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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Jan Palach – Robert Sedláček, 2018

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…

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Cosy Dens (Pelíšky) – Jan Hřebejk, 1999

Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) is an immensely satisfying tragicomedy set in the months preceding the fateful Prague Spring of 1968. It’s a robust family drama featuring some wonderfully poignant comic performances from a formidable cast of Czech and Slovak character actors.

The picture opens in the winter of ’67, and lovelorn teenager Michal  Šebek (Michael Beran) wants to end it all. He is hopelessly in love with his upstairs neighbour Jindřiška (Kristýna Nováková). The trouble is, she is going out with his much cooler mate Elien (Ondřej Brousek), who gets all the latest movies, music and fashion from his parents living in the States.

Pelisky DVD

Buy your copy of Cosy Dens from Amazon HERE

To make matters worse, her father, Mr Kraus (Jiří Kodet) is a rabid anti-communist and war hero and often has flaming rows with Michal’s own father. Mr Šebek (Miroslav Donutil, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday) is a staunch supporter of the Communist government, an army officer so petty and regimented that he types out a weekly menu for his family.

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