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A Reflection on Czechoslovak Film

I spent the first half of my year studying at Charles University in Prague, Czechia. It was a remarkably immersive experience. Although it was not my first time studying abroad, it was my first time taking a national cinema class. In the Eastern and Central European Studies program at Charles, I breathed Czech culture day and night. The university is historic (est. 1348), as is its close neighbor, FAMU (est. 1946), the national film school. My film professor taught at both.


A FAMU class photo of some of the most iconic Czech filmmakers (source: realfilm.cz).

Most people know about Czechoslovak film (back when it used to be one country) for its iconic New Wave in the 1960s and ‘70s. Filmmakers like Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová and Jiří Menzel all graduated from FAMU in the time of authoritarian socialism and took their political grievances out – directly or indirectly – in their now-celebrated films.


I’ve seen 20-some Czech and Slovak films at this point, and although that does not mean that I am an expert, it does entitle me to reflect on my experiences with the cinema, and perhaps draw some conclusions about its international contributions. Just be grateful that I’m not publishing my entire Czechoslovak visual language term paper. 


I now present a brief history of Czechoslovakia, for contextual purposes:


  • Pre-1918: Czech and Slovak lands part of the Austro-Hungarian empire

  • 1918 – Independence as Czechoslovakia (The First Republic)

  • 1938 – The Munich Agreement is signed, Czechoslovakia is left behind by Western powers and must cede territory to Germany (The Second Republic)

  • 1939 – Nazi-sympathizing Slovakia declares independence with German approval


The Shop on Main Street (1965) dir. Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos
  • 1940s – Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Czech liberal government in exile in London

  • 1945-1948 – post-war era, Czechoslovakia removes German inhabitants under President Beneš (The Third Republic)

  • 1948 – Coup d’état and Soviet takeover (Czechoslovak Socialist Republic)

  • Spring 1968 – Prague Spring, the government briefly decreases censorship under liberal government

  • Fall 1968 – Warsaw Pact signatories invade Czechoslovakia to restore order

  • 1970s – “Normalization” of communism

  • 1989 – Anti-communist revolution, restoration of democratic Czechoslovakia

  • 1993 – Czechia and Slovakia become two separate states


Additionally, I want to be transparent about my shortcomings: I did not watch any movies featuring Jan Švankmajer’s puppets and I did not make it through all 166 minutes of Marketa Lazarová. There are always more movies to see. Allow me to break down the major categories.


The Political


It’s not too hard to find movies that were banned under the communist regime. Jan Němec, Karel Kachyňa and female pioneer Věra Chytilová all count themselves as members of the “censored art” club. Miloš Forman’s ban resulted in him fleeing to the U.S. and having a very successful career in Hollywood (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, anyone?). I think the bigger distinction is the tone of the banned movies: are they going for realism or satire?


The Ear (1970) dir. Karel Kachyňa

In the realism category, you will find no more extraordinary film than The Ear. Karel Kachyňa’s 1970 thriller is the prime example of communist-era paranoia. The movie follows a ministry official, Ludvik, and his wife, Anna, upon return from a communist party dinner. Ludvik is suffering under the weight of internal guilt for filing an inaccurate brickworks report, and he becomes concerned that his home has been tapped. Together, they recount suspicious conversations from the evening. The marriage dynamic of the duo is absolutely fascinating and the brightly lit flashbacks offer an intricate eeriness to the “he said, she said” of it all.


Němec’s 70-minute A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) is perhaps the most direct offensive on communist power throes, with character allegories for Lenin, Stalin and the masses. When six picnicking friends stumble upon a group headed for a birthday party, they feign knowledge of the gathering. A thug-like friend of the birthday boy plays a rude trick on them, in which invisible lines are drawn and they are warned not to cross them. Already, the friends start to turn on each other, taking the routes of either appeasement or rebellion.


A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) dir. Jan Němec

This wildly cryptic movie has its funny moments, mostly because, for the sake of the party, there is a desire to keep things light. It’s unsettling and open to a slew of different interpretations, but the government saw the movie and said “That’s enough!” Němec lived in exile from Czechoslovakia from 1974 to 1989.


Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967) is one of the most well-known Czech films internationally, likely because Forman went on to have such a great career after it. The rambunctious comedy was screened in some domestic theaters during the Prague Spring before promptly being shut down with the Soviet invasion. It’s not my personal favorite, but it does feature some key elements of the Czech national sense of humor: drunkards, female humiliation and bureaucratic incompetency. Forman’s depiction of a ball celebrates firemen rather than party members, but of course, the movie is riddled with subtle jabs at the government; a system that supposedly emphasizes absolute equality when, in fact, materialism and hierarchy are rampant.


The Firemen's Ball (1967) dir. Miloš Forman

Some would also call Chytilová’s infamous film Daisies (1966) political because it is anarchist and nonsensical. If you asked Chytilová whether she was a radical feminist, though, she would say no. Some would say the movie is anti-capitalist (the production was state-approved), whereas others would say it’s anti-socialist. I explored the idea that it is about the imminence of humanity’s manmade destruction and connected it to the dropping of the atomic bomb.


