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Studies in Eastern European Cinema

ISSN: 2040-350X (Print) 2040-3518 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/reec20

“A world eternally under construction”: Věra

Chytilová and late-socialist Prague

Alice Lovejoy

To cite this article: Alice Lovejoy (2018): “A world eternally under construction”:
Věra Chytilová and late-socialist Prague, Studies in Eastern European Cinema, DOI:

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/2040350X.2018.1469201

Published online: 18 May 2018.

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ra Chytilova and

“A world eternally under construction”: Ve
late-socialist Prague
Alice Lovejoy
Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis,
United States

This essay examines two of Vera Chytilova’s ‘normalization’-era Vera Chytilova; Daniela
nonfiction and fiction films: the 1979 feature Panelstory, or The Birth Hodrova; late socialism;
of a Settlement (Panelstory, aneb Jak se rodı sidlıste, 1979) and the architecture; panelak;
short experimental documentary Time is Inexorable (Cas  je normalization
neuprosny ), produced a year earlier. Each of these films plays out in
the half-finished buildings and construction sites of late-1970s
Prague, a city whose periphery was marked by large-scale
prefabricated housing developments (‘a world’, in Bohumil Hrabal’s
words, ‘eternally under construction’). The essay reads both films
closely, analyzing their aesthetic, narrative, and conceptual links
to other cinematic and literary engagements with late-socialist
Prague and its architecture: Daniela Hodrova’s theoretical essays
and trilogy of novels City of Torment (Try znive mesto), Hrabal’s Too
Loud a Solitude (Prılis hlucna
 samota, 1977), and Vaclav Taborsky’s
documentary City of Mud (Zabla cene mesto, 1963). The essay argues
that, taken together, these texts offer a clear-eyed reading of late-
socialist urban space, and the complex temporal and historical
questions embedded within it.

I saw my press turn into the giant of all gigantic presses, a press so big, its four walls engulfed
the entire city of Prague, and I saw myself pushing the green button, saw the press grinding
into motion like a hydroelectric dam, and buildings tumbled like the mice in my old drum,
like toys. I saw the walls advance, devastating everything in their path, and from my bird’s-
eye view I saw life in the center of town going on as usual though the outskirts were
being devoured by the press’s enormous jaws … and I looked up and saw an enormous bale
standing on a deserted plain, a cube fifteen hundred feet long, maybe more, with all Prague
compacted in it, myself included, all my thoughts, all the books I’d ever read, all my life,
and it was all nothing more than the tiniest of mice being crushed with the wastepaper in my
cellar by the Brigade of Socialist Labor. (Hrabal 1990, 84 and 85)

So runs the fever dream of Mr Hanta, the bibliophile protagonist of Bohumil Hrabal’s
novella Too Loud a Solitude, after he learns that his job operating a paper-compacting
press has been made extraneous, a casualty of the trade’s mechanization. In Hrabal’s
novella, wastepaper compacting is a sweeping allegory for art, labor, and the public
and private spheres in ‘normalized’ Czechoslovakia. In the dream, it functions as an

CONTACT Alice Lovejoy alovejoy@umn.edu

© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

allegory-in-miniature for Prague’s urban environment and its evolution in this period.
Like the cast-off books that Mr Ha nta processes in his compactor, producing sculptural
objects in which he takes pride, the city, in the dream, is ‘devoured’. Unlike Mr Ha nta’s
objects, however – ‘sprinkled’ with ‘confetti and sequins’ (Hrabal 1990, 8) – the ‘cube’
that results, an ‘enormous bale standing on a deserted plain’, does not display traces of its
contents. Instead, it homogenizes what is inside, from objects (‘all the books I’d ever
read’) to time itself (‘all my life’).
Within three years of Hrabal’s novella’s 1976 appearance in samizdat, Vera Chytilova
directed two films that also reflect critically on late-socialist urban development, and
especially on the large-scale prefabricated housing estates – whose buildings are called
panelaks in Czech and Slovak – constructed on the periphery of Czechoslovak cities
between roughly the 1960s and 1980s.1 Where Mr Ha nta’s press ‘grinds into motion’,
‘devouring’ its surroundings, Chytilova’s 1979 melodrama Panelstory, or The Birth of a
Settlement (Panelstory, aneb Jak se rodı sidlıste) and medium-length experimental docu-
mentary Time is Inexorable (Cas  je ne uprosny), produced a year earlier, depict cranes and
bulldozers clearing pathways and foundations; building walls; fitting concrete panels into
place.2 The films largely play out in half-finished buildings and construction sites, images
that embody a key turn of phrase in Hrabal’s novella: ‘the melancholy of a world eternally
under construction’ (Hrabal 1990, 23) – with ‘construction’, here, signifying not just the
act of building, but also its temporality. This intertwining of temporal and spatial dynam-
ics is at the core of this essay, which examines Panelstory and Time is Inexorable in the
context of literary and cinematic reflections on late-socialist urban space in Prague, and
in particular alongside Daniela Hodrova’s theories of the literary city, which offer both a
counter-model to, and a way of reading, Chytilova’s films.

