Ivan Passer obituary

Director who was part of the ‘Czech film miracle’ in the 1960s but made his masterpieces in Hollywood

Ivan Passer, who has died aged 86, was one of the new wave of Czech film directors who emerged during the social and cultural democratisation of the mid-60s that afforded them unprecedented artistic freedom. With his childhood friend Miloš Forman, Passer co-wrote A Blonde in Love (1965, released as Loves of a Blonde in the US) and The Firemen’s Ball (1967), and directed Intimate Lighting (1965), his brilliant feature film debut.

In that short period, Passer, Forman, Vera Chytilová, Jirí Menzel and Jan Němec, among others, made films that rejected the official state socialist-realist aesthetic and produced eclectic, highly assured features that captured the world’s attention.

The “Czech film miracle” reached its peak when the reformist politician Alexander Dubček became first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist party in January 1968 and continued until August, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, ending the Prague spring. When Intimate Lighting and The Firemen’s Ball were banned, the two directors decided to seek exile in the US.

After some years of struggle, Forman made it big in Hollywood, but Passer’s American career remained patchy. He made two masterpieces, Born to Win (1971), a sensitive and realistic film about drugs, and the film noir Cutter’s Way (1981). Although these were his best, they were the darkest in a body of work in which comedy and satire predominated.

Born in Prague, Passer grew up under Nazi occupation. He was eight when his father was sent to a labour camp. As his mother had joined the resistance, Passer was brought up by his grandfather. He was in his teens when Czechoslovakia became a communist state. He was expelled from high school three months before graduation for being an “enemy of the people”. After spending a year travelling around Czechoslovakia, he was accepted at Famu, the celebrated national film and TV school in Prague, on the basis of a couple of scripts he had written on his travels.

Forman and Passer, fellow students, got together to discuss how “in this godforsaken country” they could make good movies. “We took a piece of paper and we wrote down several points like ‘it should be a comedy’, because the Communist party and the censorship were more tolerant with comedies,” Passer recalled. Rather than shooting in a studio, they would film in the streets, “because they would not look over our shoulder that much”. They decided to use non-actors and natural light.

Passer’s first film, using these precepts, was a 20-minute short, A Boring Afternoon (1964), “about all the things that happen when, ostensibly, nothing is happening”. This wry observation of human characteristics was further explored in Intimate Lighting, about a professional cellist who comes to a provincial town with his fiancee (played by Vera Kresadlová, Forman’s wife) to visit old friends. They eat, drink, play music and reminisce. It seems inconceivable that this tender, well-observed, almost plotless comedy should have been banned for 20 years. Passer believed that the party was worried when it saw ordinary people, with all their weaknesses and strengths, depicted on screen, and also that it preferred to be attacked directly than to be ignored completely.

John Heard in Cutter’s Way, 1981, directed by Ivan Passer.
John Heard in Cutter’s Way, 1981, directed by Ivan Passer. Photograph: Artists/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

After a couple of years trying to survive in New York, Passer was able to bring his gentle humour to bear on the world of the city’s junkies in his US debut Born to Win, though its blend of European and American sensibilities disoriented many critics at the time. The film followed JJ (played by George Segal), an ex-hairdresser needing $100 a day for his heroin habit, his buddy Billy (Jay Fletcher), who helps him get his supply, a kooky hanger-on (Karen Black) and a detective played by an emergent Robert De Niro. “I didn’t know anything about drugs, so I learned a lot of new things,” Passer said. “It interested me because here in the country of freedom – for me who came from a country of restricted freedom – there are these people who voluntarily give their freedom away, and are enslaved by drugs. That fascinated me.”

Law and Disorder (1974), his second US film, was an insightful and amusing satire on the decline of neighbourhood life in which Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine set about organising a vigilante force to combat the rising tide of crime. However, the film suffered from the sudden shift of tone towards the end. “The audience was laughing all the time, suddenly this guy was killed and the audience was stunned,” Passer said. “I learned that you should never do that.”

Passer found it hard to get personal ventures off the ground, and had to do his best with mediocre material such as the slight comedy Crime and Passion (1976), in which a shady investment banker (Omar Sharif) convinces his lover/secretary (Black) to marry a tycoon to whom he is heavily in debt. Silver Bears (1978), about a scam involving an Iranian silver mine, remained unconvincing despite its elegant cast – Michael Caine, Martin Balsam, Louis Jourdan, Stéphane Audran and Cybill Shepherd.

Roshan Seth, left, as Beria and Robert Duvall as Stalin in Ivan Passer’s film Stalin, 1992.
Roshan Seth, left, as Beria and Robert Duvall as Stalin in Ivan Passer’s film Stalin, 1992. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Novofilm

His most cohesive movie, Cutter’s Way, a subversive, paranoid thriller that questions American values and myths, tells of an injured Vietnam vet, Alex Cutter (John Heard), seeking revenge on a local California bigwig, whom he suspects of having murdered a teenage girl. Heard, Lisa Eichhorn as his alcoholic wife, and Jeff Bridges as his friend Bone, give fervid performances. According to Passer, Cutter’s Way was “a damaging account of a nation that has lost its final illusions in the Vietnam war and of a society eaten away by corruption.”

It took some years for Cutter’s Way to be appreciated. In the meantime, Passer continued to turn out quirky movies such as Creator (1985), a jumbled comedy-drama starring Peter O’Toole, and Haunted Summer (1988), a portrayal of the meeting between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and John Polidori in Italy in 1816. There was a return to form in another biographical drama, Stalin (1992) starring, Robert Duvall as the Soviet dictator.

In 2004 Passer started to direct Nomad: The Warrior, an epic set in 18th-century Kazakhstan. Due to financial and weather problems on location, the film shut down halfway through. It was then bought by the producer brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who replaced Passer with Sergei Bodrov, and released it the following year.

Passer is survived by his second wife, Anne, and by a son, Ivan, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.

• Ivan Passer, film director, born 10 July 1933; died 9 January 2020


Ronald Bergan

The GuardianTramp

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