Legends of Czech Cinema: Jaromír Šofr, Cinematographer

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.

Continue reading “Legends of Czech Cinema: Jaromír Šofr, Cinematographer”

A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech) – Věra Chytilová, 1962

Perhaps more than any other film of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Věra Chytilová’s anarchic Daisies has transcended its origins and become an arthouse darling. The Criterion Collection hails it as “one of the great works of feminist cinema” and it is only one of two Czech movies to make the exalted Sight and Sound Top 250, the other being Marketa Lazarova. Over 50 years later, it still attracts attention from modern film buffs thanks to its absurd humour, zeitgeisty vibe and abundance of sixties style.

Chytilová made many other films, including the popular comedy The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday, but Daisies remains her most famous work. Sometimes when a director is so closely associated with one film it is fun to look back at their earlier catalogue to see how their style developed. With this in mind, I thought I’d check out her second short feature, A Bagful of Fleas

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Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně) – Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová and Jaromil Jireš, 1966

A subtitle for this anthology of short films based on the stories of Bohumil Hrabal may as well be “The Czechoslovak New Wave in a Nutshell”, as it showcases the work of five of the movement’s then up-and-coming directorial stars: Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová and Jaromil Jireš. While the garrulous voice of the author comes through loud and clear in all segments, each director uses their tale as a framework for their burgeoning filmmaking talents.

First up is Menzel, who was the only one of the five who didn’t already have a full feature under his belt, but would go on to have a rewarding long-standing collaboration with Hrabal with films such as Closely Watched Trains, Cutting it Short and I Served the King of England. In The Death of Mr Baltazar, we follow three ageing petrolheads to a day at the Moto GP in their vintage 1931 Walter Convertible, a rickety old jalopy still capable of transporting six butchers and a bed. While the crowd wait for the race to start, they trade stories with another elderly spectator about all the horrific accidents they have witnessed. It’s almost as if they watch the sport to see which rider will come a cropper next and, sure enough, the day’s race adds another fatality to their highlight reel.

Continue reading “Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně) – Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová and Jaromil Jireš, 1966”

A Report on the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech) – Jan Němec, 1966

Political satire can take many forms, but sometimes all that’s required is some actors, a few tables and chairs, and a patch of woodland. That’s all Jan Němec needed for A Report on the Party and the Guests, his abstract but high impact critique of life under communist rule in Czechoslovakia. It was considered scathing enough that it allegedly had Antonín Novotný, the president at the time, climbing the walls.

The concept of A Report on the Party and the Guests is about as simple as it gets. A group of middle-aged, middle-class lovers are having a picnic in a peaceful glade on a hot summer’s day. There is plenty of food and drink to go around, the weather is warm, and the friends are enjoying each other’s company. After freshening up in a babbling brook, the group are accosted by a shady little man in squeaky shoes – we later find out his name is Rudolf (Jan Klusák) – and his thuggish-looking cohorts.

Rudolf and his gang bundle the picnickers away to a clearing where he subjects them to an impromptu interrogation. The group are separated into men and women and locked up in an imaginary prison marked by a line drawn in the dirt, with two rocks representing a door.

The picnickers uneasily play along with Rudolf’s game for a while, with Josef (Jiří Němec) acting as their spokesperson. Conversely, Karel (Karel Mareš) gets fed up and grumpily storms off, crossing the line of their prison. In response, Rudolf instructs his mob to chase after the escapee and torment him a bit.

The game is interrupted by a suave older gent in a shining white jacket, known only as the Host (Ivan Vyskočil). He apologises for Rudolf’s actions and charms the group, especially the ladies, and invites them to his birthday banquet by the lake. The picnickers are quickly intermingled with the other guests when they are all assigned seating away from each other. Any complaints are forgotten with the plentiful food and drink on offer, and Josef is rewarded for his attempt to parley with a seat at the head table.

As the celebrations progress, it soon becomes apparent that one of the picnickers, a taciturn man who quietly refused to suck up to the Host previously, has discreetly left the party…

Continue reading “A Report on the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech) – Jan Němec, 1966”

Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání) – Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, 1963

Sometimes a film just doesn’t grab me at all and then I’m sat looking at a blank document thinking, “I don’t know if I can be bothered to write anything about this”. It is extra frustrating when I can see the film’s qualities, but feel so neutral towards it that I struggle to muster any enthusiasm.

