Adelheid (1970) – František Vláčil

Petr Cepak in Adelheid

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…

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Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice) – Otakar Vávra, 1970

An innocent burnt at the stake in Witchhammer

“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…

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Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) – Oldřich Lipský, 1977

Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet 1977

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…

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Empties (Vratné lahve) – Jan Svěrák, 2007

Back when I was completely skint (as opposed to just moderately skint nowadays), bottle returns were a lifesaver just before payday. With a 3kc deposit coming back on every bottle, you could fund another evening’s beer with a moderate stack of empties!

Now, most supermarket chains in the Czech Republic have moved across to automated deposit machines. They lack the personal touch of handing over your bottles through a little window to a person standing in the gloom of the shop’s stockroom, shuffling empties into crates and handing over handwritten tickets for the amount you could deduct from your next purchase. Some smaller stores still have bottle return windows, but it is clear that it’s a dying profession.

Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák, the crack father and son team behind popular hits like The Elementary School and Kolya, have often made films touched with nostalgia. They join forces once again for Empties (Vratné lahve), a compassionate and grown-up comedy-drama that largely revolves around a man finding a new lease of life when he gets one of these endangered jobs, working the bottle returns window at his local supermarket…

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Kajínek – Petr Jákl, 2010

In May 2017 Jiří Kajínek, a gangster, robber and hardman, was released from prison after serving 23 years of two life sentences, pardoned by President Zeman. During that time he became something of a folk hero in the Czech Republic. Sent down for the brutal killing of a businessman and his bodyguard, doubts persisted about his case, with over half of Czechs believing he was wrongfully accused.

Petr Jákl’s 2010 crime saga is a pulpy retelling of Kajínek’s struggles, including his infamous breakout from Mirov prison, known as the “Czech Alcatraz”. Former stuntman Jákl directs the film like a man setting himself alight and flinging himself down a flight of stairs. He’s used to making situations exciting, I guess, and has no qualms about cramming just about every thriller trope there is into his movie, trying to pump as much drama as he can into each scene. It’s a heady mix of prison breakout movie, legal drama and conspiracy thriller, and it’s got the lot – sadistic screws, transparently corrupt bad guys, tense escape scenes, and bursts of gory violence…

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The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) – Jiří Menzel, 1984

In The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) Jiří Menzel returns to the well to make another gentle comedy featuring his favourite things: the works of Bohumil Hrabal, Rudolf Hrušínský, the idyllic Czech countryside, and the shenanigans of quarrelsome but essentially good-hearted village folk.

As with many of Menzel’s films in a similar vein (Capricious Summer, My Sweet Little Village, Seclusion Near a Forest) the plot is slight – more a comic panorama than a conventional narrative, as Vincent Canby of the New York Times kindly put it. The pacing of The Snowdrop Festival is relaxed even by Menzel’s standards, with the film apparently starting before anyone in it has noticed…

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Alice (Něco z Alenky) – Jan Švankmajer, 1988

Alice 1

Once upon a time, I was so little that I could stand on the back of my nan’s sofa and survey the kingdom all around me. That summit seemed very high, and I was still small enough for her living room to be divided into several distinct regions. In the hazy distance opposite me (and it was hazy because my nan was a sixty-a-day woman) was the cliff edge of the mantlepiece. There lived regal ladies and gentlemen dressed in the fashions of the French court, and each of them bore the scars of terrible tumbles into the precipice below. My nan was not a fussy person, and each time one of them got knocked off and broken on the hearth, she would carelessly stick them back together with her trusty tube of Uhu. The figurines looked like Frankenstein creations, with arms, legs and heads reattached with bobbly contusions of sinister yellow glue.

Away to the far left, through the chasm between a sagging armchair and my nan’s monolithic rented telly, was a little-visited glade beneath the large bay window, where a wooden table contained the remnants of a long-defunct record player. On the far right of the room was my nan’s armchair, where she smoked, watched TV, read Mills and Boon paperbacks and idled away the hours doing word search puzzles. Between her armchair and the mantlepiece was a dark cabinet where she kept her most prized ornaments, glassware and keepsakes. Then, far below me, was the plateau of her coffee table. I was so tiny that I could make a den of it by propping mail-order catalogues against the shelf underneath and crawling inside…

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Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky) – Miloš Forman, 1965

Loves of a Blonde 1

Andula (Hana Brejchová) works in a shoe factory in a small town where, thanks to inept state planning, women outnumber men by 16 to 1. She shares a dorm in a dreary hostel with several other women of her age, and despite the odds has a good-looking boyfriend called Tonda. He’s bought her a ring and told her the stone in it is a diamond. She wants to believe it.

Loves of a Blonde was Miloš Forman’s sophomore effort after Black Peter (Černý Petr) and is a key film of the Czech New Wave. The title may well be ironic. While Andula certainly seems to have no trouble attracting the attention of the opposite sex, the men in her life don’t seem even remotely capable of giving her the relationship she needs. She is quite worldly compared to some of her friends, but still dreams of love and romance – we can tell that from the opening scene, where she is cuddled up in bed with one of her friends cooing over the ring.

Tonda, despite his respectable portrait pic, turns out to be an aggressive, possessive moron and the other guys in the movie aren’t much better. At a village dance, Andula and two friends are approached by three sleazy middle-aged soldiers who are stationed nearby. Their idea of wooing the girls is to get them drunk and take them for a quick knee-trembler in the woods nearby…

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The Oddsockeaters (Lichožrouti) – Galina Miklínová, 2016

Oddsockeaters 1

Entertaining two young kids during lockdown for eight weeks has sometimes involved a lot of Netflix. Now, I’m a snob and I like my five-year-old daughter to watch as many live-action movies as possible, and it’s crazy how many family films these days are CGI.

That said, I don’t have anything against computer-generated features as such, because studios like Pixar and Laika have produced some of the best family films of the past quarter of a century, balancing rollicking adventure and unforgettable characters with meaningful themes.

However, for every Toy Story or Kubo and the Two Strings there are tons of poorly animated dross like The Dancing Pumpkin and the Ogre’s Plot, something that looks like it was put together by an algorithm rather than thinking, feeling human beings.

Somewhere in between – and thankfully more towards the Kubo end of the spectrum than The Dancing Pumpkin end – is The Oddsockeaters, a quirky fantasy adventure based on the book of the same name by Pavel Šrut. Directed by the book’s illustrator Galina Miklínová, it’s a playful tale about small magical creatures that love eating socks, but always leave one half of a pair for the owner, thus creating the age-old laundry mystery…

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Page to Screen: Too Loud a Solitude (Příliš hlučná samota) – Genevieve Anderson, 2007

“I can be by myself because I’m never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.”  Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude

Too Loud a Solitude is my favourite book, and that passage in particular resonated so deeply during my teaching days in Prague. I’ve always been someone who enjoys time with my own thoughts, and I never felt lonely while I was there. I was in love with the place and, although I had friends, I often preferred it when it was just me alone with the city…

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