The Good Soldier Švejk (Dobrý voják Švejk) – Karel Steklý, 1956

I once knew an indestructible drunk who had a natural talent for causing mischief, then watching the mayhem unfold with a look of cherubic innocence on his face. I shared a grotty Barrandov flat with him for a while. The place was pretty dismal so we spent most of our waking hours in the pub, where I often ended up scrambling to unravel his mess while he sat there with his eyes spinning in opposite directions, chuckling to himself.

It was around this time that I first tried reading The Good Soldier Švejk. There was a remarkable facial similarity between my chaotic flatmate and the novel’s author, Jaroslav Hašek, himself a noted pub denizen, who in turn looked a little like the bottle-nosed character in Josef Lada’s famous illustrations from the book. Over time I conflated the three, so now years later I feel like I once lived with the good soldier himself.

Buy your copy of The Good Soldier Svejk from Amazon HERE

It has taken me almost one hundred posts on Czech Film Review to pluck up the courage to write something about Karel Steklý’s 1956 adaptation, perhaps the most well-known film version of the novel. It’s a daunting task – Švejk is a cultural icon in his home country and one of the most successful Czech exports, with Hašek’s novel translated into over 50 languages. There are dozens -if not hundreds – of beer halls and restaurants across the country bearing his name, and his image is common from the gift shops of Prague to the farmer’s pub in the small Moravian village where I recently moved. The word “Švejk” has also become a catch-all for willfully incompetent, subversive behaviour, commonly linked with the type of passive resistance that the Czechs have relied on to endure the numerous wars and foreign occupations of the last few centuries…

Continue reading “The Good Soldier Švejk (Dobrý voják Švejk) – Karel Steklý, 1956”

In the Shadow (Ve stínu) – David Ondříček, 2012

Ve Stinu 2012 In the Shadow

 You can watch In the Shadow (Ve stínu) right HERE with our View on Demand partners Eyelet

Around the time U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was fervently whipping up fear of Communism during the Red Scares of the 40s and 50s, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was conducting witch hunts of its own. The purpose of these show trials was twofold – to trick citizens into believing that the country was under threat from real and imagined enemies, and to frighten the populace into staying in line while the regime consolidated its power. Over 250 people were executed as a direct result, while many others were incarcerated or sent to work camps.

In the Shadow is a sombre paranoid thriller set against this backdrop of fear and intimidation, in the run-up to the devaluation of the country’s currency which left many Czechs and Slovaks facing financial hardship.

It might seem churlish to call it a paranoid thriller when the regime really was oppressing, torturing and vanishing people, but I mean it in a positive sense. The film is in the tradition of the classic American paranoid thrillers of the 70s, like The Parallax ViewThe Conversation or Three Days of the Condor. It also recalls Chinatown with its period setting, noir-ish touches and a larger public scandal running in the background. And, in evoking the Hollywood style, it plays more like a straightforward thriller than a typical low-key Czech movie. With more violence, too.

The film opens on a dark rainy night where we meet with two small-time crooks as they break into an office and rob a stash of gold and jewels from a safe. It seems a fairly straightforward case for Captain Jarda Hakl (Ivan Trojan), the methodical detective assigned to investigate. However, a planted clue leads him to another “suspect” instead, a middle-aged Jewish chap named Kirsch (played with hunted intensity by Miroslav Krobot).

Hakl smells B.S. straight away as Kirsch’s alibi holds up – he was locked up in a drunk tank on the night of the robbery. Nevertheless, the patsy confesses to the crime and State Security agents muscle into the case. To further stoke his suspicions, a German agent called Zenke (Sebastian Koch, who also starred in the similarly-themed The Lives of Others) takes up residence in Hakl’s apartment building and seems to pay more attention to his wife and kid than he does…

What originally seemed like an open-and-shut case deepens into a larger conspiracy aimed at eliminating several innocent Jewish citizens. As the bodies pile up and sinister characters lurk in the shadows, can the honest detective bring the scandal out into the open without risking the lives of himself and his family?

The outcome of the mystery won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who has seen a paranoid thriller before and/or knows a little bit about how oppressive regimes ruthlessly shut down anyone who poses a threat. The strength of In the Shadow lies in its slow-burn storytelling, which is carefully and deliberately unfolded by director Ondříček, and its superb craft. The film is beautifully shot by Adam Sikora who really emphasises the noir elements of the story, indulging in the deepest, inkiest blacks at the darkest end of a gloomy but rich palette. The crisp photography combines with marvellous production design to create a vivid recreation of early-50s Prague at a time of great political turbulence.