Late-socialist urban development in Czechoslovakia

The prefabricated buildings that appear in these literary and cinematic texts were produced
in Czechoslovakia from the mid-1950s through the 1980s. Their roots, however, were
much deeper: as Kimberly Zarecor and Eva Spackova write, they were grounded in ‘an
interwar vision of modernity that emphasized the right to housing at a minimum standard
over the artistic qualities of individual buildings’ (Zarecor and Spackova 2012, 290).3 Soci-
ologist Jirı Musil, similarly, argues that a combination of Fordism and Marxism–Leninism
guided the construction of Czechoslovakia’s housing estates, which simultaneously
answered the need for inexpensive, quickly-produced mass housing, and exemplified the
government’s professed goals of equalizing access to shelter (Musil 2007). In particular,
they provided desperately-needed affordable housing for many young people and families.
Despite their interwar history, both panelaks and the housing estates in which they were
frequently situated were – and are – often identified with postwar socialism. In its 1961
pamphlet New Techniques and Architecture in Czechoslovakia, for instance, the Czechoslo-
vak Architects’ Union described mass production as not only the foundation for the coun-
try’s built environment, but also a metaphor for the construction of socialist society:
The new feature at this stage is quantity, the mass-scale, which eventually results in achieving
new quality. Characteristic of the new socialist architecture is the effort to control this quan-
tity and to endow it with new quality. The new tasks incumbent upon architecture and origi-
nating in the requirements of the society cannot be solved outside the scope of

industrialization, for industrialization alone can fulfill the requirements of mass-

construction. Not individualism, but social responsibility is a force and a feature of new
architecture. (Storch 1961, 7)

Otakar Novy echoed this in his introduction to the 1980 Contemporary Architecture of the

CSSR, writing that:
… architecture and town planning are an art of finding a harmonious solution for the rela-
tions of Man, society and the material world, of giving order to space, shaped matter
and continuous operation… . For that reason in all towns and villages of Czechoslovakia con-
siderable building activity has been undertaken in the construction of dwelling houses and
public buildings and whole housing developments. (Novy 1980, 198)

It was not only scale that allowed panelaks to become emblematic of postwar socialism,
but also the buildings’ visual dimensions, which were strikingly different from much
earlier construction.4 This was especially the case in housing estates located on city out-
skirts, and thus separated from the urban core. As Zarecor and Spackova argue:
One panelak might not be so “big,” but a development of dozens of buildings starts to take on
the character of a massive single architectural effort. One that is disengaged from its context
and site, and becomes its own “raison d’^etre” in the sense that the neighborhoods created
their own landscapes, essentially self-contained worlds of home and leisure life in dialectical
tension with the productive spaces of work and industry. (Zarecor and Spackova 2012, 297)

This visual distinctiveness makes Hrabal’s caricature of the periphery as a single block
possible. At the same time, the panelak’s identification with (late) socialism drives
Chytilova’s metonymic critique, which uses the housing estates to take aim not only at
late socialism’s social structures, but also at its progressive, teleological vision of history.
Such spatio-temporal critiques were echoed by Chytilova’s contemporaries: in the same
year that Panelstory was released, for instance, F.E. Ian Hamilton wrote that the construc-
tion of housing estates on East European urban peripheries gave rise to a characteristic
spatio-temporal pattern, in which ‘outward expansion of city areas yields a concentric-
zonal pattern, successive stages of building being readily recognizable in architectural
styles and skylines… . Fundamentally distinct … are the pre-socialist inner and socialist
outer urban areas’ (Hamilton 1979, 227).

