03 February 2023
The very hard-working cinematographer Martin Štrba (b. 1961) shoots vibrant films about the present—including some marked by COVID, such as the drama The Unbalanced or the dramedy Waltzing Matylda—but he also often films stories from the past. Most of these are set in difficult historical periods, such as the World War II film Emma and the Death’s Head. Some are dedicated to specific personalities, such as Charlatan, which made it to the Oscar shortlist in 2021. Now Štrba is working with the team from Charlatan—director Agnieszka Holland and screenwriter Mark Epstein—on a Franz Kafka biopic.
Interview by Vojtěch Rynda for CZECH FILM / Spring 2023
The nearly completed feature Waltzing Matylda, starring the great Karel Roden and Regina Rázlová, is about a complicated relationship between a man and his mother, with Alzheimer’s disease playing an important role. The film opens with a long, extremely dynamic shot. What visual concept were you and director Petr Slavík going for?
It’s shot mainly with Easyrig, which is something between a Steadicam and a handheld camera. That adds a certain restlessness, and at the same time a credibility, an authenticity, to the film. Then Peter and I picked certain points where the camera calms down, accentuating the energy coming from the characters, from inside the image. It was a balanced team effort in every way.
Does it bother you when actors try to tell you how to do your work?
I don’t just look at a film from the artistic viewpoint. It’s a living organism, and it’s first and foremost about the actors, since they’re the ones interpreting all these human stories. But that doesn’t mean I compromise my ideas. After all, even with the best planning, you arrive on set in the morning and Karel Roden, for example, suddenly changes the whole scene by deciding to sit instead of walking, and then later unexpectedly stands up, or not. He needs to experience the space of the scene, to feel it. Ms. Rázlová also knows exactly what she wants and how she should look, including makeup and costumes. So it’s important to be alert and pay attention to continuity in the plot. But I’m flexible when it comes to this, it isn’t a problem for me.
In Waltzing Matylda you collaborated with your wife, costume designer Katarína Štrbová Bieliková. How do the two of you work together?
Katarína has the biggest rush before shooting begins: discussing with the director, the DoP, the art director, the makeup artist; organizing costume rehearsals, making sure the color tonalities correspond—some characters should be highlighted, other blend into the environment. Then she visits the set just to make sure everything’s in order. And that’s where I do most of my work.
The creative process of a film ranges from location selection to digital postproduction. Are you involved in every phase?
I need to be with a film from beginning to end. For example, with retro films you have to determine what can be shot on location and what will be done in postproduction, and there are big discussions in the team about that. For example, I’m working now on a film called Nepela, which is set around the 1973 World Figure Skating Championships, in Bratislava—and the stadium where it was held no longer exists. So the ice Nepela touches with his skates in the film, the boards, will probably be shot somewhere in Prague, maybe with some old ads on them. That’ll be made on location. But, for example, we’ll have to remove the modern protective glass from the boards, and the rest of the stands will be done in postproduction.
Ondřej Nepela was an outstanding Slovak figure skater with a tragic fate. What will the film be like?
In 1972, Nepela managed to win both the European and the World Championships, as well as the Olympics in Sapporo. The film depicts 24 hours around the World Championships, which took place the following year. I like this concept of period films, concentrating someone’s personality into a short period of time, but it isn’t always possible. Nepela is a universal story of a man who was able to work his way up from nobody to a huge star, in part thanks to his coach, Hilda Múdra. Even though he’s as much a legend as [the long-distance runner] Zátopek is in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia today it’s like he never existed. Nepela was gay, which is why the theme of acceptance of otherness—a burning issue in Slovakia today that’s misused by populist politicians—plays such an important role in the film.
Another project that touches on a thorny period in Slovak history is Emma and the Death’s Head, with a Hungarian widow hiding a Jewish boy from the Nazis near Bratislava during World War II.
Yes, with the great actress Alexandra Borbély. For me, this project was a matter of the heart. I started developing it with the writer and filmmaker Peter Krištúfek before he tragically passed away in 2018. Iveta Grófová took over the directing after that, which was a great choice: she emphasized the female element in the story. The theme of the film is all the more powerful, given that we haven’t yet come to terms with Slovakia’s Nazi past—there are even fascists in the Slovak parliament. The filming was complicated by COVID, but fortunately we have everything “in the bag” now—and a big postproduction ahead of us.
You’ve made a number of films set in the past: Charlatan, A Prominent Patient, The Burning Bush, The Affair. Aren’t you ever afraid that you’ll start repeating yourself?
The problem I have is different. Sometimes I wonder whether the films we’re making are useless. We keep returning to the subject of World War II, hoping the horrors will never be repeated. And then suddenly Putin’s even more insidious war erupts around the corner, fostering the total lie that the fascists are the other guys. But then I wake up in the morning feeling like I can’t give up, since there’s nothing else I can do anyway. In short, I try to treat historical themes so that they aren’t just costume pieces stuck in the past, but have a strong overlap with the present. I strive to subliminally emphasize the fact that some roads are a dead end. The fact that Europe is still holding together is perhaps a sign that all this effort isn’t in vain.
Your other recent project is The Unbalanced, which is set in the present and touches on COVID. It’s the feature debut by documentarist Zuzana Piussi, made for theatrical release, similar to Waltzing Matylda by Petr Slavik. You’re known for your long-term collaborations with directors like Martin Šulík and Vladimír Michálek. Do you enjoy trying new collaborations?
It’s always refreshing. Vladimir said somewhere we knew each other so well that we often communicated nonverbally, through signals, like dolphins. With new collaborations, everything has to be explained from the beginning, which is also healing for me in a way: it brings new impulses, new horizons open up.
You made The Horse with your long-term working partner Martin Šulík in 2022. Was there anything new about it for you?
That film was shot almost entirely in the studio. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. It was set in an apartment that architect František Lipták constructed in the soundstage of the Slovak Television Studio, which enabled us to play with the light and the atmosphere. Filming in real flats has its advantages, like actual patina and material authenticity, but often the sun makes fun of you, hiding behind the clouds when you need it to shine, and so on. You have to decide what to shoot in the daytime and what to shoot at night, whereas in the studio you have complete freedom in that regard. You create reality completely from scratch, like God. [laughs]