Jakub Sommer: The film’s main ambition is to make a young audience aware of his music

Můj život s Bohuslavem Martinů Authored by: Klára Cvrčková

The premiere of Jakub Sommer's documentary 'My Life with Bohuslav Martinů', which uses reenacted scenes and two voiceovers to guide the viewer through the life and work of the genius Czech composer, takes place at the Golden Prague Festival September 24.

When did you first conceive of the idea to make this film, and why did you opt for the form of a docudrama?

Maybe three years ago, creative producer Jiří Hubač called me to ask whether I’d film a documentary on Bohuslav Martinů. I began by reading his wife Charlotte’s account, My Life with Bohuslav Martinů. The book offers a wealth of intriguing details from her life with a famous composer, but the narrative lacks a dramatic arc. As such, the book was our point of departure, but the film is certainly not an adaption of the book. We wanted to look at the story of Bohuslav Martinů’s life from various vantage points. At the same time, I believe that the manner in which we’ve been making your typical documentary on classical composers in this country has overstayed its welcome. A bunch of experts talks about the portrayed personality, who is no longer among us, from behind a table in a café, their pronouncements being accompanied by stills or, if we’re lucky, the odd bit of moving pictures. We knew we definitely did not want to make this kind of documentary. It was one of the reasons why we went down the road of the docudrama, combining staged passages with contemporary material from the film archives. 

You wrapped up shooting in mid-June, i.e., most of your film was made during the pandemic. How did it affect you?

Of course it was complicated, and at one point we really feared the pandemic might make it impossible to complete the film. Quite paradoxically, though, it had also its advantages. For instance, it allowed us to shoot at the National Theatre, where we would normally have a hard time negotiating a vacant time slot in their packed programme. But they were in lockdown because of the pandemic, and told us: come whenever you want, feel free to film all day. 

What are the locales we get to see in the film?

Of course, we shot on location in Polička, the birth town of Martinů. Several scenes were filmed at the studios of Czech Television; we also travelled to Provence for a few days, where Bohuslav and Charlotte had stayed towards the end of his life. I already mentioned shooting at the National Theatre; the airfield in Kbely provided us with a convincing backdrop of an international airport.

A film rich in various locations then. What about the temporal dimension – what time period is covered by the film?

We begin with the birth of Bohuslav at the turn of the 19th century in Polička and follow him throughout his life until his death in Switzerland at the end of the 1950s. In parallel to Martinů’s personal story, world history unfolds throughout the film. The two levels resonate a lot with each other in this docudrama. 

How much did you know about the life and work of Bohuslav Martinů before you began preparations on this project?

I’ll admit that I knew rather little, though my work on this film has made me familiar with the details of his life and in particular his work. The film required a lot of research. Of course, I haven’t listened to the entirety of his output yet – Martinů was one of the most productive Czech composers. While I do come from a musical family – my father, Vladimír Sommer, was a major 20th century composer, i.e., I have a close relationship with music – I wasn’t all that well-versed in Martinů. My encounter with him gave me a lot.

Do you have a favourite piece, or favourite period, from among Martinů’s oeuvre?

The film begins with a dramatic piece which he wrote in America in the 1940s. It’s called Toccata e due canzoni and it is an unbelievable banger. A fantastic piece, which moreover works beautiful as the opening soundtrack. But I am also rather fond of things which are probably not held in particularly high esteem by orthodox "martinůologists". For instance, compared to his typical output, his concerto for violin and piano which he wrote at the age of sixteen may be simple and outwardly charming in the best sense of the word, but I’m in love with it. 

Will you use existing recordings, or will the film get its own soundtrack?

At the beginning, I was concerned whether Bohuslav’s sophisticated music could work as film music. Standard scenic music tends to be more straightforward compositionally, as it needs to be in the service of underscoring the emotions of the plot; it must not smother the images on screen. But I am confident that we managed to incorporate the beautiful, yet often complicated music of Bohuslav Martinů into the film such that it wonderfully complements the scenes and settings we show to the audience; at the same time, the film does not relegate the music to the background but lets it shine. 

Are you working with video archives?

