The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko) – Miloš Forman, 1967

Miloš Forman’s last Czech film, The Firemen’s Ball, starts off as a lighthearted farce. By the time the film reaches its masterful third act, it has become a tragicomedy of tremendous allegorical power.

It can be seen in numerous ways. A literal reading got Forman in hot water with real fire crews up and down the land, who saw it as an attack on their honour and integrity, resulting in Forman touring the country to make amends. You could interpret it as an indictment of human foibles and corruptibility; a satire on corporate groupthink; or a stealth condemnation of the Communist system. The Czechoslovakian Communist party certainly saw it as the latter, resulting in the film being “banned forever”…

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Loners (Samotáři) – David Ondříček, 2000

Loners (Samotáři) was the first Czech film I saw in a movie theatre. I was on a teacher training course in Prague at the time, and there was a buzz going around that it was the Czech answer to Trainspotting. I ended up getting completely rat arsed before, during and after the screening, so I couldn’t remember a single thing about it.

That complete blackout has always made Loners something I’ve been eager to revisit. Trainspotting flash-froze a zeitgeist so perfectly that it felt dated by the time it came out on video, so if Loners truly was in any way equivalent, how would it stand the test of time? It’s now half my life since that drunken cinema visit – I was in my early twenties then. What, if anything, would the movie say to me now as a father of two in my early forties?

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Kolya (Kolja) – Jan Svěrák, 1996

Take one vulnerable kid and dump them with a really disreputable, selfish, unlikely, inappropriate or downright dangerous father figure. The kid doesn’t have to be particularly cute, and the man may or may not be the kid’s actual father. It doesn’t matter, because if you play this well-worn combo well enough there won’t be a dry eye in the house…

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The Girl on a Broomstick (Dívka na koštěti) – Václav Vorlíček, 1972

If you imagine Sabrina the Teenage Witch with a dash of Harry Potter thrown in, you’ll get a pretty good idea what to expect from this bright and breezy fantasy comedy. Petra Černocká plays Saxana, a talented but bored young witch who is sentenced to 300 years in detention for screwing up in her shape-shifting classes. With the assistance of the school janitor and retired vampire, (I’m not sure vampirism works like that either, but let’s go with it), Saxana transforms herself into an owl and visits the world of people.

The spell is shortlived, though, and unless she can find something called “Hag’s Ear” within 44 hours, she will have to return to witch school and face the consequences for her bad behaviour. While still in owl form, she’s captured by a zookeeper and taken home. There she reverts to her normal form, much to the surprise of the keeper’s son, Honza (Jan Hrušínský). They quickly become friends, setting the stage for all manner of magical shenanigans – usually involving Saxana turning herself or other people into some kind of animal.

The Girl on a Broomstick is endearingly cheerful throughout and Černocká, a singer who also provided the ridiculously catchy theme tune, is an appealing lead. She plays Saxana with the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and sassiness, and her performance has dated better than some of the others. Otherwise, much of the acting is pretty panto-level stuff, especially among Saxana’s classmates and teachers at school. Helena Ruzicková (The Slunce, Seno… trilogy) has a cameo as Saxana’s roommate during her brief stay on a psychiatric ward.

The film zips along and the special effects, while primitive, are used effectively and with gusto. Although dated and very lo-fi, The Girl on a Broomstick is still capable of casting a happy spell over kids and their parents, so it’s a great pick for families with young children learning Czech. My four-year-old daughter loved it, and I won’t be terribly put out by having to watch it again with her.

A belated and poorly received sequel, Saxána a Lexikon kouzel (Little Witch on a Broomstick), arrived in 2011.

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You can pick up a copy of The Girl on a Broomstick at Amazon. Just click on the cover art below –

The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag) – Věra Chytilová, 1992

It’s the very early days of my journey through Czech cinema, and I still find myself reaching for a “western” film as a comparison when thinking about a Czech film I’ve just watched. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something directly analogous, but something that – however tangentially – captures its atmosphere or themes.

With The Inheritance, or Fuckoffguysgoodday, I found myself cast back to 1995, when Sandra Bullock logged onto The Net. It was a pretty routine conspiracy thriller that bumbled along amiably enough on Bullock’s burgeoning star power, warning everyone about the potential pitfalls of the internet – before anyone really knew what the internet was.

Věra Chytilová’s most famous film internationally, Daisies (Sedmikrásky), was banned by the Czechoslovak government. Two and a half decades later, she stuck the boot into the tawdry temptations of capitalism with her aggressively charmless comedy, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday – before anyone in her country really knew what capitalism was, or had figured out what it meant for them.

Bolek Polívka (who also co-wrote with Chytilová) stars as Bohus, a slovenly layabout and village piss artist whose favourite things in life are his elderly aunt, slouching around in his undies, chugging slivovice, and having crafty knee-trembler with the barmaid, Vlasta (Dagmar Havlová), at his favourite boozer.

He’s skint and constantly drunk, but seems fairly content with his lot. As with many of the Czech rural comedies that I’ve come to regard as “bumpkincore”, the characters might not have a lot going for them but are sent into a fit of rapture by their beloved nature. Quite rightly so – only this weekend on a train journey back from Nedvědice to Tišnov, with its idyllic hills, forests and streams, I dreamily thought once again that the Czech Republic might be heaven on earth.

Things change, however, when Dr Ulrich (Miroslav Donutil), a smart lawyer from the city, rolls up to tell Bohus that his father has passed away and bequeathed him his considerable fortune…

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Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) – Jan Hřebejk, 2000

Would you have the courage to hide someone from the Nazis during World War II? It’s a question that I’ve often asked myself, because the Holocaust still feels very present here in central Europe. Just down the road from my apartment, in the park on Náměstí 28. října, there is a memorial fountain dedicated to the Jewish and Romani victims from the city. In the summer, Roma children will play in the fountain, bringing that dedication into sharp focus across the decades. I’ve also been to Auschwitz, and I’ve spent some time in Bosnia, talking to people who survived another genocide.

So I’ve asked myself the question, and ten years ago my answer would’ve definitely been yes, I’d hide them. Now though, the answer is more troubling – now I have a family of my own, I’m not sure I would be brave enough to risk my children’s lives to harbour someone else.

This moral question is the central premise of Divided We Fall, Jan Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated black comedy. Bolek Polívka and Anna Šišková play Josef and Marie, a childless couple who are forced into that life or death dilemma when David (Csongor Kassai), Josef’s former friend and boss, escapes a concentration camp in Poland and makes his way back home…

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Sunday League: Pepik Hnatek’s Final Match (Okresní přebor: Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka) – Jan Prušinovský, 2012

“Football is not a matter of life and death,” the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said, “It’s much more important than that.” It’s a nice quote, and anyone who’s passionate about football knows that when you’re in the moment, watching the game, it feels like an absolute truth.

It’s certainly true for Pepik Hnátek (Miroslav Krobot), the fearsome and moribund coach of Slavoj Houslice, a Sunday league team showing few signs of life. Okresní přebor – Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka is the feature-length prequel to the popular TV series, focusing on the dour and humourless Mr Hnátek, played with utter conviction by Krobot. If you want to get some idea of Hnátek’s coaching methods, imagine Breaking Bad‘s Walter White if he’d gone into football management rather than becoming a drug kingpin…

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