Filming construction
The estates’ distinctive ‘landscapes’ are at the core of Panelstory (1979), which – set and
shot in 1978 in Prague’s South City (Jıznı mesto), then in the process of construction –
depicts the prefabricated periphery as a site that disrupts social and moral life. The film
follows the enmeshed fates of several families and individuals living in South City. Among
them are So na, a young woman unexpectedly pregnant; her boyfriend, Petr; and So na’s
mother, who has a brief affair with a famous actor. A young schoolboy in the estate claims
that a pregnant woman’s husband is his father; the boy’s mother, meanwhile, is having an
affair with a construction worker. Petr’s grandfather, who visits the estate from the city
center, is horrified by the state of things in the partially-constructed community.
These larger-than-life, convoluted narratives and relationships establish the framework
for the film’s aesthetics. Visually, Panelstory is garish, with circus-like hues punctuating
the gray of the concrete buildings: bright Skoda cars, rows of brilliantly-colored baby

carriages, everyday fashions of the 1970s. Its extreme wide-angle camerawork (by cinema-
tographer Jaromır Sofr) underlines these grotesque dimensions. Yet while extreme wide
shots distort characters and objects, they are also central to the film’s particular mode of
realism, in which everything onscreen is always in focus – whether or not it is the center
of the action. The tension (and generic ambiguity) created by this juxtaposition of realism
and the grotesque is echoed by the film’s editing, which is characterized by abrupt transi-
tions, and its soundtrack, which frequently uses sudden, nondiegetic noises to punctuate
dramatic moments in the narrative.
Panelstory’s characters struggle to orient themselves within this distorted environment.
One of the film’s opening scenes is a series of quick-moving wide-angle pans and bumpy
traveling shots of South City, taken from a taxi in which Petr’s grandfather is riding.
Here, the camera’s inability to find a stable perspective on the built environment is mir-
rored in the grandfather’s inability to find the building where his daughter lives – and to
which no resident can direct him, because all of the buildings look the same. Such similar-
ity and repetition define both Panelstory’s architectural and interactional worlds. While
each family has its own private space – one of mass housing’s chief social achievements –
this space is identical to those of other residents, a fact satirized in the film’s opening
scene, which figures, in a long shot, rows of windows lining the side of a building. Red
light glows in one, and a half-clothed couple frolics inside. Through the visual breadth of
the long shot (which underscores the fact that this window is just one of many), intimacy
is made standard and repeatable; and through the camera’s point of view (that of a voyeur
in an adjacent building), it is made public.
Whereas domestic space is compartmentalized, standardized, and repeated, space
outside and between the buildings is unruly and difficult to navigate. Again and again, res-
idents negotiate piles of dirt, rubbish, and construction debris, while carrying children and
bags, in cars or on foot. Ubiquitous women with baby carriages are unable to move from
building to building due to the omnipresent mud; elevators malfunction; stairways and
entrances are unfinished and treacherous. Just as the buildings are depicted as isolated
from each other, the housing estate is depicted as isolated from the rest of Prague. Com-
munication between buildings is impossible, for none of the residents has a telephone,
while the world outside the estate enters the film primarily through letters or consumer
goods, on which Panelstory places special emphasis (at times simultaneously: a postal
worker delivering a letter to an impatient resident complains, ‘I have the right to go shop-
ping, too!’). In response to this isolation, residents develop alternate means of interacting
and making do. One woman, unable to enroll her baby in child care, bribes the facility’s
manager. When the faucets stop running in her apartment, she ladles water out of the
reserve bowl of her toilet. So na, unable to speak with her boyfriend while he is at work,
sends a message to him through the young boy. Direct communicative, financial, or emo-
tional transactions seem impossible within the spatial logic of the housing estate, in which
regulated, standardized domestic spaces are isolated from each other and from the world
around them.
Through this vision of space and community, Chytilova critiques Czechoslovak society
during ‘normalization’ – a period during which, as historian Paulina Bren has described,
the Czechoslovak state supported social atomization as an antidote to the collective poli-
tics that characterized the period of the Prague Spring (Bren 2010).5 And indeed, earlier
in their history, housing estates had been depicted differently on film. In Vaclav

