Calling all Comrades

Calling all Comrades

By Michael Pickard
April 2, 2024


A pair of mismatched investigators delve into episodes of the paranormal in Czech mystery series We’re On It, Comrades! Director Matěj Chlupáček, producer Maja Hamplová and writer Miro Šifra reveal the inspiration behind the series and how they sought to subvert its Cold War setting.

A paranormal mystery pitched somewhere between genre icon The X Files and classic cartoon Scooby Doo, Czech period drama To se vysvětlí, soudruzi! (We’re On It, Comrades!) takes viewers inside a unique government institute where an unlikely duo team up to find the truth behind a series of strange events.

It opens in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, when the country is stuck in the middle of a Cold War between the Soviet Union and US while both superpowers are experimenting with telepathy and paranormal activity. But not to be overlooked, Czechoslovakia’s own Institute of Paranormal Phenomena is also intervening in matters of the seemingly supernatural.

Miro Šifra

It’s here that skeptic David (Jiří Macháček) and naïve scientist Vojta (Jan Cina) team up to interrogate a range of bizarre cases, from the alien abduction of an upstanding citizen to the spontaneous self-ignition of a saint in a church and an attack by the creepy goat monster Kozlopir. But no matter what has happened, nothing will stand in their way of finding an explanation.

A coproduction between broadcasters Czech TV and Germany’s ZDF, the series comes from a partnership between producers Barletta and Network Movie. It also reunites writer Miro Šifra with director and producer Matěj Chlupáček, who previously partnered on crime drama Zrádci (Rats). Chlupáček also directs We’re On It, Comrades! and produces with Maja Hamplová (Profesor T).

It was after working on Rats, a visually dramatic crime drama inspired by real life, that both Šifra and Chlupáček wanted a change of pace – and found it in this exploration of the otherworldly.

“For me, it’s an old genre with a new twist. I really enjoyed that,” Šifra tells DQ. “There’s only a certain number of scenes with dead bodies you can write, and it’s really fresh when you can write about a dead body that’s actually a puppet. But the principles are the same. We’re just making fun of the thing we’re working with. You can just be more playful.”

The series also harks back to similar shows that aired in the Czech Republic more than 40 years ago – sci-fi fantasy comedies that were similarly produced with German partners. Together, Šifra and Chlupáček decided to revisit a genre that had been forgotten locally, but blend it with perennially popular detective stories.

We’re On It, Comrades! is set in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s

“They were doing paranormal experiments in the US and the Soviet Union – and in the Czech Republic. In the 80s there was a real institute doing these kinds of experiments,” Šifra says. “They were not investigating cases, but they were doing experiments with telepathy and things like that. It was funny for us that this kind of institute was working in the 80s, so we used that as a reference and started thinking about how to make it something between Scooby Doo and The X Files. Scooby Doo was a big reference for us.”

But striking the right tone proved to be an early sticking point as development on the comedy-drama progressed.

Maja Hamplová

“You don’t want to go too far, and we were trying to find the balance between making it funny and light and, at the same time, pushing it,” the writer continues. “In one episode, we end with a joke where the daughter of the main character, David, is levitating, saying, ‘Oh it’s just puberty,’ but we use elements of big drama and the family to somehow balance it out. That’s how we approached it.”

The eight-part series is further heightened by head writer Šifra’s decision to feature different genres within each episode. For example, horror features in episode two, while episode three is imagined as a superhero movie. Then when it came to coming up with elements of the ‘monster-of-the-week’ story, traditional ghosts and ghouls feature in the series alongside a killer puppet.

“We also had one episode that was about a circus and a pony who can speak,” says Hamplová, “but that was a production issue, so we decided not to do that.”

It is Vojta, a new recruit, who serves as the audience’s guide to the world of the institute and finds his enthusiasm for the unexplained at cross paths with sceptic David.

“But the focus changes from Vojta to David and his daughter Eva around the middle of the series,” Chlupáček notes. “Then you follow this inner family drama and we end on that at the end of the first season. It ends up with a cliffhanger, leading towards a second season that is connected to Eva.”

The comedy-drama series follows a team investigating the paranormal

It’s not just the story that sets We’re On It, Comrades! apart from other Cold War-era dramas. The series boasts a colourful and imaginative production design that similarly elevates the drama, while Chlupáček’s camerawork echoes mockumentaries such as The Office and What We Do in the Shadows.

“We always knew we wanted to elevate the feeling from the 80s, from the films you’ve seen,” Šifra says. “In the Czech Republic, we usually do those greyish, very sad, very heavy stories. In this, we wanted to develop something more colourful and playful that would more fit the story and the genre.”

Matěj Chlupáček

“I wanted it to be very free,” the director notes. “That was the intention [with the camera], to be more docu-like, so you are more with the characters and it’s not that serious. When we were starting, I was still questioning whether it was too much, because originally I wanted to go further with this approach and, in the early stages, we were thinking about whether we should do it as a mockumentary like In the Shadows. But then we avoided that, which I think is a good thing. It wouldn’t have worked. It was just on the table for a week or two.”

Working with a total budget of €4m (US$4.3m), the production team faced the challenge of making a hugely ambitious series for an amount of money that is large for a Czech series but pales in comparison to some high-end US or UK dramas.

“Considering how big it is and that every episode happens somewhere else, and you’ve got a lot of VFX or practical effects on set, it’s not a lot [of money], although it’s a lot for the Czech Republic,” Chlupáček says. “So we were limited by time, and sometimes we had to shoot eight to 10 pages per day to have it all. It was very complicated.

“We were chopping around between locations, but because we built the institute, it meant we could move around it quite freely.”

That ZDF is a coproducer, with ZDF Studios distributing the show worldwide, meant the creators also had to consider how We’re On It, Comrades! might play out in front of international audiences. The series debuted on Czech TV earlier this month and will air on ZDF this fall, though German viewers got to see a glimpse of the show when it was screened during the Berlinale Series Market in February.

We’re On It, Comrades! features different genres in each episode

It will also be previewed for international buyers as part of MipTV’s MipDrama showcase in Cannes next week.

“It was pretty great to do the coproduction with ZDF because it’s a pretty big deal for the Czech Republic,” Hamplová says. “The Czech Republic has a big history with ZDF but, for 40 years, coproductions haven’t happened. So for us it was great to work with them. They didn’t want to change the concept. They fell in love with Comrades and we just tried to find a way to make it international. I’m really happy about this opportunity for us and I really hope a second season will happen.”

“They asked for the first treatment in the early stages, and they were commenting not only on the jokes but also on the general understandability of the themes and the investigation,” Chlupáček adds. “They didn’t want to change the style or the story. They were just trying to be as focused on the characters as possible. It’s the best coproduction we’ve ever experienced.”

ZDF might also have wondered if the series would reveal its paranormal secrets before the final episode, and it’s a question Šifra admits he had also considered from the outset.

“There was a big question about how you’re going to do it, because if you’re going to give a rational explanation every time [for every case], audiences will think they know the answer in the beginning. But if you just go with a paranormal explanation, there will be no satisfaction for the audience – something happened but we don’t know what,” he says. “We have tried to find a balance, to give satisfaction for the audience but not so they are used to the same explanation in every episode.”

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