Servants is a brutal, efficient affair, unconventional in its dramaturgy but landing with considerable force.
Director Ivan Ostrochovský’s Servants begins with a cryptic, murky sequence that quickly reveals itself to be an in media res cold open; a car careens down a dark road in the dead of night, eventually parking under a train crossing as two men dispose of an unidentified corpse. A quick cut takes us to an unseen figure washing mud and grime from his shoes, before revealing the visage of a pudgy, unassuming middle-aged man, Doctor Ivan. While his significance as a fascist bureaucrat only becomes clear sometime later, the fact that he is played by Romanian star Vlad Ivanov, best known as the abortionist in Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, suggests the malevolence lurking behind his otherwise bland, unremarkable demeanor. A title card then flashes “143 days earlier,” and we meet Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic), young men joining the seminary in what is now the former Czechoslovakia. Under the tutelage of The Dean (Vladimir Strnisko), the boys learn the ins and outs of their new home, a cold, severe place captured in stark, high-contrast black-and-white images by cinematographer Juraj Chlpik.
It’s unclear at first what exactly these scenes at the seminary have to do with the noir-ish trappings of the film’s opening moments, or even exactly what year we are in, but Ostrochovský fills the narrative in quickly enough. It’s the early ’80s, and the leaders of the seminary are part of the “Pacem in Terris” group, an unsanctioned off-shoot of the Catholic Church that colluded with the occupying communist government put in place after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. The Dean and other priests collaborate with The Doctor to influence their students, tamping down potential rebellion and influencing the public. Most severe is the breaking of the sacrament of confession, as compromised priests feed intimate private information to their communist handlers. But there is a small group of rebellious young men who believe in the sanctity of the Church and it’s stated mission of neutrality, so much so that subversive documents and pamphlets begin showing up around the seminary. Juraj finds himself drawn to this underground movement, and becomes determined to join up against the oppressive regime.
Shooting in boxy Academy ratio, Ostrochovský turns every available space into a claustrophobic enclosure. The seminary is an imposing, almost medieval structure, all sharp angles and jagged corners. The dormitories are tiny, and the young students eat and play games in rigid, geometrically precise compositions. The camera is often locked down, creating a static tableau of images, only occasionally moving to push in on a face or panning slightly. Most damningly, there is almost no variation between the halls of the seminary and The Doctor’s brutal but largely anonymous bureaucracy. Here, the church is just as corrupt as the occupying forces.
Clocking in at a very brief 80 minutes, Ostrochovský doesn’t flesh out his characters in any traditional sense. Indeed, the gradual fracturing of the friendship between Juraj and Michal barely lands, and the eventual deaths of several characters aren’t particularly emotional. But Ostrochovský isn’t interested in traditional dramaturgy; his scenes tend toward a brutal efficiency that matches the tenor of the film’s content. Everything is clipped, rushed, over almost as soon as it begins. Information is conveyed in hushed tones, constantly under threat, overshadowed by the harsh contrast of the monochrome cinematography. The film’s final moments are a masterclass in montage, juxtaposing a corpse, a young man surveying his own personal file compiled by the state, and The Doctor passively picking at a scabbed-over rash that has covered his body. This is a corrupt, diseased world — any similarities to our current global situation are most assuredly implied.