He shot Jiří Menzel’s Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains and worked with key figures of the Czechoslovak New Wave including Jan Němec, Evald Schorm and Věra Chytilová. We spoke to legendary cinematographer Jaromír Šofr about his life in movies…
Q: Some of our readers will have seen “cinematographer” in movie credits but may not fully understand what one does. What does a cinematographer bring to a film? What would you say are your main talents, and what qualities define your work?
The cinematographer is essentially the author of the visual part of a movie. While the director controls the emotional effect of the film through the performance of the actors, the cinematographer as director of photography (DoP) controls a similar effect by creating photographic images of suitable quality and power. Both command movement within the scenic space. The DoP controls the tonality (light and dark), colour, linearity (composition) of the image with different tools. A special talent of the DoP is the ability to enforce their supporting ideas to everyone involved, and a basic talent is imagination and aesthetic sensitivity.
Q: In another interview you said that the Czechoslovak New Wave filmmakers were influenced by the French New Wave. What was it about those films that were particularly interesting to you? What films did you grow up with, and what other films have influenced your work?
From my point of view, you can see the influence of the French New Wave mostly in the field of lighting and image tonality. I saw many French movies of all genres while I was a student. Some of my favourites were Les Amants by Lui Malle and Bratranci by Chabrol – the DoP on both was Henri Decaë.
Q: You were a young guy when you first went to study at FAMU in Prague. What was the city like in those days? Did you make friends quickly? Where were the hotspots for people to socialise, for nightlife etc?
During my student years Prague was much like any other city neglected by Communist nationalisation, but it was still very charming for a boy coming from a poorer town. All my fellow students welcomed me quickly and the meeting point was mostly in the school building. I was quite shy so I wasn’t attracted to cafes or nightspots for meeting people. I was too busy studying conscientiously and enjoying the subject! It was fun taking trips out of Prague to the countryside with groups of my closest friends, who were mostly from the screenwriting department. We were all romantics.
Q: Your early career was in the 60s and around the time of the Prague Spring. How did it affect the lives of you, your family and friends? What was the mood like in the country?
It was a busy time for me, I was frequently offered work at the beginning of the Sixties. After spending one year in military service – where I also learned English – I was engaged in shooting a long widescreen film for Karel Kachyňa called Long Live the Republic (Ať žije republika). Shortly after that I did the very famous A Report on the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech) with Jan Němec. When I became an employee of Barrandov Studios I worked on some documentary films and then finally started my collaboration with my friend Jiří Menzel on films like Closely Watched Trains and Capricious Summer.
In the summer of 1968 I shot End of a Priest (Farářův konec) directed by Evald Schorm, a friend of Menzel’s. As for the social and political climate, we felt endangered and the threats became reality on 21st August during the soviet occupation, which started just one day after we finished the film. So I personally had no time to feel particularly enthusiastic about the Prague Spring, besides just the reformation of communism that I personally thought wasn’t enough. Since those times I am still waiting for the fall of totalitarianism, because totalitarian practices have found continuity today – now active as capitalists and low-principled politics. The only hopeful period was the presidency of Vaclav Havel.
Q: You worked on Věra Chytilová’s first two short films. What was she like to work with?
I accepted the role of cinematographer on her first significant work quite enthusiastically. Working with Věra was sometimes exhausting. Some decades later I can say… extremely exhausting! The challenge came from her special method of shooting according to her nature. I don’t know what the equivalent English expression is, but we say somebody is “born from wild eggs”. That is exactly what can be said in her case, but the result of her directing was always unusual. She never repeated what was just shot. She always made a different shot, sometimes without any consideration for continuity.
The first project, her school final film, The Ceiling (Strop), was comparatively smooth in structure and lyrical in message, while her movies became more rugged and provocative over the next few decades. In 1979 we finished our last really successful collaboration, Panelstory. She really appreciated my achievement in visual concept – which, by the way, would be quite unacceptable for Menzel. A less happy collaboration was on Wolf’s Hole (Vlčí bouda) which we shot in 1986. All in all, Vera was undoubtedly the First Lady of Czech New Wave filmmaking.
Q: Then of course you were cinematographer on the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) How did that project come about? How did you achieve that film’s lovely soft black and white look?
Menzel was a great admirer of Bohumil Hrabal’s geniality, and he is still a milestone of 20th century Czech literature, particularly of the latter half. That is where the project originated. How it was achieved on my part is hard to say, because there were other characteristics we calculated besides the softness. One strict decision was to use the black and white medium. Another was linear composition filling the image format, the classic “academy” ratio – the golden epoque of filmmaking is that the cinemagoer sees exactly what the DoP composed within the image. This was soon lost by the advent of pseudo-widescreen formats. Most of my attention was devoted to lighting and the tonality of the image, which was intended to be hyper-realistic. The restored version premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
Q: “Closely Watched Trains” was the second Czech Oscar winner (out of 3) after “Shop on Main Street” a few years earlier. Did it feel like Czechoslovak cinema was really hitting the big time, especially with the quality of film making coming out of the New Wave?
