Out of Stalinism's terminal crisis


Family Matters
Directed by Jiri Svoboda
Made in Czechoslovakia, 1990. Subtitled
Showing at the 1991 Australian Jewish Film Festival
Melbourne November 9-24, Trak Cinema
Sydney November 16-December 1 AFI
Cinema, Paddington
Reviewed by Steve Painter

This is a devastating movie about two Communist officials and their families caught up in the backwash from the Slansky purge trials of the early 1950s.

Both are long-time Communists who had joined the party out of conviction long before it ever appeared likely to come to power. In this they are like Slansky himself, who joined the Communist Party in 1921, represented it in the National Assembly (the prewar Czechoslovak parliament), fought in the Ukraine against the Nazi invasion of the USSR and participated in the Slovak National Uprising against the Nazis in 1944.

One of the officials is a deputy minister of foreign trade and a Jew, the other a friend of the first and a regional official far from the intense politics of Prague and grappling amid the postwar ruins with problems such as trying to make the trams run on time and attracting labour to the local coal fields and industries.

The Slansky trial itself involved 13 central Communist Party and government officials at a time when Slansky had been second only to Gottwald in the postwar Communist government. Ten of the accused were Jews, and 11 were executed.

The trials in Czechoslovakia were part of a wave of such purges that swept through all the Eastern European states occupied by the Soviet army around this time. They mirrored the Stalin purges in the USSR and were part of the process of imposing the Soviet system in its entirety regardless of the wishes of the local people, including many members of the local Communist parties.

The movie is based on a novel written in 1965, following Slansky's rehabilitation in 1963. The rehabilitation and the novel are products of the liberalisation leading up to the Prague Spring of 1968. The film and its script, written in 1988, are also products of the build-up to a period of crisis for the Stalinist system — in the latter case the terminal crisis.

The title comes from the fact that when the prisoners are eventually permitted to communicate with their families they can discuss only family matters. Being veterans of concentration camps and the anti-Nazi underground, they are able to speak and write in code.

This is a powerful, and very bleak, study of people trapped in a system they helped to create, but which has been seized from them and become something quite different. The torturers make more than one favourable reference to the recently departed Nazis.

The film is well done technically in dark colours and harsh lighting. Perhaps the background music is a little overdone at times, as the ds no reinforcement.