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It was a beautiful sunny Spring day here on the riverbank when my thoughts turned to the Brejchova sisters and another Spring…
The Czechoslovakian New Wave began with the song of a lovely little rosefinch in a meadow by the banks of the beautiful Vltava river. And soon the whole country was filled with song and the sounds of nature and Smetana, it blossomed with the fragrance of flowers and bathed in the warmth of the sun.
For me Czechoslovakian Cinema of the 60s easily rivals the French New Wave; a short-lived miracle (yes, it really does feel like that), and – dare i say – a time when the Czechs bounced with a Spring in their step.
The Czechoslovak New Wave (also Czech New Wave) is a term used for the early films of 1960s Czechoslovak directors Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Jaromil Jireš, Evald Schorm and others. The quality and openness of the films led the genre to be called the Czech film miracle.
The Czech New Wave was an artistic movement in cinema which evolved out of the earlier Devětsil movement of the thirties. Disgruntled with the communist regime that had taken over in Czechoslovakia in 1948, students of the Film and TV School of The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (also known as FAMU) became the dissenters of their time. Their objective in making films was “to make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.”
Trademarks of the movement are long unscripted dialogues, dark and absurd humour, and the casting of non-professional actors. The films touched on themes which for earlier film makers in the communist countries had rarely managed to avoid the objections of the censor, such as the misguided youths of Czechoslovak society portrayed in Miloš Forman’s Black Peter (Czech: Cerný Petr 1963) and Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky 1965), or those caught in a surrealistic whirlwind in Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (Sedmikrásky 1966) and Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů 1970).
The Czech New Wave differed from the French New Wave in that it usually held stronger narratives, and as these directors were the children of a nationalized film industry, they had greater access to studios and state funding. They also tended to present films taken from Czech literature, including Jaromil Jireš’ adaptation of Milan Kundera’s anti-Communist novel The Joke (Žert 1969). At the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers Union in 1971, Milan Kundera himself described this wave of national cinema as an important part of the history of Czechoslovak literature.2 Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko 1967), another major film of the era, remains a cult film more than four decades after its release.
As Alexander Dubček came to power over the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia with plans to present “socialism with a human face” through reform and liberalization (a brief period known as the Prague Spring), the Soviet Union and their Warsaw Pact allies invaded to snuff out reform. The movement came to an abrupt end and Miloš Forman and Jan Němec fled the country, while those who remained faced censorship of their work.
The majority of films shot during the New Wave were Czech-language as opposed to Slovak. Many directors came from the prestigious FAMU, located in Prague, while the state-run Barrandov Studios were located just on the outskirts of Prague. Some prominent Czech directors included Miloš Forman, who directed The Firemen’s Ball, Black Peter, and Loves of a Blonde during this time, Věra Chytilová who is best known for her film Daisies, and Jiří Menzel, whose film Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky 1966) won an academy award for best foreign language film.
The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze 1965) directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos won the academy award for best foreign language film in 1966. It takes place in Slovakia during World War II and tells the story of a poor Slovak man named Anton “Tono” Brtko who is given a job by the local fascist regime to be the “Aryan owner” of a button shop run by an elderly Jewish woman.
To the above Wikipedia list i’m adding other goodies and great masterpieces from the 60s and 1970. The Sun in a Net is widely considered the first in the New Wave, but i’ve started with an earlier couple worth seeing. There has been a tradition of spiky satirical mischief, dark wit and edgy surrealism, as well as imaginative animation. And it’s a land renowned for its beers: do read Cutting it Short by Bohumil Hrabal, author of Closely Watched Trains. Another classic Czech book, a witty satirical novel, is The Good Soldier Švejk (Jaroslav Hašek).
Frantisek Vlacil was born in Cesky Tesin and spent his childhood and early adulthood in northern Moravia and Brno. His father was an attorney, but, at the end of World War I, after he returned from his sojourn with the Czech Legion in Russia, he remained in the military. His mother was Czech, but when she was six months old, her family moved to Russia. She returned to Czechoslovakia in 1919.
Frantisek started to display artistic talent at a very early age. After completing secondary school, he studied at the Philosophical Faculty of Masaryk University in Brno from 1945 to 1949, specializing in art history and aesthetics. At the same time, he was active in a Brno-based puppetry and animated film group as well as at a studio that produced popular scientific educational films. He became a permanent employee of the latter in 1947 and gradually became acquainted with all of the professions involved in production. In 1951, on the basis of a decree issued by Minister of National Defense Cepicka, he was called up for active military service and was transferred to the Czechoslovakian Army Film Division. Over the next seven year period, he shot over thirty scientific, instructional and documentary films, often working under difficult conditions. This period of time was instrumental in his decision to make feature films and also provided his training in the filmmaking industry.
Vlacil’s distinctive talent did not escape the attention of the new management of the Barrandov Film Studios. He was engaged at Prague’s Hill of Dreams by Eduard Hofman, who was the studios’ director and creatively-focused film events organizer at that time.
The White Dove was Vlacil’s first feature length acted film. It immediately received a number of international awards and paved the way to joining the filmmaking elite.