Ivan Trojan – looking a little like David Byrne from Talking Heads – is a dependable lead, playing Hakl with a low-key determination and transparent integrity that keeps you rooting for him as he willingly ensnares himself in the evil machinations of the State. Sebastian Koch, the German Major with eyes on both the case and the Czech detective’s movements, plays Zenke with understated menace and a hint of deep sorrow – yes, he’s one of those troubled characters with a dark history.

 

What originally seemed like an open-and-shut case deepens into a larger conspiracy aimed at eliminating several innocent Jewish citizens. As the bodies pile up and sinister characters lurk in the shadows, can the honest detective bring the scandal out into the open without risking the lives of himself and his family?

The outcome of the mystery won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who has seen a paranoid thriller before and/or knows a little bit about how oppressive regimes ruthlessly shut down anyone who poses a threat. The strength of In the Shadow lies in its slow-burn storytelling, which is carefully and deliberately unfolded by director Ondříček, and its superb craft. The film is beautifully shot by Adam Sikora who really emphasises the noir elements of the story, indulging in the deepest, inkiest blacks at the darkest end of a gloomy but rich palette. The crisp photography combines with marvellous production design to create a vivid recreation of early-50s Prague at a time of great political turbulence.

Ivan Trojan – looking a little like David Byrne from Talking Heads – is a dependable lead, playing Hakl with a low-key determination and transparent integrity that keeps you rooting for him as he willingly ensnares himself in the evil machinations of the State. Sebastian Koch, the German Major with eyes on both the case and the Czech detective’s movements, plays Zenke with understated menace and a hint of deep sorrow – yes, he’s one of those troubled characters with a dark history.

***

This review was originally published by the Prague Daily Monitor.

If you now want to check out the film, you can watch it HERE with our View on Demand partners Eyelet.

Indie Profiles: Nora Štrbová, director of S P A C E S (M E Z E R Y)

Nora Strbova

Of all the terrific entries on display recently at the 61st BRNO16 International Short Film Festival, Nora Štrbová’s S P A C E S was perhaps the most moving. In just seven minutes, the animated documentary explores memory from the perspective of her brother, who suffered a rare neurological disorder before his untimely death in his twenties. With a minimalist, hand-crafted style that evokes the glitching memory of its central character, S P A C E S is a poignant blend of artistic medium and heartfelt subject matter.

I spoke to Nora about S P A C E S and her experiences as a filmmaker with my friend Tomáš Hůsek, who helped translate the conversation…

LA & TH: This is clearly a labour of love about a very personal subject, as you directed, wrote, animated and created the art design for the film. What made you choose this style to tell the story?

NS: Well, at the beginning when I was thinking about what the movie is going to be, the idea about the subject matter came to me. The entire style of the film is derived from that original concept. It is a very personal story about my brother who lost his memory because of the brain tumour that eventually caused his death. I wanted to try… after I was no longer able to ask him about it… try to imagine how he might perceive the world without memory, what does it mean to live without memory, and also think about what memory actually is.

I started reading articles, books, stories – both fiction and non-fiction – poetry, everything. From this, I put together a sort of mosaic and the style of the film, which is mosaic-like, actually reflects that. It felt fitting to choose a kaleidoscopic form to show how the human mind and memory works. The more I analysed how memory behaves, the more I found out that it is mostly fragments, even in healthy individuals. It is just fragments saved into memory. Sometimes just emotions or sensations that we once felt during situations rather than the situations themselves – colours, smells, textures etc. So I wanted to create that feeling for the viewer… Continue reading “Indie Profiles: Nora Štrbová, director of S P A C E S (M E Z E R Y)”

Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Tenkrát v ráji) – Lordan Zafranović, Peter Pálka & Dan Krzywoň

World War II has provided inspiration for movies for over 80 years now, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of incredible tales. Sometimes I wonder, though, when I see a film as weak as Once Upon a Time in Paradise, whether the well is drying up and people are starting to run out of ideas.

That may seem unfair on the source material, Josef Urban’s novel and the true story that inspired it. It sounds like rousing stuff on paper – a talented rock climber hides from the Nazis in the wilderness, evading capture for years – and maybe that is where it should have stayed. It was a similar situation with the Laurent Binet’s page-turner HHhH – an intensely gripping read that spawned two insipid film versions. Maybe not every book needs a movie adaptation.

After a Saving Private Ryan-style bookend we meet Josef Smítka (Vavřinec Hradilek, an Olympic medal-winning canoeist in his first film role) hiking in the Tatras with his best friend Heinrich (Petr Smíd). They are on their way to tackle the Gerlach Peak, the highest mountain in the range. Along the way, they spot a beautiful young woman swimming naked in an alpine lake.

