Robert Kirchhoff: Normalization (Cernanova Case)

It is not only in Denmark but also in Slovakia that something is rotten… That is the impression you sit with having watched the new film by Robert Kirchhoff, an impressive work both in terms of the research the director has done during the 8 years, it has been under production but also because of its fresh and never dull storytelling. The film is full of anger but also of well placed sarchasm, as well as funny moments. It is called a documentary tragedy, and it is indeed when it comes to content, but there is no need for kleenex help during the watching, rather you mumble to yourself: Nooo, this can’t be right! Content below..

but first the title: Normalization (as I googled it) is ” In the history of Czechoslovakia… a name commonly given to the period 1969 to about 1987. It was characterized by the restoration of the conditions prevailing before the Prague Spring and the work to maintain the status quo.” Gustav Husak was the one in charge after the mentioned reform period led by Dubcek – a period that ended dramatically in 1968, when Soviet forces occupied the country.

The Cernanova Case refers to the tragic event in 1976, where Ludmila Cernanova, a 19 year old student died. Her body was found in a river and (quote from the site of the film) “although there were no traces of violence found on her body, yet the police claimed she had been raped… it was a case that was paraded in the communist mass-media at the end of which seven men (5 years later!) were found guilty… They are the same individuals who today proclaim their innocence and claim that they were caught up in the middle of a grand-scale political-judiciary conspiracy”.

… and were given long prison sentences.

Take a look at the still photo of two older coroners, who stand on each side of a professor of a younger age. The director has brought them together and

behind the camera you hear the director shout to the two, who were involved in the case: Was she raped or not? They do not want to talk about the case, and end up walking out of the room…

Yes, something was totally wrong with the way the 7 people was treated – and had most of their lives destroyed, if not all – and Kirchhoff acts in their defence by step by step (it took him 8 years to make the film) finding witnesses, who talk about how the police forced them to talk against the suspects. A script was already written by the system. A fabrication of stories had been made in other words.

Kirchhoff refrains cleverly from bringing in the family of the murdered woman to the film. It is not difficult to imagine how they feel the loss and to understand the traumatization due to the unsolved case 37 years after it happened. What he does, is, in the best investigative journalistic tradition, to confront people involved at that time and to uncover a story about a corrupt, communist legal system – and to bring us viewers to the fact that the case, that was raised again, in 2004 had a surprising and shameful continuation. The court repeated the first decision, with an extension of the conviction from 1982!

In an interview Robert Kirchhoff puts it like this: But in the end I found that the more recent ruling of the Supreme Court [2006] is more monstrous by far. I understand that in the 1980s it was probably about some order from above, the people were servile to their superiors, they feared not only for their jobs but also for their children, their families. They were hostages of the regime. But what happened in 2004 and in 2006 was that the Supreme Court judges were aware of the newly-discovered evidence, and they refused to hear witnesses and learn about the new circumstances in the case.

Kirchhoff insinuates an Arab link and performs a hilarious interview with a secret agent, Ali, who says nothing about the case but comes up with the following sentence: He who tells the truth will never be happy… nobody likes the truth”! The director, in picture, is speechless and can only nod with a confused open mouth face.

The most watched documentary in cinemas in Slovakia so far, FilmNewEurope writes – after a month 5400 admissions, 20.000€ in box office.

A not normal figure for a film about a Normalization that apparently is still going on in the EU country Slovakia. It is in the media but noone wants to talk about it, the president says no, the top people from the legal system says no… Shocking and scandalous, one thinks after the film.

PS. The 7 have taken the case to the European Court for Human Rights. Still waiting for an answer.

Slovakia, 2013, 100 mins.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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