One such film is Juráček & Schmidt’s Joseph Kilian, a paranoid short drama from the Czechoslovak New Wave. Knowing that the review is going to be a battle, I face a dilemma. Do I –

a) Give up on the movie and watch something else, then maybe come back another time when a change of mood or circumstances might make it chime differently.

b) Plough ahead regardless and eke out 700-800 words on it, going through the motions and stating the obvious, like the clear influence of Franz Kafka and blah blah blah.

Or

c) Find a hook, a way to approach the film that will entertain me and, in turn, hopefully make the article more entertaining for the reader. My first instinct with Joseph Kilian is to go with option C, but what is the hook?

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Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení) – Ivan Passer, 1965

Ivan Passer Intimate Lighting

I recently moved from Brno to a small village of about 500 people, which is something I thought I’d never do. I’ve always loved the city and the countryside freaks me out. Sometimes I get spooked when I’m out trudging the lanes and wood trying to fill in the blanks around me – it is the absence of people that makes it so unnerving. Occasionally I’ll stumble upon a cross or a shrine set starkly against a frozen cornfield or a big empty sky, and it seems more imposing than the huge churches and cathedrals that get a little lost in the hustle and bustle of city life.

Out in the countryside, it feels like mankind has sprouted out of the earth along with their dwellings over the millennia. In the dark months of winter, the village air is full of woodsmoke. It’s the first time I have really thought about the fact that people grow trees just to chop them down and burn them to keep warm. Similarly, some village folk grow their own creatures to kill, disembowel and eat. It all seems a bit medieval after a lifetime of central heating and buying pre-murdered supermarket chickens in the same way I might choose an apple, checking for size, shape and blemishes before dropping one into my basket.

Buy your copy of Intimate Lighting from Amazon HERE

These observations bring me, in a roundabout way, to Intimate Lighting. The divide between city and the village seems more sharply felt in the Czech Republic than back home in the UK, and many Czech films revolve around this dichotomy. One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Passer’s mini-masterpiece is how it explores this theme in such a hushed, minutely detailed way…

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Top 25 Czech Films So Far…

Phew! I’ve finally made it to 100 posts! It has been quite a ride with plenty of great movies along the way, but it wasn’t always a smooth one. This time last year the blog was languishing at around 25 reviews and I was struggling to find the enthusiasm to carry on with it.

Firstly, I hadn’t seen enough films to fully eradicate the more negative preconceptions I had about Czech movies at that point. Secondly, I realised that I’d picked a topic so niche that almost no-one was visiting the site, which was a little disheartening.

So to celebrate reaching the 100th post I’ve decided to create a top 25 list of my favourite Czech movies so far. It was a tough task with plenty of soul searching involved, and you will see that there are some notable exclusions. This is partly because I have tried to capture the sheer diversity of the films I’ve seen to date, which means some very good movies got the chop!

From the beginning, this project was intended as my personal exploration of Czech cinema, trying to get a handle on it from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider. Therefore I have also tried to make a list that might be handy for someone who wants to get into Czech movies but isn’t sure where to start.

Trying to make a list packed with great picks for other people while also staying true to both my personal taste and critical pretension wasn’t always easy. Take for example Jiří Menzel. I have some misgivings about his films – many of them are basically the same – but he is such a huge presence in Czech cinema that I still ended up with four on my list. It will be interesting to see if they get whittled down as I see more movies in the future.

Also, I have tried to give modern Czech movies a fair shout. I know there is a common belief that Czech cinema isn’t a patch on its heyday in the 60s and 70s, and that is probably true. However, there are some very solid movies from this century out there – films like Zelary, The Snake Brothers, and The Teacher wouldn’t look out of place on the Best Foreign Language ballot at the Oscars. Nevertheless, they still lack the magic of the classic stuff and it is a reflection of this that none of my top 10 is less than 40 years old.

Speaking of which, it is crazy when you look at the quality of the stuff being made in this country during the Czechoslovak New Wave. Talk about troubled times producing great art. The cinematic movement was already well underway before the Prague Spring, yet the sheer explosion of gobsmacking films concentrated around that historic time is simply dazzling.

Before we get into the list, I also want to mention that I would still be some way off the 100 mark without the terrific contributions of Kai-Ming, Jakub, Jack and Catherine. Although I originally intended this as a purely personal blog, I did accept a little help to bulk out the content. Otherwise, with my rate of production, it would only be useful as a resource sometime around the dawn of the next epoch. Thanks guys!

