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Private Century is the execution of an idea that many filmmakers have had wanted to try: it tells a culturally important story using found footage from home movies. That’s hard to do because if you focus too closely on the personal, you fail to tell the story of history. At the other extreme, if you include home movies from Hitler or Roosevelt, then you lose the intimacy of everyday life.

Private Century was made for Czech TV; it has four stories told over eight 50-minute episodes. I watched the first two episodes and part of the third, and judging from that introduction, I’d say that although it hasn’t quite got the right balance — it skews a little too close to the personal rather than the historical — it’s still a pretty successful attempt.

A Date with History

Tries to tell a culturally important story using footage from home movies
Tries to tell a culturally important story using footage from home movies

For the first episode, filmmaker Jan Sikl pairs a memoir written by a girl and read by an adult actress with footage from her parents’ home movies. There is much use of the past imperfect: “We would do this in the summer. We used to do that in the fall. Father would go to work and mother would play with me in the garden.”

It’s halfway through the first episode before the narrator’s parents take a trip to Berlin in 1938, where they conceived their memoir-writing daughter. There is home-movie footage of the Brandenburg gate draped with long swastika banners. Later, they attend a parade of Sokol (a big youth fitness movement) in Prague that smells more military than it actually is.

But history creeps in: this is Sudetenland, which is a fuzzy boundary between Germany and Czechoslovakia — it sits inside Czechoslovakia but is populated by ethnic Germans. Since Private Century was made for Czech TV, it probably assumes its audience will know more European geography and history than the average art-house movie lover in the States — for example, that these ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia would become the pretext for the German invasion during World War II. I wish Private Century were more explicit in reminding us of the historical importance of the region; I’m lucky to be living with a journalism major and history buff. Without her, much of the history in Private Century (episodes 1 and 2) would be lost on me.

But Private Century deliberately does not have an omniscient narrator reading a script written by a historian. The people who lived it provide the narration, so my wish for more facts is a case of me missing the point.

Simply knowing that the region is a pressure cooker of history adds a lot to the drama. In episode 2, for example, an aunt of our narrator from the first episode brings home a German officer whom she introduces to the family. He’s striking, serious, and gaunt. I found myself watching him closely to see if there would be any hint of the evil behind his uniform.

Jigsaw Puzzle Storytelling

The 8 episodes are paired, telling 4 stories. If the series is anything like the first diptych, then Jan Sikl really is a master storyteller. The first episode is narrated by a girl growing up in a village in Sudetenland. Her memoir has a very childish perspective. Adults do strange things that don’t seem to make sense. “Strange friends” come and go. People disappear without explanation. But these mysteries are set aside for assertions about what she saw and knew and felt.

Episode 2 focuses on the “king” of this little village — the local farmer with the most land. His story is told completely independently of the first episode. But the king had 3 daughters, one of whom is the mother of the narrator in the first episode. So without calling attention to the parallels, you’ll be able to fit together the appearance of a special friend in episode 1 with the later divorce of a couple in episode 2.

If the other pairs of stories go together as well as the first two, then Private Century will be very impressive. (And all the more so if all 8 episodes somehow fit together.)

Is Private Century Right for Me?

I look forward to watching the rest of Private Century, but I do have some reservations about recommending it. First, it’s a 7-hour commitment. But considering the popularity of TV shows such as Lost on DVD, and that needn’t be a reason to avoid it. Second, it has the triple-stigma of being subtitled, presented in black-and-white, and having low production values (these are home movies, after all). Most movie lovers I know can accept these conditions, but most people I know aren’t movie lovers. Third — and this is the criticism that’s hardest to wash away — is that by making these episodes for TV, they all have to be 50 minutes long. Coincidentally, the first episode fit perfectly. But the second episode felt like it wanted to be about 35 or 40 minutes long, with much padding and breathing room between bursts of storytelling to fill it out.

Private Century is not a perfect instance of history told through home movies, as the DVD jacket promises. But on its own terms it succeeds pretty well.