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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Ecstasy (Extase) – Gustav Machatý, 1933

Hedy Lamarr in Extase

Hedwig Eva Maria Kesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr, led a life as eventful as any of the characters she played on screen. Shortly before World War II, she ran away from her native Vienna to escape from her possessive husband, a rich arms dealer with ties to Mussolini and Hitler. Once in London, she met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who signed her up and promoted her as “the world’s most beautiful woman”.

Mayer persuaded her to change her name to Lamarr, putting a little distance between her controversial breakthrough role in Ecstasy, and she went on to have a successful career in Hollywood. During the war, she got together with her composer friend George Antheil to invent a frequency-hopping signal to prevent Allied torpedos from being tracked or jammed. In her later years, she opened a ski resort, got nicked for shoplifting, and gradually became a recluse. She also married and divorced six times before spending the last thirty-five years of her life single.

I heard about Ecstasy ages ago because of its two controversial scenes: one where our protagonist does a bit of skinny dipping, and another where she reaches an orgasm with her lover. I approached it with some caution because I sometimes struggle with pre-war movies, often finding them too dated and the cinematography too static and boxy. I was concerned that Ecstasy would be a chore, but luckily there was nothing to worry about…

The story is so slight that you could fit it on the back of a monogrammed handkerchief. We open with a happily married couple – Emil (Zvonimir Rogoz), a wealthy older man, and his luminous young bride Eva (Lamarr/Keisler), about to step across the threshold on their wedding night. We can see there are problems right away – Emil is drunk and can barely carry her into the apartment. While she eagerly awaits to consummate their marriage, he falls asleep in the bathroom.

In the following days, Emil is content to ignore his young wife, preferring to read his newspaper. She becomes increasingly dismayed by his distance and starts to feel lonely in their marriage. Quickly realising that they are not suited to each other, she files for divorce and returns to live with her father on the ranch.

One morning she awakes and decides to go for a horse ride and stops by a lake for a swim. Her horse runs away with her clothing, leaving her chasing behind naked. The horse attracts the attention of a hunky engineer called Adam (Aribert Mog). He is struck by the sight of the beautiful young woman hiding her modesty in the bushes before eventually giving her clothes back.

Adam and Eva in Extase

She doesn’t like him at first but can’t sleep for thinking of him. She returns to his hut and they make love. She finds fulfilment with Adam, but little does she know that a chance encounter between her new lover and Emil will lead to tragedy…

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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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Morgiana – Juraj Herz, 1972

A woman clad in black, starkly contrasted against the sun-bleached seashore, skulks like a cat between the rocks after disposing of a vial of poison. She spots her servant girls below, laughing and swimming naked in the sea. Jealous of their youth and vivacity, she picks up a rock and hurls it at the back of one of their heads, crippling a girl for life…

A few years after Juraj Herz gave us one of the great movie villains in The Cremator, this act of sheer malice is just a tea break in the murderous schemes of another memorable antagonist in Morgiana. A monstrously melodramatic adaptation of Alexander Grin’s novel Jessie and Morgiana, it is the tale of two diametrically opposed sisters. Klara Trangan, dressed all in white, is simple, naive, and kindhearted – annoyingly so – while her gloomy, covetous sister Vitoria lurks around like a grudging shadow. Both are played by Iva Janžurová, and the illusion is pulled off so well through acting, costume, make-up and camera tricks that it took me half the movie to realise it was the same actor.

Things kick off after the Trangan sisters’ father dies, and his wealth and estate are divided between them in his will. They are both very well provided for, but there is little doubt that Klara got the sweetest inheritance, receiving a sprawling villa and its grounds overlooking the sea, while Viktoria gets some land and a haunted hunting lodge. To further inflame Viktoria’s grievances, Klara also attracts the attention of two handsome suitors – the grave lawyer in charge of their father’s will, Glenar (Petr Čepek) and gallant military man Marek (Josef Abrhám).

Viktoria retreats to her hunting lodge to sulk with her cat, Morgiana, where she hatches a plot to kill her sister with a slow-acting poison that is impossible to trace. So slow-acting, in fact, that she doubts whether it is working at all until Klara starts experiencing hallucinations and a unslakeable thirst. By which time she has also tried it out on a servant woman’s dog to make sure she wasn’t sold a lemon.

