Actor Jiri Schmitzer has the role of a lifetime in Zdenek Tyc’s moving drama, Like Never Before, the opening attraction of the Czech Film Week at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Herzliya and Holon Cinematheques that runs through the end of the month.
Schmitzer plays a dying artist who is self-centered, cruel, manipulative and still irresistible to two lovers who take care of him. But although he has won acclaim and the Czech Lion Award for Best Actor, Tyc explained in an interview at the Jerusalem Cinematheque that he had to beg Schmitzer to take the part.
“He said he liked the script but it would be too painful to play the part,” Tyc said.
“But I had no Plan B, I had only Plan A. It had to be him.”
Finally, after Schmitzer, who is a singer, played a concert, Tyc got down on his knees and implored the actor to accept the role.
Schmitzer finally gave in.
It was a lucky break for Tyc, since the entire film revolves around this character, who has to convince the audience he is so talented and passionate that even when he is nearly dead from cancer he can still mesmerize these women.
Although the film has a plot that may sound grim, Tyc felt that it was a story he had to tell.
“Marketa Bidlasova, my co-writer, had a very difficult experience. She was pregnant and the baby died, but she still had to give birth to a stillborn baby. She wrote a kind of essay about death as a way of therapy. I read it and it was interesting, intriguing, an original idea for a film,” said Tyc.
Using the essay as the basis for the story, Tyc created the characters of Vladimir, the painter; Karla (Petra Spalkova, who won a Czech Lion for Best Actress), his former student, an artist in her own right, who has spent virtually her entire adult life with him; Jaruna (Tatjana Medvecka), a married nurse who is very proper about everything except her love for Vladimir; and Tomas (Marek Nemec), Vladimir’s estranged son, who is bitter about his father’s cruelty toward his mother and his father’s lack of interest in him.
Asked whether he identifies with the characters of the father or the son, Tyc said, “The father is so overwhelmed by this role he’s in, of the dying man, it overwhelms him. He has no energy left to be human.
And the son is such a weakling, but growing up with such a father, he couldn’t have ended up any other way. So I’m taking the side of the women. They are not stupid, they are very strong and they do love him.
So he must have some humanity buried in him, very deeply.”
While getting Schmitzer to play the role was one stroke of luck for Tyc, he’s had others throughout his career. He was fortunate to graduate from film school just as Communism was ending, and his 1990 film, Orphan, was one of the first to renew the spirit and promise of the Czech New Wave of the mid-Sixties that was crushed when the Soviet tanks rolled in.
“In 1989, I was a student leader. My film premiered in 1990, when the country was still Czechoslovakia,” he said. It went on to win awards all over the world.
But the transition from communism to capitalism hasn’t always been easy for artists, and Tyc acknowledged this.
“It’s a paradox,” he said. “The fight against a common enemy [communism] suited me better. Not that I’m longing for communism, but life with a clear-cut enemy made sense.”
While at first, after the communists fled, “audiences were hungry for foreign films,” in recent years, there have been some Czech films that have drawn audiences at home, as well in film festivals and in theaters abroad.
Since 2002, Tyc has been playing with the idea of a movie about a woman who is “smart, demanding and therefore alone.
An intellectual, who works in a library, and who ends up going to the opposite extreme, with a lover who is a Polish worker,” he said. He’s been rewriting it for so long, two actresses he wanted have grown too old to play the role, and now he has his eye on a third actress.
“This trip to Israel, for five days, I’m going to look for some kind of sign if this is the next movie I am supposed to make,” he said.
Coming to Israel didn’t scare Tyc; he had been here before and while he acknowledged the gravity of the situation, he said, “I’m very friendly to Israel.”
Audiences who enjoy Like Never Before at Czech Film Week will have to wait a little longer to see if the visit here inspired him to make the movie about the librarian or not.