It has taken two years to reach this point, but this article marks the 50th post on Czech Film Review. Since the first Czech film I saw was Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, I thought it would be appropriate to mark the occasion by talking about another one of his films, Cutting it Short.
It’s yet another idyllic shaggy dog story based on a Bohumil Hrabal work, a rose-tinted yet ultimately kinky tale about the writer’s parents when they conceived the future literary legend. Set around the end of the First World War and shortly before the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic, it is a typically Menzelian joint lovingly satirizing small-town life, populated by a familiar bunch of cranks and oddballs.
The story centres on Francin (Jiří Schmitzer), an earnest accountant who has been hired by the local brewery to get their books in order and take the business to the next level. He sets up home in a spacious apartment on the brewery premises with his free-spirited wife Maryška (Magdaléna Vášáryová, who played the eponymous Marketa Lazarová). She knows the way to a Czech guy’s heart, currying favour with the board of directors by slaughtering a pig and laying on a copious meat feast…
Starting off as a screenwriter for some of the most notable films in the Czech New Wave, Pavel Jurácek (Daisies) eventually transitioned into the role of director and went on to contribute to the movement by directing his own films. His last film, Case for a Rookie Hangman, was a surreal experience, to say the least.
From the start of the film, it’s no secret that Jurácek was inspired by the works of Jonathan Swift, specifically Gulliver’s Travels. He even apologizes beforehand in the film’s opening credits: “If Swift should turn in his grave on account of this film, I beg his compatriots for forgiveness.” This interpretation of the novel finds Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) in a strange place with bizarre customs that satirize life in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime.
Jurácek also channels the works of Franz Kafka and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is evident in the surreal nature of the film. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Mr Gulliver loses control of his car and ends up running over a hare dressed in tiny clothes, and even finds that it had a watch in its pocket. After this bizarre incident, he finds a house that resembles the one from his childhood. But once he’s inside, he’s bombarded with memories of his youth: a girl he once loved who drowned, an old friend who also died, a woman who had a part in his sexual awakening, and many more images from his past…
Unfortunately, despite its lurid premise, Ghoul doesn’t hit the spot quite as well. Jákl’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach that worked so well in his wrongly accused hardman thriller works to the detriment of this by-the-numbers found-footage horror, bogging the movie down with evermore plot when we should be getting to the scares…
“Of all my films, The Shop on Main Street touches me most closely. Elmar Klos and I usually work as equal partners, but in this case he left me a free hand. He knows that I am not thinking of the fate of all the six million tortured Jews, but that my work is shaped by the fate of my father, my friends’ fathers, mothers of those near to me and by people whom I have known. I am not interested in the outer trappings—figures, statements, generalizations. I want to make emotive films…”
– Ján Kadár, New York Herald Tribune, Jan 23 1966
With any major catastrophe resulting in the loss of human life, I often find it difficult to get my head around the numbers. Sometimes incidental details can help visualize the size of the tragedy. For example, after I first watched The Shop on Main Street and was pondering Kadár’s quote above, the official Coronavirus death toll in the UK had just passed 30,000. That’s roughly a capacity crowd at Portman Road in Ipswich, where I was a season ticket holder for ten years. So now I only had to imagine a packed stadium suddenly silenced forever to get to grips with the scale of the public health disaster/scandal in my country.
But six million? A quick Google search tells me that is approximately the entire population of Turkmenistan, which doesn’t really help comprehend the vastness of the Holocaust. And that is the brilliance of The Shop on Main Street – better than anything else I’ve seen on the subject, it narrows the focus down to two individuals and makes us feel personally involved in the horror of their circumstances. The 55-year-old Academy Award winner hit me hard, feeling as fresh and vital as any other film I’ve seen about the Holocaust in recent years.
The Shop on Main Street wears its flawed greatness lightly, starting with a comedic tone and growing darker, building a sense of dread until its harrowing conclusion. And then… well, spoilers ahead: I’ll talk about that ending later…
In my first review for this site, Accumulator 1, I commented on how Zdeněk Svěrák (Kolya, Empties) was the clear highlight of an otherwise unbalanced film. This time around, I’m delighted to explore a project that actually showcases more of his talents as a screenwriter as well as an actor. Written and directed, respectively, by the duo of Sverák and Ladislav Smoljak, Waiter, Scarper! tells the story of a bookseller named Vrána (Josef Abrhám) who becomes a thief by posing as a waiter to take money from unsuspecting customers.
The film starts with Vrána getting ready for his high school reunion by donning a tuxedo that makes him resemble a waiter. Once he arrives, he realizes that most of his classmates have gone on to have a much better life than him.
His marriages have left him in dire straits since he has to pay alimony while also supporting his current family, and even his neighbour, Parizek (Svěrák), who plays the fiddle, has a better car than him. He’s so ashamed of what his life has become that he leaves his noticeably cheaper car in the parking area — only to pick it up later when nobody’s around…
Shot in wintry hues and set against a tumultuous backdrop of the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War II, František Vláčil’s Adelheid is a tragic drama about two shellshocked, fatally star-crossed lovers who find each other amid the psychic fallout from the conflict.
