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.

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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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Bikers (Bajkeři) – Martin Kopp, 2017

I have a confession to make. Lately, I have become addicted to lame Czech raunchy comedies. There are dozens on Netflix right now and I have the strange urge to crack through every single one of them, even though I know they will be mostly terrible. I don’t know why this craving has emerged, but I’m currently taking heavy doses of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer to help overcome this nasty affliction…

Next up is Bikers from Martin Kopp (3Grapes), a film that owes a vague debt to movies like American Pie and Euro Trip. As far as modern Czech comedies go, it isn’t anywhere near as bad as Spindl, a film so dispiriting that it might make you take a vow of celibacy and go live on top of a mountain somewhere, well away from other members of the human race.

We first meet Patrik (Tomás Matonoha), an energetic divorcee exasperated by his teenage son David (Jan Komínek) who would rather sit around in a darkened room playing fantasy RPGs instead of wanking himself silly to all the free porn online. In an attempt to cure the boy, he coerces his attractive younger girlfriend Tereza (Hana Vagnerová) to take David on a 200km bike ride to get some air in his lungs and maybe talk to real girls in real-world scenarios. Tereza, a mountain bike enthusiast who dreams of pulling off gnarly stunts like the kids at the local cycle track, reluctantly agrees.

Also along for the ride is David’s hated stepbrother Jachym (Adam Mišík), another pale-faced shut-in who lives with David’s relentless psychiatrist mother and her timid new husband, who is terrified of her. Not exactly relishing the prospect of hanging out with his step-sibling, Jachym asks his best friend Saša along (Vojtěch Machuta), who supports his family by posing as a gay fashion guru on Youtube.

Once agreed on the trip, they head off to South Bohemia for a long cycle ride across the typically gorgeous Czech landscape. Not that the boys notice, however – they are too busy trying to get a wifi signal, and neither the glorious Bohemian nature nor the sight of Tereza’s backside in tight cycling shorts is enough to rouse attention from their mobile phones…

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Shotgun Justice, aka The Lady Terrorist (Teroristka) – Radek Bajgar, 2019

A movie about a 70-year-old woman who goes all Charles Bronson on a bunch of thugs? Half the fun of writing it must have been thinking up a title. Granny Get Your Gun immediately springs to mind, or, given the spaghetti western motifs in Jiří Hájek’s score, how about A Fistful of Werther’s? No, wait! A Mouthful of Dentures? Or, considering what must have been the film’s main influence, we could just go with Gran Torino

Whatever, Radek Bajgar seems to have missed a trick on the title, ending up with the far more generic Teroristka, or The Lady Terrorist, or Shotgun Justice, as it is also known in English. Then again, there is more to this comedy than an old woman waving firearms around. As with his earlier thoughtful dramedy Tiger Theory, the director creates another terrific character for a senior actor. This time the beneficiary is Iva Janžurová, screen veteran of the demented Morgiana (where she played a dual role) and comedy classic Maracek, Pass Me the Pen!

Here she plays Marie, a kindly former teacher who lives in a cosy riverside settlement that is popular with retirees and weekenders from the city. She helps look after her ailing friend Eva (Eva Holubová), whose dying wish is to spend her remaining time on earth in her beloved holiday cottage by the water. However, her peace is shattered by the rowdy local bar pumping out music until the early hours of the morning.

Marie appeals to the mayor, Helena (Tatiana Vilhelmová), to uphold the bylaws and enforce quiet time overnight so Eva can get some rest. Unfortunately, Helena is having an affair with Mr Mach (Martin Hoffman), a slimebag businessman from the big city who, thanks to his power over the mayor, lords it over the settlement and its residents like a mobster.

Mach is a thoroughly despicable character. He treats the locals with utter contempt and has the megalomaniac scheme of creating a new sport called “Moto-biathlon” with the gang of roughneck hunters and bikers who hang out at the bar, thereby creating his own militia of armed hicks on motorcycles. Things escalate when Lenka (Kristína Svarinská), a single mother living next to Eva, sabotages a meeting of the two-wheeled thugs with a spray can of very strong glue.

As the situation worsens (spoiler alert: the dog doesn’t make it in this one), Mach blackmails Lenka and plans to buy out the land from under the community. In response, an increasingly desperate Marie takes things into her own hands. She visits her shady former student Trpělka (Pavel Liška) to buy a gun…

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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”

Men in Hope (Muži v naději) – Jiří Vejdělek, 2011

As Ronan Keating, that perennial purveyor of pop pap, once sang: “Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it” – that’s the happy-go-lucky ethos of Men in Hope‘s Rudolf (Bolek Polívka), an ageing lothario and Prague cabbie with 138 extra-marital affairs under his belt. He even had a very movie-land former career as an international rollercoaster designer, providing him ample opportunity to cheat on his wife, and gives us a handy metaphor for his attitude towards relationships. As a man who spent his life building fairground thrill rides, he knows all about the twists, turns, ups, downs and loop-the-loops that only an adulterous lifestyle can offer.

