1960s

‘Black Peter’ and the Wayward Path to Manhood

Black Peter Černý Petr Movie Film

Black Peter is the story of a teenage boy who perpetually disappoints his father, one of the most unforgettable patriarchal figures in all of cinema. Peter (Ladislav Jakim) is 16 and inexperienced, therefore he doesn’t realize that his struggle to do the right thing and please his authority figures is at odds with itself. The lesson that his father (Jan Vostrčil) is so desperate to pass on is how to be a man, which gives the viewer the impression that Peter’s father has little faith in his son to bloom into self-sufficiency on his own. Peter must learn to make his own decisions and stick with them in order to grow. As a character study, Miloš Forman’s feature directorial debut presents a realistic vision of a boy’s attempt to come of age; a path full of setbacks without a tidy resolution.  

At the beginning of the film, Peter gets his first job in a neighborhood grocery store as a plain clothes security guard. The shopkeeper insists that Peter can catch two or three thieves by pretending to be a regular customer. Jakim’s seeming ambivalence onscreen is put to good use, as Peter’s discomfort at this new post immediately sets the tone for the character. Forman was known for casting non-professional actors (such as Vostrčil as Peter’s father), and Jakim has that natural quality of not making great effort to behave in front of the lens. Peter suspects a man of shoplifting, and when he asks a co-worker what to do, she tells him to go after the man. Dutifully, Peter runs after him, but when he catches up to the man, he doesn’t know what to do. Peter awkwardly follows him through town like a forlorn puppy and shrinks when the man turns to face him. Later, Peter’s father is disappointed at his son’s inaction, but this behavior is consistent with Peter’s character and shows mental fortitude. While Peter does not act, he also does not act disingenuously. Peter is unsure that the man is actually a thief, therefore he can’t be convinced to confront him directly. But he is tenacious, so he won’t simply let him walk away. Peter can’t be persuaded to do anything he doesn’t believe in. His dogged handling of the situation is comical, but it reveals the boy’s persistence as he could have just given up earlier and let the man go about his business. Still, Peter’s apathy keep him from caring enough to stick his neck out. The father is sincerely invested in the improvement of his son’s character, yet he can’t trust the boy’s knack for his own survival. The result is a dominant dad who nevertheless refrains from overt punishment for misbehavior, and instead chooses a slow-motion barrage of admonishment, delivered day after day, that wears upon the boy.

Black Peter Černý Petr Movie Film

When Peter talks to his chum over beers, he mimes pointy breasts with his sweater and spouts non sequitirs about rescuing women from their beds during a fire. His friend then asks him if he’s still a virgin, and Peter responds “yes.” He may be shiftless, but he’s honest. Peter’s inability to disguise who he is happens to be a charming trait. The next scene shows Peter spying on a girl through a hole in a changing cabana at the lake, and this is how Forman introduces Peter’s girlfriend, Asa (Pavla Martínková). The two of them try to have an honest conversation while they lay in the grass, but Asa deflects Peter’s repeated question, “Do you know me?” His ability to remain ambivalent saves him from getting into a fight with Čenda (Vladimír Pucholt), an insecure bricklaying trainee who tracks down Peter and his girlfriend when he feels slighted. Later, at a social function attended by all the local youth, Čenda reveals himself to be inept with girls. He continually picks on Peter at the event, potentially because he still feels disrespected from the lake incident, but also because Peter is smaller and his cool demeanor makes him seem impossible to be provoked (not to mention Peter is with a pretty girl, while Čenda can barely speak to the opposite sex). Asa is not impressed that Čenda is tasked with building a wall corner (such prestigious responsibility for a trainee), and maybe she even likes Peter because he’s not caught up in the machismo associated with proving one’s competence. Peter is a kind, nice person who treats Asa well and demands little in return.  

In a sense, Black Peter is actually a study in two modes of how to be a man. If you compare Peter to Čenda (as Peter’s father will do at the end), you have one young man who follows his heart and another who embraces conformity. Čenda is full of villainous bravado but deeply unsure of his masculinity. He gets drunk at the dance and cannot seem to talk to any girls without falling back on his wingman to praise him for appearing brave. Čenda eventually asks his foreman, “Do you think I’m ugly?” He thrives on the praise of his mentor figure, whereas Peter persists at his own pace, in spite of all the instruction he gets. Čenda puts his head on the table and passes out listening to the wiser, older man say, “You can’t expect continual praise for doing one thing right.” 

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Black Peter Černý Petr Movie Film

Black Peter so brilliantly captures the weirdness of awkward adolescent years because the collective filmmakers had been through it and come out the other side. The macho posturing and confrontations can turn into a Mean Streets-style comic argument, because no one ever picks up the gauntlet to actually throw a punch. Čenda is never good at verbal sparring and puts his foot in his mouth constantly, while Peter never looks for trouble. Forman’s film perfectly elucidates the age when boys have to somehow grapple with the expectation that they are to become men, which means they must handle a situation, not just saunter up next to it and hope for the best. Showing up may account for most success, but the hero and ersatz villain of Black Peter share a common dilemma: when to bend in the wind and when to seize it in your sails.  