So let’s get cracking! I’ll update the list on a semi-regular basis, every 25 or 50 films or so. I might also do a Bottom 10 at some point as well…

First up:

#25. Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy) – Karel Zeman, 1958

I grew up loving Ray Harryhausen monster movies and the fantastic tales of Jules Verne, so it is no wonder I was quickly smitten with the films of Czech animation genius Karel Zeman. Popping up on Netflix, Invention for Destruction came as a tonic during a shitty lockdown period. It a lighthearted ripping yarn involving a secret weapon, a fabulous steam-powered submarine, a dashing hero, a master criminal in his volcano lair. Zeman’s inventions and the mastery of his craft are a constant delight, and it is great entertainment for kids, too.

“Shooting in crisp black and white, Zeman employs an astonishing array of special effects and camera trickery to recreate the look and feel of the engravings from the Jules Verne novels. Live-action footage is frequently sandwiched between several panes of foreground and background to make it look like the characters are moving within an illustration. Zeman laboriously added a cross-hatched pattern to almost everything to complete the illusion.”

Read the full review HERE

#24. My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková) – Jiří Menzel, 1985

Jiří Menzel, who sadly passed away last year, was a massive figure in Czech cinema. I tried to limit the number of his films I included in this list but despite my best efforts, I still ended up with four. I have difficulty ranking his work because as entertaining as they undoubtedly are, all the ones I’ve seen so far has basically been the same, and you could argue a case for the inclusion of any of them. The Oscar-nominated My Sweet Little Village is a charming, heart-warming comedy about the relationship between a disabled young man and his long-suffering neighbour and work colleague. Menzel regular Rudolf Hrušínský also appears as a gruff doctor.

“Menzel never misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of rural living over life in the big city. To this end, Hrušínský serves as a spokesperson, delivering lengthy passages of verse about the beauteous countryside, and reminding his fellow village folk that life isn’t so bad while they have beer, woodland, and gorgeous girls following the city trend of wearing no bra. The film basically says: chill out, grab a cold one and enjoy your lot in life, because it’s all pretty sweet.”

Read the full review HERE

#23. Beauty and the Beast (Panna a netvor) – Juraj Herz, 1978

The tale may be as old as time but there are few more gruesome versions than Herz’s intensely dark and atmospheric adaptation. The Beauty part might just be the weakest aspect of the film but The Beast is truly frightening and psychotic creation. From the scary opening attack to the Beast’s fog-shrouded mansion, Herz takes the story deep into horror territory, and I loved it.

“Herz’s vision is definitely not for kids, striking a gloomy pop gothic tone that’s somewhere between Hammer horror pea-soupers and Andrew Lloyd Webber – it’s hard to listen to Petr Hapka’s hyperbolically ominous organ score without thinking of Webber’s megahit stage production The Phantom of the Opera that arrived several years later.

The film opens with a caravan of merchant carriages lost in a bewitched forest in dense fog…”

Read the full review HERE

#22. Those Wonderful Years that Sucked (Báječná léta pod psa) – Petr Nikolaev,1997

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a general loathing of Michael Viewegh adaptations, so just to show it’s no irrational beef I also have one in my Top 25. Those Wonderful Years that Sucked is a genuinely touching coming-of-age tale that spans three decades in the life of a regular family, from the Prague Spring to just after the Velvet Revolution. Despite a few typically queasy Vieweghian moments, I would still say it makes a great introduction to Czech movies and films about life under Communism.

“Much of the charm of Those Wonderful Years That Sucked is the skilful way Nikolaev spans such a long period of time, never losing focus of the dangers facing the family while maintaining an upbeat, comic tone. Even the final third, where the father is driven to the verge of a mental breakdown by the constant fear of surveillance, is treated with a featherlight touch and is all the more effective for it.  So many comedy-dramas grind to a halt when things get serious, an obstacle Nikolaev’s film hurdles with bagfuls of good grace.”

Read the full review HERE

#21. Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu) –  Jan Švankmajer, 1983

Legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer is such a huge figure that I had to include at least one of his works. I was originally going with Alice, thinking it would be a safe introduction because almost everyone is familiar with the source material. The trouble is, Švankmajer’s style is often so aggressive and unsettling that it becomes a little arduous when drawn out to feature-length. Dimensions of Dialogue has all the best things about his visionary work packed into a very manageable 14-minutes – tactile stop-motion animation, a mordant sense of humour and a riot of ideas. 