To be completely honest, I didn’t feel that way. I just felt happy that I was a part of it.
Q: Did you get to go to the Oscars? If not, where were you when you heard about the win?
No, in those times it wasn’t easy to cross over the iron curtain for small reasons like being a collaborator on a film. Who would pay the travel expenses? Fortunately Menzel was able to attend with the director of Film Studio Barrandov, Vlastimil Harnach. I don’t remember where I was when the Oscar was awarded. Under the communist regime it was not easy to celebrate the event too loudly but it was impossible to conceal it. So Jiří and I were invited to Prague Castle to have a glass of cognac with General Svoboda. He was the only war hero that the Soviet Union found acceptable as president after their successful occupation of the country.
Q: It was one of many collaborations with Menzel and Hrabal. Please tell us a bit about your relationship with those guys.
Through the uniqueness of Bohumil Hrabal’s literature, Menzel felt his connection with the typical style of the Czech New Wave. Their mutual friendship was close and I was happy that I was appreciated by both of them, ready to do my best.
Q: You also worked on Menzel’s last film. Donšajni, over 50 years later. How was that experience different from when you first worked together?
There was not a significant difference in Menzel’s method of controlling people in front of the camera, but in that last film he was more dependent on a video-assist connected to the camera by cable. It was a little offensive to us as a camera crew, because fifty years earlier he was sitting beneath the camera on an apple crate watching the live action!
Q: Later in the 60s you made two more Menzel films with one of my favourite actors, Rudolf Hrušínský, Capricious Summer and Larks on a String. What was he like to work with?
It was a happy experience shooting with Mr Hrušínský. He was an older, more experienced friend and he was patient and tolerant towards my technical needs, which were sometimes extreme, for example the make-up in Capricious Summer. Rudolf was one of us and was good-tempered on a shoot. He called me “Mr Engineer”.
Q: Larks on a String and Capricious Summer are set in two very different environments, one in a scrapyard and one in the countryside. Did those locations present different challenges to you as a cinematographer? Also, what are the differences between shooting in b&w vs shooting in colour?
Larks on a String was shot mostly in the scrapyard, which was a big challenge for colour recording. Otherwise, using lighting equipment compatible with colour film is really the only difference between shooting in colour and shooting in black and white. But the colour needs special attention from the DoP for special possibilities.
Q: When I talk to people about Czech cinema, the general consensus is that it has fallen a long way since its heyday in the 60s. Would you agree with that and why do you think that is?
I’ve generally observed the decline of contemporary Czech film. The topic is too complicated for us to cover here, but it is a consequence of the moral decline of society. The cinema goer’s taste is irreparably changing, along with their spiritual needs. And producers are willing to satisfy them!
Q: Do you have hope for the future of Czech cinema? What directors and cinematographers of this century are you particularly impressed by? Are there any up-and-comers you think we should look out for?
I don’t see the future of Czech cinema as completely gloomy and hopeless. There are still many highly principled young (or young from my point of view, at least) filmmakers, Jiří Strach, Jiří Mádl, Vladimír Michálek, Ivan Fíla, Marek Najbrt and others. Achievements in cinematography by our former students are always significant. But image is only image…
Q: Your career as a cinematographer quietened down after the early 90s – what was the reason? Is it because you went into teaching?
At the end of the 20th century I shot just The Beggar’s Opera based on the screenplay by our president Vaclav Havel, and The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. After the turn of the new century we were looking forward to Menzel’s adaptation of I Served the King of England, but we had difficulties with the producer who cheated us on the rights. Jiří was so angry about it that he beat the man with a stick at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1998. He was fined for the offense, but thought it was worth every penny! So it was postponed and I decided to concentrate on teaching and leading the cinematography department at FAMU.
Q: I understand you are heavily involved with the digital restoration of some classic Czech films?
Yes, in 2013 a group of enthusiasts in Prague set to work after receiving a grant from the Ministry of Culture. The goal is to follow a series of logical steps and produce the optimum results in the restoration of both components of the film – image and sound. It is crucially important to insist on a group of cinematographers collaborating with a responsible film restorer, not just the institution, to achieve the original look of the restored movie. The reliable method DRA (Digitally Restored Authorizate) has now been worked out and verified officially in the Czech Republic, so the finished product is how viewers would have originally seen the film.
Q: Looking through your book I see that you have many other hobbies including painting and playing the saxophone. How do you find the time to fit it all in??
Nobody wants me to do it at all, but I need my hobbies! It’s pleasure.
Thanks to Jakub Švanda for translating during the conversation.