Taborsky’s (1963) black-and-white documentary City of Mud (Zablacen e mesto), sequen-

ces show residents moving into new apartments, builders at work, and children at school
and play in ad hoc spaces in the estate-under-construction. The film’s primary trope is
the titular mud that surrounds the buildings: its opening shot figures the reflection of a
new panelak in a puddle (an image echoed later in the film), and throughout its nine
minutes, women and children are carried across muddy paths by construction workers or
parents, others are stuck in the mud, and nearly everyone carries a second set of shoes
(Figure 1). However, where Chytilova’s depictions of exterior space (similarly documen-
tary, muddy, and difficult to navigate) argue for a post-1968 social breakdown, City of
Mud largely figures society as intact, despite its critique of the obviously nonfunctional
architecture (encapsulated in the sarcastic opening shot). Amidst the chaos and mud, the
estate’s residents appear to make the best of things – at times to the point of absurdity, as
the repeated shot of a woman cheerfully brushing dirt off a decorative pillow suggests
(Figure 2).
City of Mud’s opening shot highlights a cinematic peculiarity of the housing estates
(and large-scale housing complexes more generally): the fact that they, in certain ways,
resist filming. Indeed, in both Taborsky’s and Chytilova’s films, the estates present, on
one hand, a cinematographic conundrum, and, on the other, an opportunity: the former
insofar as their scale makes it difficult to photograph them without recourse to aerial shots
or extreme wide lenses; the latter insofar as their architecture suggests novel ways to
depict them. In Panelstory, for example, Sofr and Chytilova highlight the geometry of the

Figure 1. Reflection of a panelak in a puddle (City of Mud)


Figure 2. Brushing dirt off a pillow (City of Mud)

panelak (the buildings’ right angles; the stark contrast between their massive, block-like
silhouettes and light at sunrise or sunset), and capitalize on the repeated pattern of win-
dows, capturing brilliant reflections in the glass. In one shot, this trope is reversed: as the
famous actor’s lover sarcastically refers to his admiration of ‘beauty and harmony’, the
buildings are reflected, in seemingly ironic counterpoint, in his car windows (Figure 3).
City of Mud’s opening, of course, also captures the buildings in a reflection, and the film
frequently figures them in visual simile, as in a sequence that begins with a close-up shot
of piles of bread in a housing-estate grocery, followed by a shot of a pile of concrete panels
ready to be put into place – a sequence that both highlights the panels’ geometry and
draws a connection between the apparently abundant supplies at the grocery and the
promised plenty of the housing estate (once again suggesting links between consumption
and urban space).
Yet these aesthetic opportunities are matched by challenges. Panelstory’s use of wide-
angle lenses and frequent pans seems to be a response to the difficulty of capturing an
individual panelak, let alone an entire estate, in a single unmoving shot: wide lenses per-
mit larger-scale objects to be photographed, while pans can capture an entire building in
the course of a single take. City of Mud shows the estate as a whole only once, in a long
aerial shot, and Panelstory, too, frequently uses long shots or aerial photography to figure
the buildings. However, both films’ aerial shots never encompass the inner districts of
Prague, even from a distance. Shots from the top of Panelstory’s buildings offer only the
image of more, similar buildings, continuing to the horizon, while in City of Mud, the

Figure 3. ‘Beauty and harmony’ (Panelstory)

housing estate itself appears to represent the full scope of the camera’s vision – the film
ends with shots of departing trams, presumably destined for the city center.
The fact that, even from the vantage point of the tallest panelak, the camera cannot
catch sight of Prague’s older districts is at the core of Chytilova’s (and, to a milder degree,
Taborsky’s) spatio-temporal critique of the housing estates. If, in Hamilton’s formulation,
the socialist city can be mapped both architecturally and temporally-ideologically, with
the housing estates representing an advanced point in social progress, long shots such as
those in Panelstory and City of Mud capture only the present (the estates) and the future
(in Hamilton’s schema, the potential space beyond the estates). The past, in these shots –
at least in its architectural and urban incarnation – is absent.
This temporality is embedded in the act of filming itself. Because the scale of the hous-
ing estates makes their staging difficult, if not impossible, even fiction films such as Panel-
story must be shot in media res, effectively producing a generic blend of fiction and
nonfiction. That is, by setting a film in an estate, a filmmaker also documents the present
moment in which the film is produced – a present that, as it is consumed with the act of
construction, is also inevitably directed towards the future. This idea may be best summa-
rized by a repeated trope in both Panelstory and City of Mud, in which a concrete panel is
suspended in mid-air by a crane, sometimes moving into place in a wall, and at times sim-
ply hanging6 (Figure 4). In such shots, the panel signifies both the potential of the future
construction (the wall that it will become) and the persistence of the present (in which we
see it hanging), a state of temporal ambiguity that encapsulates Hrabal’s ‘world eternally
under construction’.

