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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Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání) – Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, 1963

Sometimes a film just doesn’t grab me at all and then I’m sat looking at a blank document thinking, “I don’t know if I can be bothered to write anything about this”. It is extra frustrating when I can see the film’s qualities, but feel so neutral towards it that I struggle to muster any enthusiasm.

One such film is Juráček & Schmidt’s Joseph Kilian, a paranoid short drama from the Czechoslovak New Wave. Knowing that the review is going to be a battle, I face a dilemma. Do I –

a) Give up on the movie and watch something else, then maybe come back another time when a change of mood or circumstances might make it chime differently.

b) Plough ahead regardless and eke out 700-800 words on it, going through the motions and stating the obvious, like the clear influence of Franz Kafka and blah blah blah.

Or

c) Find a hook, a way to approach the film that will entertain me and, in turn, hopefully make the article more entertaining for the reader. My first instinct with Joseph Kilian is to go with option C, but what is the hook?

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Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci Slasti) – Jan Švankmajer, 1996

When I first watched Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure I didn’t even notice there was no dialogue. It so effectively overwhelms your senses, there isn’t much to be said anyway.

The film follows a group of individuals in Prague, each engrossed in a tedious process of creating the conditions for their erotic desire.

One man begins the process of creating an elaborate chicken costume. Another, engineers a machine with fake hands. A mailwoman uses her saliva to furtively mold bread balls in a stairwell. And that’s just the beginning.

Švankmajer knows that arousal (meaning in simple terms, heightened stimulation) comes from a combination of touch and imagination. When he was blacklisted as a filmmaker during Communist rule in Prague, he wrote a book about it, Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art.

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Švankmajer makes use of both touch and imagination to build context and storytelling around objects and characters without the support of dialogue.

In cinema we can technically only experience two senses, sound and sight. But Švankmajer uses extreme close-ups and heightened sound editing to bring a sense of tactility to objects…

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Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu) – Jan Švankmajer, 1983

Dimensions of Dialogue Eternal Conversation

Reader, I screwed up. It was deadline day for my latest review and I was up against it, having just moved into an old house in the countryside. The place doesn’t have a working kitchen, bathroom or heating system. As I type this, I’m pressed against an oil radiator wearing four layers of clothing and a blanket wrapped around me. In desperation, I reached for a movie to review on Netflix. Only when I got to the end did I realise that it was a Slovak film.

Perhaps the cold has got to my senses. While I don’t speak Czech, I have lived in the country long enough to tell the difference between the Czech language and Slovak. But not on this occasion…

Luckily my good friend and former writing partner sent me a short film some time ago which I’ve been meaning to watch. It is Dimensions of Dialogue by legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. It is only 14 minutes long so you can watch it in your lunchbreak and it will give you far more food for thought than the 90 minutes of romantic comedy dross I sat through earlier…

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Food (Jídlo) – Jan Švankmajer, 1992

Svankmajer's Jidlo (Food)

Introducing Jan Švankmajer (Alice) to anyone always nets you a reputation for being a weirdo. From the word go, Food’s style is absurd and choppy, often very naturalistic, and more than a little risqué. But I think it’s well worth anyone’s time – so please indulge this weirdo as I talk about Švankmajer’s 1992 film Food and why it’s a lesser-known gem of Czech cinema.

Food contains three shorts films – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – that are thematically connected. They all contain some sort of food consumption (surprisingly) but there is often a twist that turns the simple daily rituals to downright bizarre affairs. In sixteen minutes, Food shows people who turn into machines, hungry diners devouring their clothes, and various kinds of gourmands digging into their own body-parts. So yeah, there’s a lot going on…

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A Case for a Rookie Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata)  –  Pavel Juráček, 1970

Starting off as a screenwriter for some of the most notable films in the Czech New Wave, Pavel Jurácek (Daisies) eventually transitioned into the role of director and went on to contribute to the movement by directing his own films. His last film, Case for a Rookie Hangman, was a surreal experience, to say the least.

From the start of the film, it’s no secret that Jurácek was inspired by the works of Jonathan Swift, specifically Gulliver’s Travels. He even apologizes beforehand in the film’s opening credits: “If Swift should turn in his grave on account of this film, I beg his compatriots for forgiveness.” This interpretation of the novel finds Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) in a strange place with bizarre customs that satirize life in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime.

Case for a Rookie Hangman Blu Ray

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Jurácek also channels the works of Franz Kafka and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is evident in the surreal nature of the film. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Mr Gulliver loses control of his car and ends up running over a hare dressed in tiny clothes, and even finds that it had a watch in its pocket. After this bizarre incident, he finds a house that resembles the one from his childhood. But once he’s inside, he’s bombarded with memories of his youth: a girl he once loved who drowned, an old friend who also died, a woman who had a part in his sexual awakening, and many more images from his past…

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Alice (Něco z Alenky) – Jan Švankmajer, 1988

Alice 1

Once upon a time, I was so little that I could stand on the back of my nan’s sofa and survey the kingdom all around me. That summit seemed very high, and I was still small enough for her living room to be divided into several distinct regions. In the hazy distance opposite me (and it was hazy because my nan was a sixty-a-day woman) was the cliff edge of the mantlepiece. There lived regal ladies and gentlemen dressed in the fashions of the French court, and each of them bore the scars of terrible tumbles into the precipice below. My nan was not a fussy person, and each time one of them got knocked off and broken on the hearth, she would carelessly stick them back together with her trusty tube of Uhu. The figurines looked like Frankenstein creations, with arms, legs and heads reattached with bobbly contusions of sinister yellow glue.

