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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Forbidden Dreams (Smrt krásných srnců) – Karel Kachyna, 1987

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director Karel Kachyna (The Ear) gets his metaphors in early in Forbidden Dreams, otherwise known by its more evocative Czech title, Smrt krásných srnců (The Death of Beautiful Deer). Mr Popper (Karel Heřmánek), a Jewish vacuum cleaner salesman who can’t stop hopping into bed with his female customers, is out fishing in the countryside with his two eldest sons. Through his binoculars, he spots a herd of deer and he is struck by their beauty – but also spies danger threatening in the form of a hunting dog bearing down on the innocent creatures. 

The dog belongs to their grumpy uncle Karel (Rudolf Hrušínský), who loves getting his teeth into some freshly savaged venison. Mr Popper regards killing a deer as almost as bad as killing a human. Popper has no qualms about catching and eating fish, however, and his passion for carp is intertwined with his fortunes throughout the film.

The setting is pre-war Czechoslovakia, and Mr Popper is introduced as a resourceful chancer with a taste for the good life, although those tastes often run him into trouble. He is skint and the family is in debt to the butcher, grocer and the pub, but Popper thinks the latest Electrolux model he receives from Head Office in Prague will pretty much sell itself.

Buy your copy of Forbidden Dreams from Amazon HERE

Plying his trade in the villages, however, he finds that the locals aren’t too impressed with his new-fangled device. His luck changes when he rescues a drowning man with the help of the cable from one of his vacuum cleaners. The man turns out to be a rich benefactor, who buys a few units out of gratitude and throws a party so Popper can sell some more hoovers to his wealthy friends.

Suddenly flush, Popper starts splashing money around, treating the family and sending his sons for boxing lessons with a former champ. Life is good. Now bursting with confidence, Popper cooks up a variety of lucrative schemes to keep the cash rolling in.

Dark days lay ahead, though, as Czechoslovakia falls to the Nazis. Jewish salesmen aren’t in much demand in the protectorate and Popper suddenly finds himself out of work. He retreats to the countryside to sit out the war and live off his carp pond, but is soon driven to destitution by the new regime and must find ever-more risky ways to provide for his family…

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The Ear (Ucho) — Karel Kachyňa, 1970/1989

 

Like many films that were considered problematic by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia at their time of release, Karel Kachyňa’s The Ear was banned until 1989. Unlike the surreal elements found in Case for a Rookie Hangman, this film takes a more grounded approach to explore the fears and anxieties experienced by the country’s inhabitants. The film centres around a married couple trying to get through a night of desperation after they suspect their home might be under surveillance by the government.

The film begins with the couple coming home from an evening at an official dinner party. The husband, Ludvík (Radoslav Brzobohatý), is a reserved government official, and his wife, Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová), is an outspoken alcoholic. From their first interactions, we can already get a general idea of their relationship. You get the sense that they’ve been at odds for a while now, seeing as how they constantly bicker and throw verbal jabs at each other every chance they get. 

The Ear Blu Ray

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Once they arrive at the entrance, they notice that they’ve misplaced the keys to the gate and find other means of getting inside, only to realize that the doors had been open and there’s been a power outage. Ludvík also notices some strange men lurking around the garden and a car parked on the other side of the street. This causes him to become more paranoid at the thought that he might be targeted by the government…

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