Rumours of Klara’s maladies reach Otylie (Nina Divíšková), the purveyor of the poison, who then shows up wearing a very big hat to blackmail Viktoria. Unfortunately for her, she underestimates how murderously batshit crazy the wannabe poisoner is…

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Honeymoon (Líbánky) – Jan Hřebejk, 2013

Can someone’s dark secrets ever stay truly buried? That’s the question at the heart of Honeymoon, a dark psychological thriller where director Jan Hřebejk seems to takes a few cues from Lars von Trier in studied, beautifully-acted, elegantly-shot misanthropy.

Much like Trier’s Melancholia from a few years earlier, Honeymoon centres around a wedding party and a bride with her own past psychological issues. Then, much like the former film’s titular planet that ruins festivities by colliding with Earth, a wedding crasher who knows too many inconvenient secrets threatens to destroy the marriage before the ink is dry on the certificate.

We meet Tereza (Anna Geislerová) and Radim (Stanislav Majer), an attractive couple on their big day, taking their vows in a picturesque church before heading out to a sprawling country house for the reception. Before entering the church, Dominik (Matěj Zikán), Radim’s son from a previous marriage, has a mishap with his glasses. Radim takes the boy to the optician across the road to get them fixed. The man behind the counter (Jiří Černý) seems to recognise the groom, but Radim doesn’t appear to notice…

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Waiter, Scarper! (Vrchní, prchni!) – Ladislav Smoljak, 1981

According to a survey conducted in the late 2000s, married Czechs are almost twice as likely to have an affair than their counterparts in the USA. A large number of those interviewed also believe that extramarital dalliances are just the natural way of things.

The Czech Republic is a comparatively atheistic nation, which may be a contributory factor – many Czechs don’t have the moralistic religious angle to keep them on the straight and narrow. This permissive attitude is reflected in Czech movies, where philandering husbands and cheating wives are often portrayed unapologetically, without the finger-wagging subtexts that often haunt affairs in the mainstream cinema of English-speaking countries.

One such adulterous protagonist can be found in Ladislav Smoljak’s Waiter, Scarper! Josef Abrhám plays Dalibor Vrána, a hapless bookshop manager who is pushing forty, on his third marriage, and totally skint thanks to alimony payments. Vrána’s problem is that he is simply incapable of keeping it in his pants when confronted with a member of the opposite sex. He is so incorrigible that when it comes to choosing a new female assistant to replace the one he got pregnant, he picks the homeliest girl available to reduce the risk of pouncing on her…

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National Street (Národní třída) – Štěpán Altrichter, 2019

Never drink in a pub with a flat roof, or so the joke goes back in the UK. It refers to the type of dismal drinking establishments that sprang up on post-war housing estates, where you might encounter all sorts of dodgy characters, addicts and psychos. The same goes in the Czech Republic, too – you might run into a nutter like Vandam (Hynek Čermák) in Štěpán Altrichter’s National Street.

Vandam is the resident hard man of the drab Severka pub in a southern Prague project. They call him Vandam because he can do 200 push-ups, just like his VHS hero, Jean-Claude Van Damme. With his skinhead, stocky build and menacing brow, it’s no surprise to find out he has racist and homophobic views and doesn’t mind sharing them. He wants everyone to know he’s a proper fighter. “Peace is just the intermission between wars,” he growls on his voice over, with the attitude of a man who views life as a long series of battles.  He is also known to the other denizens of the pub as a national hero, the man who sparked the Velvet Revolution by throwing the first punch…

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Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení) – Ivan Passer, 1965

Ivan Passer Intimate Lighting

I recently moved from Brno to a small village of about 500 people, which is something I thought I’d never do. I’ve always loved the city and the countryside freaks me out. Sometimes I get spooked when I’m out trudging the lanes and wood trying to fill in the blanks around me – it is the absence of people that makes it so unnerving. Occasionally I’ll stumble upon a cross or a shrine set starkly against a frozen cornfield or a big empty sky, and it seems more imposing than the huge churches and cathedrals that get a little lost in the hustle and bustle of city life.