Buy your copy of Once Upon a Time in Paradise from Amazon HERE

The woman turns out to be Vlasta Brázdová (Vica Kerekes), a well-known writer and accomplished climber who is married to a much older man, the possessive painter Ota (Miroslav Etzler). Josef – or Joska to his friends – is instantly smitten. When the two friends run into trouble on the mountainside, it is Vlasta who abseils to rescue them…

Continue reading “Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Tenkrát v ráji) – Lordan Zafranović, Peter Pálka & Dan Krzywoň”

Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci Slasti) – Jan Švankmajer, 1996

When I first watched Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure I didn’t even notice there was no dialogue. It so effectively overwhelms your senses, there isn’t much to be said anyway.

The film follows a group of individuals in Prague, each engrossed in a tedious process of creating the conditions for their erotic desire.

One man begins the process of creating an elaborate chicken costume. Another, engineers a machine with fake hands. A mailwoman uses her saliva to furtively mold bread balls in a stairwell. And that’s just the beginning.

Švankmajer knows that arousal (meaning in simple terms, heightened stimulation) comes from a combination of touch and imagination. When he was blacklisted as a filmmaker during Communist rule in Prague, he wrote a book about it, Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art.

Buy your copy of Conspirators of Pleasure from Amazon HERE

Švankmajer makes use of both touch and imagination to build context and storytelling around objects and characters without the support of dialogue.

In cinema we can technically only experience two senses, sound and sight. But Švankmajer uses extreme close-ups and heightened sound editing to bring a sense of tactility to objects…

Continue reading “Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci Slasti) – Jan Švankmajer, 1996”

Forbidden Dreams (Smrt krásných srnců) – Karel Kachyna, 1987

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director Karel Kachyna (The Ear) gets his metaphors in early in Forbidden Dreams, otherwise known by its more evocative Czech title, Smrt krásných srnců (The Death of Beautiful Deer). Mr Popper (Karel Heřmánek), a Jewish vacuum cleaner salesman who can’t stop hopping into bed with his female customers, is out fishing in the countryside with his two eldest sons. Through his binoculars, he spots a herd of deer and he is struck by their beauty – but also spies danger threatening in the form of a hunting dog bearing down on the innocent creatures. 

The dog belongs to their grumpy uncle Karel (Rudolf Hrušínský), who loves getting his teeth into some freshly savaged venison. Mr Popper regards killing a deer as almost as bad as killing a human. Popper has no qualms about catching and eating fish, however, and his passion for carp is intertwined with his fortunes throughout the film.

The setting is pre-war Czechoslovakia, and Mr Popper is introduced as a resourceful chancer with a taste for the good life, although those tastes often run him into trouble. He is skint and the family is in debt to the butcher, grocer and the pub, but Popper thinks the latest Electrolux model he receives from Head Office in Prague will pretty much sell itself.

Buy your copy of Forbidden Dreams from Amazon HERE

Plying his trade in the villages, however, he finds that the locals aren’t too impressed with his new-fangled device. His luck changes when he rescues a drowning man with the help of the cable from one of his vacuum cleaners. The man turns out to be a rich benefactor, who buys a few units out of gratitude and throws a party so Popper can sell some more hoovers to his wealthy friends.

Suddenly flush, Popper starts splashing money around, treating the family and sending his sons for boxing lessons with a former champ. Life is good. Now bursting with confidence, Popper cooks up a variety of lucrative schemes to keep the cash rolling in.

Dark days lay ahead, though, as Czechoslovakia falls to the Nazis. Jewish salesmen aren’t in much demand in the protectorate and Popper suddenly finds himself out of work. He retreats to the countryside to sit out the war and live off his carp pond, but is soon driven to destitution by the new regime and must find ever-more risky ways to provide for his family…

Continue reading “Forbidden Dreams (Smrt krásných srnců) – Karel Kachyna, 1987”

3Grapes (3Bobule) – Martin Kopp, 2020

You can watch 3Grapes (3Bobule) HERE with our View on Demand partners Eyelet

The cinematic threequel is often a recipe for disappointment. The Jaws series had already jumped the shark before the third instalment fouled the water with its cheesy 3D money shots. Francis Ford Coppola waited 16 years before giving us a belated conclusion to The Godfather trilogy – it was an offer everyone was quite happy to refuse. Alien 3 has its defenders but it basically poured cold water over Ripley’s heroics in James Cameron’s rip-roaring second film, turning the franchise into a massive bummer.