Alice Blu Ray

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Away to the far left, through the chasm between a sagging armchair and my nan’s monolithic rented telly, was a little-visited glade beneath the large bay window, where a wooden table contained the remnants of a long-defunct record player. On the far right of the room was my nan’s armchair, where she smoked, watched TV, read Mills and Boon paperbacks and idled away the hours doing word search puzzles. Between her armchair and the mantlepiece was a dark cabinet where she kept her most prized ornaments, glassware and keepsakes. Then, far below me, was the plateau of her coffee table. I was so tiny that I could make a den of it by propping mail-order catalogues against the shelf underneath and crawling inside.

The interior of a house is as big or as small as a child’s imagination needs it to be. A coffee table can be a tiny piece of driftwood afloat in the sea, all that’s protecting them from circling sharks. Or it can be a vast battlefield for their toys to wage war against each other. A wardrobe can be a deep cave to hide in and a tall mountain to conquer…

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The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol) – Juraj Herz, 1969

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Everyone loves a great movie monster, and it’s a tragedy that Rudolf Hrušínský’s incredible performance as Karel Kopfrkingl in The Cremator hasn’t gained the same kind of international notoriety. He’s just as enjoyably chilling, and, with the film coming from a far darker place than the others, has more important things to say to today’s society.

On the surface, Kopfrkingl is the model professional and devoted family man, married to Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová) who he met in front of the leopard’s cage at the zoo. They have two children, Zina and Mili, both in their teens. He runs a crematorium and devotes his life to discreetly releasing human souls from their deceased bodies by incinerating them in his furnaces. He’s obsessed with the process of cremation and fuses his interpretations of Buddhism (learned from his lovely book on Tibet) with his own views on death and reincarnation. Outwardly he tries to project himself as a man of good taste and scruples, although dark lusts lurk beneath his prissy manner and sanctimonious smile…

Cremator Blu Ray

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The film is set during the 1930s, and one of Kopfrkingl’s old army chums, Mr Reinke (Ilja Prachař), is an engineer with ties to the Nazi party who encourages him to recognize the theoretical drop of German blood flowing in his veins. Initially, Kopfrkingl rejects the idea, maintaining that they’re a good Czech family and only speak Czech at home. But as the threat of German invasion looms over the country, we see that Kopfrkingl is an endlessly malleable hypocrite who is easily swayed into informing on his Jewish friends and colleagues. He readily adjusts his beliefs to suit the prevailing wind, especially when there’s some perceived benefit for him involved. As it turns out, the Nazis have a special project in mind for someone in his particular niche, and he’s ready to embrace his calling. And then some…

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Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) – Jaromil Jireš, 1970

Rapturously beautiful, disturbingly erotic, and strangely frightening, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an intoxicating blend from director Jaromil Jireš, a key figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave. It’s a surrealist horror where reality and identity are fluid, yet the film has its own dreamlike logic where it all makes a kind of sense while you’re watching it. Then, like so many dreams, the more you try to remember on waking, the more it slips from your grasp…

That was my first experience of the film. I’ve wanted to write about it for a year now because when I saw it on a crappy Youtube copy, I realized that I’d just watched something very special. I just couldn’t quite define what I’d watched. It probably didn’t help that I forgot a key detail – that our young protagonist, Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), is encountering her first period.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders Blu Ray

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It occurs early on, and provides one of the iconic images of the film – a droplet of bright fresh blood on the head of a daisy – but the moment was lost to me almost immediately in the subsequent whirl of ravishing imagery, potent symbolism, ethereal beauty and earthy sensuality. Luboš Fišer’s score is also transportive, whisking you away to another time and place…

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Daisies (Sedmikrásky) – Věra Chytilová, 1966

Surrealist and Avant-Garde films aren’t always the most popular choice for the average moviegoer. Until Leos Carax’s demented Holy Motors generated some outside-bet Oscar buzz a few years ago, I’d rather watch a compilation tape of hairy builders receiving a back, sack and crack before dabbling with the avant-garde.

My perspective has changed slightly since then, largely on the basis of Denis Lavant’s incredible (literally) balls-out multiple performances in that movie, and two of my favourite films of the past few years are of the avant-garde variety – Dziga Vertov’s hypnotic portrait of a city in Man with a Movie Camera, and Věra Chytilová’s playful yet provocative Daisies.

Daisies Blu Ray

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A cornerstone of the Czech New Wave, Daisies tells of two young women, known as Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová), who declare that they are broken and in that case, they might as well be bad…

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