Along with the French New Wave and the post neo-realism Italian cinema (Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini, etc), the Czech New Wave is perhaps one of the richest cinemas of the 20th century.
For about ten years (early 1960s to early 1970s) a generation of Czech filmmakers gave us the some of the most ingenious, original, innovative and most beautiful films of the entire history of cinema. This was partly because of a cultural and political reform that the country had undergone since 1962. During this time the filmmakers of the Czech new wave enjoyed a state supported film industry, an interest in both domestic and international market (with special interest in the USA) and relative artistic freedom.
For a few years they could talk about subjects that filmmakers in other communist countries would not be able to due to censorship. Their objective was “to make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.”
Until the summer of 1968 when the Soviets took over Prague, imposing the strongest social and political regulations since the Stalin era, and officially ending the New Wave.
Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966), her most ‘famous’ film, about two girls who realize that everything is corrupt around them including themselves so they go in a frenetic orgy of destruction and corruption, breaking every rule in the fiction as well as in the techniques of film narrative and montage: we jump from colour to black and white to a red tint to a completely unrelated scene, while we follow the frenetic antics of the two heroines. The film is put together in a collage-like montage, taken much farther than Godard’s film of the same year, Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966).*
Chytilova is arguably the most original of the Czech filmmakers, and she would demonstrate it again with Fruit of Paradise (1970), which is my personal favourite of her films. She made other interesting but hard to get films like The Apple Game (1978), Panelstory (1979) and The Jester and the Queen (1988) among others.
Jaromil Jires made one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). Based on a classic Czech surrealist novel by Vitezslav Nezval, the film is difficult to pin down, like most good films, but could be somewhat vaguely described as a surreal fairytale, bordering into fantasy and horror, with stunning photography and music. To attempt to describe the plot of the film would be to destroy the spell that this film seems to have over anyone who watches it.
Other films by Jaromil Jires of interest are The Joke (1969) and I Will Give My Love to the Swallows (1971).
Jan Nemec’s The Party and The Guests (1966) is his most available film. A comment on governmental power, it is a film with a very tense atmosphere and dark humour. A group of people on a picnic are invited to a sinister meal in the middle of the forest to which they cannot say ‘no’. The film was “banned forever” in Czechoslovakia.
The rest on Nemec’s filmography is rather difficult to get hold of, with two exceptions: Diamonds of the Night (1964), a great film about two Jewish boys who escape from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The film is far from what you would expect judging from the theme itself, it is concerned more with the dreams, fantasies and hallucinations of the two boys while they walk through the forests, than with war or Nazis. Nemec’s other available film is Late Night Talks With Mother (2001), which sees Nemec making use of digital video and a fisheye lens, which deforms images in ways never seen before, creating abstractions as the camera moves along. It is a very personal film, a sort of a documentary or nearly a confession, about his death mother. It is an interesting experiment but not the best film to watch as an introduction to Czech cinema nor the films of Jan Nemec.
It is at this point that we must talk about Ester Krumbachová. She was married to Jan Nemec and was costume designer and co-writer in Diamonds of the Night (1964), The Party and The Guests (1966), Daisies (1966) and Fruit of Paradise (1970); she was the production designer and co-writer on Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970); and she was the decorator on Ucho (The Ear 1970) among many other films of less importance. She was worked closely with a lot of the most important directors of the Czech new wave and in most of the best films of the period.
Karel Kachyna is best known for Ucho (The Ear 1970), which was immediately banned by the Czech authorities and unseen for 20 years. A masterpiece on the subject of paranoia living under an oppressive totalitarian system. A couple’s life falls apart when they discover the government has bugged their house and fear consequences for things they may have said. A film that everyone should see.
Juraj Herz is one more of the geniuses that came out of that generation of Czech filmmakers. His most known film is The Cremator (1969), a masterpiece with amazing editing only paralleled in films like Love (1971) and Cat’s Play (1974) by Hungarian Karoly Makk, and perhaps Szindbad (1972) a forgotten masterpiece by another Hungarian, Huszarik Zoltan. But we will save Hungarian cinema for another day.