The story opens in 1945. The war may be over but it’s still a dangerous time, with lawlessness and banditry as the liberated country tries to find its feet again. Troubled Lieutenant Viktor Chotovick (Petr Čepek) arrives in a small town after spending the war moving from place to place, longing to return to his home country. He is treated with initial suspicion by Sergeant Hejna (Jan Vostrcil, a familiar face from Miloš Forman’s New Wave stuff, including Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball). Turns out Viktor is in town with a job to do – he’s been assigned to catalogue and manage a large isolated mansion.
The assignment suits Viktor because he’s just trying to get his head together after the war. The mansion was formerly the home of a wealthy Jewish family before it was commandeered by a local Nazi party member, Heidenmann, who has been captured and taken to Olomouc to await execution. What Viktor isn’t told is that the mansion comes with a cleaner and a cook – Heidenmann’s daughter, Adelheid (Emma Černá), who is sent by Hejna to serve Viktor…
Honestly, I have nostalgia goggles the size of monster truck wheels for this one! Lemonade Joe, or the Horse Opera came out in 1964 but my entire generation can quote it to no end. It falls into the perfect timing of being a new film for our parent’s childhood and old enough to be cool for our own. So within the Czech culture, this film is a classic.
Even so, I was afraid to revisit it. Many films from my childhood didn’t age well and I was afraid the same would happen here. What didn’t help was a vague memory of blackface and some of the timeless quotes feeling kind of tired after the last fifteen years of repetition.
But I was pleasantly surprised. The film has an energy that most modern comedies long for. Lemonade Joe falls into the Crazy comedy genre, popular in the Czech Republic, which includes titles such as Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet or The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians. In American cinema, it would be a mixture of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers. It takes the nonsensical, absurdist plot and the song breaks from Blues Brothers and the setting with quick-fire jokes and slapstick from Blazing Saddles. It might be surprising to some that it’s older than both…
“A woman’s womb is the gateway to Hell,” whispers a rabidly fanatical monk at the beginning of Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice), while we cut away to watch a group of women bathing nude.
It’s a provocative opening and, although Vávra had the Communist show trials of the 1950s in mind while making the film, it sets out its stall early: the problem is the patriarchy, and sexual repression goes hand-in-hand with political repression, a theme that is as depressingly relevant fifty years later. Or 300-odd years on from the events of the film. Same as it ever was.
The film takes its title from the Malleus Maleficarum, a weighty 15th-century tome that details at length the procedures deemed necessary for dealing with witchcraft, including the methods of torture that were legally permissible for extracting confessions from the accused…
Dora Charleston: Mr Diamond, you have a bullet hole in your back!
Sam Diamond: You should see the other guy.
– Maggie Smith & Peter Falk hamming it up in Murder by Death
The 1970s was a big decade for pastiches of classic detective fiction. Robert Altman brought a slovenly, anachronistic Philip Marlowe into a bohemian, weed-scented Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye; there was a whole raft of reimaginings of the Sherlock Holmes myth, including The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother; Neil Simon brought together a roster of thinly-disguised classic sleuths – Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Hercule Poirot and Nick and Nora Charles – in his silly spoof Murder by Death.
Even the Czechs got in on the act, with Oldřich Lipský’s Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) resurrecting a gumshoe from an earlier era that I wasn’t familiar with: Nick Carter.
Buy Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet from Amazon HERE
Carter is largely unremarkable save for the distinction of preceding Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes by a year or two, and Lipský, forever playful with western genre fiction, gleefully pits the half-forgotten detective with an antagonist straight out of Little Shop of Horrors. Along the way we also get the director’s goofy sight gags, fabulous steampunk-ish gadgets by Jan Švankmajer, and broad performances from a variety of Czech actors playing the shenanigans with a straight face…
Co-written and directed by Jan Svěrák (Kolya, The Elementary School), Accumulator 1 is an entertaining film that features a lot of interesting ideas, but they just don’t come together in a way that’s coherent enough to justify their existence.
The film features a pretty bizarre premise: people who have appeared on television are suddenly losing their energy and dying. The main character, a self-conscious man named Olda (Petr Forman) turns into a recluse after he misses his shot with the girl he’s interested in. He becomes so lethargic that all he does is watch TV for a whole week and loses consciousness for a couple of days. The paramedics save him by barging into his apartment, and at the hospital, he meets a mysterious man, Fišarek (Zdeněk Svěrák), who heals him with his special abilities.
Fišarek refers to himself as a natural healer. He helps people that have also suffered from the same condition as Olda. To reinvigorate himself, Fišarek advises Olda to gather energy from natural sources like exercise, the life force of trees, paintings, and even sexual stimulation. He teaches Olda how to harness the energy from these sources, and even shows him how to transfer energy over long distances…