Kolya (Kolja) – Jan Svěrák, 1996

Take one vulnerable kid and dump them with a really disreputable, selfish, unlikely, inappropriate or downright dangerous father figure. The kid doesn’t have to be particularly cute, and the man may or may not be the kid’s actual father. It doesn’t matter, because if you play this well-worn combo well enough there won’t be a dry eye in the house…

This formula has been going almost as long as cinema itself. One of the best early examples came during the early days of the talkies with The Champ, which starred Wallace Beery as a drunken, irresponsible slugger and Jackie Cooper as his disappointed but devoted son. A notable variation on the theme came in 1973 with Paper Moon, starring real-life father and child duo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, who played a selfish con man and his maybe-daughter on the road working scams.

The formula got pretty crazy in the ’90s. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable cyborg got reprogrammed and became an unlikely surrogate father to Edward Furlong’s tearaway teen in T2: Judgement Day; things got a bit iffy in Léon: The Professional as Jean Reno’s childlike hitman ended up sheltering a young Natalie Portman from a demented pill-popping cop, and teaching her a few tricks of the trade along the way.

More recently, the surprisingly touching Guardians of the Galaxy featured a love-hate relationship between UFO abductee Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the blue-skinned space pirate who raised him; more down to earth was Taika Waititi’s charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople, where a juvenile delinquent ends up hiding out in the New Zealand bush with the cantankerous outdoorsman who reluctantly adopted him.

Czech director Jan Svěrák also had a stab at it in the ’90s with Kolya, starring his dad Zdeněk as a middle-aged, skirt-chasing bachelor who gets lumbered with a young Russian boy when his dodgy arranged marriage goes tits up. Set in the dying days of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, Svěrák senior plays František Louka, a former concert cellist who was busted down to playing at funerals after he made a few unwise comments to the authorities on his return from a trip to the West. Now he’s skint, owes money to his friends, and his life is pretty listless. (Although it must be noted that he can’t be that skint because he does live in a pretty sweet garret flat with a killer view of Prague castle.)

His financial situation makes it pretty easy for his gravedigger friend – and creditor – Mr. Brož (Ondřej Vetchý) to persuade him to enter into a lucrative bogus marriage with a young Russian woman, so she can acquire Czechoslovak citizenship. She then uses the citizenship to do a runner to West Germany to hook up with her real boyfriend. Circumstances contrive to leave Louka in sole charge of his runaway bride’s young son Kolya and facing scrutiny from the authorities about the exact nature of his relationship with the Russian woman.

Kolya is a confidently directed and handsomely shot film which has a nice sense of time and place. The animosity of the Czechs toward their unwelcome occupiers is keenly felt, as Louka feels it necessary to lie about the marriage to his elderly mother who despises collaborators with the Russians.

Svěrák Jr largely steers clear of overt sentimentality – quite remarkable since this is the man who made The Elementary School – which is commendable given the subject matter. The reason I stayed away from this film for so long is that most of the cover art makes it look like corny heartstring-twanging pap. Just look at this poster and tell me you can’t imagine a Hollywood remake starring Robin Williams and Haley Joel Osment:

Although the story goes pretty much exactly how you would expect, the emotional beats ring true without getting overplayed. This is largely thanks to daddy Svěrák’s performance as Louka. He plays him as a slightly forlorn, self-centred asshole, and he never deviates. Even when Louka’s heart inevitably warms towards his young charge and he starts acting like a father towards him, he still gives the impression that he’d much rather be trying to get into the knickers of one of his hot young cello students instead.

Louka’s assholery also works because it is neatly balanced by two terrifically warm adult performances. A kind and graceful Libuše Šafránková plays Klara, a married singer who is having an affair with Louka, and Ondřej Vetchý as the gravedigger Brož. Brož is a neat counterpoint to Louka – the cellist is an artist capable of bringing beautiful music to life but prefers to live alone, while Brož works among the dead but chooses to fill his home with as much life as possible.

Then there is Andrey Khalimon as Kolya himself. Sullen and silent for most of the film, Khalimon’s performance is a long way away from the typical moppet you often see in Hollywood movies. When he finally does show some emotion, it’s a really heartbreaking moment.