Other must see Juraj Herz films include The Virgin and the monster (1978), which is a take on beauty and the beast like no others. It is atmospheric, beautifully shot and taken to a new terrain. Herz turns this classic fairy tale into a great horror film, with the beast no longer having a lion’s head but an eagle’s in stead. Herz went back into horror with Upir Z Feratu (1981), a bizarre film about a vampire car that runs on blood.
Ivan Passer’s film Intimate Lighting (1965) about the dreams of two musicians, is his only Czech feature. Soon after that he moved to the US. Later on he would make other, more conventional films like Silver Bears (1977) a comedy/crime starring Michael Caine, another forgotten classic that needs to be revisited.
Jiri Menzel is best known for Closely Observed Trains (1966). He was also an actor in many Czech new wave films, as he did in his own Capricious Summer (1968), set in a sleepy village where old men swim and philosophise in the river, the men are excited when visited by a circus acrobat and his beautiful assistant. Seclusion Near a Forest (1976) and My Sweet Little Village (1986) are just a few of his many films worth watching.
Milos Forman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest 1975**) is perhaps one of the best known names of the Czech new wave because of his work in Hollywood. His parents were killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz when he was a child. He began making films in his early thirties with films like Konkurs (1964), The Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman’s Ball (1967), creating his own style of comedy. During the invasion of his country by the troops of the Warsaw pact in the summer of 1968 to stop the Prague spring, he left Europe for the United States. Where he made the films most people know his name for, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Amadeus (1984) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996).
I have to say that I find his early works much more interesting than his American films, seeing what someone can create with less means is always much more impressive.
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Anyone who followed the Auteurs World Cup knows my complete adoration for Ucho, the first WC film I saw and the one that introduced me to Czech film-making. I had to catch it on You Tube, but Second Run DVD has a supposedly great transfer (which I intend to pick up).
Diamonds of the Night was a similar surprise for me. Even though the version I watched (again, You Tube) was without subtitles the film absorbed me into its story. By the time the ending hit, I was once again shocked that a film this good had heretofore been completely unknown to me.
The last Czech film I watched for the WC was Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. What the hell can I say? One of the strangest and most interesting films of the entire competition.
Thanks for this write up (even if you are shilling for your blog). More people should see these films (and I should see more of them).
I’ve often wondered if the intro to Closely Observed Trains was a direct influence
on the overall approach of Roger and Me, or other films by Michael Moore.
The image on the screen serves as an ironic counterpoint to what’s being spoken
by the narrator, and in some cases expands the impact of the narration by making
a surprising or previously unacknowledged connection.
i’ve been wanting to see “intimate lighting” for a while. its a rarely-screened film.
Hey Josh Ryan,
Thanks for your comment. The Second Run DVD of Ucho is excellent, I recommend it very much.
As to shilling for my blog, I wouldn’t say that’s quite what I’m doing, I just opened my blog and this account, and since it took me a little while to write this article I thought it’d be best to post it in several places. To be honest there is porbably no need for anyone to check out my blog, since anything I write there I will probably copy and paste here, except for links to talks/lectures/etc.
Anyway, this seems like a great website and I’m glad that at least someone is bothering to read the stuff I write.
;) I didn’t mean it in a derogatory sense. Please disregard. Besides, any excuse to discuss these amazing films (and just the three I’ve seen show an incredible Czech film tradition) is okay by me.
thank you very much for this! I saw a book about the Czech new wave and have been meaning to pick it up so I can dive into it but this thread is a great start. Thanks!
Iosu, there’s also been a Czech-Slovak Films thread here. The above mentioned world cup did throw up some great discoveries and i think the flourishing of Czechoslovakian cinema in the 60s was astonishing-. there are many films on auteurs’ database that sound as enticing as the ones i’ve seen, e.g by Kachyna and Vlacil. Thanks for your info.
I have not seen any Vlacil films yet, although I do own a couple of his films which i still havent seen. I will have a look for more of Kachyna’s stuff, thanks for the tip. Also, I’ve just gotten hold of a film called “Witch’s hammer” by a guy called Otakar Vavra, which was also co-written by Krumbachova on the same year as Valerie, I havent watched it yet, but i had a quick look at it and it looks promising, although not comparable to Valerie.
You are very welcomed, I’m very happy about all the possitive response to my article. I have seen that book about the Czech new wave on amazon and thought about buying it, but I am penniless at the moment so it will have to wait. If you do buy it let me know if it is any good please.