Even though Martinů lived almost his entire life during the 20th century, and even though he was world-famous from the early 1940s onward, there exists awfully little in terms of archival footage. We essentially found only two snippets, one from the 1920s showing Martinů as he buys flowers in France. The other one is from toward the end of his life, when he travelled Europe accompanied by Charlotte; here we can see him for a few seconds in a blurred shot. Nonetheless, our film does work a lot with contemporary archival footage of important moments of the 20th century, in order to evoke the atmosphere of locations and events related to his life. World War I and World War II both play out in the backdrop to his life, which is then fundamentally disrupted by having to escape Hitler from France to the U.S., and a little later by the Communist takeover in Eastern Europe which prevented him from ever returning to his birth country. Consequently, the film puts his life and work into the greater social context. 

Which event was fundamentally life-changing for him?

Before the rise of fascism, Martinů lived in Paris, having moved there from Czechoslovakia. It was in Paris where he built his career as a composer, where he met his future wife, Charlotte. When the Nazis marched into France, he knew it was high time to pack up: as a prominent representative of the intellectual and artistic scene, he would have fared very badly. We talk about his dramatic flight in the film. 

What guided your casting of the main character? Did physical resemblance come into play?

The most important thing for me is for the actor to be able to capture the essence of the given real-life historical character. Looks come second. In this particular case, it was great to see that Petr Stach and Tereza Hofová perfectly satisfied the first criterion but at the same time also bear a physical resemblance to Bohuslav and Charlotte Martinů.

During filming, did you rigidly stick to a script, or was there room for adjustments and editorial freedom as to what to include in the film, or how to describe a given point?

To me it was a huge benefit – though editor Šimon Hájek would probably call it a drawback instead – that our project, even though it involves acting and stylization, allowed for some rearranging and modification in the cutting room. This is because the narrative of this film, in spite of its dramatic movie elements, is of a documentary nature. In the case of a classic (fictional) feature film, you don’t get to tamper with shape during the editing process all that much. Our advantage did not extend merely to the visual aspects, but also to texts and other information heard in the film. Even though shooting was already done, this gave me the power to decide what things should be given extra weight or what things should be deemphasized. The two narrative planes we laid out are also different from each other. Charlotte offers a more personal, emotional view, whereas the other narrator, Bohuslav’s friend Miloš Šafránek, wonderfully portrayed by Ondřej Kavan, rather comments on various situations from the position of someone well-versed in history and in Martinů’s work. 

What do you want audiences to take away from this film? What is more important for you, the emotional line or the educational line?

I am well aware that Martinů is a musical icon, and that many people are invested in his life and work, which is why we are going to hear questions why this event or that piece are missing… Musicologists, performers, local patriots from Polička, ardent fans of classical music – lots of people have strong opinions on the phenomenon called Martinů. But we have one hour of play time, one single hour which cannot accommodate everything. I’ll be happy if the film is able to convey to the viewer that Martinů was an intriguing figure, and to introduce them to Martinů’s multi-layered, ingenious music. As a filmmaker, I want to show a broad audience just how fantastic he was as a composer. The film’s main ambition is to make a young audience aware of Martinů’s music who otherwise might never find a path to it. 

How much do you depart from reality? Will viewers get to see controversial moments or characters that would not necessarily pass muster with the experts?

We’ve steered clear from tabloid-style titillation, but we’re not afraid e.g. to address Martinů’s extramarital affairs. We present his flings with composer Vítězslava Kaprálová or American socialite Rosalie Barstow as a part of his life, a noteworthy facet which played its inspirational role for Martinů the composer. For the purpose of our narrative and as a plot driver, we also make use of a fictitious muse, played by Anna Fialová, who accompanies Martinů from childhood until death. She is the incarnation of music, which stayed with him through good times and bad times.

You’ll premiere the film at the Golden Prague festival. Is everything going according to plan? 

This year’s May was one of the coldest and rainiest in recent years, which is why we had to postpone shooting in Polička. During the originally scheduled dates, it was raining cats and dogs for three days straight. In another twist, France imposed a lockdown which pushed back the shooting of additional footage in Provence by a month. All this turned completing the film into a little drama. We’re also making use of animated sequences in the film, and producing those takes quite some time. Even so, and not least because of the fantastic commitment of the entire crew, we are currently adding the finishing touches to the film, on track with the original schedule, which is why I am confident that everything will be ready for us to be able to present the film to its audience at the end of September, at the Golden Prague festival.