Page to Screen: Too Loud a Solitude (Příliš hlučná samota) – Genevieve Anderson, 2007

“I can be by myself because I’m never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.”  Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude

Too Loud a Solitude is my favourite book, and that passage in particular resonated so deeply during my teaching days in Prague. I’ve always been someone who enjoys time with my own thoughts, and I never felt lonely while I was there. I was in love with the place and, although I had friends, I often preferred it when it was just me alone with the city…

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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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Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) – Jan Svěrák, 2001

Much like Michael Bay’s mega-budget travesty Pearl Harbor from the same year, Jan Svěrák’s Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) squanders a fascinating true story in order to indulge in a tepid love triangle. The sad thing is, while all of Pearl Harbor is awful, it’s only the romantic element of Dark Blue World that brings it into disrepute, tainting an otherwise rousing tale.

The film opens in 1950 with our main protagonist, Franta Sláma (Ondřej Vetchý) banged up in a gloomy prison, having been incarcerated by the communists for his time serving in the RAF during World War II. We then flashback to before the war and happier times with his girlfriend before the Germans marched in.

Dark Blue World DVD

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With the Czechoslovak Army disbanded, Franta and a group of other fliers, including his young hotheaded protégé Karel Vojtíšek (Kryštof Hádek) escape to England to join the RAF. Once there the pilots are sidelined initially, taking part in pointless exercises, learning English, and gazing enviously at the dogfights going on in the skies above them. As the Battle of Britain intensifies the RAF is in constant need of more pilots, so our boys soon get their chance. After a few teething problems they’re soon gunning down German planes with glee, getting a little revenge for all the folks back home…

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Loners (Samotáři) – David Ondříček, 2000

Loners (Samotáři) was the first Czech film I saw in a movie theatre. I was on a teacher training course in Prague at the time, and there was a buzz going around that it was the Czech answer to Trainspotting. I ended up getting completely rat arsed before, during and after the screening, so I couldn’t remember a single thing about it.

That complete blackout has always made Loners something I’ve been eager to revisit. Trainspotting flash-froze a zeitgeist so perfectly that it felt dated by the time it came out on video, so if Loners truly was in any way equivalent, how would it stand the test of time? It’s now half my life since that drunken cinema visit – I was in my early twenties then. What, if anything, would the movie say to me now as a father of two in my early forties?

Loners Blu Ray

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Well first up, the Trainspotting comparison was way off. I can kind of see why people at the time were making the analogy, as it focuses on the lives of twenty-somethings in the city and there are drugs involved, albeit ganja rather than smack. Other than that, Loners is a very ho-hum, meandering, mildly amusing look at the lives of a group of young-ish people at the turn of the Millenium. It’s unfair to compare the two really, but since I’ve already started I may as well continue by saying it also lacks Trainspotting‘s vivacity, bleak humour, empathy, and directorial verve. If Trainspotting was a howl of defiance in the dark, Loners is more like a shrug of indifference in a Starbucks…

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Kolya (Kolja) – Jan Svěrák, 1996

Take one vulnerable kid and dump them with a really disreputable, selfish, unlikely, inappropriate or downright dangerous father figure. The kid doesn’t have to be particularly cute, and the man may or may not be the kid’s actual father. It doesn’t matter, because if you play this well-worn combo well enough there won’t be a dry eye in the house…

This formula has been going almost as long as cinema itself. One of the best early examples came during the early days of the talkies with The Champ, which starred Wallace Beery as a drunken, irresponsible slugger and Jackie Cooper as his disappointed but devoted son. A notable variation on the theme came in 1973 with Paper Moon, starring real-life father and child duo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, who played a selfish con man and his maybe-daughter on the road working scams.

