by Andrew Wyatt on Mar 24, 2022

Viewers who walk into writer-director Ivan Ostrochovský’s unnerving new drama Servants knowing nothing about the film might require some time to ascertain that it takes place in Czechoslovakia in 1980. No on-screen text announces the feature’s setting, and the forbidding Eastern Bloc production design obscures the exact date. The fact that 1980 could so easily pass for any year between the 1948 Communist coup and the 1989 Velvet Revolution underscores the end-of-history thesis of Marxist ideology, not to mention the dreariness of life under the ČSSR’s oppressive one-party rule. If the events depicted in Servants feel as if they are occurring out of time – evoking Christian Petzold’s more emphatically dislocated Transit (2018) – that sensation is almost certainly by design.

Set in the Slovak-dominated city of Bratislava, Ostrochovský’s feature depicts the events that unfold over a school year at an embattled Catholic seminary. Having grown up together in the same diocese, friends Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) arrive at the school and join the latest cohort of students. Some of these aspiring priests are fulfilling their mothers’ fondest wishes, while others are merely pursuing an exemption from compulsory military service. Unfortunately, it is a perilous time for the clergy in Czechoslovakia. Officially, the Socialist Republic is atheist, and like all institutions, the Church is expected to bow before the Communist Party’s authority. In practice, ecclesiastical policy is dictated not by Rome, but by Pacem in Terris, a national organization packed with quisling priests who toe the government line.

The tense, quailing atmosphere that pervades the seminary’s chapels and classrooms quickly puts Juraj and Michal on edge. Their instructors seem nervous and reticent, while their outwardly benign confessor (Millan Mikulcík) has frightened eyes that betray his secret, collaborationist dealings. The elderly dean (Vladimír Strnisko) dodders about the halls, powerless to resist the State Security (ŠtB) officers when they come calling – which is frequently. The watchful eye of the Republic’s feared secret police force is embodied in Dr. Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), a loyal Party apparatchik who is seen dumping a battered corpse on a deserted road in the film’s flash-forward prelude. Ostensibly a physician but in practice a ruthless enforcer, Dr. Ivan has made it his personal priority to quash any dissent that arises at the seminary.

It’s not long before this political and religious reality begins to fray the friendship between Juraj and Michal. Increasingly frustrated by the government’s heavy hand, Juraj drifts into the orbit of Ductor (Tomas Turek), an older student who is active in the seminary’s underground movement. This group’s ethos is hardly the stuff of radical anti-communism, as it is primarily concerned with ecclesiastical matters and the Church’s political autonomy. By night, the resistance movement meets secretly at the off-site flat of Father Coufar (Vladimir Vladimír) for readings from smuggled religious texts. The group’s most subversive acts involve leaving phone messages for Radio Free Europe describing the ŠtB’s crackdowns and posting anonymous pamphlets denouncing Pacem in Terris. The secret police's wildly disproportionate response to such defiance – confiscating and analyzing every typewriter in the seminary, for example – underlines the iron-cold fear of dissension that drives the Party’s policies. Michal might be wounded about Juraj’s increasing standoffishness, but he is also terrified that his friend will be arrested, tortured, or worse.

Films about life under authoritarian governments often strive to elicit audience identification through vivid, relatable characterization. Even features that embrace an austere arthouse style will typically provide the viewer with a clearly drawn and sympathetic protagonist, as in Andrei Konchalovsky’s recent Dear Comrades! (2020). However, Ostrochovský takes a radically different approach, eschewing humanizing depth for crisp formal precision and a powerful mood of numbing dread. In truth, Servants often looks and sounds more like an art-horror film than a historical drama. This is particularly evident in Cristian Lolea and Miroslav Toth’s fantastically eerie score, which often rises to overwhelm the dialogue and ambient sound with its shrill whistles and chthonic rumbles.

Shot digitally in sharp yet sumptuous black-and-white, the film inevitably recalls the work of fellow Eastern European filmmakers Béla Tarr and Pawel Pawlikowski. However, Ostrochovský seems to draw just as much stylistic influence from the Romanian New Wave, commonly (although not exclusively) employing static shots and balanced, symmetrical compositions. He also evinces a similar interest in the dire absurdities of the Communist era, albeit without the black humor that snakes through so much of Romanian cinema. This is an unrelentingly grim film about a grim place at a grim time. Whenever Ostrochovský lingers on a nominally lighthearted moment – a cassocked priest jumping on a trampoline in a gymnasium, a trio of seminarians tossing snowballs in front of a monolithic Communist monument – it feels ominous rather than charming.

This potent atmosphere helps to balance out the film’s undernourished characterization, which is not so much an oversight as it is inconsequential to Ostrochovský’s aims. The viewer learns very little about Juraj and Michal’s personalities or their relationship, and the other characters are kept at arm’s length by the feature’s starchy, ellipsis-dotted style. In those uncommon instances where the film reveals a distinctive trait – such as Juraj and Michal’s passion for the accordion or Dr. Ivan’s alarming skin ailment – it is less about enriching character than creating an arresting visual. The filmmaker seems to have cast many of his performers primarily for their striking countenances and for their ability to express their character’s state of mind with minimal dialogue. As if to underline the point, the director often shoots his actors in discomfiting, portrait-like close-ups, obliging the viewer to contemplate every pimple, wrinkle, and liver spot.

Servants never openly states or shows what can be read between the lines. The threat of violence is always looming, but the actual bloodshed is hidden behind the walls of the ŠtB, where its dread legend grows fat on the terror of the unseen. (Indeed, a clumsy slap inflicted on a prisoner by a State Security goon is the film’s most grievous act of on-screen physical violence.) Frequently, Ostrochovský elects to depict the aftermath of a crucial event rather than the event itself, mirroring the importance of elision and obfuscation in the Communist government’s playbook. The filmmaker often asks the viewer to sit and ruminate on an implicating detail – an empty chair, a muddy loafer, an errant security file – and draw their own bleak conclusions. At times, Servants resembles a novel where every third sentence has been expurgated by a censor’s pen. Although this results in a story that can feel fragmentary, it’s also a fitting approach for a film about a society ruled by paranoia, where true survivors learn to connect the dots and always assume the worst.

Rating: B

Servants is now available to rent from major online platforms.