“While it may be short, Dimensions of Dialogue is vivid, vulgar, gross, funny, and best of all, thought-provoking. If you like movies to give you something to think about, you should delve deeper into the weird world of Jan Švankmajer.”

Read the full review HERE

#20. Sun, Hay, Strawberries (Slunce, seno, jahody) – Zdeněk Troška, 1983

I know a few people will think I’ve lost my mind by including this movie on my list! People either really love Troška’s bawdy comedy or they really, really, really hate it. I think what that boils down to is that it portrays rural Czechs a little too accurately for some people’s taste and they feel embarrassed by it. It is definitely no great work of art, but my aim from the beginning of the blog was to review all Czech movies, not just the classics. Despite how lowbrow Sun, Hay, Strawberries obviously is, I think it is a genuinely important cultural item. It’s a little like the Carry On movies in Britain, reflecting a certain aspect of the people and their country.  Plus it made me laugh more than some of the more well-respected comedy classics!

“Make no mistake, Slunce, Seno, Jahody is extremely loud, crude and stupid. To give an example of the level of humour, one scene features a senile old lady trying to hide a turd from her overbearing daughter. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. However, the film has a directness that I appreciated, unlike the ponderous pace of so many Czech movies I’ve seen so far. It bounces along nicely with goofy energy that I found genuinely charming.”

Read the full review HERE

Continue reading “Top 25 Czech Films So Far…”

Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvetlení)- Ivan Passer, 1965

As many of you already know, 2020 has been the year of a number of misfortunes that have affected all of us. One of which was the passing of Ivan Passer, a prominent figure that helped establish the Czech New Wave movement. He worked as an assistant director for some of Miloš Forman’s earlier films like Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde, a film he also co-wrote along with The Firemen’s Ball. Before he and Forman moved to the United States, Passer managed to direct his first full-length feature in his homeland of Czechoslovakia, titled Intimate Lighting, which is widely considered to be his masterpiece.

Buy Intimate Lighting from Amazon HERE

The story centres around Bambas (Karel Blažek), a music teacher who invites his old friend Petr (Zdeněk Bezušek) to play as the soloist for an upcoming concert. Petr arrives at Bambas’ house accompanied by his young girlfriend, Stepa (Věra Křesadlová), where he meets Bamba’s wife, kids, and parents — who all live under the same roof. Much like Black Peter, the film focuses on individual moments in the lives of these characters as they go about their days. This might seem like there isn’t a lot going on, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. These moments actually give us insight into the lives of these characters and paint an earnest and realistic picture of domestic life…

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All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci) – Vojtěch Jasný, 1968

All My Good Countrymen cinematography

When people find out that I write about Czech movies, one of the questions they sometimes ask is: why are so many Czech films about the Communist era?

The example I always use is this: I’m from England, and such a large part of our national identity is defined by World War II, which lasted six years. Three iconic events from the conflict – Dunkirk, the Blitz, and the Battle of Britain – are still touchstones in our collective conscience and influence how we think of ourselves as a people. Even seventy-odd years later, nostalgia for the war played a part in the campaign to leave the European Union.

And, of course, we’re still making successful movies about it.

Buy All My Good Countrymen from Amazon HERE

Czechoslovakia, by comparison, spent over forty years in the clutches of a Communist regime, only to regain independence relatively recently. It’s little wonder that the period still exerts such a powerful hold on the Czech national psyche and is ingrained so deeply in the country’s culture. Not only that, but forty years is a long time, so even films that aren’t directly about it still have life under communism very present as background scenery. We can probably expect Czech cinema to go on exploring those decades of subjugation for many years to come…

Continue reading “All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci) – Vojtěch Jasný, 1968”

Return of the Prodigal Son (Návrat ztraceného syna) — Evald Schorm, 1967

Released in 1967 and directed by Evald Schorm, Return of the Prodigal Son centres around the mental health of an engineer named Jan (Jan Kacer) as he stays in a psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt. The film begins with a brief disclaimer: “The film you are about to see — in its plot, characters and setting — bears no resemblance to reality. It is only a play in which everything is distorted and exaggerated. Life isn’t like this.” Of course, this is meant to be a very tongue-in-cheek statement seeing as how the film is very much representing the existential dilemmas found in real life…

Continue reading “Return of the Prodigal Son (Návrat ztraceného syna) — Evald Schorm, 1967”