Ever since I first saw a description for The End of August at the Hotel Ozone in the 16mm rental catalog from New Line Films I’ve wanted to see it. But this 1967 post-apocalyptic drama from Czechoslovakia, directed by Jan Schmidt, has remained an elusive feature for many years. New Line, which was started by Robert Shaye as a film distribution company in 1967, catered to art houses and colleges and universities with its eclectic mix of independent work (Eagle Pennell, Mark Rappaport, Jack Hazan), international fare (Werner Herzog, Lina Wertmuller, Claude Chabrol) and midnight movies (The Hills Have Eyes, Pink Flamingos). Eventually the company moved into producing films as well (such as the popular Nightmare on Elm Street franchise) but in 1994 New Line was acquired by the Turner Broadcasting System, which was then acquired by Time Warner in 1996 and later merged into Warner Bros. in 2008.
So what happened to The End of August at the Hotel Ozone and other international films once carried by New Line like Jan Nêmec’s Martyrs of Love or Fons Rademakers’ Max Havelaar? They went missing for years and some are still in limbo. In the case of The End of August, Facets Multimedia in Chicago secured the rights to it and released it on DVD in 2006. I recently caught up with it, thanks to Atlanta’s Videodrome, the last standing DVD/Blu-Ray rental store in Atlanta.
Post-apocalyptic cinema is one of my favorite genres because it is open to all manner of creative speculation and approaches. Generally categorized as science fiction, the results can vary wildly between a big budget, all-star Hollywood production like Stanley Kramer’s overstated but moving On the Beach (1959) and a no-budget effort like Roger Corman’s The Last Woman on Earth (1960), which depicts the end of the world in soap opera terms as a volatile love triangle (1959’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil went the same route but added racial tension to the mix).
The End of August, on the other hand, is a much more abstract and loosely structured work intended for art house audiences and closer in tone and visual style to something like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) or Luc Besson’s Le Dernier Combat (1983). There are also parallels to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies and such later end-of-the-world visions as Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003). Shot in black and white with minimal dialogue and a sparse music score, The End of August plunges us into the not-so-distant future where a band of eight women are meandering through the wilderness in search of food and other survivors after a worldwide nuclear event has decimated most of mankind.
In an intriguing opening montage, we see a deserted warehouse, empty fields, abandoned eyeglasses on an open book, an empty church, a fading human footprint on rock and then a tall tree being cut down. After it crashes to the ground, we see the circular ring patterns of the tree’s core as someone describes events that occurred during the tree’s history: “This is where it happened. Lots of people survived. Only later everything died off, but there were still cinemas and trains. I was still young. There were fewer people all the time. They left towns. You were born somewhere around here. In those days even the last survivors had died. We were in the mountains then. We began our trek around here. You were only ten or twelve. Then the dogs tore apart the last boy. Helen drowned around here. And this is where Maria died.”
The speaker is an elderly woman (played by Beta Poinicanova), the last link to civilization as it existed before the world fell apart. She is now the matriarch and leader of a small tribe of younger women who are uneducated, have no sense of history or moral code. Their mission, beyond mere survival, is to find a man so they can procreate and continue the human race though they all may, in fact, be sterile. The younger women are more like feral children and their attitude when encountering anything unexpected in the course of their journey often turns rapidly from curiosity to indifference or hostility with destructive consequences.
I can imagine what an American filmmaker in the sixties would have done with a premise like The End of August but director Jan Schmidt refuses to exploit certain elements of the film such as the depiction of the female protagonists. Instead of a bunch of shapely starlets dressed in sexy rags, these women dress like men (several of the actresses are reputedly Czech soldiers; the credits acknowledge the participation of the Czech Army) and are dirty, disheveled, and sullen in appearance. There are no lesbian flirtations, erotic bathing scenes or cat fights through a male gaze. But there are scenes of shocking cruelty involving animals that stand out and are bound to outrage and repel some viewers.
Hand grenades are tossed into mountain streams, stunning and killing fish so they can be scooped up for cooking. A snake is literally torn apart and discarded by one of the girls after it loses its curiosity value. A starving, mangy dog that follows the tribe in hopes of getting some food scraps is shot with a rifle. Its high-pitched yelps of pain are horribly real but end when its head is crushed with a rifle butt. A cow is also shot down point blank and butchered on the spot with almost manic glee by the female hunters. Only horses are sparred a crueler fate and, in a pinch, they could easily become food.
The fact that the animal deaths were not faked and were committed on camera in The End of August is unmistakable (There were no organizations like PETA or Eurogroup for Animals at the time, monitoring the treatment of animals in films being shot in Eastern Europe). It’s possible that the cow was a candidate for the slaughterhouse and the dog was a stray slated for euthanasia but it still doesn’t excuse their on-screen treatment. Of course, on a dramatic level, it’s undeniably potent in the same way animal death scenes in Mondo Cane and other Mondo films are shocking and drive home the film’s merciless vision. But Schmidt could have accomplished the same effect without actually killing the animals. Perhaps he felt it was more important to capture the grim reality of the situation but the message is clear: ignorance breeds contempt. The behavior of these last survivors condemns them to extinction and is perhaps appropriate and the logical end for an unenlightened species.
Despite the reprehensible nature of the above sequences, The End of August is still an original and thought-provoking experience with moments of austere beauty and even tenderness, particularly in the final segment when the women meet the only man they have ever seen (at the deserted hotel of the title). The twist is that he is close in age to the tribe’s matriarch and hardly the male specimen needed to impregnate the last women on earth. Interaction between the old man and the younger followers is awkward at best but, for a brief time, he manages to captivate them with a record player and his only surviving record, the popular polka song, “Roll Out the Barrel” (They have never heard music before). The result is both oddly touching and ironically amusing as the camera captures the rapt faces of the women. In the end, the record player and record prove to be more valuable and precious than the life of a human being.
The End of August was based on a screenplay by Pavel Juracek, who is best known for the influential Czech sci-fi adventure Ikarie XB 1 (aka Voyage to the End of the Universe, 1963) and the anarchic, madcap farce, Daisies (1966). As for director Jan Schmidt, he might have been considered part of the emerging Czech New Wave in his own country during the sixties but his name is relatively unknown in the US. With the exception of The End of August at the Hotel Ozone and Joseph Kilian (1965), a surreal Kafkaesque short he co-directed with Pavel Juracek, Schmidt’s work remains unavailable for viewing in the U.S. despite the fact that he has at least 15 other films to his credit. This makes it difficult to assess his importance as a filmmaker but The End of August did garner some critical acclaim when it first premiered in the U.S.
The late Stanley Kauffman of The New Republic wrote, “The film, with all of the pitfalls awaiting such a venture, is never tawdry, never pat or obvious or foolish. I think that Ozone with its grace and beauty and natural ease of expression, is finer than the more rigid, more theatrical The Silence [Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 drama].”
Other articles of note:
http://itssuperawesome.blogspot.com/ (This includes an interview with lead actress Beta Ponicanova on the making of the film)