Out in the countryside, it feels like mankind has sprouted out of the earth along with their dwellings over the millennia. In the dark months of winter, the village air is full of woodsmoke. It’s the first time I have really thought about the fact that people grow trees just to chop them down and burn them to keep warm. Similarly, some village folk grow their own creatures to kill, disembowel and eat. It all seems a bit medieval after a lifetime of central heating and buying pre-murdered supermarket chickens in the same way I might choose an apple, checking for size, shape and blemishes before dropping one into my basket.

Buy your copy of Intimate Lighting from Amazon HERE

These observations bring me, in a roundabout way, to Intimate Lighting. The divide between city and the village seems more sharply felt in the Czech Republic than back home in the UK, and many Czech films revolve around this dichotomy. One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Passer’s mini-masterpiece is how it explores this theme in such a hushed, minutely detailed way…

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Happy End (Šťastný konec) – Oldřich Lipský, 1966

At the very least it will put a big dumb grin on your face, followed by a slight frown as you gaze into the middle distance trying to figure out whether it all adds up or not. Happy End sure beats the hell out of last year’s joyless Tenet, although when it comes to telling a story backwards, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Memento or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Just seeing the bravura way in which Oldřich Lipský flourishes the reverse chronology trick is worth your time alone. Yet it is a stunt that offers a breezy blast of comic relief while exploring the classics of the Czech New Wave. Ultimately that is all Happy End is – a stunt, but a clever and often hilarious one.

As brilliantly as Lipský pulls it off, it does get a little tiring towards the end – or should I say the beginning? My brain kept trying to flip the backwards conversations around to track their normal course, and it made my head hurt after a while. The popular director of quirky classics like Lemonade Joe and Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet had the sense to keep it short and sweet. Happy End clocks in at just 71 minutes and that is definitely a good thing.

Rounding out the main cast is Josef Abrhám as the shameless seducer, Mr Birdie, and formidable comic actress Helena Růžičková as our hero’s long-lost love. She has an innate knack for comic timing reminiscent of Madeline Kahn in those great Lipský-esque American comedies of around the same era – Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and What’s Up Doc? Jaroslava Obermaierová is a good foil for Menšík as his radiant, fragile wife Julie, gliding through the slapstick elements with grace intact, looking like she’s enjoying herself as much as the audience…

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One Hand Can’t Clap (Jedna ruka netleská) – David Ondříček, 2003

After watching the deadly serious In the Shadow recently, I decided to go back and check out one of David Ondříček’s earlier, funnier ones and was pleasantly wrong-footed by One Hand Can’t Clap. It is an offbeat crime comedy that gets steadily weirder and sillier as it goes on, tempering the zaniness with the same kind of deadpan fatalism that was such a big feature of his previous hit, Loners.

Ondříček brought many of his Loners stars and crew along for this feature, and the continuity shows – the excellent cast seem completely at ease and totally onboard with the wacky material, written by the director with his two leads, Jiří Macháček and Ivan Trojan.

Macháček plays Standa, a good-natured but gullible loser who is talked into taking the fall after he is busted smuggling a lorry load of endangered birds. After a spell in prison and keeping shtum about the other parties involved in the crime, he meets up with his former boss Zdeněk (Ivan Trojan), the sinister owner of a swish vegetarian restaurant who has heinous plans for his illicit live deliveries. Zdeněk plans to compensate Standa for his time spent behind bars but the handoff is screwed up by Ondřej (Marek Taclík), a hapless store security guard who thinks he’s some kind of badass super cop.

Ondřej and Standa have become fast friends after they were both outwitted (it doesn’t take much) while trying to catch a shoplifter, and Ondřej’s efforts to help his newfound pal out usually end up making things much, much worse. After Standa is rescued from a near-drowning by two shroom-hunting women, he is convinced that he must bring Zdeněk to justice.

After our two halfwit heroes join forces with the girls, Andrea and Martina (Kristina Lukešová and Isabela Bencová), the clueless foursome go on an undercover caper in Zdeněk’s restaurant to unravel the mystery of the illegal rare animals…

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