The End of August at the Hotel Ozone

What a remarkable title for a film.

Spoilers galore follow. Stop reading if you ever plan on seeing it.

The story is post-apocalyptic. The film, made in Czechoslovakia about 1967, advances us 15 to 20 years after a day that the last newspaper reported there was unrest in the Middle East (I forget the exact wording), then the next day everything was gone, civilization as it was known had ended.

For much of the film we follow an older woman leading a pack of young women through this post-apocalyptic wilderness, their journey’s purpose being to look for other survivors (none have been found). They call the older woman only “Old Woman”. Nothing happens for a long while except to show their scavenging life style and the peculiar relationship these young adults have with their guide and caretaker who has been left with the task of leadership to the extreme degree that she is not only the head of this body but their struggling heart, very nearly the only one capable of acting above base survivalist impulse, or willing to respond to others and what remains of the world with interest and intelligent compassion. The young women are as reliant on her as children, but also rebellious and alarmingly, violently unpredictable. None of them are predisposed to talking; about all they seem to have to vent is frustration and rage, done so spontaneously, physically. Old Woman spends a good deal of her time just trying to keep them from fracturing altogether.

By the rings of a tree trunk as a calendar, she shows them when the Event occurred and when the last boy died, not through disease but pulled apart by wild dogs.

Any surprise that a dog which has been following them, one girl tosses food to it, as if attracted to having a dog, but another eventually shoots it. There is no discussion. No sharing of what one or the other may want, or their feelings about what the others do, no attempt at mediation. The dog is shot. That is all there is to it.

They exhibit little restraint, pulling dangerous, literally explosive stunts that could hurt them and their valuable horses, not much there in the way of critical thought. The old woman chastises but it seems to draw no remorse or inspire reflection. But then they’ve lived impossible lives, their childhoods filled with only death and decay. Their pessimistic, nihilistic entertainments seem not so outrageous if you believe you’ve no future at all and are young.

What moral and emotional frame do you build your life on when it seems you may be the last pocket of survivors of the human race, and you’ve grown up knowing there was something previous to you but nothing may be following?

There’s a curious stretch in the film where Old Woman believes she may have found someone alive, noticing fresh chalk marks on the walls of buildings in a town. She follows the marks but ultimately discovers, in a church ruin, it is one of the girls who has been making the marks. Eva. She is stranded on the margin of what was an upper floor, it having collapsed. Old Woman coaxes her into jumping to her and thus saving herself.

The troupe comes across a cow and slaughters it. While they are butchering the cow, one of the young women screams and Old Woman looks up to see running towards them an elderly man. The girls are terrified. One of them starts shooting at the man though the old woman tells her no, no. Still, the man, despite the gun being fired at him, continues running toward them, waving his arms. Old Woman stands between the gun and the oncoming man. It’s all right! Only then is the gun put down.

Old Man, ecstatic, leads the group back to the Hotel Ozone where he has been waiting all these years for survivors, caretaking remnants of the Old World. He sets up an umbrella for the women to rest under. He is obviously especially pleased to have with him now this older woman who shares with him a link to what was, and regards the young women as children, calling them such and bringing them milk. Old Woman is just as pleased to have not only these tastes of civilization but to be around a sympathetic soul.

Overcome, Old Woman becomes ill with a fever. She goes to bed. In the morning Old Man brings her flowers and introduces himself properly, they exchanging names, and Old Woman has Martha, the young woman who was staying with her, leave the room. After Martha has gone, the woman questions the man, learning he is the only one at the Hotel and knows of no other survivors. She reveals she has no hope for the girls, that there is no one else out there. The man insists there is, that they will find them, there will be some men somewhere and the girls will have children and they will be the new Adam and Eve. The old woman, despite having traveled continually with the girls, seeking, says no, no. She says nothing grows, and all the tin is rusting. She repeats it several times, that all the tin is rusting, the land has rejected them.