Figure 4. Suspended panel (Panelstory)

In its conclusion, Panelstory underscores, in a narrative sense, the ways in which vision
and time intertwine in late-socialist urban space. Here, So na cries alone in the bare con-
crete storeroom of a half-built building. Petr finds So na, and confesses that he would like
to have a child. They embrace, and the film ends with a long shot of two buildings,
silhouetted in moonlight, as lights in their windows turn on and off.7 (Figure 5) ‘Wouldn’t
you like to go to the moon?’ asks Petr (in voice-over). ‘No, I wouldn’t leave here for any-
one’, replies Sona. Thus Petr’s and Sona’s future stretches before them in the eternal pres-
ent of this ‘here’, with their nascent domestic life encapsulated by what they can see
around them: the partially-completed room in which they reconcile and rows of identical

Counter-models and alternatives

Chytilova’s critique of the Czechoslovak city during normalization – effectively soft-
pedaled by Panelstory’s fictional and comedic elements – is more trenchant in her
documentary Time is Inexorable (1978). While both films were essentially banned in
Czechoslovakia soon after their release, Time is Inexorable earned Chytilova special atten-
tion from Czechoslovakia’s Secret Police (StB), when an officer visiting a screening of the
film at Prague’s Lucerna cinema was disturbed by the laughter it provoked, concluding
 (Czechoslovak Communist Party)’
that it was ‘making fun of the social policies of the KSC
(Koura 2014).

Figure 5. ‘Wouldn’t you like to go to the moon?’ (Panelstory)

Time is Inexorable is linked to Panelstory both stylistically (it uses the same jarring
sonic transitions and quick zooms and pans) and thematically (in its exploration of the
resonances between human and urban time). In fact, the mere year-long gap between the
production dates of the two films, and the fact that they share actors, themes, and
similar footage, suggests that they should be considered as a pair, with Time is Inexorable
elaborating on a central theme in Panelstory: neglect of the elderly in socialism’s youth-
focused culture. In the feature film, this theme is embodied both by the figure of Petr’s
grandfather, utterly out of place in the new urban setting in which he finds himself
(at one moment, he says pointedly, ‘No one cares about old people!’), and in an elderly
female resident of South City whom other residents suspect to be dead, but who is actually
napping, and dreaming of someplace even farther away than the city center: Africa, where
her son lives.
Time is Inexorable depicts the real-life counterparts to these fictional figures, and con-
sists primarily of a series of black-and-white documentary portraits of people over the age
of 75 – among them Chytilova’s own mother, who also appears in Panelstory. These char-
acters, most of whom were born around the turn of the twentieth century, answer the
filmmaker’s questions about how to age ‘well’, questions that underscore the film’s origin
as a commission for the Red Cross.8 Many of their responses suggest that, in addition to
remaining active and connected to others, the answer is to remember the past, but not to
dwell on it. One man’s key to living well, in fact – looking daily at beautiful things (for
him, the view of Prague from the Charles Bridge) – suggests that the actual vision of the
past can make one happy, a notion underscored by the film’s more experimental sections.

These include its opening sequence, which, after a color shot of a crumbling building cov-
ered with advertising posters, features the titles WHAT WAS IS NO LONGER (Co bylo
nenı) and THE WHOLE WORLD IS CHANGING (Cely svet se menı), followed by a dis-
orienting whip pan, in black and white, from a panelak under construction to a centuries-
old cathedral, thereby visually illustrating the idea the titles announce. This sequence is
followed by further shots of construction, one featuring a concrete panel suspended in
mid-air by a crane, and another a long shot of a prefabricated building in which the frame
rotates from upright to upside-down. The ‘world under construction’, in these shots, is
visually out of joint, an idea emphasized by the film’s soundtrack and editing.
Time Is Inexorable’s uneasy relationship to the temporality of ‘construction’ is also sug-
gested in the film’s title, in which time is not optimistically directed toward the future (the
temporality of young couples such as So na and Petr), but rather ‘inexorable’, unstoppable.
The film’s solution to this dogged forward march appears to be precisely to keep the past
in sight, an idea visually reinforced in a shot of an elderly man at a doctor’s visit. As he
lifts his arms to allow the doctor to listen to his heart, Sofr’s camera zooms in on the
man’s chest, rippled with wrinkles in concentric circles – not unlike the rings of a tree, an
image of which follows in the next shot. As opposed to Hamilton’s socialist city and the
Prague pictured in Panelstory and City of Mud, whose inner rings are not visible from the
periphery, the visual metaphor of the tree implies that the man embodies all moments of
his life at once.
This evocation of urban space, in which the most recent ‘layer’ of development is visi-
ble alongside older layers, echoes the temporal-spatial geography that Too Loud a Solitude
posits as an alternative to the ‘devoured’ city. Here again, the novella’s all-purpose meta-
phor of wastepaper compacting is central. While watching the ‘Brigade of Socialist Labor’
operating their new, mechanized book compactor (whose conveyor belt suggests ‘inexora-
ble’ progress and time), Mr Ha nta mourns the loss of his, and by extension his trade’s,
ability to ‘stop time’ by opening books destined for compacting, thereby looking
… it didn’t matter what page they fell open to: nobody ever looked into them, nobody even
dreamed of looking into them, because whereas I stopped my press all the time, they had to
keep the belt full and moving… . Gone were the days of small joys, of finds, of books thrown
away by mistake: these people represented a new way of thinking. (Hrabal 1990, 65)

