3 Seasons in Hell (3 Sezony V Pelke) – Tomás Masín, 2009

Hadek in 3 Seasons in He'll

My curriculum was packed with boring subjects when I was at school. Maths was always a chore, chemistry was just soul-crushing, and history was the biggest snooze. For three years we sat in the same brown dusty classroom full of brown dusty books, listening to the teacher drone on. He was a pale gingery man who resembled the Gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and always wore a brown suit that looked like it was tailored from a rest home carpet. We only ever seemed to study World War I and II, without ever finding out any of the larger context surrounding the conflicts.

It was only after I left school and started reading up on things by myself that I came to wonder: how does anyone make a subject like World War II boring? On paper, it’s like the synopsis of the greatest, most exciting war movie ever made. I realized that it wasn’t the subject that was boring, it was the teacher. It’s the way you tell ’em, I suppose.

On paper, 3 Seasons in Hell sounds like pretty suspenseful stuff. Opening in 1947 Czechoslovakia, we follow a young nonconformist poet who falls in with a Bohemian crowd, just as the Communist regime seizes control of the country and starts clamping down on intellectual and subversive activities that don’t suit their agenda. Our arrogant young hero soon finds himself in increasing danger…

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Czechoslovak Film Review: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) – Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965

The Shop on Main Street

“Of all my films, The Shop on Main Street touches me most closely. Elmar Klos and I usually work as equal partners, but in this case he left me a free hand. He knows that I am not thinking of the fate of all the six million tortured Jews, but that my work is shaped by the fate of my father, my friends’ fathers, mothers of those near to me and by people whom I have known. I am not interested in the outer trappings—figures, statements, generalizations. I want to make emotive films…”

– Ján Kadár, New York Herald Tribune, Jan 23 1966

With any major catastrophe resulting in the loss of human life, I often find it difficult to get my head around the numbers. Sometimes incidental details can help visualize the size of the tragedy. For example, after I first watched The Shop on Main Street and was pondering Kadár’s quote above, the official Coronavirus death toll in the UK had just passed 30,000. That’s roughly a capacity crowd at Portman Road in Ipswich, where I was a season ticket holder for ten years. So now I only had to imagine a packed stadium suddenly silenced forever to get to grips with the scale of the public health disaster/scandal in my country.

But six million? A quick Google search tells me that is approximately the entire population of Turkmenistan, which doesn’t really help comprehend the vastness of the Holocaust. And that is the brilliance of The Shop on Main Street – better than anything else I’ve seen on the subject, it narrows the focus down to two individuals and makes us feel personally involved in the horror of their circumstances. The 55-year-old Academy Award winner hit me hard, feeling as fresh and vital as any other film I’ve seen about the Holocaust in recent years.

The Shop on Main Street wears its flawed greatness lightly, starting with a comedic tone and growing darker, building a sense of dread until its harrowing conclusion. And then… well, spoilers ahead: I’ll talk about that ending later…

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Adelheid (1970) – František Vláčil

Petr Cepak in Adelheid

Shot in wintry hues and set against a tumultuous backdrop of the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War II, František Vláčil’s Adelheid is a tragic drama about two shellshocked, fatally star-crossed lovers who find each other amid the psychic fallout from the conflict.

The story opens in 1945. The war may be over but it’s still a dangerous time, with lawlessness and banditry as the liberated country tries to find its feet again. Troubled Lieutenant Viktor Chotovick (Petr Čepek) arrives in a small town after spending the war moving from place to place, longing to return to his home country. He is treated with initial suspicion by Sergeant Hejna (Jan Vostrcil, a familiar face from Miloš Forman’s New Wave stuff, including Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball). Turns out Viktor is in town with a job to do – he’s been assigned to catalogue and manage a large isolated mansion.

The assignment suits Viktor because he’s just trying to get his head together after the war. The mansion was formerly the home of a wealthy Jewish family before it was commandeered by a local Nazi party member, Heidenmann, who has been captured and taken to Olomouc to await execution. What Viktor isn’t told is that the mansion comes with a cleaner and a cook – Heidenmann’s daughter, Adelheid (Emma Černá), who is sent by Hejna to serve Viktor…

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Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice) – Otakar Vávra, 1970

An innocent burnt at the stake in Witchhammer

“A woman’s womb is the gateway to Hell,” whispers a rabidly fanatical monk at the beginning of Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice), while we cut away to watch a group of women bathing nude.

It’s a provocative opening and, although Vávra had the Communist show trials of the 1950s in mind while making the film, it sets out its stall early: the problem is the patriarchy, and sexual repression goes hand-in-hand with political repression, a theme that is as depressingly relevant fifty years later. Or 300-odd years on from the events of the film. Same as it ever was.

The film takes its title from the Malleus Maleficarum, a weighty 15th-century tome that details at length the procedures deemed necessary for dealing with witchcraft, including the methods of torture that were legally permissible for extracting confessions from the accused…

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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.

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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.

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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The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Tajemství hradu v Karpatech) – Oldřich Lipský, 1981

I love old dark house movies, to the point where whenever a discussion comes up with family or friends about the prospect of building a house, I can’t help railroading the conversation into talk of secret passages, secret doors (bookcase or fireplace, I’m not picky), and of course large paintings where I can remove the portrait’s eyes and peek into the room below.

Due to this, Oldřich Lipský’s silly-funny, endlessly inventive spoof Tajemství hradu v Karpatech was a source of absolute delight for me. It’s basically like a Czech version of Murder by Death, a star-studded mystery set in – yes, an old dark house – peppered with jokes so hoary and dumb that they go all the way around the dial to becoming hilarious again. What The Mysterious Castle has over Neil Simon’s groaner-fest and other pastiches of the genre is some genuinely inspired proto-steampunk design work by legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, and a visual style all of its own…

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A Prominent Patient (Masaryk) – Julius Ševčík, 2016

It was a full house at Kino Art for a Friday night screening of Julius Ševčík’s Masaryk (aka A Prominent Patient), and it made uncomfortable viewing. I was about the last one in and had to sit on the front row, one English guy watching a film about how my country sold out Czechoslovakia with a room full of Czechs.

I grew up thinking that we were unconditionally the good guys. In history class, we learnt a little about the Munich Agreement, saw pictures of Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper and his infamous “Peace for our time” speech. Our teacher never really got into the human consequences of it – who cared about Czechoslovakia anyway? He just wanted to get to the fun stuff, and it was just a prologue before Winston Churchill sparked up a big cigar and guided us to our Finest Hour.

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Anthropoid – Sean Ellis, 2016

Every now and then two films come out around the same time covering the same topic – Twilight and Let the Right One InDeep Impact and ArmageddonHitchcock 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.

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I, Olga (Já, Olga Hepnarová) – Petr Kazda & Tomás Weinreb, 2016

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.

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