Four years after his previous feature Koza, director Ivan Ostrochovsky returns to the Berlinale (this time under the new competition sidebar known as Encounters) with a provocative and brooding drama. Servants tells the story of Michal and Juraj, two students at a seminary in early-1980’s Czechoslovakia that is essentially being torn apart by the ever-expanding Communist regime. The school broken into ostensibly two parties, each of which try to manipulate the young men, and the film’s push-pull tension comes primarily from the resulting crises of faith. Will they stick to the proverbial script or will the secret police be able to crack them like they have so many others? Given its religious focus, the film — shot in haunting black and white — owes a debt to directors like Dreyer and more specifically Bresson. Comprised of primarily static frames, the film alternates between expertly-crafted facial close-ups and painterly tableaux that depict everyday life under a totalitarian regime. The film is also oddly geometric: in some of the film’s strongest shots, Ostrochovsky allows the rigidity of such an existence to manifest in the frame itself, be it in a shot looking up a staircase or down at a group of men gathered in a prison-like quad area. These are simple in concept, but when paired with the beautiful black and white they become almost dystopian. Servants is a frigid film, but it’s also an endlessly captivating one, an engrossing tale of two young men and the crisis of faith that may or may not destroy them.
Published as part of Berlin International Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 1.