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…
The nominations for this year’s Academy Awards dropped this week, and the Best Picture category includes no less than two of the most Oscar-baiting of movie genres: the biographical feature. Biopics often tend to be well made and impressively acted, with an air of respectability that makes them very awards-friendly. However, they are also limited by the cinematic medium itself, trying to cram the remarkable events of a complex human being’s life into the time it would take that person to… well, watch a movie.
Robert Sedláček’s Jan Palach makes things a little easier for itself by narrowing the focus to the last year or so of the martyr’s life. After a brief intro set in 1952, where we see Palach as a young child lost in the snowy woods, we fast forward all the way to 1967 where he is now a student (Viktor Zavadil) digging ditches at a work camp in Kazakhstan. The work is hard and the food is basically gruel, but the sun is shining and there are girls to chat up. Here we get some sense of Palach’s strength of character when he sticks up for a Russian pal who gets in trouble with the Communist camp boss for boycotting the food.
After that, it’s back to Prague where Palach spends his time juggling his studies, a rather chaste romance with his girlfriend Helenka (Denisa Barešová) and visiting his widowed mother, a Communist Party member who can’t resist opening her son’s mail if it looks any way official. He gets accepted to Charles University and enjoys being in the presence of lively, politically engaged fellow students. In the background is increasing unrest, culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968.
Palach is enjoying another work-holiday in the vineyards of France when news of the Warsaw Pact troops subduing the rebellion reaches him. He returns home to Prague to find civilians standing up to tanks and guns without any backing from the Czechoslovak authorities, and sometimes paying with their lives.
Palach and his girlfriend are involved when a student protest is brutally put down by the police, and both take a beating for their troubles. Scared and demoralised, the student activists start shying away from further action, leading Palach to devise a shocking solo demonstration of his own…
Around the time U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was fervently whipping up fear of Communism during the Red Scares of the 40s and 50s, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was conducting witch hunts of its own. The purpose of these show trials was twofold – to trick citizens into believing that the country was under threat from real and imagined enemies, and to frighten the populace into staying in line while the regime consolidated its power. Over 250 people were executed as a direct result, while many others were incarcerated or sent to work camps.
In the Shadow is a sombre paranoid thriller set against this backdrop of fear and intimidation, in the run-up to the devaluation of the country’s currency which left many Czechs and Slovaks facing financial hardship.
It might seem churlish to call it a paranoid thriller when the regime really was oppressing, torturing and vanishing people, but I mean it in a positive sense. The film is in the tradition of the classic American paranoid thrillers of the 70s, like The Parallax View, The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor. It also recalls Chinatown with its period setting, noir-ish touches and a larger public scandal running in the background. And, in evoking the Hollywood style, it plays more like a straightforward thriller than a typical low-key Czech movie. With more violence, too.
The film opens on a dark rainy night where we meet with two small-time crooks as they break into an office and rob a stash of gold and jewels from a safe. It seems a fairly straightforward case for Captain Jarda Hakl (Ivan Trojan), the methodical detective assigned to investigate. However, a planted clue leads him to another “suspect” instead, a middle-aged Jewish chap named Kirsch (played with hunted intensity by Miroslav Krobot).
Hakl smells B.S. straight away as Kirsch’s alibi holds up – he was locked up in a drunk tank on the night of the robbery. Nevertheless, the patsy confesses to the crime and State Security agents muscle into the case. To further stoke his suspicions, a German agent called Zenke (Sebastian Koch, who also starred in the similarly-themed The Lives of Others) takes up residence in Hakl’s apartment building and seems to pay more attention to his wife and kid than he does…
One of my favourite folk tales from back home is the Wild Man of Orford, a small coastal village not far from where I grew up. In the 12th Century, a group of local fishermen hauled their nets to discover they’d caught a strange naked man covered in greenish hair. He was taken to the nearby castle for interrogation, but after six months his torturers realised he wasn’t able to speak.
After that they let him exercise in the sea, stringing nets across the harbour so he couldn’t escape. The Wild Man easily swam under them, but each time he returned willingly to the castle. Eventually, he tired of life on the land, slipped under the nets one last time and vanished out to sea.
A similar water-dwelling character from the landlocked Czech Republic is the vodník, or hastrman, a water goblin popular in fairytales and made famous by folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben in his collection of ballads, Kytice. The creature lives in bodies of water and is capable of drowning the unwary if he’s in a bad mood, or providing bumper catches of fish for the locals if kept happy with sacrifices and offerings…
Vit Olmer’s bawdy comedy Tank Battalion (Tankovýprapor) made history as the first privately produced Czech film after the Velvet Revolution. And what did they decide to make a movie about after four decades under an oppressive Communist regime? You’ve guessed it – a movie about life under an oppressive Communist regime…
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Josef Škvorecký, the film is set in 1953. We meet intelligent, demob-happy Staff Sergeant Danny Smiřický (Lukáš Vaculík) who has almost finished his two-year stint in compulsory military service. In between tank manoeuvres and covering his mate’s guard shift in the stockade, there’s little for him to do apart from smoking cigarettes, try to avoid flak from his perpetually enraged commanding officers, and dream about an unobtainable girl he once knew in Prague.
He’s almost made it to the end of his service, but now he risks trouble by getting into an affair with an officer’s lonely wife. Tensions are also growing between the conscripts and the officers, culminating in a dangerous drunken standoff…
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most prolific female murderer of all time was Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman. She is said to have murdered over 600 young women, practising vampirism and bathing in their blood to preserve her own youth and beauty.
Now I don’t know what the verification process is for the Guinness Book of records (it’s been a long time since my own unsuccessful attempt to build the world’s largest pyramid out of empty beer cans) but this seems like an iffy one to me. Many of the testimonies were based on hearsay from superstitious bumpkins or extracted from “witnesses” by torture. The exact kill count is thought to be greatly exaggerated.
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Going to bat for poor old Elizabeth is veteran Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko with Bathory: Countess of Blood, an expensively mounted Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and British co-production. Setting out its stall as a revisionist historical epic, the movie veers wildly between horror, political intrigue and bodice-ripping romance, with some wacky comic touches thrown in for good measure – monks on clockwork rollerskates, for example.
In short, it’s a pretty kooky way to try clearing someone’s name, as Jakubisko attempts to rescue Báthory from the naughty step of history by spinning his own unreliable yarn…
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…
“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…
Shot in wintry hues, Adelheid is a tragic drama about two shellshocked, fatally star-crossed lovers who find each other amid the psychic fallout of World War II. It is the cinematic equivalent of curling up in front of the fire with a really good book.
The story opens in 1945, during the tumultuous expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia. 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…
“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…