New Wave and Beyond: Czech Cinematic Classics

A. J. Samuels

From 1965 to 1968 there was a level of unprecedented creativity and liberalisation in the former Czechoslovakia, which saw in a golden age of Czechoslovakian film. We look at the best of this explosion of cinematic imagination, which was brutally cut short by the Soviet invasion.
The ruling Communist party funded nearly all of Czechoslovakia’s films during the 1950s and 60s, however the public demand for change helped lead to a relaxation in the censor’s treatment of cinema, and eventually saw a period of political liberalisation which resulted in the Prague Spring. Unfortunately this lasted a mere seven months before Soviet forces invaded to re-establish ‘normalisation’ and most of the films on this list were subsequently banned, not to be freed from their vault until 1989.
Long before Miloš Forman settled in America and earned all manner of accolades and Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and Amadeus (1984), he was perhaps the greatest proponent of Czechoslovakian New Wave cinema during the 1960s. His pioneering style, known as the ‘Franco School’, was highly influenced by documentary film making. Choosing not to revel in linear narrative and often using a mixture of both actors and members of the public, he relied on his characters to highlight the social realities of everyday Czech life. A Blonde in Love is a perfect example of Forman’s technique. With themes including social perceptions of sex, pop culture, and workers’ alienation in rural Czechoslovakia, A Blonde in Love is a glorious blend of tragedy and black comedy in Eastern bloc Europe.
The First Czech film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film was a glowing example of Czech-Slovak collaboration. The Shop on Main Street is directors Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ penultimate and most successful film. In simple terms, the film is about the Aryanization of the Slovak state during World War Two, and focuses on Anton ‘Tóno’ Brtko (Jozef Kroner) a Slovak carpenter faced with the dilemma of taking over the shop of a near deaf Jewish woman (Ida Kamińska) and the consequences that arise. An engrossing story about the power or powerlessness of community during a radical social and political upheaval; be warned that it may leave you emotionally drained.

This feature film from Jiří Menzel is a touching coming of age story about a young clerk named Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckář), working at a small station in German occupied Czechoslovakia towards the end of World War Two. Taking advantage of a period of relaxed communist censorship Closely Watched Trains was another New Wave example of progressive liberalisation. The promiscuous exploits of Hrma are revealed in quirky erotic episodes which were radical for the politically correct times and show a bold level of experimentation in portraying sexual identity. Menzel’s masterpiece also focuses on history through the eyes of the common man and the inescapable effects of a grander global and political spectrum which is out of ordinary people’s control. As Menzel himself has poignantly stated, ‘the true poetry of this movie, if it has any, lies not in the absurd situations themselves, but in their juxtaposition with obscenity and tragedy.’
Ruka or The Hand is the work of polemic Czechoslovakian puppeteer Jirrí Trnka and is widely considered his greatest achievement by fans, critics, and the man himself. A commentary, satire, and protest on communist state control on artistic creativity, it has also been noted for its possible anticipation of the Prague Spring. Ruka visits a sculptor demanding a sculpture of himself be completed; unrelentingly tormented by the hand the sculptor takes drastic and surreal measures. A confrontational and affecting piece of animation, the whole bright and bold 18 minutes of Ruka is available to watch online.

Directed by Vĕra Chytilová, this in-your-face feminist opus flares with the pastels of 1960s pop art imagery. Chytilová’s forceful and bizarre film makes you think you’ve taken something you shouldn’t have. A distinguishable plot is nowhere to be found but instead the two female leads, Mary I (Jitka Cerhová) and Mary II (Ivana Karbanová), raucously vandalise bars and nightclubs whilst taking advantage of doting and ageing fat cats. While the attack on nihilistic decadence quickly gets lost, Daisies ultimately finds a more comfortable route with the devilishly madcap twin Marys. A study in women’s counter cinema and with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, Chytilová examines gender identities in a repressive and patriarchal society.
The Fireman’s Ball was Miloš Forman’s first film in colour and his last film made in Czechoslovakia. Having been such a prominent proponent of the Czech New Wave he was forced to flee the country during the August 1968 Soviet invasion. Subsequently The Fireman’s Ball was ‘banned forever’ for containing inflammatory and anti-nationalistic elements. Incorporating an anecdotal plot, the members of the fire station plan a beauty contest as a send-off to their retired chief, who (unbeknownst to him) has cancer. Chaos and carnage inevitably follow as everything that could go wrong does and the beauty of the film becomes evident with Forman’s ability to juxtapose belly-laugh humour alongside melancholic tragedy.
Consistently voted the best Czech film of all time, František Vláčils epic follows the struggles and tensions of warring medieval factions amidst the fall out of Paganism and the spread of Christianity in the 13th century. Unflinchingly realistic and beautifully shot, the somber cinematography perfectly captures the bleak and torrid realities of the Middle Ages through the eyes of the common peasant. Marketa Lazarová‘s incomparable battle-scenes are supplemented by precise attention to historical detail. Vláčil undertook years of research to take on the role of director and persuaded his actors to stay in character beyond the set.
Another film not to survive after the Prague Spring of 1968, Juraj Hurz‘s The Cremator was banned after its premiere and wouldn’t be seen again until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský) a man who works at a crematorium, indulges in his job with fanatical devotion believing he not only turns blood and bone into ash but liberates the souls of the departed for reincarnation. It’s not difficult to work out the allegory and symbolism here especially considering its setting amidst the period of political radicalization in Europe during the 1930s, and the establishment of the Nazi party. Part black comedy and part psychological horror Hurz effortlessly flits between the two and deserves his place among his more recognised new wave peers.

Ludvik (Randoslav Brzobohatý) is bitterly married to Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová), after arriving home from a Communist Party dinner (of which Ludvik is a senior figure) they realise it has been broken into. Mysterious occurrences around the house place suspicion in their minds and their weakening relationship is quickly torn apart. Never have the themes of marital discord and Orwelian state mechanics been so expertly handled. Two entities that most other directors would handle distinctly are craftily woven together by director Karel Kachyňa with nail biting results. The Ear prefigured the haunting The Lives of Others (2006) in its focus on the private tragedy of public paranoia.
The only non-New Wave film on the list, this surreal retelling of Lewis Carroll‘s most famous novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, directed by Jan Švankmajer, is the film Tim Burton wishes he had made. Less of a fairy tale and more of an incredible waking nightmare, Alice contains a taxidermists white rabbit and a caterpillar made from a sock, false teeth, and glass eyes, alarmingly brought to life with fluid stop motion animation. Wonderfully acted by eight year old Kristýna Kohoutová with an almost hypnotic and vacant persona which is superbly complemented by the tone of the film, you’ll be digging up your back garden to rescue her before the credits have stopped rolling.

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