict is one colored by childlike innocence; the war doesn’t stop an adolescence that includes Mark Twain-like adventures with the local country boys, and learning to walk barefoot over sharp stalks of dry grass.
The events of the film are completely divorced from any kind of prototypical storyline, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; as a nostalgic series of vignettes, Po strništi bos is an evocative and heartwarming recollection of youth that might be compared to the beloved Czech film Pelíšky or the US holiday classic A Christmas Story.
The elder Svěrák played Eda’s father in Obecná škola, but here tackles the minor role of his schoolteacher; still, he gets at least one standout scene, attempting to drown out praise of Hitler over the school loudspeakers by lecturing his students about the birds singing outside the classroom window.
Also fine here is Oldřich Kaiser as “the Wolf”, Eda’s uncle who was estranged from the family over a conflict years earlier but still lives in the same village – and with whom Eda develops a touching relationship despite the stern warnings of his father.
But the entire cast here is superb, right down to the Eda’s schoolyard friends, which include a group that adopts him into their secret club and an older boy who has lost his legs and rides around town in a mechanized wheelchair.
Evocative cinematography by Vladimír Smutný and music from Michal Novinski contribute to this unique and heartfelt piece of nostalgia, the best film from Jan and Zdeněk since Kolja. This is first-rate production in every regard, and one of the finest Czech films in years.
In a year of great Czech WWII movies that also includes Masaryk and director Jan Hřebejk’s Zahradnictví trilogy, Po strništi bos is easily at the top of the heap, and will almost certainly become the country’s submission to next year’s Academy Awards. I found it just as good as Kolja (if not quite up to the level of Obecná škola), so it just might have a shot at a nomination.
Note: Po strništi bos is currently playing with English subtitles at a number of cinemas throughout Prague, including Kino Světozor, Bio Oko, Kino Lucerna, Kino Mat, and Cinema City Slovanský dům