Black and White

You cannot serve two masters. Servants (Služobníci; 2020; streaming on Kanopy or for rent on Prime Video) highlights that stark imperative in luminous black and white photography, careful framing, and scenes that are impressionistic and shifting. Post-Technicolor, in my opinion, a filmmaker has to have a good reason for filming in black and white, and with Servants, you have the sense that it is absolutely necessary to the film itself. 

Servants takes place in 1980, in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. The main part of the narrative is set in a Roman Catholic seminary in Bratislava, and follows two friends who have just entered the study for the priesthood. It follows them, however, in an elliptical way, and the orbit of the story includes the head of the seminary (Vladimír Strnisko), the director of formation (Milan Mikulcík), the officer of the State police responsible for the Church (Vlad Ivanov), as well as the two students, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic). (A description which I found helpful of the situation in Czechoslovakia at this time can be found here.)  

Everything in the film emphasizes the compulsion of making a choice and putting your loyalty either with the Communist regime or with the Church, even as the Church in some respects tried to serve both God and man. Suspicion, secrecy, and the danger of imprisonment or death compose the air that everyone breathes, and the seminary is not exempt. The head of the seminary is clearly invested primarily in saving the institution, whatever the cost. The spiritual formation director is subject to blackmail, because he was released from a drunk driving (and homicide?) charge. The professor who recruits Juraj to the cause of resistance is arrested, and the priest who is shown secretly ordaining a man without the approval of the State is murdered (the last, apparently a fictionalized version of a Father Coufal, as described on p. 17 here).

The opaque nature of parts of the narrative hints at secrets, ellipses, and lacunae, which, in my view, serves to emphasize the reality of living in such a State. In addition, the black and white of the photography contrasts with the metaphorical gray of trying to navigate in a world between two totalities. If Christ demands all of you, and the State demands all of you, you will serve one and not the other; you will love one and hate the other. The Church is not inherently opposed to the State; it does not automatically require the overturning of the secular order wherever it arises. But when the State claims authority over the Church, and demands the entire allegiance of every citizen, there will necessarily be a conflict. The film also shows how even a tiny bit of acquiescence to the demands of a totalitarian State is an entire compromise.

No one can predict how he or she will respond to being confronted with all-encompassing claims by the State. In some way or another, we all have to make the choice. Though Christians in the United States do not face a totalizing political environment, there is (more and more, it seems) a totalizing social environment. I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but it seems that the more likely totalitarianism in our time will not come from above, from a complete security State, such as in post-war Czechoslovakia or East Germany, but rather from “below,” from the pressure to conform to acceptable opinions, especially on marriage and sexuality (which are, for the Christian, one and the same). It will be, in other words, much more like Brave New World than 1984 (as Neil Postman convincingly argues).

But resistance to that New World (more cowardly than brave, hence the necessity of resorting to means of compulsion and coercion) may still look similar to the resistance of the underground Church in various places and times. In Servants, there is encouragement from outside the totality of the State, via Radio Free Europe. There is also the resistance to the Church institution itself (we might say “Church, Inc.”), which is always more concerned with its continued, material existence in this world than its spiritual existence in Christ. There is especially resistance to forms of cooperation with the totalitarian claims of the State, because when the State forces a choice between the freedom of Christ and the boundaries of the State, one will have to give. The State will use its physical means of forcing bodies to submit or be destroyed. But the Christian knows that even if the body is destroyed, the State cannot destroy the soul—nor even the body, in the hope of resurrection. The hunger strike on the part of the seminarians in Servants, the passive resistance to being subsumed by the State-Church conglomerate, and the continuation of the work of those who have died; all these are refusals to submit to lies, even lies clothed in collars and vestments.

Especially when we do not (yet) find ourselves in the midst of a totalizing State opposed to the Church, the best way to form our resistance to everything that is opposed to Christ is not to accede to the lies everywhere promoted as truth. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provided us with the language in his essay “Live Not By Lies,” released the day before he was exiled to the West: “And therein we find, neglected by us, the simplest, the most accessible key to our liberation: a personal nonparticipation in lies! Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!” And Solzhenitsyn explicitly references the subject of Servants: “Betrayed and deceived by us, did not a great European people—the Czechoslovaks—show us how one can stand down the tanks with bared chest alone, as long as inside it beats a worthy heart?”

Servants, and the history of Christian resistance against totalitarian States, show us that the compromising of Christ’s name begins first with the smallest yielding to falsehood. No quarter can be given to any anti-Christian word, because all the other words and actions will follow. Once assent has been given to even the most innocuous-seeming presupposition of the totalitarianism, it is that much harder to extricate oneself.

In spite of some difficulty in connecting and ordering parts of the plot, Servants is one of the most striking depictions of Christian resistance that I’ve seen, not to mention simply a strikingly beautiful film.