Every now and then two films come out around the same time covering the same topic – Twilight and Let the Right One In; Deep Impact and Armageddon; Hitchcock and The Girl. A few years ago, there was a mesmerising, beautifully erotic examination of a couple involved in a kinky sub-dom relationship. It was called The Duke of Burgundy, and Jamie Dornan wasn’t in it. He was in the other one, Fifty Shades of something.
Then we had two films released within a few months of each other about the valiant Czechoslovak parachutists who assassinated Hitler’s third in command, Reinhard Heydrich. First out of the gate was Anthropoid, starring Dornan alongside Cillian Murphy, followed by HHhH, an adaptation of Laurent Binet’s well-received novel. Would Dornan be in the better movie of the two this time round?
I hate to say it without seeing both, but probably not. Any film on this subject is bound to be compared to Binet’s terrific book, which managed the tricky task of making a historic event genuinely suspenseful and exciting. The book had scope, compassion and a lightness of touch, and the chapters covering the assassination and the parachutist’s last stand in a Prague cathedral flew past so quick that I left burn marks on the pages. It’s a fantastic story that deserves a modern re-telling (although maybe not twice in the space of a year), and I dearly hoped that Anthropoid would do justice to the tale.
I was excited to see Já, Olga Hepnarová as part of a full house crowd on its first release. Often when I watch Czech movies at the cinema the audience is me, the projectionist and his dog, so it was pleasing to see people resisting the lure of the multiplex to support a film as resolutely un-popcorn as this. It’s a sombre arthouse character study of the the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.
We meet Hepnarová (Michalina Olszanska) recovering from a failed suicide attempt, and after a spell in a psychiatric hospital she shuns her comfy middle-class family to take work as a truck driver. Bitter and alienated, she lives in semi-squalor in the family’s summer cottage, drinking, smoking and seducing local women. As her mental health deteriorates, she imagines herself the victim of a bullying society, and plots callous revenge.
Up and coming Polish actress Olszanska puts in a fantastic performance as Hepnarová. She never asks for the audience’s sympathy and is immensely watchable despite her permanently glowering countenance.
It has been a long time since a film altered my view of the world I live in. Petr Václav’s Cesta ven did just that, exposing the reality of life for the Czech Republic’s Roma community. It also made me realise, living as I do in my cosy expat bubble, that it would take a bizarre and unlikely set of circumstances for me to ever come close to the levels of poverty and hopelessness experienced by the characters in this eye-opening slice of social realism.
Working with non-professional actors, Cesta ven centres around Žaneta (Klaudia Dudová), a young Romani mother trying to make ends meet against a grim backdrop of unemployment, debt, criminality, alcoholism, prostitution, poverty and racial prejudice which forms the day-to-day reality of her embattled community within the community.
Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) is an immensely satisfying tragicomedy set in the months preceding the fateful Prague Spring of 1968. It’s a robust family drama featuring some wonderfully poignant comic performances from a formidable cast of Czech and Slovak character actors.
The picture opens in the winter of ’67, and lovelorn teenager Michal Šebek (Michael Beran) wants to end it all. He is hopelessly in love with his upstairs neighbour Jindřiška (Kristýna Nováková). The trouble is, she is going out with his much cooler mate Elien (Ondřej Brousek), who gets all the latest movies, music and fashion from his parents living in the States.
To make matters worse, her father, Mr Kraus (Jiří Kodet) is a rabid anticommunist and war hero, and often has flaming rows with Michal’s own father. Mr Šebek (Miroslav Donutil) is a staunch supporter of the Communist government, an army officer so petty and regimented that he types out a weekly menu for his family.
Living here in Brno, Czech Republic, I’ve spoken to many other expats over the years about Czech film. Most don’t watch them – sure, they’ve seen a few of the biggies, but generally people don’t bother unless they have to. They tend to find them slow, boring and difficult to engage with, and Czech humour doesn’t seem to translate well on film – to those not on the right wavelength (and I include myself in that category), it tends to be a little too bitter and deadpan, or too broad and nostalgic.
As a Brit, the former usually works better for me, as our own humour tends toward the straight-faced and understated, whereas the broadest excesses of Czech comedy reminds me more of the bawdiness of our 70s sex farces.
The Elementary School (Obecná škola) is a sweet-natured coming-of-age tale set just after WWII, “after the Fascists have been defeated, and before the Communists have won.” It swings towards the broad and nostalgic end of the Czech comedy spectrum, but is a genuinely funny movie. Oscar winning director Jan Svěrák (Kolja) demonstrates a deft touch for slapstick and draws excellent comic performances from his small cast.
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.