There are so many possible visual motifs that one may never find the answer. I probably owe Chytilová more of my time to connect these dots – she was one of the few Czech women to do it, and, in fact, still is to this day –  but even if you’re reading Daisies on its most surface-level appeal, you will understand why the communist government hated her for it (but only after it won the Trilobit Award for best Czechoslovak movie of the year). 


Daisies (1966) dir. Věra Chytilová

I appreciate how blurry the lines are: most of the movies had to be approved in order to provide their sneaky attacks on injustice. My favorite true-to-life story about Czech non-confrontationalism happened during the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. Rather than threatening the soldiers with violence, Czechs simply made the invasion as confusing as possible: they gave wrong directions to soldiers and removed or relocated street signs. Eventually, however, they settled into normalization. 


The Folksy


As I learned some elementary Czech language, it dawned on me just how unique it is. It’s Slavic and has a lot of common structural elements with other Slavic languages, but it doesn’t have nearly as many loan words/adaptations as Russian, for example, because of its retainment of folk etymology. 


The months of January to March in:

  • Russian (phonetically transcribed): Yanvar, Fevral, Mart

  • Bulgarian (phonetically transcribed): Yanuary, Fevruary, Mart 

  • Czech: leden, únor, březen


Polish is also relatively unique, but its March (marzec) and May (maj) betray it. Even Slovak has adopted Latin months. 


Loves of a Blonde (1965) dir. Miloš Forman

Folksyness is likewise a staple part of the Czech identity. During the communist regime, city dwellers and intellectuals would often escape to little cottages in the countryside to pick mushrooms and embrace nature. Simplicity of character is also a central theme in a lot of Czech and Slovak literature, particularly in its depiction of innocence. Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1965) was appreciated for its use of non-professional actors and an on-location village environment, a technique he used again when filming The Firemen's Ball.


There are countless Czech fairytale retellings (I only saw Three Wishes for Cinderella, but I know of renditions of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Alice in Wonderland) and some true Czech originals. Ester Krumbachová, a major costume designer for the era, took her own shot at directing with her then-husband – Jan Němec – as co-writer.


The Murder of Mr. Devil (1970) dir. Ester Krumbachová

He was originally supposed to direct the movie, but he was blacklisted, so thus an opportunity was born. The Murder of Mr. Devil (1970) is not as much of a classic, but it’s camp! It tells a cautionary tale about, you guessed it, the devil, although one could certainly read it as a takedown of patriarchy. Krumbachová would also go on to be blacklisted.


Slovak films like Celebration in the Botanical Garden (1969) capture the yearning for small-town life. No one can keep secrets because everyone is in each other’s business. Jaromil Jireš and Chytilová’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) celebrates a young woman’s sexual awakening with plenty of floral accents and vampiric, supernatural implications. The jury is still out on whether the movie is poetic or just creepy.


Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) dir. Jaromil Jireš

To demonstrate the seriousness of Czech “in-jokes,” you must also know about Jára Cimrman, who in 2005 won a poll designating “the Greatest Czech.” Except: Jára Cimrman isn’t real. He was invented by a guest on a radio program in the 1960s. The radio guest claimed to have discovered an exceptional historical man who, among other things, proposed the Panama Canal system, invented yogurt and was seven feet short of discovering the North Pole. His lore is intrepid and varied, and numerous plays and films have been written about him, including Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping (1983). Good luck understanding it without cross-referencing Wikipedia, but his prevalence as a fictional character is undeniably fascinating.


The War


Czechs and Slovaks were often absorbed from empire to empire. Their people were significant once, when the king of Bohemia was also the Holy Roman Emperor (circa the 1300s), but not really after that. So, the reigning stereotype is now that of the “little Czech.” The guy who gets pushed around, but somehow makes it by. We see this in Jaroslav Hašek’s famous literary character, the Good Soldier Švejk, who cannot help but stumble around, miraculously avoiding the actual call for battle during WWI. Fittingly, the novel was never actually finished. But it was still translated and adapted time and time again.


Closely Watched Trains (1966) dir. Jiří Menzel

Similar battle-wary characters pop up in other Czechoslovak war films. Jiří Menzel’s weak-willed, horny protagonist in Closely Watched Trains (1966) seems like the last guy to ever contribute to the rebellion against Nazi soldiers. In The Shop on Main Street, deadbeat husband Tono is mocked by virtually everyone in his periphery. Would saving the old Jewish woman down the street make life better or worse for him?


Juraj Herz’ The Cremator (1969), which I’d argue is not only the greatest Czech film but one of the greatest films of all time, has a similarly smarmy protagonist. Actor Rudolf Hrušínský had an exceptional career in the industry, and his portrayal of a malleable WWII-era undertaker caught spellbound by the Tibetan book of the dead is one of the most unsettling performances ever put to screen. Unlike his peers, however, he is eventually compelled to stark action, as if in a trance.


