You probably haven't heard of Vojtech Jasny, but to Czechoslovakian film directors like Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, who are beginning to make the big time in Hollywood, he's something of a revered father figure.
"Milos was, in some way, my pupil," says Jasny, 58, in town to present five of his films at American University's Wechsler Theater this weekend. "Milos brought a screenplay to me and asked me to be his supervisor, so I helped him supervise 'Black Peter' and 'Loves of a Blonde' . . . Passer was my assistant on my films 'Pilgrimage to the Virgin' and 'That Cat.' They the Czech government would never have let him work otherwise, because his father had been a rich man earlier."
Jasny was Forman's and Passer's predecessor at the reputable Prague Film School, where, with other names that you will probably never hear of (Nemec,, Menzel, Kadar, Ivans, Brynych, Chytilova), he helped create a brief shining moment of Czech filmmaking. From the end of the 1950s until the 1968 Soviet invasion, the country produced a body of work that ranks with all the great film movements, whether the early Russian films of Sergei Eisenstein or the heady Hollywood films of the 1940s. Jasny, who had already made several significant films, particularly the Cannes Film Festival award-winning "The Desire" in 1958, was considered one of the pillars of the Czech movement.
When the Russians overthrew Alexander Dubcek's relatively democratic government in 1968, the proverbial music died. Jasny, then at work on "All My Good Countrymen," thought he could tolerate the situation, and remained in the country to complete his film. The following year, "Countrymen" -- although it won Jasny a Cannes award for direction and technical achievements -- was banned by the Czechoslovakian government. He sent his wife and invalid son packing to West Germany, ostensibly for medical treatment, and he went another way, defecting to Austria. "I saw no reason to stay there," he says.
Since then Jasny has lived in self-imposed exile, his nomadic career taking him all over Western Europe, from Munich to Helsinki. He befriended German author and Nobel laureate Heinrich Bo ll when taping one of Bo ll's stories for German television. In 1978 Bo ll asked Jasny to adapt his book "The Clown" for the screen. While pursuing variegated assignments in film, television and theater, Jasny has also been a visiting film professor at universities in Vienna, Salzburg (he is now a naturalized Austrian) and Munich. He has won a steady slew of film and television awards along the way, including the Silver Shell at the 24th International Film Festival for "The Clown." In 1971, at the Cannes Festival's 25th anniversary, he shared honors with the likes of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson.
Does he call anywhere home?
"My Moravian roots are inside me," Jasny says. "I see the world with open eyes, and I like it all." He is basking, now, in the American film world (as a visiting professor at Columbia University), although he has yet to visit Hollywood. "New York feels most like home. Everybody here is from somewhere else. I don't feel at all homesick. I was also working briefly in Sundance Robert Redford's Utah film production center last June. I met a lot of people and liked it . . . I have more friends here already than in all my years in Germany. I like to be here."
And then, an afterthought: "I like Austria, but it is too close to Czechoslovakia."
The latter has bittersweet connotations for Jasny. He says of the Moravian village of Kelc, where he was born, "this small town has given me the most ideas for my films." Indeed, it inspired his film trilogy of "That Cat," "The Desire" and "All My Good Countrymen." Yet it is the same country in which Jasny, who is partly Jewish, lost both parents to the Nazis. The postwar communist government released his brother from his position as a philosophy teacher (for officially repudiating Soviet rule), forcing him to find a factory job manufacturing uranium. He died of bone cancer four years later. If Jasny returned to his country now, he says, it would be a one-way ticket.
At Columbia University he is elbow-deep in film projects and the lecturing duties he shares with buddy Forman. Although he keeps in touch with Forman, Passer, cameraman Miroslav Ondricek and other Czech filmmakers, surprisingly they do not collaborate on ventures. "But they are giving me good advice," he says.
Jasny is currently cowriting (with Columbia professor and film division cochairman Frank Daniel) "The Kids," a screenplay adaption of Bernard Benson's "The Peace Book," as well as working on a film version of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," which he has directed on stage many times. Other projects are in the making, too tentative to mention, although one -- "We Always Lie to Strangers" -- seems to be well under way, with Malcolm McDowell already cast in a leading role.
"The closest films to me are tragicomedies," says Jasny, "because such is life . . . I like to do fairy tales. 'The Kids' is a fairy tale, about how to save this planet from nuclear war. Children can use levitation in this film if they never lie, if their wish is great and if they love other people."
"I'm trying to do films that are unrepeatable, that only I can do," he says. "So that no one else can do it again."
At the Wechsler tomorrow, he will introduce "All My Good Countrymen" at 4 p.m. and "The Clown" at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday he introduces "Attempted Escape," "Czech Rhapsody" and "The Return."