Triumph of Will
A biographical film about one of the greatest sporting heroes of the former Czechoslovakia was supposed to reach audiences last year. However, the premiere was postponed. The creators intended for the film to be screened in summer, in the cinema and during the Olympics. Nevertheless, the Olympics were put off too. The same applies for the Karlovy Vary festival, this year, as an exception, it takes place at the end of August. Shortly after the end of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, it is to open with the world premiere of Zátopek by director David Ondříček.
Perhaps the most famous Czech sporting couple Dana and Emil Zátopek’s memories and experiences were published in 1960. Dana Zátopková followed up with a book in 2016. She also describes their lives during normalisation period and provides diary entries of the late Emil Zátopek. Director David Ondříček was one of the first readers of the memoirs. He read the manuscript at the sportswoman’s house, wearing borrowed slippers from her husband. Emil Zátopek passed away in 2000, his wife Dana last March. She was consulted about the film, which was also made with her consent.
Gaining her trust was not as easy as it might seem from the previous lines. And that was just the beginning. The expensive period film, in which about 750 historically accurate costumes were used, received support from the Czech Film Fund only on the third attempt. Besides, the filmmakers could not shoot at the original stadiums in London and Helsinki, which witnessed Zátopek’s Olympic successes. After adjustments by architect Jan Vlasák, they were fully replaced by Za Lužánkami stadium in Brno in front of Štěpán Kučera’s camera. Period realities, costumes, architectural adjustments or complex, not only physical, training of actors for their roles significantly impacted the budget. At the beginning of the preparation, it was estimated at more than 90 million Czech crowns (approximately 3.6 million euros), and Zátopek became one of the most expensive Czech films. Javelin thrower Dana Zátopková is played by Martha Issová, while Václav Neužil was cast for the role of Emil Zátopek. “How far I can throw is not as important as making the throwing technique believable,” Issová said about the preparation for the role. Neužil lost 7 pounds for his role. In addition to running, he had to master Zátopek’s signature movements as well as speech.
The long-distance runner was the first in the world to break the 29-minute barrier in the 10,000 metres. Even before that, he astonished the world by a performance at the Olympics in London and four years later in Helsinki. However, his story is not just a sports drama, it also brings political and family themes. The 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki are a natural dramatic climax. Zátopek almost missed it because he stood up for a colleague whose dossier was negative at a time when harsh political processes were raging in communist Czechoslovakia. Finally, both travelled to Helsinki – Zátopek, a defending champion from London. He won three more gold medals, and his wife Dana won an Olympic gold too. “It is necessary to bring a new perspective on Zátopek and its time. Political issues cannot be avoided. Politics played a significant role in Zátopek’s life. Living in an incredibly difficult time, he was not always able to navigate it. We strived to convey it accordingly,” the director explained in the explication for the Slovak Audiovisual Fund, which also supported the film. The Slovak co-producers of Zátopek are AZYL Production and Radio and Television of Slovakia. Part of the post-production took place in Slovakia, and several Slovak actors were cast – Milan Mikulčík, Peter Nádasdi and Peter Kočiš.
Ondříček began working on the film about six years ago, but the idea was born much earlier. Musician Jan P. Muchow came up with it in 2007. As a composer, he collaborated with Ondříček on all five cinema features – on the cult generational statement films with the screenwriting participation of Petr Zelenka [Whisper (Šeptej,1996); Loners (Samotáři, 2020)] as well as on the film noir detective In the Shadow (V tieni, 2012) which received nine Czech Lions. In the sixth film, Muchow additionally took up the role of Ondříček’s co-writer. In the end, Alice Nellis lent a hand and highlighted the role of Dana in the story.
“Zátopek is the story of an outsider, a boy with a squeaky voice who was often mistaken for a girl and, basically, not much of an athletic talent. At the same time, it is the story of a man with great will and ambition to win, stubborn and unbroken in spirit, one who became a legend. A lonely, thoughtful runner, however, at the same time, a cheerful chatterbox who longs to be admired. Zátopek was an athlete with a huge desire to defeat his rivals and then lovingly dedicate them a gold medal,” summed up David Ondříček.
Text: Matúš Kvasnička
Source: Film.sk Cannes & Karlovy Vary Edition 2021