A sequence of four extraordinary pictures followed, thanks to which the creator attained a prestigious position within the film community. The first was his historic ballad The Devil’s Trap. The epic story, set in the first half of the eighteenth century, received favorable reviews from the critics and enjoyed success abroad.
The resulting acclaim enabled Vlacil to start working on what was to become his most famous work – Marketa Lazarova. This film was long in the making and is an exceptional work in many respects. Even today, it significantly stands out above the rest. According to the majority of film critics and filmmakers, this is the best film that ever came out of Czechoslovakian film production.
Immediately afterwards, Vlacil filmed Valley of the Bees, which is based on a theme by author Vladimir Körner. This story, set in the thirteenth century, deals with the strength of religious fanaticism. In places, it depicts, in an almost naturalistic manner, the conflicts that exist between desire and passion for freedom and faithfulness to principles that go beyond individualism.
The psychological Adelheid was next. This film, set in the Czech border areas during the post-war period, was the director’s first color film.
During normalization, Vlacil had to bid farewell to acted films for a period of time and devoted his efforts to documentaries. His most valuable production during this period was Art Nouveau Prague, which received first prize at the film festival held in Paris.
The director returned to feature length acted films with his two subsequent projects: Smoke on the Potato Fields, which is a psychological portrait of an aging physician and features Rudolf Hrusinsky in the leading role, and the adventure film Shadows of a Hot Summer, about a group of Ukrainian nationalists attempting to fight their way from the Ukraine to the West.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Vlacil started working with screenwriter Zdenek Mahler. The results of this partnership include an unusual portrait of Antonin Dvorak in Concert at the End of Summer. The memorable pictures Snake Venom, Shades of Fern, and Magician followed.
Vlacil’s signature as a director was bold and outstanding. When he had freedom of choice, he turned to themes from the past. His films speak through imagery and, as a result of his lyrical and psychological conceptions, he has been given the title of poet and philosopher of the silver screen.
After November 1989, he was the first to receive a Czech Lion award for his lifelong work and was chosen as the president of the Czech Film and Television Academy. At the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Frantisek Vlacil received a prestigious award for the extraordinarily artistic contributions he has brought to world cinematography. Amongst Czech filmmakers, he has a reputation as a genial creator who has placed his signature on the most valuable works from our film history.
Vlacil was not only an exceptionally talented creator, but also a very complex personality full of internal conflicts. His lifelong curse was dependency on alcohol, which ultimately destroyed his health and shortened his life. Nevertheless, his work is entirely extraordinary and he remains an unattainable model for contemporary Czech filmmakers. —www.frantisekvlacil.cz
Vera Chytilová was born on February 2, 1929, in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic). She studied philosophy and architecture in Brno for two years, then worked as a technical draftsman, a designer, a fashion model, a photo re-toucher, then worked as a clapper girl for Barrandov Film Studios in Prague. There she continued as a writer, actress, and assistant director.
She was denied a scholarship, or even a recommendation from Barrandov, but she took the admissions tests at FAMU and was accepted. From 1957-1962 she studied film directing under Otakar Vávra, who also taught Jirí Menzel, Milos Forman, Jan Nemec, and Ivan Passer. In 1962 she graduated as director from Film Academy (FAMU) in Prague. Her graduation film Strop (Ceiling 1962) and the following film Pytel blech (A Bagful of Fleas 1963) were “staged” improvisations with non-actors. In 1966 Chytilova and her husband, Jaroslav Kucera, made a witty surrealist comedy Sedmikrásky (1966), which was immediately banned, but then was released in 1967, and won the Grand Prix at the Bergamo Film Festival. She remained in Czechoslovakia after the events of 1968, when her colleagues Milos Forman, Jan Nemec, and Ivan Passer emigrated. Her films were often “shelved” for reasons of political censorship. For six years Chytilova was banned from making films. In 1976 she wrote a letter of complaint to President Gustav Husak, describing her artistic position. After some behind-the-scenes influence by her supporters, Chytilova was allowed to make a low-budget Hra o jablko (1977), which won a Silver Hugo at Chicago Film Festival.
Chytilova belongs among the foremost directors of the 1960’s Czech New Wave, which was influenced by both the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism. Her films were acclaimed for visual experimentation and for bold unmasking of the moral problems of contemporary society. Her art belongs to what Sergei M. Eisenstein described as “intellectual cinema”, that embraces the mix of “avant-garde”, “cinema verite”, “formalism”, “feminism”, or “happening” and, with a good deal of humor, it spreads beyond definitions. Chytilova’s films often present a multi-layered plethora of visual associations that encourages the viewer to make active interpretations. She survived through the political turbulences in Czechoslovakia and has been a highly original and uncompromising filmmaker
Not on Mubi:
Gala in the Botanical Garden
Jonathan L Owen: Avant-Garde to New Wave: Czechoslovakian Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties
David Cook: A History of Narrative Film.
Peter Hames: The Czechoslovak New Wave
Josef Škvorecký: All The Bright Young Man and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema
Peter Hames: Jan Němec: Enfant Terrible of the Czech New Wave
La Primavera de Praga: Una Antologia del Cine Checoslovaco en Video by Venimos Los Jodimos Y Nos Fuimos. This great list has lots of films on video to be seen, including many from the 1970s not listed here, as i’ve concentrated on 1961-70.