The Ear (Ucho) — Karel Kachyňa, 1970/1989

 

Like many films that were considered problematic by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia at their time of release, Karel Kachyňa’s The Ear was banned until 1989. Unlike the surreal elements found in Case for a Rookie Hangman, this film takes a more grounded approach to explore the fears and anxieties experienced by the country’s inhabitants. The film centres around a married couple trying to get through a night of desperation after they suspect their home might be under surveillance by the government…

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Diamonds of the night (Démanty noci) — Jan Němec, 1964

Based on Arnošt Lustig’s novel Darkness Has No Shadow, Jan Němec’s first full-length feature, Diamonds of the Night, is a visceral experience that shouldn’t be missed. Right from the jump, the film hooks you with an incredible sequence that follows two young boys escaping a train heading towards a concentration camp. The whole scene is shot in one continuous take as the camera closes in to capture the desperation on their faces. By this point, it’s clear that the goal is to put the viewer in the state of mind of these characters as they struggle to survive.

This is one of those films that focuses more on providing an immersive experience for the viewers, rather than telling a straightforward narrative. And that’s apparent in its presentation. Once the boys make their way into the woods, the film intercuts between their current situation and visions of life before the war. These memories belong to Ladislav Jánsky’s character, whose perspective is the one we follow throughout the film. The scenes are made up of simple moments that seem like distant memories compared to the situation he currently finds himself in. We see images of kids sledging down a hill while laughing, mundane details of people going about their day, and the relationship he shared with his girlfriend. Now, he just wants to survive and return to the life he once knew…

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Case for a Rookie Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata)  –  Pavel Juráček, 1970

Starting off as a screenwriter for some of the most notable films in the Czech New Wave, Pavel Jurácek (Daisies) eventually transitioned into the role of director and went on to contribute to the movement by directing his own films. His last film, Case for a Rookie Hangman, was a surreal experience, to say the least.

From the start of the film, it’s no secret that Jurácek was inspired by the works of Jonathan Swift, specifically Gulliver’s Travels. He even apologizes beforehand in the film’s opening credits: “If Swift should turn in his grave on account of this film, I beg his compatriots for forgiveness.” This interpretation of the novel finds Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) in a strange place with bizarre customs that satirize life in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime…

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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 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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The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol) – Juraj Herz, 1969

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Everyone loves a great movie monster, and it’s a tragedy that Rudolf Hrušínský’s incredible performance as Karel Kopfrkingl in The Cremator hasn’t gained the same kind of international notoriety. He’s just as enjoyably chilling, and, with the film coming from a far darker place than the others, has more important things to say to today’s society.

On the surface, Kopfrkingl is the model professional and devoted family man, married to Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová) who he met in front of the leopard’s cage at the zoo. They have two children, Zina and Mili, both in their teens. He runs a crematorium and devotes his life to discreetly releasing human souls from their deceased bodies by incinerating them in his furnaces. He’s obsessed with the process of cremation and fuses his interpretations of Buddhism (learned from his lovely book on Tibet) with his own views on death and reincarnation. Outwardly he tries to project himself as a man of good taste and scruples, although dark lusts lurk beneath his prissy manner and sanctimonious smile…

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Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) – Jiří Menzel, 1969/1990

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…

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Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) – Jaromil Jireš, 1970

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…

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Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto) – Jiří Menzel, 1967

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.

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Daisies (Sedmikrásky) – Věra Chytilová, 1966

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.

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