The Cremator (1969) dir. Juraj Herz

He is made to believe that Jewish people are the enemy and that it's his duty to purify his surroundings. Herz employs revolutionary visual techniques to tell this tale, challenging the Czech mindset that the tragedies that took place in their territory were beyond their control.


Although Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population dwindled after WWII and the Soviets’ unofficially anti-Semetic regime, Czech Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig wrote a book of short stories about his experiences in 1958. Jan Němec adapted this story into the abstract Diamonds of the Night (1966), which sees its young concentration camp-fleeing protagonists stuck between survival and security. Their lives are dependent on discretion and, if things go south, people’s decision to take pity on them. It is similarly one of the most important films of the Czech New Wave.


The Weird


Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969) dir. Juraj Jakubisko

If you’ve heard about Czechoslovak films being "weird," that would be accurate. The ‘60s were an experimental time for most national cinemas, but Czechoslovak filmmakers took the idea to a new extreme. However, this category again warrants subdividing, because a children’s movie with stop-motion animation is not the same as blatant nihilism. Thus, I submit the weird (wonderful), weird (foreign import), and weird (evil).


Let’s start with the latter, because I think this movie might be cursed: Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969). The name kind of speaks for itself, but maybe it doesn’t. Two young adults, Andrej and Marta, who are traumatized by the war, live in a barn with a bunch of other children. They are in love, but also the man is a psychopath (think: Alex DeLarge Lite). There’s a love triangle brewing, and poor Marta is pushed around as she tries to find sense and morality in the chaos. This movie reinforces Czechoslovak depictions of gender dynamics where the woman is more or less a helpless damsel. It’s an interesting movie, but ultimately quite foul (no title pun intended, although there are some birds present). It was banned in Czechoslovakia upon release.


Lemonade Joe (1964) dir. Oldřich Lipský

Weird (foreign import) refers to movies that utilize Western tropes for their stories. Few Western movies were let into Eastern Europe under the communist regime, but the censors did permit the Czechs’ best imitation. Lemonade Joe (1964) is the Czech take on a musical cowboy movie, featuring a schlocky, Paul Newman-esque protagonist who encourages townsfolk to drink lemonade instead of alcohol (quite an affront to the Czechs, who are – for the 29th year running – the largest per capita beer consumers in the world). It’s not super watchable these days, with its harsh yellow filter and depiction of blackface, but it is worthwhile to see what aspects of American Westerns are easiest to parody. Karel Gott's music is also quite catchy.


Similarly, Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (1978) depicts an American detective, Nick Carter (Michal Dočolomanský), who inexplicably speaks perfect Czech. He is in Prague to investigate the case of a missing dog. Also, there is a plot involving a carnivorous plant. This movie rings more strongly of British detective movies like Pink Panther, but would you believe it if I said that Oldřich Lipský directed both it and Lemonade Joe, and co-wrote them with Jiři Brdečka? Would you believe it if I told you that Jiři Brdečka also wrote all three of the next movies that I am about to mention?


The Cassandra Cat (1963) dir. Vojtěch Jasný

When The Cat Comes a.k.a The Cassandra Cat (1963) features a magical cat whose eyes shoot lasers that make people dance and turn them into different colors. If you’re red you’re good, if you’re purple or yellow… good luck. This movie may in fact be political, but it’s so ridiculous that I’m not sure it’s worth trying to analyze. The colorful dancing scene (featuring an old-timey magician) reuses the same clips multiple times and it is extremely noticeable. Brdečka’s hands are all over it, as they are on the last two movies in the Karel Zeman adventure trilogy – weird (the wonderful) – which is a compelling place to close this analysis.


I think Karel Zeman’s movies encapsulate the best parts of Czech visual culture. From dinosaurs (Journey to the Beginning of Time [1955]) to industrial mechanization (Invention for Destruction a.k.a The Fabulous World of Jules Verne [1958]) to lunar travel (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen [1962]), Zeman covered all tracks.


The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) dir. Karel Zeman

His movies are wildly creative and historically self-conscious, celebrating the capabilities of human imagination via our successes and the very art that portrays them. There is usually a man leading the discovery and exhibition, and the role of women is often downplayed, but the films are all beautiful in their distinctive ways. The films honor those who are well-read and spark the curiosity of those who may not be so. 


Discovering a national cinema is an unending journey, and we may not appreciate certain stories until we’re given proper time and context. I feel like I am “in” on the Czechs (and the Slovaks) in certain ways, and a treacherous outsider in others. The cinema has yet to have a legitimate 21st-century revival – most film street ads in Prague were for broad comedies and American flicks – but I have a feeling they’re nearing a new auteur phase. Prague is a hub of activity and E.U.-sponsored initiatives should bring their arts into the light. My heart goes out to the victims and families of the Dec. 21 shooting at Charles University's Faculty of Arts. 


Many of the featured films are streaming on The Criterion Channel and Mubi.


-Lydia

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