Indeed, the city that Mr Ha nta inhabits does not radiate outward in rings from the cen-
ter, but has multiple levels and layers, some of them underground. ‘Most of all’, the narra-
tor observes:
I enjoy central-heating control rooms, where men with higher education, chained to their
jobs like dogs to their kennels, write the history of their times as a sort of sociological survey
and where I learned how the fourth estate was depopulated and the proletariat went from
base to superstructure and how the university-trained elite now carries on its work. My best
friends are two former members of our Academy of Sciences who have been set to work in
the sewers, so they’ve decided to write a book about them… . (Hrabal 1990, 22)
With this, Mr Ha nta poetically recounts a historical reality of Czechoslovakia after
1968 (the relegation of intellectuals to blue-collar jobs), but also evokes a topography for
the late-socialist city that differs significantly from the metaphor of ‘an enormous bale
standing on a deserted plain’. This difference is similar to that between Mr Ha nta’s

artisanal, variegated bales of wastepaper and the ‘cubes’ produced by the Brigade of
Socialist Labor.9
A similarly-layered urban topography runs throughout novelist and scholar Daniela
Hodrova’s literary and theoretical writings on the city. Her renowned trilogy City of Tor-
ment (Tryzniv e mesto) – the novels Podobojı (A Kingdom of Souls, 1991), Kukly (Puppets,
1991), and Th eta (1992) – is set in a Prague that, following the trilogy’s title, is ‘tormen-
tous’: twisting, labyrinthine.10 While the novels are broadly chronological (their primary
action begins during the Second World War and extends to the early 1990s), they do not
progress steadily forward in time. Instead, historical and fictional characters from the
past, present, and future intersect and overlap within the urban spaces that are at the nov-
els’ core. This is established in the first scene of A Kingdom of Souls, in which the book’s
teenaged protagonist, Alice Davidovicova, jumps from her bedroom window to avoid
being sent on a transport to Terezın. Alice’s bedroom, in an apartment near the Olsany
cemetery, later becomes Hodrova’s own; through this space, the novelist’s family and the
novelist herself enter the narrative, along with other characters who populate the apart-
ment and building.
In their layering of moments in time within urban space, the links between
Hodrova’s novels and Time is Inexorable are clear. The novels, moreover, share with
Chytilova’s films an interest in the overlapping of the familial (the filmmaker’s mother,
the novelist’s family) and the fictional, while Panelstory and City of Torment are both
structured around complexly related character dyads, a concept that Pavlına Krupova
has described in Hodrova’s work. According to Krupova, these include ‘complemen-
tary dyads – married couples… tragic dyads, such as [friends] Mr Klecka and Mr

