Three Brothers (Tři bratři) – Jan Svěrák, 2014

While many Christmas movies in English-speaking countries tend to focus around the festive season and sometimes feature a jolly chap with a white beard and red winter gear, Czech festive viewing often centres on fairy tales. There is a long tradition of TV and film adaptations, from The Proud Princess (Pyšná Princezna) to the classic Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku).

Buy your copy of Three Brothers from Amazon HERE

More recently, the popular father-and-son team of Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák got in on the action with Three Brothers, a cheerful fairy tale musical for kids that weaves together three very familiar tales…

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Little Baby Jesus (Prijde letos Jezísek?) – Lenka Kny, 2013

Here is the thing about Christmas films – most of them suck.  There are very few true classics, which is why I’m really glad that Die Hard has entered the conversation over the last couple of years. Not only is it an awesome movie, but it is also very Christmassy, once you come to accept it as a legitimate choice as a Christmas flick.

I’ve yet to feel any Christmas tingles this year, so I thought I’d check out some of the Czech festive offerings on Netflix to see if any of them would put me in the mood…

First on my list was Little Baby Jesus (Prijde letos Jezísek?), a romantic comedy from Lenka Kny. As someone leaning more towards Paganism, I’m wary of movies with the word “Jesus” in the title. It is often a sign of a wholesome Christian-themed message movie, and I avoid those like I tend to avoid S&M orgies in abandoned abattoirs. I know people are into both and that’s OK – it’s just not my cup of tea, that’s all.

Buy your copy of Little Baby Jesus from Amazon HERE

So I was about to flick past it to the next film when I saw that it stars veteran Czech actors Josef Abrhám and Libuše Šafránková. The latter was amazing in Three Wishes for Cinderella four decades earlier, perhaps the country’s most famous Christmas film. Would Little Baby Jesus be another festive classic on her resume?

Not exactly, but – I hate to say it – it does have its moments…

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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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The Snake Brothers (Kobry a užovky) – Jan Prušinovský, 2015

Right from the get-go, we know Petr “Cobra” Šťastný (Kryštof Hádek) is trouble. We open with a scrolling shot of summer cottages. It is a quiet day apart from birdsong and the distant sound of someone mowing grass. Against this peaceful backdrop, we see Cobra, strutting along with purple hair, a camo jacket and a pair of bolt cutters strapped to his back. We don’t know what his situation is yet but he’s wired, a bundle of nervous energy. He then proceeds to break into a cottage, steal all the electrical goods and make off with his loot, all under the nose of an elderly neighbour.

Cobra is one half of the Snake Brothers, two guys in their thirties trying to eke out a living in Nowheresville, CZ, in Jan Prušinovský’s impressive film follow up to Sunday League. The elder Šťastný sibling is Vojtěch (Matěj Hádek, Kryštof’s real-life big brother), known as “Viper” to his friends. He’s marginally more well-balanced, in that he is capable of getting a job and living a semi-normal existence. No matter how hard he tries to get a foothold, he is held back by his disreputable younger brother, who is always getting himself into trouble with the law.

The Snake Brothers form a trio with Tomáš (Jan Hájek), Viper’s best friend. He’s a dour, frustrated mechanic and abusive husband to the irresponsible Zůza (Lucie Žáčková), who has been hanging around on maternity pay for the past eight years while bringing up their two kids.

After Viper angrily quits his job at a factory, an old school friend, Ládík (David Máj), offers him an opportunity to become a franchisee for a German company importing cheap fashion wear. Viper sees it as a chance to better his life but doesn’t have the ready cash to make a go of it. Luckily his granny (Věra Kubánková) is happy to put her house up as collateral.

Ready for business, Viper rents a unit in a shopping centre and hires Zůza as a cashier while also trying to keep Cobra away from his customers. It turns out that Ládík is using the venture to import more than just budget brand shoes. Plus the combustible combination of Cobra, Zůza and Tomáš means that trouble is never far away…

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Tiger Theory (Teorie Tygra) – Radek Bajgar, 2016

Tiger Theory review

There is an old Les Dawson joke that goes like this: I said to the chemist, “Can I have some sleeping pills for my wife?” He said, “Why?” I said, “She keeps waking up.”

That is pretty much the attitude of the main character in Tiger Theory, Radek Bajgar’s dramedy about a sixty-something who finds an unconventional way of leaving his controlling wife.

Jan Berger (Jiří Bartoška) is a veterinarian. We first meet him as performs the snip on a tomcat, much to the gratitude of its female owner. It’s a none-too-subtle metaphor for the film’s central thesis, in that most of the male characters feel emasculated by their wives. The only guy who doesn’t has a problem with his sperm and possibly gets cheated on by his free-spirited wife, implying he’s not man enough to get the job done.