Rudolf reasons that a well-timed affair can save a relationship. He prides himself on never getting caught in over 35 years of marriage to his wife, Marta (Simona Stašová), and she benefits too. Having a series of flings with much younger women gives him a little extra energy when it’s time to perform his husbandly duties at home.

This philosophy is met with mild disapproval by Ondřej (Jiří Macháček), Rudolf’s downcast, browbeaten son-in-law, a former accountant who runs a failing restaurant with his frosty wife Alice (Petra Hřebíčková). Their marriage is stuck in a loveless rut, but Alice wants another baby and times their intimate moments accordingly. This puts pressure on Ondřej to come up with the goods as he worries about his fertility.

Things change when Ondřej meets Rudolf’s latest date, Šarlota (Vica Kerekes), a curvy red-headed bombshell who has been doing community service as penitence for dancing naked in a fountain. She has a special way of putting a smile on a guy’s face, and despite his misgivings, Ondřej can’t help but brighten up in her presence.

Before we know it, Šarlota tracks Ondřej down to his customer-free restaurant and starts an affair with him. Cheating on his wife peps Ondra up – he suddenly starts taking pride in his business, showing a little flair in the kitchen, as well as finding a bit more va-va-voom in the bedroom. Rudolf’s philosophy seems to be paying dividends when a sudden tragic event changes his point of view…

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Insect (Hmyz) – Jan Švankmajer, 2018

Once on a family holiday, we were walking around the side streets of a small Welsh town when we stumbled upon an old bric-a-brac shop that was closed for many years. Among the dusty collection of forlorn objects in the window display sat a vintage doll with braided hair, a straw hat, and a yellowed cotton dress. Her cheeks were webbed with tiny cracks and one of her eyes was missing. With her remaining eye, she gazed out across the universe like a martyr in a medieval painting. A huge dead spider lay curled up in her lap.

That image really troubled my childhood imagination, filled me with a terrible sense of nausea. It is the same feeling I got years later when I first saw Jan Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His use of musty found objects in his animation, including dolls like the one sitting in that shop window years ago, disturbs me to this day.

Strangely I consider this a good thing, and with this in mind, I thought I’d check out Švankmajer’s final film, Insects. The blurb states that it is based on the play Pictures from the Insects’ Life by Karel and Josef Čapek, although that is a little misleading. The film finds Švankmajer in a playful mood, seemingly determined to do everything apart from shoot a straightforward adaptation of the satirical work.

After a cold open where we see a middle-aged man dressed in bug wings and goggles hurrying along the street, Švankmajer appears before the camera himself to provide a foreword for his new feature. The brothers Čapek wrote the play in 1924 while Hitler was sitting in a pub scheming his terrible schemes and Lenin was building his first gulags. Meanwhile, the Czechs and Slovaks were enjoying their newly founded republic, and people found the Čapek’s play a bit too pessimistic for the times. It was sheer youthful misanthropy, he tells us, and only gained greater relevance as the momentous events of the 20th century unfolded. 

All very interesting, you might think, and this foreword certainly whetted my appetite for the adaptation that was to follow. However, that is when Švankmajer goes deliberately off-script, flunking his lines and warning us of the chaos to follow…

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Spindl (Špindl) – Milan Cieslar, 2017

I’ve reviewed quite a few older classics recently, so this week I decided to play Random Czech Movie Roulette with some of the newer content on Netflix. I landed on Milan Cieslar’s “romantic comedy” Špindl

Oh dear.

Well, I said from the beginning that my blog would cover all Czech movies, including the bad ones, so here goes…

Anna Polívková stars as Katka, a sad sack singleton in her mid-thirties (something of a recurring role for her) who hates her job and dreams of one day finding Mr Right. I feel a bit sorry for Polívková. Firstly, she is following in the footsteps of her father, Bolek Polívka, one of the greatest living Czech actors. Secondly, she keeps finding herself in lame sex comedies like Špindl and Holiday Makers, or playing second banana to her illustrious dad in terrible sequels like The Inheritance 2. I’m still getting over the scene in Holiday Makers where she lets a 13-year-old boy grope her breasts to help “cure” him of his suspected homosexuality.

Anyway, Katka is down in the dumps and sharing her woes with her two sisters – worldly, tattooed artist Magda (Anita Krausová) and happy-go-lucky model Eliška (Kateřina Klausová). Eliška has a surprise to cheer her up. She has paid for three all-inclusive tickets to the mountain resort of Špindlerův Mlýn for a week of skiing, boozing and picking up guys. Who knows? Maybe one of them could be the Mr Right Katka is hoping for…

Also on his way to the mountains is Tonda (David Gránský), a young musician joining the resort’s resident band headed by Mrkvička, a slovenly middle-aged rocker played by Jakub Kohák, the Czech Republic’s hairiest living celebrity. Tonda hopes that the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle will improve his chances with the ladies, and his new bandmates are all too happy to help out.

