Audiences can experience the early days of the Covid pandemic all over again in The Great Nothing (Velké nic), a new Czech documentary now playing in Prague cinemas and with English subtitles at Kino Světozor, Kino Aero, and Bio Oko.
That may not sound like an attractive proposition, but The Great Nothing is a striking portrait of a dystopian world that would seem entirely foreign if we all didn’t live through it over the past few years. While it may be too soon for some audiences to unpack, this is an invaluable artifact of our society during strange times, indeed.
For The Great Nothing, husband-and-wife filmmakers Vít Klusák and Marika Pecháčková and cinematographer Adam Kruliš took to the streets of Prague (and elsewhere throughout the Czech Republic) throughout 2020 to document how the pandemic affected its residents. There’s no angle or commentary from the filmmakers, only scenes from the pandemic and portraits of lives that were affected.
Those portraits include, briefly, a dazzlingly-filmed look at Czech athletes including kayaker Jiří Prskavec. We see him at first in close-up in deep focus, water tumbling down his face as he furiously oars. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal the absurdity of the situation: he’s on a rowing machine in his front yard, his partner splashing him in the face with a garden hose. Prskavec, by the way, would go on to win a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics the following year.
We also see Prague police monitoring public parks, informing families to put on their face masks in order to comply with health regulations. A woman asks them if her son needs to go home to take a sip of water. Later, the filmmakers visit a local nudist beach, where the sunbathers are completely naked — save, of course, for the face mask.
There are three recurring characters interviewed over the course of The Great Nothing who tell their own specific stories over the course of the film. Among those is Milan Plíva, who was among the first Czech coronavirus patients. We first meet him in the hospital, where he recounts the final days of his roommate, who recently died with Covid.
There’s also Monika Jägerová, an opera singer who finds herself working at a Czech supermarket during the pandemic to make ends meet. It’s not so bad, she says, apart from the motivational messages that play out over the loudspeaker every morning. They remind employees of the strength of the Czech people to survive through tumultuous times… on endless repeat.
Later in the movie, The Great Nothing introduces a more controversial figure: anti-vaccine, anti-restriction activist Jana Peterková, who starts off roaming Wenceslas Square with a few friends, a megaphone, and an anti-government petition. Later on, the camera shows us a headline revealing that Peterková has been fined for spreading disinformation; we infer that she has cut off communication with the filmmakers.
On the other extreme is Czech biologist Jaroslav Flegr, such an outspoken local figure that he has been referenced on Family Guy, who is mournful that the government measures were not extreme enough, and that thousands of people needlessly died. A local doctor, meanwhile, comments that he wishes the government would let the virus run its course without interference.
The title The Great Nothing is not direct commentary on the pandemic, but rather comes from a quote related by opera singer Jägerová. She describes performing on stage without thinking as “the great nothing” in the same way an athlete might reference being “in the zone.” In modern Zen philosophy, that feeling might be called mindfulness: living in the moment without distraction.
How does that relate to the pandemic? For Monika and the athletes featured in The Great Nothing, they were deprived of their ability to live in the moment due to the pandemic and its related restrictions, they lost the opportunity to feel this sense of the great nothing. The rest of us can relate; in place of the mindfulness that we should seek to practice in our daily lives, a kind of mindlessness took over.
The Great Nothing is a powerful reminder of that mindlessness. While the film itself does not promote a specific ideology, it subtly comments on the absurdity of response to the pandemic without losing sight of the human cost of the virus. The second half of the film affords anti-government activists a lot of screen time and commentary, but the filmmakers trust their audience to draw the right conclusions.
For many viewers in 2023, the movie may be too soon a reminder. But in ten or twenty years, viewers might look at this dystopian-looking movie, shot in stark black and white, and wonder if all this really happened. Those of us who lived through it can attest: The Great Nothing speaks the truth.