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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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”

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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Diamonds of the night (Démanty noci) — Jan Němec, 1964

Based on Arnošt Lustig’s novel Darkness Has No Shadow, Jan Němec’s first full-length feature, Diamonds of the Night, is a visceral experience that shouldn’t be missed. Right from the jump, the film hooks you with an incredible sequence that follows two young boys escaping a train heading towards a concentration camp. The whole scene is shot in one continuous take as the camera closes in to capture the desperation on their faces. By this point, it’s clear that the goal is to put the viewer in the state of mind of these characters as they struggle to survive.

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This is one of those films that focuses more on providing an immersive experience for the viewers, rather than telling a straightforward narrative. And that’s apparent in its presentation. Once the boys make their way into the woods, the film intercuts between their current situation and visions of life before the war. These memories belong to Ladislav Jánsky’s character, whose perspective is the one we follow throughout the film. The scenes are made up of simple moments that seem like distant memories compared to the situation he currently finds himself in. We see images of kids sledging down a hill while laughing, mundane details of people going about their day, and the relationship he shared with his girlfriend. Now, he just wants to survive and return to the life he once knew…

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