On arrival in the resort, the girls meet Lukáš (Roman Blumaier), supposedly the hotel owner whose welcoming spiel announces “Americans have Las Vegas; Czechs have Špindl” – promising a week of fun and frolics that they won’t need to take home with them unless they really want to. Straight away, things take a turn for the worst. The swanky ski lodge Eliška reserved has double-booked, so they have to stay at the shabby Three Mountains hotel nearby instead.


It’s a creaky old place with peeling wallpaper, paper-thin walls and nudie photos on the shared bathroom wall. Despite the setback, they decide to make a go of it and find that they must share the lodgings with the cheerfully inappropriate older couple in the next room and Tonda’s raucous band.


The next hour creeps by with a mixture of pitiful slapstick (Katka has about 700 skiing accidents), awkward gross-out humour (Eliška walks in on an old man masturbating to some vintage porn) and cringe-inducing sexual liaisons (Katka’s ill-advised date with slimy Lukáš had me watching through my fingers like it was a horror movie).

It’s all so painfully weak. It makes the unholy trinity of Michal Viewegh adaptations – Holiday Makers, From Subway with Love, and Angels of Everyday – seem like comedy classics in comparison. At least those movies had a little energy and were strangely entertaining despite their crass sexual politics. Špindl starts weak, with Polívková’s half-hearted Bridget Jones-style voice-over and Chinaski’s weak pop-rock tunes on the soundtrack, and gets progressively weaker as it goes along.

To make matters worse, it is also one of those films that thinks it’s clever by making copious references to much better movies. It has the unfortunate effect of making you wish you were watching those movies instead. Marek Vašut pops up for a scene to quote his sleazy role in From Subway with Love. The cutesy earworm “Sladké mámení” from the snowbound family classic I Enjoy the World with You gets two renditions in the space of five minutes. Later, we get a bizarre Jurassic Park reference when Tonda is chased through a hotel kitchen by a sexually frustrated older woman.

More depressing still is the film’s attitude towards sexual relationships. Like those Viewegh movies, neither sex comes off well. Špindl depicts blokes as scoundrels and cheats who are only after one thing, modern cavemen who can’t make it through five minutes without crudely hitting on a member of the opposite sex. The women are always desperate singles whose brains can’t function properly without a man’s attention, and are willing to sink to their level in the dwindling hope of finding “Mr Right”. When Mr Right finally shows up for Katka, the romantic element comes as an afterthought, in the mid-credit scenes, just before a short skit where a man sprinkles his crab-infested pubes on another guy’s head (spoiler alert). It’s all so tawdry and cynical. 

The film’s saving grace is the three performances by Polívková, Krausová and Klausová, who gamely struggle with the unfunny material and somehow emerge with a little dignity intact. Polívková seems like she could be good with a decent script, but so far, I’ve only seen her in terrible movies. I can’t figure out whether she is a genuinely sympathetic screen presence or a screen presence in need of genuine sympathy.

I usually avoid saying people shouldn’t watch a movie because everyone should make up their own minds. Yet Špindl is a romantic comedy so totally lacking both romance and laughs, leaving you with a big empty nihilistic void of a movie. So I’ll conclude by saying this: watch it if you want, but it might put you off sex, skiing and human interactions for a few months at least.

***

Špindl is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.

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…

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Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české) – Jiří Trnka, 1953

After a lean and troubled wartime era, Walt Disney started the 50s with a trio of the studio’s most beloved films – Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. This was the Silver Age of Disney, and it lasted until Uncle Walt passed away during the production of The Jungle Book in 1966.

Around the same time across the Iron Curtain, Jiří Trnka, a Czech film maker referred to as the “Walt Disney of the East” was creating a stunning series of hand-crafted animated features. After an early career illustrating children’s books and learning puppetry, he made his own animated shorts at the end of WWII. His first film with stop motion puppet animation was The Czech Year (Špalíček), which detailed the rites and customs of a small Czech village. It was well-received internationally, picking up prizes in Paris and Venice.

After two more features, The Emperor’s Nightingale and Prince Bayaya, his next major work was Old Czech Legends, based on Alois Jirásek’s novel. Divided into seven parts, it takes us way back to the mythological foundation of the Czech nation. It opens with a dramatic note of despair as a tribe is mourning the death of their kind and noble leader, Forefather Čech. In a flashback, we see how they came to the Vltava after a long and arduous journey and rested near Říp mountain. Čech scaled the mountain alone and saw the bounteous and beautiful land all around him, and declared that this was the place for his people. In gratitude, they insist on naming the country after him…

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