Jill Mountford reviews The Good Soldier Schwejk (and His Fortunes in the World War) - written by Jaroslav Hasek, published 1923, adapted and directed by Christine Edzard, Sands Films, 2017. Currently being shown in Rotherhithe, London, and soon to be released on DVD.
Christine Edzard has made it her mission to revive interest in what was possibly the first satirical comedy about the absurdity of war. She adapted The Good Soldier Schwejk (sometimes spelt Svejk, pronounced Shvake) to mark the centenary of World War I.
It is about a naive and foolish patriot, unquestioningly loyal to the Austro-Hungarian state. Some doctors in the army have officially certified him as an idiot, while others claim he is faking his idiocy to avoid fighting at the front.
He gets caught up in the most ridiculous adventures and he never makes it to the front.
His escapades are laugh-out-loud funny, but are laced with the horrors, misery and degradation of war. Neither Edzard as the film-maker nor Hasek as the creator of Schwejk deprive us of that dimension.
Edzard has chosen an unconventional style in which to make the film: seven live on-stage performances over ten days to a total audience of more than 550 people. With several familiar faces playing the roles, it is a high quality production on a relatively low budget.
It is much more than a filmed stage play. With imaginative, inexpensive sets and a three-piece orchestra, including an accordion, playing pieces by Mozart off-stage, the film is all the better for the chosen format.
Scattered in the audience are characters from the story, and who from the stalls, have their say. The one who stands out most is the swaggering, arrogant top boss of a munitions factory where the Vickers machine guns firing 500 rounds per minute were produced. That was the gun that forced soldiers into trench warfare for their own “protection”.
In a critique of the global arms trade Edzard makes it clear that the fundamentals of weapon sales have not changed much since 1918. Arms companies sell weapons to all sides in conflicts, all in the name of profit.
Hasek wrote The Good Soldier Schwejk from his personal experience of he madness, chaos and irrational nature of World War I. A decade before the war he became an anarchist, and as a young activist helped produce an anarchist publication Progressive Youth. He was repeatedly imprisoned during the war for insubordination and showing contempt for officers and war-mongers.
When his books were published in 1923 they quickly became best sellers. They have been translated into 60 languages; were banned for periods by the Czech, Bulgarian and Polish states; and burned by the Nazis.
His work inspired Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War. Berthold Brecht continued the story of the Good Soldier Schwejk in a play about World War II. And it’s not hard to see where the inspiration came from for several of the characters in M.A.S.H., the 1970s US comedy set in the Korean War.
Unlike his character Schwejk, Hasek did see some action in the war. He was captured by the Russians in 1915 and spent a short time in a Czarist prison of war camp.
During the October Revolution Hasek became a Bolshevik. In December 1918 he was recruited to the Fifth Siberian Army. In early 1919 he was given the task of organising a print works in Ufa (it had been partially destroyed in the civil war and Bolsheviks needed it to produce a newspaper for the Red Army). When the White Army overcame the town in March 1920 he was one of the last to leave.
Though he wanted to settle permanently in the Soviet Union he was sent back to Czechoslovakia to help with the newly formed Czech Communist Party. His arrival in Prague was just four days after the failed uprising, and Czech CP members were all imprisoned.
He spent the last two years of his life writing books and sketches including The Good Soldier Schwejk and The Bugulma Stories, a collection of sketches employing a much gentler humour about his time in the Red Army and the fight against the Whites. He remained committed to the Russian Revolution to his death.
Bourgeois accounts of Hasek usually fail to mention his Bolshevism and instead focus on him as a satirical writer with an anarchical approach to life, a prankster (while editing a natural history magazine, Animal World, he made up exotic animals and advertised a pair of thorough-bred wolves for sale), a heavy drinker, a dog thief (he stole dogs, clipped and dyed their coats, docked their tails and sold them on as rare exotic breeds) and a bigamist (he had a bourgeois marriage in 1910 which effectively lasted a year or so and then secular marriage to a print press worker in Ufa whom he stayed with until his death).
He was all of the above and more. He was someone who seriously considered in whose interests capitalism worked and was firmly on the side of the class who needed to smash it.
The Good Soldier Schwejk is often in “best 50 books you've never read” lists. If you like a laugh before you go to sleep then this is a book worth keeping on the bedside table.
And the film is worth more than a peek once out on DVD.