‘We Have Never Been Modern’ Review: Czech Drama Looks at Sexuality Through the Lens of 1937

Karlovy Vary Film Festival: The Czech period piece deals with issues that couldn’t be more current

We Have Never Been Modern
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

The spectrum of gender and sexuality may seem to be a subject firmly rooted in the political and cultural squabbles of 2023, but Czech director Matej Chlupacek has chosen to look at it through the lens of 1937 in “We Have Never Been Modern,” an affecting drama that both relies on and transcends its period setting.

Set in the old Czechoslovakia (a fitting setting for a rare Czech and Slovak co-production) just prior to World War II, the film opened the Crystal Globe competition section of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival on Friday. Titled “Úsvit” in Czech but borrowing its English title from Bruno Latour’s 1991 cultural study, the film uses its prewar setting to add resonance to a portrait of a society trying to transform itself even as a large and destructive transformation looms just out of sight. At the same time, it deals with issues of sexuality, and panic over sexuality, that couldn’t be much more current.

An expensive production shot in 35mm by a director still in his 20s, it is a bold work that gets a sense of urgency from the luminous central performance by Czech actress Eliška Křenková as a young woman surrounded by powerful men who have no use for empathy or nuance when they’ve got a company to build and strings to pull.

Křenková plays Helena, who at the beginning of the film is very pregnant as she sits at a fancy dinner watching a female choir sing, smiling gamely through tears. She tells her husband (Miroslav König) that he needs to call the doctor as we see water running down her leg and pooling under her chair – but before he has a chance to do that, the film jumps back in time about a week to give us the backstory.

It turns out that Helena’s husband, Alois, is the director of a factory in the Czechoslovakian city of Svit. The big boss is coming to town with plans to expand the business, which we later learn is making synthetic fabrics. While digging in the dirt at the factory, workers find a dead baby – but more disturbing than that to them, they find a dead baby who has both male and female sexual organs.

The factory execs view the baby, and particularly the fact that the baby is intersex, mostly as a potential public-relations disaster: If news of the baby gets out, the locals may resist the company’s plans for major expansion into a formerly rural area.

Everybody except Helena, who works as a nurse in the company infirmary, immediately figures the baby was a deliberate act of sabotage designed to hurt the company; she alone suggests that somebody who works in the factory likely gave birth to the child on the premises and buried it there to hide it. And she alone wants to have a serious discussion of intersexuality, which she insists is far more common than anyone will acknowledge. (Alois storms out when she even tries to bring up the topic.)

Superstition gets whipped up into the politics of a period in which anti-communist sentiment was growing and nobody was recognizing the threat from nearby Nazi Germany. Security personnel hired by the company come in to investigate and almost immediately pin the dead baby on communist agitators, the leader of whom conveniently ends up dead.

Helena, meanwhile, is an inconvenience to them as she uses her growing knowledge to figure out that the baby was probably born to Sasa, a factory worker who appears to be male. She wants to help the worker, but societal and familial pressures make that difficult – and the entire company’s leadership just wants the potential scandal to go away and has the power to silence Helena as she awaits the birth of her own baby.

The story of a lone voice of truth fighting the powers that don’t want to hear that truth has been told many times before, and “We Have Never Been Modern” goes over familiar ground but with a new thematic twist. The handsome cinematography revels in its old-fashioned sheen even as it occasionally throws in tricks like an upside-down choir singer in the opening show.

Simon Goff’s music, meanwhile, can sound like a conventional film score at times, but it also has a seriously dark sense of drama. Melody will give way to drones, or more brazenly to a mechanistic assault that both yanks the film out of its period and gives the factory itself a voice.

A tension between past and present lies at the heart of “We Have Never Been Modern,” which will likely be the Czech Republic’s entry into the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category. And key to that tension are things that the characters don’t know, but the audience most certainly does.

“Society is evolving,” Helena tells a confused and desperate Sasa at one point. “Give it five, 10 years.” Of course, we in the audience can do the math and figure that in five years, the Nazis will be killing anyone like Sasa. And we can also see that even if you give it, say, 86 years, sexuality and gender fluidity is still going to be a deeply charged topic to what will then pass for the modern world.