Peter’s emotional detachment from his own life culminates in a highly symbolic scene where his boss tasks him to unbox some framed paintings to hang in the store. As the boss and his colleague chat, Peter emerges with a print of a nude reclining woman. He props it up and the two much older men study it, no doubt enjoying a contact high of the teenage male that gazes with them. Peter’s boss shares an ogle with him, although it is the boss who tells Peter to look at the reclining nude through a cupped hand, to crop out everything but the naked flesh. Typically, Peter does what he is told, although he couldn’t seem to care less. The boss then insults the boy by claiming only a cripple would want to work for him; boys want to grow up to be astronauts, not work in a grocery store. The painting tips over and lands on the floor; the glass shatters. Gravity does Peter’s bidding as the boy recoils from his boss’ insult. Peter makes no attempt to catch the wobbly painting as he probably feels no investment in his place at the store. Peter later folds up the print and shares it with Asa, who remarks at what a pity it is that the print had been folded up and therefore ruined.  Peter again comes up short.

Finally, near Black Peter’s climax, the shop detective has a fateful encounter that falls in his lap. He watches a woman stuff sweets into her purse. This is Peter’s golden opportunity to be heroic. He watches her do it and does… nothing.  Why? Peter’s father doesn’t understand. Peter doesn’t understand. He seems be entertained to watch his father pace with incredulity while he lectures him. “What do you want to do?” the father asks him three times. “I don’t know.” Peter replies.     

Black Peter Černý Petr Movie Film

Čenda makes a surprise visit to Peter’s home to give him back some borrowed money. When the father learns that Čenda is a brick mason in training, he orders his son to look at the other boy’s hands, as if that would finally knock some sense into him. The father praises Čenda’s work ethic, and it would seem this boy would have been a perfect son; not only does Čenda have a career path, he shows fear when the father gets angry. Peter merely digs in his heels and tries to wait out the lecture. 

These moments show Black Peter is more a slice of life than a typical coming of age tale. Unlike the hero of the more famous anxious youth movie The 400 Blows, Peter has a stable home life. His mother makes him delicious pastries, and his father is well-meaning and interested in him. Peter is not a criminal or defiant, but he might learn something about himself if he were to experiment with such behavior. Perhaps Peter is spoiled to the point of never having to make a difficult decision. For Peter to grow into manhood, he has to realize life is not constantly following the instruction of authority figures. He must learn to trust his own decisions. The fact that the film ends with Peter’s admission that he witnessed a crime and did nothing is subtly optimistic. Despite what his boss or his father might tell him, Peter has to arrive at his own version of self-respect. It won’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t in 90 minutes. Czechoslovakian culture of the early 60s may be a specific one to parse, but the law of nature rules that for a boy to become a man, he must accomplish a difficult task, one that nearly breaks him, until he triumphs heroically and is forever changed. Peter works his way up to that task most of the time. He must break more paintings, mistakenly smash more glass until the pain and humiliation of failure stings less and his authoritarian father’s lectures on manhood drop off in frequency. For starters, he must move out of his parents’ house.

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Black Peter Černý Petr Movie Film

As a hero, Peter is not passive, as his actions do move the story forward. However, getting him to act is like pulling teeth. Peter mostly obeys the direction of his girlfriend, his father and his boss. The moniker of “black” to his name implies a kind of unearned notoriety, likely sarcasm. The boy is harmless, and caught in the crosshairs of a world unlike the one in which he was raised. When the father visits Peter at his job, the boy is finally in the position where he knows better. The father thinks Peter is just gawking at customers, and even though Peter is undercover, he can’t bring himself to contradict his father by explaining he knows what he is doing.  

Had Forman followed up with the character of Peter in subsequent films, the way François Truffaut did with The 400 Blow’s Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), cinema audiences may have had their chance to see him become a man in the midst of the Prague Spring of 1968. Yet by spending so much time with the Black Peter protagonist, one gets the impression that he would end up not a radical, but an émigré. While this New Wave character may not be exactly heroic, he is the model of apathy, a more realistic portrait than someone who chooses a life of crime. Peter chooses a life of low expectations. His story resonates with a generation of teenagers who are constantly told they aren’t living up to their potential, nor the ideals of their parents. No matter how many times authority figures pressure Peter to change, he always does his own thing. 

Philip Brubaker (@lens_itself) is a writer-filmmaker and has contributed video essays to Fandor and MUBI. He lives in Florida where he avoids stepping on lizards daily and draws inspiration from Spanish moss.