“Mediocrity never goes away – but neither, I hope, do those who are willing
to challenge it.” – Miloš Forman
Czech cinema had been introduced to the masses since the early years of the twentieth century but like all traditional art methodologies need a periodic revision, the cinema of the region experienced its own revolution with the rise of young visionaries like Miloš Forman and Věra Chytilová among others. The Czech New Wave isn’t characterised by a uniform artistic approach but a variety of subversive masterpieces, ranging from the avant-garde to black comedies.
Forman once explained, “One is born, I suppose, with some defective gene. Ever since I was a child I was fascinated by show business, the theatre. My first experience as a theatre-goer was totally surreal. I was 6 years old, it was right before World War II, and one Sunday afternoon my parents took me to the movie house, which was playing a silent version of the most popular Czech opera, The Bartered Bride by Smetana… Everybody in the country knows the first song, and suddenly the whole audience started to sing to this silent movie. It was magic. It was surreal, but it was magic. I was hooked.”
He reflected, “I’ve been so lucky in my career, at all the different steps. When I entered the film school at the Prague Academy in the ’50s, it was the hardest time in the Communist countries. The ideological control of the society was almost absolute. And what happened was that many wonderful writers and directors were suddenly in disfavour with the authorities because they didn’t conform to the ideology, and they were forbidden to publish or make movies… Milan Kundera was my literature professor. He’s a Francophile, so he made us read French novels like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which I made a version of many years later as Valmont.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we take a look at some of the definitive works from the Czech New Wave in order to understand the unique artistic sensibilities of this important movement in the history of cinema.
10 essential films from the Czech New Wave:
The Sun in a Net (Štefan Uher – 1962)
One of the landmark works of the Czech New Wave, The Sun in a Net marked a deviation from the formulaic socialist-realist films that were popular in the country. It proved that if cinema can be used as a propaganda tool, it can also be a brilliant way to show people the truth by critiquing the ruling forces as well as experimenting with the rules of the medium.
It is a poetic story about how modernity has destabilised the youth, forcing them to hide their insecurities behind a veil of cynicism and iconoclasm. Uher’s work was influenced by Italian neorealism and some of the other contemporary European filmmaking techniques which would later inspire film students in the country to reinforce the New Wave.
When the Cat Comes (Vojtěch Jasný – 1963)
This 1963 fantasy film features a cat wearing sunglasses (very cool) named Mokol who arrives in a village along with a travelling circus. Jasný experiments with the significance of colour in cinema by bathing the villagers with colours which reflect their true feelings when the cat’s glasses are taken off. That year, The film landed two major awards at the Cannes Film Festival.
The filmmaker revealed, “I never, even though I was a communist, hurt people if I was aware and I wanted to do it and then, when I saw that it was dogmatism and that there were the atrocities, I was against it and when I did with Jan Werich and we were preparing [When the Cat Comes], I tell him: ‘Mr. Jen, I want to leave the party, because I have nothing to do with it anymore’. He tells me, ‘Jasňák, and who would help us?’ So I stayed in the party and I was otherwise in the resistance.”
Diamonds of the Night (Jan Němec – 1964)
Němec’s brilliant feature film debut, Diamonds of the Night is partially inspired by Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novel Darkness Has No Shadow. It portrays the intense and heartbreaking story of two young Jewish boys trying to escape the Nazis. It is remembered for its philosophical investigation of the human condition as well as its ambiguous ending, declining to reveal whether the boys live or die.
“There were only a few filmmakers who treated film like a special medium of storytelling,” Němec said. “I was influenced mostly by the French director Robert Bresson, whom I revere greatly, as well as by Alain Resnais, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Their films could be told as stories, but the cardinal experience is from the film itself.”
Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer – 1965)
Ivan Passer’s magnum opus, this 1965 comedy tells the story of two friends who are musicians. Peter, a successful cello player living in Prague, decides to visit his hometown and meets his childhood friend Bambas who stayed behind and makes a living as a local music teacher. Oscillating between humour and melancholy, Intimate Lighting is a testament to the versatility of the Czech New Wave.