Of course, there are some great ones too. Return of the King completed the coronation of Peter Jackson’s Award-festooned adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. On the indie circuit, Before Midnight capped off Richard Linklater’s much-loved trio of romantic walk-and-talks, while in the arthouse field Red was a magnificent conclusion to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy.

So what would happen with 3Grapes, shuffling into theatres in the summer of 2020 after a false start due to the Covid-19 pandemic, eleven years after the previous film? Would it manage to recapture the light and fluffy chemistry of the good-natured original, or maybe carry on trying to raise the stakes like its woeful sequel?

The good news is that it certainly gets closer to the gentle comedy-drama of the first movie, but the attractive trio of central characters are now older, wiser and sadder, giving the film a more bittersweet feeling. Which is something to be thankful for after the lame shenanigans of part two.

We pick up with Honza (Kryštof Hádek) and Klára (Tereza Ramba, née Voříšková) in Prague where they are picking up an award for their wine at a swanky ceremony. They are now the parents of two bright-eyed, mischievous tweens and have another kid on the way. Our formerly wayward hero has fully committed to the role of the hard-working vintner and respectable family man.

Yet before the credits have even rolled, his incorrigibly dodgy old pal Jirka (Lukáš Langmajer) has crashed the party disguised as a waiter to steal the first prize from another winemaker (Karel Roden in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo) and bring more trouble into Honza’s life…

Jirka once again heads to the South Moravian wine country with his best friend, this time with his mopey teenage son in tow, to find that domestic tensions are getting the better of the once happy couple. We learn that Klára’s father passed away a few months earlier, leaving her with a sizeable vineyard to manage, and the pressures of running a business and a family are putting a strain on their relationship. Money worries are piling up and there is a grape thief about, adding to their woes.

Jirka claims to be a famous land developer and has an answer to their problems, coming in the form of his “business partner” Miro who wants to buy up all their wine. We can tell he’s trouble right away because he rides into the movie on a black motorbike and wastes no time trying to seduce Klára. Needless to say, he has dastardly motives and a terrible hold over Jirka…

There is also another new character, an attractive, highly motivated South Moravian cop played by Lumíra Prichystalová. She is a little like Simon Pegg’s character in Hot Fuzz – a big fish in a small pond, wanting to catch bad guys while her bumbling partner just wants to catch a few Z’s. Unlike PC Nicholas Angel who is introduced with a snappy montage, Prichystalová is introduced by a gratuitous butt shot. Once that is out of the way, she acquits herself nicely as a sympathetic and intelligent police officer on the case of the grape thieves.

Regarding performances, the central trio of Hádek, Ramba and Langmajer all seem far happier and more engaged than they were in 2Bobule, and the screenplay is much kinder to Ramba this time around. In the previous movie, she was reduced to a nagging girlfriend stereotype, but she has much more to do here. We really feel for her, as a pregnant woman coming to terms with the loss of her father while financial troubles weigh heavily on her.

Grapes demands to be seen by absolutely no-one, but harking back to the character-based comedy-drama of the original film is a modest return to form for the lightweight franchise. As with the previous two movies, there are plenty of sunkissed scenic shots of the landscape around Pálava, which I found unexpectedly poignant after a year when most of us have spent a good deal of time stuck indoors thanks to the Coronavirus.

Perhaps that is the appeal of the Grapes movies. They are no great shakes dramatically, comically, narratively or cinematically, but they are comforting, reminding of us of good days spent outdoors with friends and loved ones, drinking wine or beer, enjoying a warm breeze and the sun on our upturned, smiling faces.

***

This article was originally published by the Prague Daily Monitor.

You can watch 3Grapes (3Bobule) HERE with our View on Demand partners Eyelet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pupendo – Jan Hřebejk, 2003

Polivka and Holubova in Pupendo

Apart from being a familiar face in many of the Czech movies I’ve watched over the past two years, Bolek Polívka is omnipresent in my adopted hometown Brno. He stars in public service videos on the trams and peers out of billboards advertising his latest stage performances and is often spotted drinking in the bar at his theatre, Divadlo Bolka Polívky.

His ubiquity also serves director Jan Hřebejk well in his hat trick of turn-of-the-century hits: Cosy DensDivided We Fall and Pupendo.

A bittersweet comedy set in the early ’80s, Pupendo makes an entertaining companion piece to Cosy Dens. They focus on life under Communism, centred around families headed by two very different men, both physically and ideologically…

Continue reading “Pupendo – Jan Hřebejk, 2003”