Turek, [and] counterparts such as Cain and Abel’ (Krupova 2005, 395). (Underscoring
this, the Czech title of A Kingdom of Souls is Podobojı: ‘in both kinds’.) Panelstory’s
dyads include its straying couples, its mothers and their children, the young boy and
the old man, So na and Petr.
If for Chytilova, these relationships’ convoluted nature is evidence of late-socialist
social and moral disintegration, for Hodrova, it underscores the interpenetration of his-
torical moments. Crucially, this interpenetration is present even in Prague’s former
periphery – and specifically in the border between Zi  zkov and Vinohrady where
Hodrova’s trilogy is set. This area was itself the subject of urban renewal in the late 1970s
and 1980s, an effort to replace its old gallery houses. While some panelaks were built
directly in the neighborhood (on Olsany Square), many of the area’s residents were moved
to newly-constructed housing estates such as South City (Funk 2014). Simultaneously, the
area by Jirıho z Podebrad Square was renovated, with part of its old Jewish cemetery relo-
cated and Prague’s famed television tower erected in the Mahler Gardens. Hodrova
addresses this directly in Th eta, describing her repeated path from her home to the hospi-
tal where her father lay dying:
I ran through Milesovska street… crossed Ondrıckova… ran down Fibichova (the streets in
this area are named after musicians), around an overgrown park with tree stumps (once there
was a Jewish cemetery here, but they only left its oldest part and the plague hospital, where
the Stuko cooperative is now housed). At that time, in the fall, our dog Rozina Sebranec
would go on walks there, but soon after father’s death they dug a massive pit in the park,
from which, some time later, the deadly white wormwood of the television tower loomed
(Hodrova 2017, 423).11

Hodrova also discusses these historical peripheries in her theoretical text Places with
Secrets (Mısta s tajemstvım), whose historical typology of the novel in Prague, and the
novel and Prague, we may take as a guide to reading Chytilova’s films. As Hodrova writes,
these neighborhoods began to develop in the aftermath of the late-nineteenth century dis-
mantling of Prague’s city walls. As they did, tensions emerged in the Czech novel between
the city center and the former periphery. These tensions had temporal dimensions: while
the city center had traditionally been depicted as the bearer of national and (for the nov-
el’s protagonist) individual significance, and the periphery as a space ‘without memory
(history)’, in Hodrova’s words, after the removal of the walls, ‘the hierarchy between cen-
ter and periphery disappears’, and ‘the idea of the center as the center of being (for the
nation and the individual) is relativized’ (Hodrova 1994, 101, 108). Through this, ‘the cen-
ter reveals itself to be a false center, and only a different… kind of periphery. The tradi-
tional connection between certain places and certain events disintegrates and new,
unexpected links are created’ (Hodrova 1994, 108).
Places with Secrets offers a further way to read these shifts in spatial hierarchies as they
are reflected in the novel: through alterations in the ‘perception’ of the city, and often in
protagonists’ actual vision of Prague. As Hodrova writes, the Czech novel historically
accorded personal and national significance to the sight of the city center: in Ivan
Olbracht’s 1919 Podivn e pratelstvı herce Jesenia (The Strange Friendship of Jesenius the
Actor), for instance, the protagonist undergoes a ‘spiritual rebirth’ through the act of view-
ing Prague from the heights of Petrın Hill, adjacent to Prague Castle. As the peripheries
developed, however, the objects of such vision shifted, as in Karel Matej Capek  Chod’s
Antonın Vondrejc (1918), whose action partially plays out in a Vinohrady apartment
building at whose courtyard the protagonist gazes, ‘in place of a view to Hradcany’
(Hodrova 1994, 101). This changed, according to Hodrova, in the mid-twentieth century,
as, ‘under the influence of technically changing viewpoints and the emerging poetics of
socialist realism, an image of the socially stratified, polysemantic city emerge[d]’ (Hodrova
1994, 107). We might indeed read Panelstory and Time is Inexorable as disoriented reac-
tions to the emergence of the late-twentieth-century ‘polysemantic city’, and particularly
the late-socialist city. The films seek (but are unable to find) the restorative view of
Prague’s center long heralded in Czech literature, and perhaps dating to Libuse’s prophecy
about the city – delivered from a perch high on the banks of the Vltava.12
Although in both Hodrova’s novels and Chytilova’s films, the periphery offers no such
view on the historic city center, City of Torment suggests that the periphery is nevertheless
a site of national and personal significance, one that contains the same temporal layers
that define the center. Puppets, the second book in City of Torment, opens precisely in a
Vinohrady courtyard, as its protagonist, Sofie Syslova (who embodies both the first novel’s
protagonist, Alice Davidovicova, and the second, Eliska Berankova), approaches the glass
doors of her apartment building. As she does, she hears a ‘strange sound… linked to
something much earlier in her life and precisely to this courtyard…’. If Sofie does not
open the door to the courtyard ‘as quickly as possible, she will not catch the past that is
unspooling there, always just until the moment when she enters the courtyard’ (Hodrova
2017, 167). And in Th eta, as Hodrova holds vigil at her father’s hospital bedside, she, too,
looks out the window to ‘the courtyard of a closed block of flats’. Through this window,
and the ‘window of the building opposite’, she hears ‘sentences from the film they were
showing on television. The narrator’s words were particularly distinct when he was

