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The Forgotten: “Prague Nights” (1969)

“Prague Nights” deals with three tales of the supernatural from three Czech directors.
Though the Czech New Wave of the sixties was not as addicted to anthology films as the Italians (any major Italian director could have called a film Eight and a Half, since they all directed episodes at one time or another), they did make Pearls of the Night (1966), which showcased nearly all the major graduates of the national film school, FAMU (a.k.a. the Kids from FAMU): Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jires, Jirí Menzel, Jan Nemec and Evald Schorm.
Three years later, Schorm was back, collaborating with new chums Jirí Brdecka and Milos Makovec on a raunchy supernatural triptych, Prague Nights. An international traveller picks up a strange woman, determined to enjoy a night of illicit passion during his Czech stopover. Driven through a green-tinted sepia night in her vintage limo, he's told three tales of murder, lust and the supernatural, and, at the end, as in any Amicus horror compendium you care to name, his soul is claimed for the fiery abyss. And he doesn't even get laid.
Clearly, at heart this is fairly banal and pretty sexist, but it's served up with panache: there's a mixture of stylised period detail, the best Barrandon Studios can offer, and cool sixties glamor. The music is an outrageous swoony, woozy muzak, like a drunken elevator descending into a lake of honey. The sickly vermillion tint alternates with rich golden hues as the embedded stories burst into full color. Bosoms are flaunted (there was often a "classy porn" angle to Czech New Wave productions). And some of the special effects are delivered with a simple charm as well as an avant-garde ballsiness that suggests both Powell & Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffman and Jan Svankmajer.
The feeling of animation is understandable, given that one director, Mios Makovec, was a former associate of the great Jirí Trnka, learning his trade with puppetoons such as The Emperor and the Nightingale. Jirí Brdecka was a prolific screenwriter who worked with fantasists Karel Zeman and Oldrich Lipsky. Schorm, a former documentarist, was the most serious of the three, and his The Seventh Day, The Eighth Night opened the same year, the last year any of the New Wave were really able to function as independent artists before the communist regime clamped down. Already, Prague Nights signals a retreat into fantasy and an avoidance of serious subject matter: that stifling green smog feels like an analog for the superimposed jocularity of tone that often makes the more lightweight Czech films rather oppressive.
But this is one of the good ones. In its array of stories we get Rabbi Loew and his hulking clay golem, along with a neat plot twist presented with real aplomb; the devil as a shoemaker luring a murderess to his palace where she will be danced into a swoon by her reanimated victims; cobwebbed automata of lifelike aspect; and a seductress and murderess disposing of would-be lovers with alchemical poison that has impressively colorful effects.
But I confess I don't quite know what to make of the film's misogynist undertone, in which all the women are betrayers and all get destroyed for it. A theory: with true political dissent newly outlawed, the filmmakers turned their frustration upon the one group in society it's always safe to push around. And, as blues songs moaning about "my woman treat me wrong" are said to be disguised critiques of the boss man, perhaps the various aristocratic killers here serve as voluptuous stand-ins for Mother Russia?
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
thank you for this! i didn’t see this one, but czech fairy tales on film are usually astounding.
I’m a big fan of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. What else do you recommend?

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