Black Peter (Černý Petr) – Miloš Forman, 1964

Black Peter (1964) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Recently, I’ve been reviewing films that dealt with more social and political issues, but this time around, I’m kind of glad to be reviewing a film that focuses on a much more easy-going subject: adolescence. Black Peter — the first feature-length film directed by one of the most celebrated filmmakers of Czech Cinema, Miloš Forman (Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball) — focuses on the life of a young man named Petr (Ladislav Jakim) and his journey through adolescence.

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The film begins with Petr on his first day working at a supermarket. He is tasked to keep an eye on the customers and to make sure that they aren’t stealing any of the merchandise, but he is so oblivious to the concept of subtlety that he easily exposes himself. He then proceeds to follow a man he believes may have stolen some merchandise by walking right behind him. Unfortunately, he never really confronts him. This is an interesting way to convey just how young and inexperienced Petr is and how much he has yet to learn…

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Something Different (O něčem jiném) — Věra Chytilová, 1963

Written and directed by avant-garde filmmaker Věra Chytilová (Daisies, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday), Something Different tells the story of the lives of two women: Eva Bosáková, a real-life gymnast training for her final performance, and Vera (Vera Uzelacová), a fictional housewife who lives an unfulfilled life. The film presents a nuanced look into the worlds of both women as they face the daily challenges that life brings upon them.

The opening sequence features Eva performing her routine until it cuts away to reveal that Vera’s son is watching it on TV. The film then intercuts between the lives of both women as they go about their everyday life. While one might assume that Eva’s life might be more interesting than Vera’s, I found myself equally invested in both stories. A lot of Eva’s days are spent practising for her final performance, while Vera’s days are consumed by housework as she raises her son at the same time—an equally exhausting balancing act. 

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Eva strives for perfection but is sometimes unsure of her own abilities, while Vera is unsatisfied with her marriage and has a hard time taking care of her hyperactive son. Her husband barely pays any attention to her and would rather spend his time reading the newspaper. He tells her he does this because he can only read it after work, to which Vera replies, “my work is never done.” He also says he’s saving money for a car, which means Vera can’t buy anything for herself. This is frustrating for her as she also spends her days working, but never receives anything in return. This leads to her having an affair with a man she meets while buying groceries…

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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.

The film begins with the couple coming home from an evening at an official dinner party. The husband, Ludvík (Radoslav Brzobohatý), is a reserved government official, and his wife, Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová), is an outspoken alcoholic. From their first interactions, we can already get a general idea of their relationship. You get the sense that they’ve been at odds for a while now, seeing as how they constantly bicker and throw verbal jabs at each other every chance they get. 

The Ear Blu Ray

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Once they arrive at the entrance, they notice that they’ve misplaced the keys to the gate and find other means of getting inside, only to realize that the doors had been open and there’s been a power outage. Ludvík also notices some strange men lurking around the garden and a car parked on the other side of the street. This causes him to become more paranoid at the thought that he might be targeted 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.

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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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A 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.

Case for a Rookie Hangman Blu Ray

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Jurácek also channels the works of Franz Kafka and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is evident in the surreal nature of the film. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Mr Gulliver loses control of his car and ends up running over a hare dressed in tiny clothes, and even finds that it had a watch in its pocket. After this bizarre incident, he finds a house that resembles the one from his childhood. But once he’s inside, he’s bombarded with memories of his youth: a girl he once loved who drowned, an old friend who also died, a woman who had a part in his sexual awakening, and many more images from his past…

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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.

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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 story is slight but builds irrevocably towards its conclusion, where details that seem innocuous in the set up suddenly take on massive significance. The committee of a small-town fire department is arranging a ball. The entry is 8kc and attractions include a band, a tombola and a beauty pageant. The guest of honour is the firemen’s retired president, and the plan is to get the winner of the beauty contest to present him with a ceremonial axe for his 86th birthday.

Things quickly go south. One of the firemen, Josef (Josef Kolb), is in charge of the tombola and is panicked when the prizes start going missing before the doors even open. The committee hasn’t selected their contestants for the pageant yet, and hurriedly spend the early part of the ball trying to recruit prospects from the attendees. The selection process also seems to have an ulterior motive, as the largely middle-aged committee see it as an excuse to ogle young women…

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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…

Cremator Blu Ray

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The film is set during the 1930s, and one of Kopfrkingl’s old army chums, Mr Reinke (Ilja Prachař), is an engineer with ties to the Nazi party who encourages him to recognize the theoretical drop of German blood flowing in his veins. Initially, Kopfrkingl rejects the idea, maintaining that they’re a good Czech family and only speak Czech at home. But as the threat of German invasion looms over the country, we see that Kopfrkingl is an endlessly malleable hypocrite who is easily swayed into informing on his Jewish friends and colleagues. He readily adjusts his beliefs to suit the prevailing wind, especially when there’s some perceived benefit for him involved. As it turns out, the Nazis have a special project in mind for someone in his particular niche, and he’s ready to embrace his calling. And then some…

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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.

It’s a shame that it has dated in comparison to the likes of Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) and Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto), because as well as ripping the piss out of the petty bureaucrats and their dim-witted slogans (“We’ll pour our peaceful steel down the imperialist war-mongers’ throat!”) it is also an extremely tender and poignant film.

Larks on a String DVD

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Set in a huge scrapyard in the Bohemian town of Kladno in the ’50s, the story centres around a group of so-called dissidents and counter-revolutionaries, sent by the authorities for re-education among the piles of broken typewriters and twisted wrought-iron bedsteads. They’re a mostly meek and browbeaten bunch, resigned to shuffling about among the mountains of waste, having philosophical discussions and sneaking a peek at the group of women detained for attempted defection across the fence…

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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…

That was my first experience of the film. I’ve wanted to write about it for a year now because when I saw it on a crappy Youtube copy, I realized that I’d just watched something very special. I just couldn’t quite define what I’d watched. It probably didn’t help that I forgot a key detail – that our young protagonist, Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), is encountering her first period.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders Blu Ray

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It occurs early on, and provides one of the iconic images of the film – a droplet of bright fresh blood on the head of a daisy – but the moment was lost to me almost immediately in the subsequent whirl of ravishing imagery, potent symbolism, ethereal beauty and earthy sensuality. Luboš Fišer’s score is also transportive, whisking you away to another time and place…

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