It’s hard to imagine a more well-timed and well-placed documentary than Jan Siki’s “Reconstruction of Occupation,” which debuted on Saturday, Aug. 21 at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic. The film had its world premiere 53 years to the day that Soviet tanks and military vehicles rolled into what was then Czechoslovakia, and it screened in a theater, the Kino Čas, that sits on streets that saw those military vehicles in August 1968.
Much of the footage stems from a time when the new wave of Czech films was flowering, with landmarks like Jiri Menzel’s Oscar-winning “Closely Watched Trains,” Milos Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball” and Jan Nemec’s “A Report on the Party and the Guests.” And it came at the end of the Prague Spring, the eight-month period that began when Alexander Dubček became head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and instituted liberal reforms and increased freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Those reforms met with a chilly reaction in the Soviet Union, which held sway over the Communist bloc of Eastern Europe — and after talks with Dubček broke down, the U.S.S.R. and other Warsaw Pact countries sent 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks into Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring and its reforms.
That’s context you don’t get in “Reconstruction of Occupation,” which is immersive rather than explanatory. The approach may limit the film’s life in countries that aren’t as acquainted with that pivotal era in Eastern Europe, when freedom briefly flared and was just as quickly extinguished. (See Milan Kundera’s classic novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for a fictional account of the era.) But it was hardly a problem on the anniversary on the occupation and in a city that was occupied.
The film began as a mystery of sorts: A friend gave documentary director Jan Šikl, who for decades has collected film archives, a box of 35 reels of film that he believed had been shot during the invasion. The reels turned out to contain four hours of footage of the Soviet military rolling into Czechoslovakia, and the ensuing protests by young Czechs.
Šikl didn’t know who shot the footage or who was pictured in it, and at first he considered that essential if he wanted to turn it into a film. But the more he worked with the footage, he said in a post-screening Q&A, the more he felt that it held its own even without explanation — and when he went on national television and made a plea to anyone who was around during that time and thought they might be pictured in the footage, he received more than 1,000 replies.
The film begins playfully, with breezy footage of Czech families goofing off, swimming, fishing, getting their hair done … but within a few minutes, it quietly begins to mix in footage of military vehicles rolling down city streets and country lanes.
There are still amusing moments, as when we see a steel bridge that has buckled under the weight of tanks, and a person who witnessed the event in 1968 points out a sign reading “5T” at one end of the bridge. “They probably thought it meant ‘5 tanks,’ so three or four tanks drove on it and it collapsed,” he says.
The footage itself plays without its own soundtrack; these are silent clips, and when witnesses are not describing what we’re seeing, the footage is scored either by an eerie, disquieting silence or by sparse, evocative music from composer Jan Šikl ml.
But the witnesses are essential, because the point of “Reconstruction of Occupation” is not to explain the sociopolitical import of what happened but to convey what it looked and felt like. One elderly person after another appears on screen to point out their younger selves in the footage, and to convey the sense of growing despair as the Soviets took over and the country fell into two decades of more repression. After a while, there’s a numbing similarity to the images, and to the testimonies.
But that, in a way, is the point: the way power shifted in an instant and a lot of young people had their lives changed. “I didn’t want to interpret the era,” said Šikl in the Q&A — so instead, “Reconstruction of Occupation” simply bears witness to it.