Kolya won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and it’s easy to see why. The Academy often chooses the tried-and-tested over innovation and the movie’s strength lies in playing familiar notes with craft and absolute assurance. The result is a resounding crowd-pleaser that’s a reliable choice for an evening’s entertainment.

***

You can pick up a copy of Kolya from Amazon here.

The Girl on a Broomstick (Dívka na koštěti) – Václav Vorlíček, 1972

If you imagine Sabrina the Teenage Witch with a dash of Harry Potter thrown in, you’ll get a pretty good idea what to expect from this bright and breezy fantasy comedy. Petra Černocká plays Saxana, a talented but bored young witch who is sentenced to 300 years in detention for screwing up in her shape-shifting classes. With the assistance of the school janitor and retired vampire, (I’m not sure vampirism works like that either, but let’s go with it), Saxana transforms herself into an owl and visits the world of people.

The spell is shortlived, though, and unless she can find something called “Hag’s Ear” within 44 hours, she will have to return to witch school and face the consequences for her bad behaviour. While still in owl form, she’s captured by a zookeeper and taken home. There she reverts to her normal form, much to the surprise of the keeper’s son, Honza (Jan Hrušínský). They quickly become friends, setting the stage for all manner of magical shenanigans – usually involving Saxana turning herself or other people into some kind of animal.

The Girl on a Broomstick is endearingly cheerful throughout and Černocká, a singer who also provided the ridiculously catchy theme tune, is an appealing lead. She plays Saxana with the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and sassiness, and her performance has dated better than some of the others. Otherwise, much of the acting is pretty panto-level stuff, especially among Saxana’s classmates and teachers at school. Helena Ruzicková (The Slunce, Seno… trilogy) has a cameo as Saxana’s roommate during her brief stay on a psychiatric ward.

The film zips along and the special effects, while primitive, are used effectively and with gusto. Although dated and very lo-fi, The Girl on a Broomstick is still capable of casting a happy spell over kids and their parents, so it’s a great pick for families with young children learning Czech. My four-year-old daughter loved it, and I won’t be terribly put out by having to watch it again with her.

A belated and poorly received sequel, Saxána a Lexikon kouzel (Little Witch on a Broomstick), arrived in 2011.

***

You can pick up a copy of The Girl on a Broomstick at Amazon. Just click on the cover art below –

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.

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.

Adapted from Ladislav Fuks’ novel, The Cremator is a rare example of a Czech horror film. Herz creates an intensely disturbing atmosphere through the use of stark black and white photography, tight close-ups on people’s eyes and mouths to create a sense of dreadful intimacy, and bold edits to further discombobulate the viewer. Zdeněk Liška’s ethereal score adds another layer of eeriness.

The subject matter may be grim, but there are two things that make The Cremator one of the most easily re-watchable Czech films I’ve seen to date: Herz’s intuitive direction, and Rudolf Hrušínský as Kopfrkingl.

Some of the film making here is absolutely breathtaking. There are hidden transitions between scenes that made me want to stand up and perform a one-man Mexican Wave … while I was watching it alone in my front room. In one scene, Kopfrkingl is sermonizing at a carnival barker about disease and modern science. While he’s talking he unbuttons his shirt cuff, rolls up his sleeve, and starts flexing his arm. It makes absolutely no sense in the context of the scene he’s in. But then we cut to a close-up of a needle penetrating a vein, and suddenly we’re in the doctor’s office with Kopfrkingl getting a blood test.

Only in hindsight do we realize that he’s warming up for the jab in the previous scene, totally separated by time and space – it has a really astonishing effect. Herz uses several of these transitions through the film, creating a further sense of dislocation.

Then you have Hrušínský. It’s early doors in my journey through Czech cinema and he was quickly becoming my favourite Czech actor. His massive performance as Kopfrkingl sealed the deal. He’s incredible here in a fully realized, minutely observed performance, all the way down to Kopfrkingl’s petty eyes and little self-satisfied twitches of the lips; his courtly manner and how he uses his substantial bulk to intimidate people around him; the hand laid calmly yet threateningly on their necks; the way he tenderly combs the hair of the deceased, then subconsciously uses the same comb on his own hair. 