That evening Old Man serves a sit down dinner with he and the old woman at either end of the table and the young women between. They have been nothing but perplexed and ultimately disinterested in all that he shows them, but Old Woman appreciates the accouterments, she enjoys being called by her name again. The old man toasts them and their future. He pulls out an old wind-up gramophone and entertains the girls with a recording of the “Beer Barrel Polka”. It is the first exhibit which captures their imagination.

While the girls listen to the one recording the old man owns, fascinated by these voices of people from a past world, Old Woman dies.

She is buried on a hill where rest the others who’d come to Hotel Ozone with Old Man but not survived. Martha, the girl who will now take Old Woman’s place as leader, calls the others to prepare to leave. They return to the hotel and pack up their horses. Old Man, having preserved these vestiges of civilization to share with someone, Old Woman now dead, is unable to face that the girls will now be moving on. The disaster for him is that the Old Woman has died, for there’s no doubt she would have been his companion, and having lost that companion, he can’t comprehend going without human company.

The girls have no idea that Old Woman had confessed to the man that she believed there was no one out there. As Old Woman had set their mission for searching for survivors, whether or not the young women may have believed before that survivors existed, with Old Woman dead they pick up her task now as their inheritance. They say they must go on and find the men for whom they’d been looking with the old woman. Perhaps Old Man only felt hope other individuals were out there as long as Old Woman was there, perhaps he is simply this desperate to have company, but he insists now that no one else is out there. They don’t believe him and point out that they’d found him after all. He entreats them to at least stay for the winter at the Hotel where they’ll be warm and have all the food they’ll need, then move on in the Spring. The girls instead tell him that if he wants he can accompany them. But he is too old to start such a journey, and his job all these years has been to preserve the Hotel Ozone. He was the one who showed the girls the last newspaper. He attempted to explain to them what Italy was. He showed them where he had played chess against himself…

One of the young women remembers the gramophone and demands it. The man resists. The women won’t be denied. Sensing a time to exhibit authority and re-establish their unity, Martha leads the other women in pursuing him. When they bully and attempt to force him to give up the gramophone, he calls them animals. And they act as they’ve always done. Without discussion or consensus, one of the girls ends her frustration by simply raising her gun and shooting the man.

And that is pretty much the end of the film.

There are some problems with the story. Considering the mobility of the troupe, it seems odd that the girls would never have seen a television before coming to the Hotel Ozone. It seems with their ramblings that they would have been introduced to nearly every artifact the old world had to offer in scavenged homes and shops. They’re not in rags and tatters so they’ve been finding those jeans they’re wearing somewhere approximating civilization. That they are plump with ammo and hand grenades, are familiar with alcohol, but medicine and chess sets and pictures of foreign places and glassware and crockery would be completely alien to them takes some suspension of disbelief, and you just kind of have to make a decision to accept the movie on its terms and go with it.

Another nit-picking problem is their going the off-the-beaten path route in search of survivors. They frequent woods, fields and rivers without bridges. If you were looking for post-nuke survivors wouldn’t you take to the highways or follow the railroad? Wouldn’t you want to go where your best chance was finding people not trees?

Wouldn’t a ham radio be your best friend? Never mind the logistics. It’d happen.

My biggest nit-picky problem. They have no can opener. They blithely stab open cans. Bullets and hand grenades and guns but no can opener. I don’t believe it.

The movie seems to be one of impressions. I’ve read some of the few commentaries there are of it on the internet. The New York Times states it’s about a group of wandering, sterile women. But there’d not be much point in their looking for men with whom to have children if they were sterile. Someone else gives the old man as impotent and near dementia. Perhaps they draw that conclusion from the fact it seems the old man doesn’t present himself as a possible father for a new generation (except in terms of he and the old woman being the new Adam and Eve to the young women and potential mates) and that the women obviously don’t consider him a possible mate. But, unless the translation has problems, impotency is never mentioned, and though the old man may be agitated with all kinds of emotions upon meeting these other survivors, he doesn’t seem senile. In fact, one of the film’s curiosities is why do the women so readily prepare to abandon then shoot this man if their primary goal is looking for men with whom to have children. The keeper of Hotel Ozone may not be the best candidate, but remains a possibility. Perhaps it’s the film’s intention that we puzzle over this, or perhaps it’s another problem with the story. I don’t know. The film is open-ended this way and so one is left to draw upon impressions.

