Rob and Mike watch Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) at The Projection Booth. “The first big American studio film — and last big American studio film – directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is, uh, ‘inspired’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story and stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a taut game of life and death.”
Posted July 10, 2014
The Czech science fiction comedy I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove) starts off with a fairly shocking scene, even by the standards of today: two bearded men locked in the throes of a passionate kiss. It’s a fake-out, we soon learn, a way to introduce both the central premise of the plot — the future has been ravaged by radioactive fallout that has caused women to grow beards — and the fact that this movie is going to have a grand time tweaking its nose at gender expectations, stereotypes, and comfort zones. The comedy is a mix of subtle and slapstick, something like Monty Python meets Charlie Chaplin meets the Marx Brothers, with a bit of Benny Hill-esque sex farce thrown in. Sadly, no one ever pats an old man on the head, though I’m sure Karel Effa (who should have teamed up with HK comedy actor Richard Ng) would have been up for it.
The male scientists of I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen, led by Professor David Moore (Jirí Sovák, who was in the Czech scifi comedy Who Wants to Kill Jessie?), are distressed that they’ve been unable to solve the problem of women having beards despite the creation of a number of exceedingly complex shaving machines. Moore’s solution to the problem is to get in a time machine, go back to 1911, and make sure Albert Einstein is killed in an accident, thus erasing from history the creation of the atomic bomb and the field of physics in general. Not all the women are crazy about the plan. Some shave, but others feel that bearded women should unite in solidarity against the men who want to force them to be beardless. Plus, there’s the whole idea that these guys have a time machine, and their primary concern is making sure women don’t grow inordinate amounts of body hair. Not preventing world wars, not the ubiquitous killing Hitler — just making sure women aren’t too hairy (quite literally, turning the clock back on what was when the move was made the new and burgeoning feminist movement).
Obviously, there are parallels to the expectation that women shave their legs and underarms — commonplace even in Europe at the time, despite the American assumption that European women did not do so, but it also (if inadvertently) stumbles into addressing the modern question of gender identification that has been pushed to the forefront by the hard-fought success of LBGT activists, the welcome rise of the “dapper Q” community, and the popularity of actresses like Laverne Cox forcing mainstream society to reassess — often unwillingly — it’s assumptions about who’s the man, who’s the woman, and who gets to make that decision. I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen doesn’t necessarily offer any answers to the questions it asks. More, the answer is in the inherent absurdity of the situation. The movie isn’t a scathing indictment; it simply seems to tweak its nose, or to shrug and say, as the adventure grows more chaotic, “Isn’t it all pretty silly, really?” And honestly, anyone who doesn’t see the inherent absurdity of reducing women to their preferences in body hair is probably someone I won’t get along with.
Directed in 1970 by Oldrich Lipský, who had previously directed another Czech science fiction comedy (1962’s Man in Space, aka Muz z prvního století), I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen is also an example of how different Soviet-era Communist films could be from what we normally think of them as being like, as well as an example of just how poorly then-Czechoslovakia fit into the Soviet idea of the world despite being part of their sphere of influence. Communist cinema is often thought of as having rather a humorless, glum atmosphere. Lots of movies about heroic tractor drivers, lots of movies about how glorious it is to wait in line all day on the off chance that you will be issued a beet for dinner, lots of stuff about how great it is to work in factories. This is obviously a stunted view of Communist cinema, especially Communist cinema outside of the Soviet Union.
Few members of the Soviet Union’s extended family clicked as poorly with sour-faced Stalinist attitudes than the young Czechoslovakia, a nation that had only gained its independence in 1911 and was known as a haven of artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers, and dreamers. Czechoslovakia endured occupation by the Nazis, then liberation by the Soviets, who promptly set up a Communist government that, even at its most draconian, never seemed able to quell the free spirited nature of Czechoslovakia or make them behave like good Communists.
I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen doesn’t take aim at Communism specifically, but it certainly doesn’t feel the need to promote any sort of people’s paradise. It is far more interested in being cheeky, silly, witty, occasionally ribald. There are no heroes or villains exactly, just a lot of goofballs stumbling into one ridiculous scenario after another as the mission to erase Einstein from history goes awry. Professor Moore’s desperate mission to prevent facial hair on women is counterbalanced by historian Gwen Williamsová (Jana Brejchová, also in East Germany’s In the Dust of the Stars — talking about eye-popping Communist cinema!), who falls in love with the awkward young Einstein (Petr Cepek, from Jan Svankmajer’s Faust). Although frequently dismissed by Moore, Gwen proves the most competent of the bunch, even when she has to deal with her beard suddenly coming back in during a salon in old Prague.
Much of the cinema of Eastern Europe remains obscure, at best, in the United States, despite there being so many incredible films. While American distributors will happily bring over a French, Italian, or British film, the films of the old Eastern Bloc still seem to give them pause, as if the Berlin Wall still stands between us and them. Only the loftiest and best advertised artistic classics have a chance. A shame, that, because movies like The Hourglass Sanatorium (Poland), The Savage Hunt of King Stakh (Belarus), and I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen are just out there, waiting to be discovered. Luckily, the wall is being chipped away at. Criterion released the excellent “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” box set through their Eclipse imprint, and Who Wants to Killed Jessie got a domestic DVD release. Although many Czech DVDs have English subtitles, the Czech release of I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen does not, meaning that one has to turn to the Internet for a translation of the chaos (or learn to speak Czech).
I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen is a lovely reminder not just of how multi-dimensional, playful, and thought-provoking Czech cinema can be, but what it was like not so long ago when science fiction was more than just CGI explosions and action films in futuristic cargo pants. The bulk of the film takes place in the Prague of 1911, though the glimpses we get of the future are as gorgeously pop-art as you would want. There are no big action set-pieces outside of a falling chandelier. It’s ridiculous and spirited fun with a serious core should you care to look for it. I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen is from the days when science fiction as a genre was broadly defined, not risk-averse, not afraid to be about something (even if it’s wrapped in a bunch of silliness), and didn’t feel the need to scream at you.
Keith Allison couldn’t grow a beard no matter how many times Albert Einstein nuked him