reading names, the names of those who approved the assassination of Reichsprotektor
Reinhard Heydrich’ (Hodrova 2017, 423).
For Hodrova, the notion that the city, as it is depicted in the novel, can embody
such multifaceted temporalities derives in part from literary form itself: from what
she describes in her book The Sensitive City as a ‘convergence’ of the ‘city-text’ with the
‘literary text’. She envisions both ‘as a “manuscript”, a “product”, “fabric”’. ‘The flow of
time’, she writes, ‘plays an important role in both kinds of texts. The city-text, just like the
literary text, is a pillar of memory whose stable points (historical buildings) and memori-
als of events and people counter forgetting…’ (Hodrova 2006, 27). Despite their seemingly
antithetical view of the periphery, we may read Chytilova’s films of the late-socialist city
similarly. For Panelstory’s social critique – which hinges on the impossibility of viewing
the center from the periphery (or the periphery in its entirety) – is also grounded in form:
in this case, the visual constraints of cinematic technology. Yet a secondary effect of the
wide lens that offers a solution to this problem is that everything in its expanded frame is
always in focus: from the film’s protagonists, to passersby, to construction detritus, to
parked cars, to builders at work. The result is not unlike the vision of the periphery
in Hodrova’s novels, in which a multiplicity of ‘stable points’ (whether buildings, charac-
ters, or objects) are simultaneously present. In this sense – and perhaps despite itself –
Panelstory, too, depicts the urban periphery in normalized Prague as multifaceted and
complex; as kaleidoscopic as the riotous colors in its palette.

1. Chytilova had already adapted Hrabal’s story ‘Automat Svet’ for the omnibus film Pearls of the
Deep (Perlicky na dne, 1966).
2. Panelstory’s title is sometimes also given in English as Prefab Story.
3. On this, see also Zarecor 2011.
4. Pavel Halık describes the estates’ scale: ‘the 1960s… saw the birth of the idea of large housing
estates on the edge of Prague—the North City, the South City (100 thousand inhabitants!) and
finally the South-West City’ (Halık 1995, 105).
5. The film’s critical standpoint was abundantly evident, and Panelstory was largely banned in
Czechoslovakia, although according to Chytilova and Tomas Pilat, some East European dis-
tributors considered it ‘an example of engage socialist art’, and argued that more works like it
should be made (Chytilova and Pilat 2010, 256). Unless otherwise indicated, all translations
from Czech in this article are my own.
6. This trope also appears in films outside the Czechoslovak context; for instance, the East
German film Born in ’45 (Jahrgang ’45, dir. J€ urgen B€ottcher, 1966).
7. City of Mud also ends with shots of lace-curtained windows in which lights turn on and off.
8. Chytilova and Pilat 2010, 220.
9. Mr Ha nta describes the bales of compacted waste-paper that he will produce when he retires
and buys his paper compactor: ‘… I’ll make only one bale a day, but what a bale, a bale to end
all bales, a statue, an artifact… While I line the drum of my press with books and old paper,
while I’m in the throes of creation but just before I turn the pressure on, I’ll sprinkle it all with
confetti and sequins … and when a year is up—an exhibition, I’ll hold a bale exhibition… .’
(Hrabal 1990, 8.)
10. Here, I am using the English versions of Hodrova’s titles used by Veronique Firkusny and
Elena Sokol, translators of Hodrova’s first novel (Hodrova 2015a). The trilogy in its entirety
has been translated into French by Catherine Servant and German by Susanna Roth, and parts
in Spanish, Norwegian, Bulgarian, Polish, Swedish, and Dutch.

11. Not only are the streets named after musicians, but the dog is named after the eponymous
novel by Zikmund Winter, which was later adapted into a film by Otakar Vavra (Rozina Sebra-
nec, or Rosina the Foundling, 1945).
12. The title of Hodrova’s travel guide, Prague, I See a City…, evokes the mythological member of
the Premyslid dynasty Libuse’s prophecy that the site where Prague now stands would be
home to a great city. (Hodrova 2015b)

Many thanks to Veronica Aplenc, Paula Rabinowitz, Noa Steimatsky, and two anonymous
reviewers for comments on earlier versions of this essay.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor
Alice Lovejoy is Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Litera-
ture and the Moving Image Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of
Army Film and the Avant Garde: Cinema and Experiment in the Czechoslovak Military (Indiana
University Press, 2015).

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