I’ve the feeling the director gives several nods to Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”, one being the chess set and the other being the film’s final shot, which is of the women continuing on their journey, walking a high ridge, which is reminiscent of the Dance Macabre at “Seventh Seal’s” end. And that may be some clue to what’s happening here. When they reach this part of the countryside, the Old Woman is excited, she knows this place but it looks entirely different (if I remember correctly). She appears healthy but falls ill upon reaching the hotel. The women are introduced to the chess set with which the man has played against himself, one of them notices a book on the theory of chess, and that night the old woman dies at dinner. I’m sketchily reminded of the knight in the Seventh Seal returning from the crusades to find the land devastated by plague and his buying time with Death’s chess match to be reunited with his wife. But is the old man and the civilization he wants to preserve Death? Or is it the young women? If there are parallels to be drawn, things become murkier when, after the burial, the women ask the old man, almost accusingly, “How did you survive?”, a question he doesn’t answer, then demand the gramophone, give chase and kill him. Because the women have so little to say, this question, “How did you survive?” stands out. Are they slaying the last of the old order which to them is Death? Or, considering how they are frequently highlighted in the film (most times pretty gruesomely) as killing whatever’s alive that they come across, are they Death ridding the world of survivors? If parallels are to be drawn, they become murkier still with the women in the last shot walking the ridge. But I can’t help but feel when we see them walking that ridge, we’re intended to recall the “Seventh Seal”.

The chess set and the man playing against himself all these years nagged me during the end altercation. “Seems he didn’t learn much about strategy,” I thought.

It may help to know the original Czech lyrics for the “Beer Barrel Polka”, which was composed by Czech musician Jaromír Vejvoda in 1927 and the lyrics written by Václav Zeman in 1934. They’re quite a bit different from “There’s a garden, what a garden, only happy faces bloom there…” and the good cheer, blues on the run refrain.

The title was Škoda lásky, Wasted Love.

The roses bloom, who is responsible for it?
Nobody helps you today anymore.
They bloom, fade, leaflets fall from it
like those your tears on the cold grass.

Chorus:

Wasted love, which I gave you.
I would cry my eyes today out,
my youth ran away as a dream.
Only a memory remained
in my heart for all of this.

Source: Wikipedia

Does it help to know this? Probably not. I just keep running the film over in my mind wondering what is intentional and what questions arise from problems with the story.

One of the more peculiar things about this film is it was a Czech Army production. The director was a new wave Czech director, Jan Schmidt. There are several trained actors in it, but a number of the young women were apparently from the Czech Army.

A Czech Army production? I’m very curious about this, their producing a post-apocalyptic anti-nuke film.

I remember the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Eastern Bloc in August of 1968. We were visiting my father’s parents in Missouri and they had rented a small cabin for us to vacation at on a little river, I don’t recall where exactly, but I don’t recollect much being there except for some other cabins. One morning, my grandfather taking my brothers fishing (but not me) I settled down in the kitchen/dinette area with my mother and grandmother. The Today Show was on. They were playing footage of the invasion and discussing it.

The film is nicely shot. The subject doesn’t descend to Hollywood Amazonian Women Thirsting for Men…which it easily could have. The individuals look surprisingly contemporary which gives it a sense of immediacy. I mentioned earlier there are some gruesome moments with the slaying of some animals. No one seems to know if the killing of the dog was faked or not. A cow is butchered on screen. These scenes are designed to be disturbing, they are disturbing, and may be too much for some. What is real and what is story is blurred during these scenes, removing the viewer from their “safe” seat, disorienting the viewer as they struggle to determine whether at those points the film has become documentary, and this may be one of the more profound problems with the film.

UPDATE:

Continue reading about The End of August at the Hotel Ozone in “Cinema Sojourn’s” post, On The Road to Extinction.

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