When Kopfrkingl finally tips over into violence the most disturbing aspect about it is the complete lack of aggression. “The banality of evil” is a phrase so overused that it has become banal itself, but Kopfrkingl is a perfect example. Once he’s decided on a victim, it’s totally passionless. I was reminded of Passolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom where, under the influence of a fascist regime, people become accustomed to performing the most heinous and depraved actions as a matter of course.

It also made me think about Divided We Fall, which showed how difficult it was for decent people to make a stand against the Nazis and do the right thing. The Cremator is the opposite, showing how easy it is for someone to fall under the influence of a pernicious ideology and enthusiastically do its bidding.

Blackly comic, masterfully crafted and extremely disturbing, The Cremator is a Czech horror masterpiece that deserves to be seen by a far wider audience, especially in our current troubled times.

***

You can get a copy of The Cremator Blu-Ray over at Amazon.co.uk – click here!

The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag) – Věra Chytilová, 1992

It’s the very early days of my journey through Czech cinema, and I still find myself reaching for a “western” film as a comparison when thinking about a Czech film I’ve just watched. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something directly analogous, but something that – however tangentially – captures its atmosphere or themes.

With The Inheritance, or Fuckoffguysgoodday, I found myself cast back to 1995, when Sandra Bullock logged onto The Net. It was a pretty routine conspiracy thriller that bumbled along amiably enough on Bullock’s burgeoning star power, warning everyone about the potential pitfalls of the internet – before anyone really knew what the internet was.

Věra Chytilová’s most famous film internationally, Daisies (Sedmikrásky), was banned by the Czechoslovak government. Two and a half decades later, she stuck the boot into the tawdry temptations of capitalism with her aggressively charmless comedy, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday – before anyone in her country really knew what capitalism was, or had figured out what it meant for them.

Bolek Polívka (who also co-wrote with Chytilová) stars as Bohus, a slovenly layabout and village piss artist whose favourite things in life are his elderly aunt, slouching around in his undies, chugging slivovice, and having crafty knee-trembler with the barmaid, Vlasta (Dagmar Havlová), at his favourite boozer.

He’s skint and constantly drunk, but seems fairly content with his lot. As with many of the Czech rural comedies that I’ve come to regard as “bumpkincore”, the characters might not have a lot going for them but are sent into a fit of rapture by their beloved nature. Quite rightly so – only this weekend on a train journey back from Nedvědice to Tišnov, with its idyllic hills, forests and streams, I dreamily thought once again that the Czech Republic might be heaven on earth.

Things change, however, when Dr Ulrich (Miroslav Donutil), a smart lawyer from the city, rolls up to tell Bohus that his father has passed away and bequeathed him his considerable fortune…

Continue reading “The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag) – Věra Chytilová, 1992”

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.

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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Sunday League: Pepik Hnatek’s Final Match (Okresní přebor: Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka) – Jan Prušinovský, 2012

“Football is not a matter of life and death,” the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said, “It’s much more important than that.” It’s a nice quote, and anyone who’s passionate about football knows that when you’re in the moment, watching the game, it feels like an absolute truth.

It’s certainly true for Pepik Hnátek (Miroslav Krobot), the fearsome and moribund coach of Slavoj Houslice, a Sunday league team showing few signs of life. Okresní přebor – Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka is the feature-length prequel to the popular TV series, focusing on the dour and humourless Mr Hnátek, played with utter conviction by Krobot. If you want to get some idea of Hnátek’s coaching methods, imagine Breaking Bad‘s Walter White if he’d gone into football management rather than becoming a drug kingpin…

Continue reading “Sunday League: Pepik Hnatek’s Final Match (Okresní přebor: Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka) – Jan Prušinovský, 2012”

Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) – Jiří Menzel, 1969/1990

Banned for over twenty years and only released after the Velvet Revolution, Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String is a film out of time. It was one of the director’s more overtly critical works in the ’60s, openly sarcastic about the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. As a result, it endured censure and became a valuable relic of the grim post-Prague Spring era, lacking the timelessness of Menzel’s more gently comedic films of the period…

Continue reading “Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) – Jiří Menzel, 1969/1990”