The filmmaker said, “I believe that the Party was worried when they saw ordinary people, with all their weaknesses and strengths, depicted on screen. I think they also preferred to be attacked directly rather than to be ignored completely.
“Before the clampdown, Milos and I got together to discuss how in this godforsaken country we 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.”
Closely Watched Trains (Jiří Menzel – 1966)
One of the most acclaimed films from the Czech New Wave, this beautiful coming-of-age story follows the travails of a young man working at a village railway station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during the Second World War who wishes to join the Resistance in order to impress girls. Menzel’s masterpiece won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1968.
Menzel admitted, “I’m happy I lived in a society together with Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Jan Němec etc. It’s an honour, not because I like all of their films, but because they made some great movies and because they are honest filmmakers.
“No one did nonsense, except for me. I did a commercial comedy in Germany because they payed me well, but I didn’t realise people would actually watch it. I don’t know, I don’t think Forman and these guys would do such a thing.”
Daisies (Věra Chytilová – 1966)
A highly experimental film with elements of comedy, drama and surrealism, Daisies chronicles the rebellion of two young girls who decide that they have had enough of the decadence all around them and embark on a serious of destructive pranks. The filmmaker thought of her work as “a necrologue about a negative way of life.”
Chytilová was primarily drawn to the path of a filmmaker because she did not see works which reflected her own artistic sensibilities. When she was questioned by the Film Academy’s board, the young pioneer told them that she did not approve of the quality of the films they made and that’s exactly why she wanted to be a director. According to Chytilová herself, she was “an overheated kettle that you can’t turn down”.
The Firemen’s Ball (Miloš Forman – 1967)
Forman’s last film made in his native country before felling the country during the Soviet invasion, this 1967 comedy-drama satirises the ways of the Communist party and teaches us how to embrace the absurd. Set in a small town, it chronicles the disasters that take place at the local fire department’s annual ball. It is noted for its use of non-professional actors as well as its poignant political allegory.
“What you see in The Firemen’s Ball,” Forman said, “is the reaction of my whole generation in Czechoslovakia to the stupidity and artificiality of the so-called socialist reality we were living in. Everything was so fake; everything was propaganda. So our reaction was to put real people on the screen, real faces.”
The Cremator (Juraj Herz – 1969)
Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, Herz’s 1969 dark comedy is set in 1930s Prague during the Nazi occupation. It tries to make sense of the insanity of the surrounding political climate through the disturbing story of a professional cremator who justifies becoming a mass murderer through Buddhist philosophy. The film was banned after its premiere by the Communist party and the original ending of the film is now believed to be lost.
Herz recalled, “When I studied at the puppetry department, the film students had projections of various films as a part of their studies at FAMU. Of course, I was very interested in seeing the films, but I wasn’t allowed to go there because I studied at the puppetry department.
“I always went into the room when it was already dark so I could not be seen. But it was tricky because sometimes they switched on the lights when the film was already running and they kicked out people who shouldn’t be there. But I managed to see quite a lot of films.”
Birds, Orphans and Fools (Juraj Jakubisko – 1969)
Juraj Jakubisko’s powerful commentary on the postmodern condition, this 1969 comedy-fantasy features three individuals who are orphaned by the unabashed violence of war. Set in an unspecified time and place, it traces their infantile regression as the adults adopt childlike coping mechanisms in order to survive the loss of traditional systems of support.
The filmmaker commented on the condition of contemporary cinema, “The most important is the story. Yes, also a computers can make perfect visual effects, but it must have some heart, some storyline. Everything has been already filmed, therefore it is very hard to surprise the audience. But there are a lot of talented artists and I keep my fingers crossed that they will stand the test at this difficult road.”
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš – 1970)
Although it has been described as a surreal fantasy horror film, this 1970 masterpiece defies all categorisations. Based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval, the film presents a dreamlike vision of a young girl who lives with her grandmother and portrays her sexual awakening through the offers of seductive priests as well as vampires.
According to the preface of the novel, Vítěszlav Nezval’s work was a tribute to the “ancient tales, superstitions, and romances”. Jires explained what drew him to the source material was “the juncture of reality and dream, and the playful struggle between horror and humour”.