Kolya Blu Ray

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The formula got pretty crazy in the ’90s. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable cyborg got reprogrammed and became an unlikely surrogate father to Edward Furlong’s tearaway teen in T2: Judgement Day; things got a bit iffy in Léon: The Professional as Jean Reno’s childlike hitman ended up sheltering a young Natalie Portman from a demented pill-popping cop, and teaching her a few tricks of the trade along the way…

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Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) – Jan Hřebejk, 2000

Would you have the courage to hide someone from the Nazis during World War II? It’s a question that I’ve often asked myself, because the Holocaust still feels very present here in central Europe. Just down the road from my apartment, in the park on Náměstí 28. října, there is a memorial fountain dedicated to the Jewish and Romani victims from the city. In the summer, Roma children will play in the fountain, bringing that dedication into sharp focus across the decades. I’ve also been to Auschwitz, and I’ve spent some time in Bosnia, talking to people who survived another genocide.

So I’ve asked myself the question, and ten years ago my answer would’ve definitely been yes, I’d hide them. Now though, the answer is more troubling – now I have a family of my own, I’m not sure I would be brave enough to risk my children’s lives to harbour someone else.

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This moral question is the central premise of Divided We Fall, Jan Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated black comedy. Bolek Polívka and Anna Šišková play Josef and Marie, a childless couple who are forced into that life or death dilemma when David (Csongor Kassai), Josef’s former friend and boss, escapes a concentration camp in Poland and makes his way back home…

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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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From Subway With Love (Román pro ženy) – Filip Renč, 2005

From Subway with Love is the English title for Román pro ženy (A Novel for Women), although a more appropriate title may have been Men’s Midlife Crisis: The Movie…

I approached the film with pretty low expectations, because a) I’ve already come into contact with two movies adapted from his own novels by the virulent Michal Viewegh, and b) this DVD cover art –

Let’s take a moment to see what we have here. There’s a beautiful young woman, staring seductively at the camera. She’s in a submissive pose, kneeling as she kisses the hand of a man, who is mostly out of the frame. The positioning of the man’s forearm suggests that the rest of his body is open to the camera. I’m intrigued by what is happening outside the borders of this photo. What could the man be doing while this young woman is humbling herself before his masculinity? Drinking a beer? Unzipping his fly? Playing paddle ball? Check out later in the review to find out…

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Behold Homolka (Ecce homo Homolka) – Jaroslav Papoušek, 1969

We open in an idyllic forest somewhere in the Czechoslovak paradise, and two teens have found a discreet spot for a little nookie on a summer’s afternoon. Their amorous encounter is soon interrupted though – first by ants having a nibble, then by the noise created by the boorish Homolka family descending on the peaceful scene for a picnic.

There’s plenty of boors in the countryside in Czech movies, which led me to coin the term “bumpkincore” to describe a certain type of Czech comedy. The twist here is that the bumpkins are from the city rather than the village. They’re in the woods to let their screaming kids run around, cool their beer in the stream, and doze in the shade of the trees.

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The female half of the canoodling couple thinks quickly – she starts crying for help. Sometimes it feels like Czechs would rather step over your stricken body if you fell down with a heart attack than lend a hand, so it’s a smart move: dozens of daytrippers hear the distress call, pack up their families and picnic gear, and beat a hasty retreat to the city…

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

Ask a film critic what the best Czech film is, and they’ll probably tell you Marketa Lazarová. Ask your average Czech in the street, however, and they’ll more likely say My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková). Menzel’s second Academy award-nominated film frequently comes in higher than Vláčil’s wild and capricious epic in public polls, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s another celebration from Menzel of the gentle wiles of country folk, and another ode to the idyllic simplicity of village life. In short, it’s exactly the kind of thing that goes down like a curry to a pisshead with the Czechs.

The story concerns Otík (János Bán), a lanky, mentally disabled young man who works as an assistant lorry driver with his rotund, bumptious neighbour, Karel Pávek (Marián Labuda). Mr Pávek has had Otík under his wing for five years now, supervising his work and helping the boy with simple tasks like eating with a knife and fork. Otík totally idolizes Pávek, neatly shown by how he wants to match the older man’s step as the walk to the truck depot each morning.

My Sweet Little Village DVD

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However, as the end of the season nears, Mr Pávek is growing increasingly frustrated with Otík’s simple-minded blunders. He asks for Otík to get transferred to another driver for the following year, the surly and mean-spirited Mr Turek (Petr Čepek). Otík isn’t happy with this arrangement, and accepts a mysterious transfer to Prague…

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