Josh Ryan: No worries, I am completelly new to the whole blogging deal so I wasn’t sure what people consider acceptable in this stuff. Also, if you liked those films you saw I have to recommend Hungarian cinema, it is fairly unknown but it is really really great, Karoly Makk’s “Love”, Huszarik Zoltan’s “Szindbad”, and “my way home” and “the red and the white” by Miklos Jancso are some amazing films and a good start. They are all available through Second Run DVD except “Szindbad”, which I bought through ebay of a Hungarian seller, on a Hungarian DVD edition which includes a very good short film by him too. This DVD has English subtitles so if you can find it again I would really recommend it, it is a completelly unknown masterpiece.
Bobby Wise: “Intimate Lighting” is available on DVD through Second Run, which is usually fairly cheap through amazon. Like I said on the article, I was very pleasantly surprised by his “Silver Bears”, which although it is a very conventional film, it is very good fun and the story is fairly unpredictable. So I would recommend you watch that too.
Iosu: Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarova is one of the great masterpieces of world cinema, and White Dove and Valley of the Bees are fine too.
Thanks Kenji, I will check them out, I have Marketa Lazarova, but still haven’t seen it.
Marketa Lazarova is indeed great. Can’t wait to get Second Run’s DVD for Valley of the Bees.
Forman’s early stuff is great, I did find his first american film Taking Off charming as well. Quite similar in tone to his czech films, although in a completly different setting, obviously.
Menzel’s newest film “I served the king of england” has some hysterically funny moments.
Thank you IOSU, for that little essay- its very informative.
I love, love, love CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS and Milos Foreman’s early features for their brilliant dry wit and self-depreciating sense of humor. I have the feeling I would love many of the films you described, and will seek them out as best I can. Eastern European history and culture are one of my great interests in life, so I tend to love their cinematic traditions, and always want to increase my meager knowledge thereof. The Czechs are quite distinct in their literature and film from say, the Polish, the Hungarians, and certainly the Russians; in their dry, understated humor and amazing sense of the absurd.
Just watched “Daisies” for the first time this weekend and have to say, I absolutely fell in love with the movie. It instantly shot to my top 10 of all time. I loved the energy of it and just the way the 2 female leads acted in it. It felt like the filmmaker and the actresses were having the time of their lives.
That was the 1st Czech new wave film that I’ve seen thus far. I started watching “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” (about the 1st 20 minutes so far) and love it too. I can’t wait to go through the other films listed in this thread. If they continue at this same rate of quality, I may have a new favorite movement of film on my hands.
Watch “Fruit of Paradise”, that’s my favourite Vera Chytilova film. I just watched “The Joke” recently, by Jaromil Jires (Valerie and her week of wonders) and althought it is not as beautiful to look at I really liked it, but the ending is a bit too sudden, i think it would have benefited from a bit more room to digest the ending. I thought it was a really great movie anyway.
Certainly when I discovered the Czech new wave it became one of my favourite film movements, before that i was in love with the French new wave, and I’d say the Czech new wave is at least as good as the French.
You may want to look into Hungarian cinema of the 1960s too, i don’t know if they were considered a new wave, but directors like Miklos Jancso, Karoly Makk and Huszarik Zoltan made some truly excellent films with similar aesthetics to the Czech new wave.
Ps: I just realized, where I said “I just watched “The Joke” recently, by Jaromil Jires (Valerie and her week of wonders) and althought it is not as beautiful to look at I really liked it” I meant to say “as beautiful to look at as Valerie and her week of wonders”. I didn’t mean to sound like The Joke is an ugly film to look at, it is not at all.
Rewatched Marketa Lazarova recently for the Director’s Cup (which you should all be participating in) and wanted to bump this thread.
If you like the films Marketa Lazarova or Closely Observed Trains or other czech films you can buy it on http://czechmovie.com/ with english subtitles
I love the Czechoslovakian New Wave! A really fascinating set of films, the equal of French and Japanese in the 60s to 1970, almost miraculous spurt of beautiful growth from what was one country. I’ve finally just seen Sun in a Net (dir. Uher), extraordinary film, gorgeous b+w cinematography and unusual use of sounds too..
oh here’s my list A Rosefinch Sang: The Czechoslovakian New Wave