Banned for over twenty years and only released after the Velvet Revolution, Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String is a film out of time. It was one of the director’s more overtly critical works in the ’60s, openly sarcastic about the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. As a result, it endured censure and became a valuable relic of the grim post-Prague Spring era, lacking the timelessness of Menzel’s more gently comedic films of the period…
Rapturously beautiful, disturbingly erotic, and strangely frightening, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an intoxicating blend from director Jaromil Jireš, a key figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave. It’s a surrealist horror where reality and identity are fluid, yet the film has its own dreamlike logic where it all makes a kind of sense while you’re watching it. Then, like so many dreams, the more you try to remember on waking, the more it slips from your grasp…
Unlike where I come from in England, we tend to get long hot summers here in the Czech Republic. The good weather sets in towards the end of April and usually runs through until late September. It’s my ninth summer here now and each year, sometime around late August, when the nights are drawing in and there’s a breath of autumn on the breeze, I’m always struck by a bittersweet feeling. It’s a sense of longing and loss and melancholy, a sensation that has intensified as the years ticked down towards my 40th birthday. Somewhere inside I sigh and think, “Well, that’s another year over.” Followed by a nasty little whisper at the back of my mind, “How many good summers have you got left?”
That bittersweet feeling is captured so beautifully by Jiří Menzel’s Rozmarné Léto. I first saw it very early after we arrived to live in the Czech Republic, and initially I was quite dismissive of it. I hadn’t adjusted to the rhythm and pace of Czech films and to me it felt like a pilot for a sitcom, mainly because of its surface similarity to the long running British comedy series, Last of the Summer Wine, which followed the shenanigans of three retired blokes in a small town in northern England.
Rozmarné Léto is a perennial favourite in the Czech Republic. It is Menzel’s follow up to his Oscar nominated Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), adapted from the novel by Vladislav Vančura. It’s a gentle yet neatly observed bedroom face about three old friends whose comfortable boredom is disrupted when a travelling acrobat rolls into town, and each one’s trousers are set a-rustling by his beautiful young assistant.
Surrealist and Avant Garde films aren’t always the most popular choice for the average movie goer. Until Leos Carax’s demented Holy Motors generated some outside-bet Oscar buzz a few years ago, I’d rather watch a compilation tape of hairy builders receiving a back, sack and crack before dabbling with the avant garde.
My perspective has changed slightly since then, largely on the basis of Denis Lavant’s incredible (literally) balls-out multiple performances in that movie, and two of my favourite films of the past few years are of the avant garde variety – Dziga Vertov’s hypnotic portrait of a city in Man with a Movie Camera, and Věra Chytilová’s playful yet provocative Daisies.
A cornerstone of the Czech New Wave, Daisies tells of two young women, known as Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová), who declare that they are broken and in that case, they might as well be bad.
There’s an underseen film called The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, where some English miners from the Middle Ages tunnel through the earth and emerge in modern day New Zealand. Watching Marketa Lazarová feels a bit like that in reverse – you leave your comfortable 21st century life behind for a few hours and pop up in medieval Bohemia.
Director František Vláčil spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates and places, but of deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of the present day’s unsteady ship.
Miroslav Krobot’s morosely funny Nowhere in Moravia is a downbeat portrayal of small lives, set in a tiny village where life takes forever.
The opening hours of the local hospoda marks the passing of time, and there are two main ways out – by bus and by coffin. Buses aren’t very frequent, so the villagers eat, drink and screw the days away until death finally comes along to relieve them of their boredom.
If you think that sounds pretty grim, then you’re right – it is.
Having said that, I laughed far more during Nowhere in Moravia than I do in most mainstream American comedies these days, and there is much joy to be had from the bric-a-brac of ordinary life tucked in the corners of cinematographer Jan Baset Střítežský’s gorgeous compositions.
Some of the more farcical elements could be straight from the pages of Hrabal, and a thread of small-town ennui traces back at least as far as Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer), although the bittersweet fatalism of Menzel’s work curdles into outright pessimism in Krobot’s film debut.
Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) is probably one of the best known Czech films beyond the country’s borders, having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. Adapted from Bohumil Hrabal’s slender novel, it was also the first Czech movie I saw by a long way, years before the idea of even visiting the country crossed my mind, let alone immigrating here.
I was pretty underwhelmed on first viewing – it was when I was first getting heavily into film, after the treble-whammy of Pulp Fiction, Seven and Trainspotting first made me conscious that there was a director behind the camera making decisions resulting in the movie I saw up there on the big screen. I could handle the nonlinear structure of QT’s early efforts, but struggled a bit with the rhythm and pace of my first Czech movie – having been brought up on a diet of largely British and American films, usually with a distinct beginning, middle and end, Closely Watched Trains seemed a lot like all middle with a little bit of end.