A SEEMINGLY simple tragedy of a young medical student who went missing in Bratislava in the 1970s, has grown into one of the most notorious crime cases in the former Czechoslovakia. The story has now made it to Slovak cinemas under the name Kauza Cervanová (The Cervanová Case), but the young medical student is not central to the story. Rather, it is about the communist court system, and even more so Slovakia’s judiciary today, according to the movie’s director Robert Kirchhoff. The Slovak Spectator spoke to him, a few days after his movie premiered and became the most watched documentary of the year, about the eight years he spent working on the documentary, and about the Cervanová case, which he calls one of the crimes of communism.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Did you expect the movie to arouse so much interest among people?
Robert Kirchhoff (RK): I’m happy about it – I expected it to resonate in society because the movie does indeed uncover some new contexts.
TSS: In the eight years that you spent working on the topic, what opinions did you encounter from people about the case?
RK: Those eight years were years of searching and doubt, regarding the case itself, but also regarding the way it should be presented to the public, how to show the topic to people who are disappointed enough now. Since the very beginning I knew that I would have to make it cinematographically convincing, but at the same time give it some storytelling value. In the end it turned out to be a movie without an author; when people talk about it, they talk about the Cervanová case, rather than about Kirchhoff. So when I come for a debate somewhere, people ask me about the content, the topic of the movie, rather than about the movie itself. Which is good. I felt that was going to happen.
TSS: Well it does put you in the position of an expert on the Slovak judiciary. How do you feel about that?
RK: I’ve been dealing with the justice system as a movie producer and director for years now. I made it ‘backstage’. I can hardly say I’m an expert on justice, but in any case, my experience is transferable, I can pass it on to other people. And it’s a thing of public interest for people to know it. And that’s what my job is about.
TSS: How did judges and people from within the judiciary react to you when you approached them about the Cervanová case?
RK: The view of the Cervanová case among the judiciary is very fragmented, but not due to some moral or ethical attitudes and stances. It’s more due to their reminding each other of their failings. People from both sides of the case like to do that. It’s comical, obviously. But I believe that in Slovakia’s courts, and the Supreme Court too, there aren’t criminal law judges who wouldn’t be familiar with this case, who wouldn’t decide on it or sign something connected with it. So every penal law judge must be at least 90-percent convinced that the Supreme Court ruling was right [the 2006 ruling that confirmed the sentences and ordered even greater prison terms for three of the defendants, forcing two of them to return to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences]. I think that some of the judges could have been corrupt, but that’s just my guess. And, importantly, some 10 percent of the judges did make opposing decisions.
TSS: Originally you had planned for the movie to be about the judiciary during the period of normalisation in the 1970s. How did the Cervanová case become a representative example?
RK: I like to say that the Cervanová case is the litmus test of the Slovak judiciary, and even Slovak society. In those 40 years, the case, like a living person, has passed all the historical periods, challenges and changes. The case shows best what we lived in. It is best at showing how people changed, and how they stick together. The case shows the fight of the “grey zone”, the middle class in communist Czechoslovakia. It’s a story of the normalisation of power, and the people who then lived in deception. But in the end I found that the more recent ruling of the Supreme Court  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. That disturbed me a lot, and so I decided to focus the movie almost exclusively on the present - the current situation.
TSS: What would you say to viewers who expect your movie to provide a final ruling about where the truth lies?
RK: People will find out about the truth. I’m sure that a person who perceives the world in its complexity and thinks critically will know whether any judgements about guilt and innocence should be proclaimed. The movie is about searching for the truth, about how complicated the truth is, about how the things that appear in our lives can, very problematically, appear in the movie, about how the past is a boulder for the present. It is all about a tangle of dark forces and views, with the light coming through now and then. I would leave it to the audience to find their own interpretation when they see the movie. So I actually made an “open” movie.
TSS: How did the case affect communication with the people involved?
RK: Ľudmila Cervanová and her family were the first victims in this case. But it should be stressed that there were witnesses who appeared in the file only after 1980 and who were supposed to testify against the accused men. Based on their testimonies the court ruled that the men were guilty. The movie is not about Ľudmila.
It could be about the suffering that it brought to her close family. But what are these people going to tell us? They will tell us how it hurts when a person loses a daughter, how a person attempts to search for the murderer, about a person believing that judges and courts acted correctly, and sentenced the right culprits. There is nothing left for them to believe. There was a flood of information running over me and I had to be very precise in selecting what to put in the movie, in order to not make it too heavy for viewers, so they wouldn’t be distracted from the topic. That is one of the reasons why I decided to drop Ľudmila and her family, also at the request of Mrs Cervanová.
TSS: It’s been more than two decades since the fall of communism. Are we now immune to similar things happening in the judiciary?
RK: I am convinced that this is happening in every country in the world. In civilised countries and in less civilised countries alike, judicial lapses occur. In this case, however, it is disputable whether it was a lapse of justice or not. The arrogant actions of some judges make me lean towards the opinion that it was a crime of the judiciary rather than a lapse. They are now afraid that there will be requests for damages to be paid. But the biggest fear among judges and prosecutors in my opinion, is that a whole series of processes will be started against them for violating human rights. I believe neither side will ever ease their efforts to win this fight.
TSS: That fear is still present decades later. Is it about a generational change? Could some problems of the judiciary be solved just by one generation leaving?
RK: I’m not a prophet. But I think that first the curse that has been upon the case has to end. I have no idea how this could end. It’s a vicious circle. And I am convinced that if the case came in front of the Supreme Court again tomorrow, and the court would consider the new evidence, the same ruling would be confirmed again.
They would again find reasons, maybe even better reasons, why the people were guilty and why they should be punished. In this situation, with these personnel in the judiciary, there is no chance for the case to come to an end.
TSS: Are you planning to continue exploring the topic of the judiciary in your movies?
RK: As long as I live in this country I would like to be able to draw attention to things that I find to be wrong. I’d love to make other kinds of movies, full of nice things, aesthetic plays. But as long as I am doing this work, and I live in a country where dozens of things are not working correctly, it is my job to continue drawing attention to them.
TSS: You are currently working on a movie about the Roma Holocaust. How did you come to work on this topic?
RK: Years ago I first came across some material about the Roma Holocaust, and I felt it would be good to make a movie about the fate of Slovakia’s Roma in World War II. I wanted to make a movie about the people who survived it, and who talk about it. I have travelled around Slovakia, shooting the testimonies of the survivors and their descendants. For me it is so very topical, as if it weren’t a historical movie at all. I will continue searching for Auschwitz and Dachau survivors, and I will mention the connection with the Slovak state with today’s politics. Because there is a sort of continuity, there are still some fascist tendencies among politicians, including hidden ones, in leftist political parties. Now it is my ambition to share this territorially specific issue with the rest of Europe.
TSS: If you are searching for Holocaust survivors, you are now coming in at the last moment so to speak.
RK: That’s right. What fascinates me, however, is that the Roma have a beautiful language. And language equals memory. Through their language they reshape their memory. The elders tell their stories to their children, with some additional flourishes. The tales are their heritage, and they are wonderful, patulous stories of the fates of people who have – or have not – survived the war. I don’t mind at all hearing the tales from their children.
The movie about the Cervanová case, to be distributed under the name Normalisation in English, will be available with English subtitles for special screenings, international festivals, and in about one year the producers plan to distribute it through a website to make it available to a wider audience.