The film sets out its stall early, with Berger’s wife Olga (Eliška Balzerovádelivering a lecture to a group of students about the life expectancy of men. They drink more, smoke more and eat unhealthily, all of which affects their longevity. And it is the woman’s lot to keep control of their man’s worst impulses, she asserts.

For the men in Tiger Theory, this equates to endless nagging… Continue reading “Tiger Theory (Teorie Tygra) – Radek Bajgar, 2016”

Hastrman – Ondřej Havelka, 2018

Hastrman 2018

One of my favourite folk tales from back home is the Wild Man of Orford, a small coastal village not far from where I grew up. In the 12th Century, a group of local fishermen hauled their nets to discover they’d caught a strange naked man covered in greenish hair. He was taken to the nearby castle for interrogation, but after six months his torturers realised he wasn’t able to speak. 

After that they let him exercise in the sea, stringing nets across the harbour so he couldn’t escape. The Wild Man easily swam under them, but each time he returned willingly to the castle. Eventually, he tired of life on the land, slipped under the nets one last time and vanished out to sea.

A similar water-dwelling character from the landlocked Czech Republic is the vodník, or hastrman, a water goblin popular in fairytales and made famous by folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben in his collection of ballads, Kytice. The creature lives in bodies of water and is capable of drowning the unwary if he’s in a bad mood, or providing bumper catches of fish for the locals if kept happy with sacrifices and offerings…

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Moments (Chvilky) – Beata Parkanová, 2018

Chvilky Moments

I originally wanted to open this review with a good quote about life, and there are thousands and thousands of them online, ranging from the sage advice of Gandhi to the witticisms of W.C. Fields. In fact, when you type “quotes” into Google, “about life” is its first suggestion. So that means that either – a) there are tons of people out there writing reviews about tender character studies like Beata Parkanová’s Moments or b) millions of people every day are searching for a little inspiration to help them make sense of this bewildering rollercoaster we call Life…

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Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem) – Jindřich Polák, 1977

Here’s an obscure piece of UK film folklore… 

One Saturday night in the early ’80s, a man goes home early from the pub to watch the football highlights on Match of the Day. He settles down in front of the TV with a fresh beer, but the broadcast hasn’t started yet. He turns over to see what’s on the other two channels and drops into a strange film about identical twins, time travel and Nazis.

He becomes so engrossed that he watches to the end, missing the footie. On Monday morning he goes to work and tells his mates about this peculiar film, but no-one knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know the title because he missed the start, and trying to elaborate on the plot just makes him sound crazy…

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On the Roof (Na střeše) – Jiří Mádl, 2019

Na střeše 2019

There was a time when every pub and restaurant in Brno seemed to be competing for the title of the city’s best burger. Everyone I knew had an opinion on whose was top, and my own pick wasn’t too popular with pub-owner friends who prided themselves on their homemade patties. 

A new craze put paid to all that nonsense, and we partially have the country’s burgeoning Vietnamese community to thank for that – suddenly everyone was head-over-heels for Bún bò Nam Bô and Bánh mì sandwiches.

Vietnamese immigrants began settling in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era, arriving as guest workers invited by the government. Nowadays Vietnamese people make up the Czech Republic’s third-largest ethnic minority, after Slovaks and Ukrainians.

The first Czech film I’ve seen so far that touches upon the Vietnamese-Czech experience is Jiří Mádl’s On the Roof, a comedy-drama that focuses on the growing friendship between a lonely old man and a desperate young immigrant…

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Tank Battalion (Tankový prapor) – Vít Olmer, 1991

Miroslav Donutil in Tankový Prapor

Vit Olmer’s bawdy comedy Tank Battalion (Tankový prapor) made history as the first privately produced Czech film after the Velvet Revolution. And what did they decide to make a movie about after four decades under an oppressive Communist regime? You’ve guessed it – a movie about life under an oppressive Communist regime…

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Josef Škvorecký, the film is set in 1953. We meet intelligent, demob-happy Staff Sergeant Danny Smiřický (Lukáš Vaculík) who has almost finished his two-year stint in compulsory military service. In between tank manoeuvres and covering his mate’s guard shift in the stockade, there’s little for him to do apart from smoking cigarettes, try to avoid flak from his perpetually enraged commanding officers, and dream about an unobtainable girl he once knew in Prague.

He’s almost made it to the end of his service, but now he risks trouble by getting into an affair with an officer’s lonely wife. Tensions are also growing between the conscripts and the officers, culminating in a dangerous drunken standoff…

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