The Good Soldier Švejk (Dobrý voják Švejk) – Karel Steklý, 1956

I once knew an indestructible drunk who had a natural talent for causing mischief, then watching the mayhem unfold with a look of cherubic innocence on his face. I shared a grotty Barrandov flat with him for a while. The place was pretty dismal so we spent most of our waking hours in the pub, where I often ended up scrambling to unravel his mess while he sat there with his eyes spinning in opposite directions, chuckling to himself.

It was around this time that I first tried reading The Good Soldier Švejk. There was a remarkable facial similarity between my chaotic flatmate and the novel’s author, Jaroslav Hašek, himself a noted pub denizen, who in turn looked a little like the bottle-nosed character in Josef Lada’s famous illustrations from the book. Over time I conflated the three, so now years later I feel like I once lived with the good soldier himself.

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It has taken me almost one hundred posts on Czech Film Review to pluck up the courage to write something about Karel Steklý’s 1956 adaptation, perhaps the most well-known film version of the novel. It’s a daunting task – Švejk is a cultural icon in his home country and one of the most successful Czech exports, with Hašek’s novel translated into over 50 languages. There are dozens -if not hundreds – of beer halls and restaurants across the country bearing his name, and his image is common from the gift shops of Prague to the farmer’s pub in the small Moravian village where I recently moved. The word “Švejk” has also become a catch-all for willfully incompetent, subversive behaviour, commonly linked with the type of passive resistance that the Czechs have relied on to endure the numerous wars and foreign occupations of the last few centuries…

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Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Tenkrát v ráji) – Lordan Zafranović, Peter Pálka & Dan Krzywoň

World War II has provided inspiration for movies for over 80 years now, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of incredible tales. Sometimes I wonder, though, when I see a film as weak as Once Upon a Time in Paradise, whether the well is drying up and people are starting to run out of ideas.

That may seem unfair on the source material, Josef Urban’s novel and the true story that inspired it. It sounds like rousing stuff on paper – a talented rock climber hides from the Nazis in the wilderness, evading capture for years – and maybe that is where it should have stayed. It was a similar situation with the Laurent Binet’s page-turner HHhH – an intensely gripping read that spawned two insipid film versions. Maybe not every book needs a movie adaptation.

After a Saving Private Ryan-style bookend we meet Josef Smítka (Vavřinec Hradilek, an Olympic medal-winning canoeist in his first film role) hiking in the Tatras with his best friend Heinrich (Petr Smíd). They are on their way to tackle the Gerlach Peak, the highest mountain in the range. Along the way, they spot a beautiful young woman swimming naked in an alpine lake.

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The woman turns out to be Vlasta Brázdová (Vica Kerekes), a well-known writer and accomplished climber who is married to a much older man, the possessive painter Ota (Miroslav Etzler). Josef – or Joska to his friends – is instantly smitten. When the two friends run into trouble on the mountainside, it is Vlasta who abseils to rescue them…

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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.

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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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Zelary (Želary) – Ondřej Trojan, 2003

As sturdy and dependable as its rugged leading man, György Cserhalmi, Želary is a classy wartime romantic drama that scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. While the story suffers from over-familiarity, it earns its emotional payoff thanks to strong performances by an excellent cast and thoughtful direction by Ondřej Trojan.

The film opens in 1940s Nazi-occupied Prague as dapper surgeon Richard (Trojan) and his nurse/lover Eliška (Anna Geislerová) respond to an emergency call to save a seriously injured man. The patient requires an urgent transfusion and Eliška unquestioningly gives the much-needed blood.

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Richard and Eliška are also part of the resistance, and when her attempt to run a message to a contact falls foul of the Gestapo, the whole network is suddenly in mortal danger. Richard hastily emigrates, leaving Eliška with forged papers, and a friend tells her that if she wants to escape detection she must assume a new identity and leave the city in the company of Joza (Cserhalmi), the man whose life she helped save…

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Barefoot (Po strništi bos) – Jan Svěrák, 2017

Barefoot 2017 Sverak

Prequels are, by and large, one of the most pointless things in cinema. By their very nature they lack much dramatic thrust, as we already know where the story will end up. Over the past few decades, prequels have also become synonymous with major studios cashing in on profitable intellectual properties, often ruining the mystique of the original film or films. The very word “prequel” is capable of setting a certain type of Star Wars fan into a fit of rage…

In a very modest field, Barefoot (Po strništi bos) stands out as one of the better prequels available for your delectation. At first it seems like a slender prospect, arriving a full 26 years after Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák’s Oscar-nominated crowdpleaser, The Elementary School (Obecná škola). Delightful though that movie was, it favoured nostalgic, anecdotal comedy and doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for prequel treatment.

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However, if you ever wondered what the kid in The Elementary School got up to during the death throes of World War II – that is, literally a year or two before the events of the original movie – then Barefoot will answer all your burning questions…

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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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Czechoslovak Film Review: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) – Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965

The Shop on Main Street

“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.

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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…

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Adelheid (1970) – František Vláčil

Petr Cepak in Adelheid

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.

Adelheid DVD

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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…

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Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) – Jan Svěrák, 2001

Much like Michael Bay’s mega-budget travesty Pearl Harbor from the same year, Jan Svěrák’s Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) squanders a fascinating true story in order to indulge in a tepid love triangle. The sad thing is, while all of Pearl Harbor is awful, it’s only the romantic element of Dark Blue World that brings it into disrepute, tainting an otherwise rousing tale.

The film opens in 1950 with our main protagonist, Franta Sláma (Ondřej Vetchý) banged up in a gloomy prison, having been incarcerated by the communists for his time serving in the RAF during World War II. We then flashback to before the war and happier times with his girlfriend before the Germans marched in.

Dark Blue World DVD

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With the Czechoslovak Army disbanded, Franta and a group of other fliers, including his young hotheaded protégé Karel Vojtíšek (Kryštof Hádek) escape to England to join the RAF. Once there the pilots are sidelined initially, taking part in pointless exercises, learning English, and gazing enviously at the dogfights going on in the skies above them. As the Battle of Britain intensifies the RAF is in constant need of more pilots, so our boys soon get their chance. After a few teething problems they’re soon gunning down German planes with glee, getting a little revenge for all the folks back home…

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Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) – Jan Hřebejk, 2000

Would you have the courage to hide someone from the Nazis during World War II? It’s a question that I’ve often asked myself, because the Holocaust still feels very present here in central Europe. Just down the road from my apartment, in the park on Náměstí 28. října, there is a memorial fountain dedicated to the Jewish and Romani victims from the city. In the summer, Roma children will play in the fountain, bringing that dedication into sharp focus across the decades. I’ve also been to Auschwitz, and I’ve spent some time in Bosnia, talking to people who survived another genocide.

So I’ve asked myself the question, and ten years ago my answer would’ve definitely been yes, I’d hide them. Now though, the answer is more troubling – now I have a family of my own, I’m not sure I would be brave enough to risk my children’s lives to harbour someone else.

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This moral question is the central premise of Divided We Fall, Jan Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated black comedy. Bolek Polívka and Anna Šišková play Josef and Marie, a childless couple who are forced into that life or death dilemma when David (Csongor Kassai), Josef’s former friend and boss, escapes a concentration camp in Poland and makes his way back home…

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