Written by Jason Pirodsky
Few countries have a cinematic history as rich as the Czech Republic, which is a considerable achievement given that the region had been in political turmoil for a good part of the last century. Nevertheless, the Czechs have maintained a consistent output of films stretching from the silent era to today. It would be impossible to cover that output in a brief discourse, so I´m not going to try. Instead, I´d like to cover what I consider to be the most important years in Czech cinema: the Czech New Wave.
I love the Waves, the term applied to cinematic near-revolutions in European countries, usually sparked by young directors responding to political changes: Godard, Truffout, and Resnais in France; Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders in Germany. The Czech New Wave occurred in-between these two, and though it may have been shorter, it was no less important. The Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar for four straight years from 1966-1969. Twice, they won it.
The first of those wins is what I consider to be the best Czech film ever made, and one of the most heartbreaking films I´ve ever seen. Directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze, 1965) is about an old Jewish widow and her “Aryan controller”, a coward who is given jurisdiction over her button shop during the early years of Nazi occupation. All the hallmarks of the Czech New Wave are here: humor mixed with tragedy, humanity, and an almost urgent sense of realism. It´s a masterpiece that demands to be seen. Kadár and Klos made one more film together: Adrift (Touha zvaná Anada, 1969), during which production was disrupted by Soviet occupation. Afterwards, Kadár emigrated to America, directing a couple minor Hollywood efforts before his death. Klos faded into obscurity: it was twenty years of communist rule before he directed another film.
The following year brought Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966), directed by Jiří Menzel, which is often pointed to as the pinnacle of Czech cinematic achievement, and also took home the Academy Award. It´s a slight but enjoyable comedy-tragedy with a profound ending. Menzel is an acquired taste, however, sometimes referred to as a Czech Woody Allen. His Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto, 1968) is an eccentric classic, continuing to play in Prague cinemas during the summer months almost forty years later. Menzel is one of the few directors to enjoy continued success in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet occupation, though his films received less international recognition. Still, The End of the Good Old Days (Konec starých časů, 1989) is a great absurdist comedy, and a fitting cinematic footnote to the end of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Everyone knows Miloš Forman. After the little-seen Black Peter (Černý Petr, 1964) came Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, 1965) and The Fireman’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1967), both nominated for Academy Awards, though neither wining. Like Menzel, early Forman can be an acquired taste, and some may find his films a bit heavy on the whimsy. They´re low-key but sweet, with a great fondness for their characters; I found Loves of a Blonde to be especially memorable. Still, I wouldn´t have expected the great success that would come to Forman – modern classics like Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, along with the consistent quality of his films, have made him one of the most respected directors in Hollywood.
Forman´s crew on his early Czech films also deserves special mention. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček went on to work with British surrealist Lindsay Anderson, then to Hollywood; some of his work, especially in Anderson´s O Lucky Man, is the most gorgeous I´ve seen. Writer Ivan Passer also emigrated to America, where he directed some great but unfortunately little seen ‘B´ films, including Born to Win with George Segal and Cutter’s Way with Jeff Bridges.
Surrealism also flourished during the Czech New Wave, especially under directors Věra Chytilová, Juraj Herz, and Jaromil Jireš. Chytilová´s Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) is gleefully subversive, an anarchic masterpiece, and one of the most experimental films of its time. Herz´s The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1968) is another masterpiece, a terrifying, unforgettable account of a disturbed cremator during the Holocaust. Jireš may not have made such lofty classics, but The Joke (Žert, 1969) is one of the better adaptations of a Milan Kundera novel and Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů, 1970) is one of my personal favorites, a sumptuous, erotic, beautiful fairy tale. All three directors remained in Czechoslovakia during Soviet occupation, and continued to direct.
Oldřich Lipský isn´t usually associated with the Czech New Wave, but he made some of his best and most renowned comedies during the period, including Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe, 1964), a great Western parody, and Happy End (1966). The master puppeteer Jiří Trnka normally isn´t associated with the Wave either, but his final film, The Hand (Ruka, 1965) is a powerful short tackling the subjects of oppression and freedom of expression. It was eventually banned under communist rule.
Jan Němec also thrived during the period, and though he may not be as famous as some of the other directors of the time, he was responsible for Oratorio for Prague (1968), the famous and widely-seen record of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. He also directed Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964) an exceptional, compelling, nearly dialogue-less film that follows two young Jewish men as they run from their Nazi oppresors.
In 1970, director Karel Kachyňa made one of the last gasps of the Czech New Wave. The Ear (Ucho) is a masterful film about political paranoia, concerning a beaurocrat who comes home one night to find a bug (wiretap) in his home. Or does he? The film is a thinly-veiled criticism of the communist regime now in control of the country, and it was immediately banned, unseen until the fall of the regime in 1989. With the Soviet control now stifling the arts, and many of the talented filmmakers fleeing the country, the Czech New Wave was officially over.
Over, but not forgotten. Modern Czech cinema is almost directly based on the styles and techniques that were used from 1964-68. Harsh realism mixed with comedy, a good dose of humanity, and usually a focus on a larger cast as opposed to a single main character. Professional techniques aided by a documentary-like approach to storytelling sets Czech films apart from any other country. And it was created, mostly, in that brief period of artistic freedom, the Czech New Wave.
Jason Pirodsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org