The Ear (Ucho) — Karel Kachyňa, 1970/1989

 

Like many films that were considered problematic by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia at their time of release, Karel Kachyňa’s The Ear was banned until 1989. Unlike the surreal elements found in Case for a Rookie Hangman, this film takes a more grounded approach to explore the fears and anxieties experienced by the country’s inhabitants. The film centres around a married couple trying to get through a night of desperation after they suspect their home might be under surveillance by the government…

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3 Seasons in Hell (3 Sezony V Pelke) – Tomás Masín, 2009

Hadek in 3 Seasons in He'll

My curriculum was packed with boring subjects when I was at school. Maths was always a chore, chemistry was just soul-crushing, and history was the biggest snooze. For three years we sat in the same brown dusty classroom full of brown dusty books, listening to the teacher drone on. He was a pale gingery man who resembled the Gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and always wore a brown suit that looked like it was tailored from a rest home carpet. We only ever seemed to study World War I and II, without ever finding out any of the larger context surrounding the conflicts.

It was only after I left school and started reading up on things by myself that I came to wonder: how does anyone make a subject like World War II boring? On paper, it’s like the synopsis of the greatest, most exciting war movie ever made. I realized that it wasn’t the subject that was boring, it was the teacher. It’s the way you tell ’em, I suppose.

On paper, 3 Seasons in Hell sounds like pretty suspenseful stuff. Opening in 1947 Czechoslovakia, we follow a young nonconformist poet who falls in with a Bohemian crowd, just as the Communist regime seizes control of the country and starts clamping down on intellectual and subversive activities that don’t suit their agenda. Our arrogant young hero soon finds himself in increasing danger…

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Jan Werich’s Fimfárum (Fimfárum Jana Wericha) – Vlasta Pospíšilová and Aurel Klimt, 2002

Fimfarum Jana Werich
One ČSFD (Czech IMDb) reviewer reports that the lesson they learned from watching Fimfárum Jana Wericha is the following: if you’re a drunk unable to provide for your family or take care of your farm, offer your son to the devil and then use a homeless woman to get him back. And they’re not even reading anything into it. 
 

Fimfárum is one of those strange collections of stories that don’t like simple answers in life. The original book, written and later recorded on tape by Jan Werich in the 1960s, included 21 fairy tales, most of which are absurd or downright bizarre. The 2002 film adaptation didn’t have an easy task translating the light humour, ambiguous moral messages, and beautiful use of the Czech language to the big screen, but they nailed it!

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The Inheritance or You Shouldn’t Say That (Dědictví aneb Kurva se neříká) – Robert Sedláček, 2014

Bolek Polivka as Bohus

Later this year, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter will appear in Bill & Ted Face the Music, almost thirty years after their last outing as the airheaded rockers, Wild Stallyns. Reeves can seemingly do no wrong these days but the omens and the trailer don’t look good.

Alex Winter may have had a quiet couple of decades career-wise, but Reeves has become a cultural icon, the internet’s favourite celebrity nice guy, and has been kicking ass well into his fifties and making it look easy in the John Wick movies. So why does he need to give a belated victory lap as the character that helped make him a huge star? It rarely fares well…

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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.

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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Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku) – Václav Vorlíček, 1973

Libuse Sanfrankova as Cinderella

Let’s face it – most modern film versions of fairytales suck.

The pervasive obsession with postmodern spins on these timeless tales is largely to blame, and one big green grumpy ogre has been the chief culprit over the past twenty years or so.

The trend started much earlier though, with The Princess Bride in 1987. It wasn’t a hit at the box office but built a devoted cult following and, while it pokes fun at fairytales, it felt like an affectionate tribute and still had a magic of its own.

The real groundwork for the genre’s ultimate destruction came with Robin Williams’ motormouthed genie in Aladdin five years later. The classic Disney comedy sidekick had been around for many years, but it wasn’t until his livewire performance put a jolt into the tired House of Mouse formula that the postmodern take on a classic tale really took hold. Although the film was ostensibly set in ancient Arabia, the genie was a burst of irreverent, anachronistic energy, riffing on cars, quiz shows and submarines while firing off impressions of Groucho Marx and Jack Nicholson.

Then in 2001 came DreamWorks’ Shrek. Based on William Steig’s children’s book, the project had been in development for several years, with names like Nicolas Cage and Chris Farley attached as the grumpy ogre, before the part eventually fell to Mike Myers. He trotted out his favourite Scor-tesh accent and Eddie Murphy tried to out-do the irreverence as his wisecracking donkey sidekick. Indeed, it felt like a movie entirely populated by comedy sidekicks and its approach initially seemed fresh, putting a spin on a variety of fairytale characters ranging from the Gingerbread Man to Puss in Boots (who got his own movie spinoff). Shrek was a massive hit and the concept of an earnest fairytale was pretty much lost…

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Cutting it Short (Postřižiny) – Jiří Menzel, 1980

Jiri Menzel Cutting it Short

It has taken two years to reach this point, but this article marks the 50th post on Czech Film Review. Since the first Czech film I saw was Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, I thought it would be appropriate to mark the occasion by talking about another one of his films, Cutting it Short.

It’s yet another idyllic shaggy dog story based on a Bohumil Hrabal work, a rose-tinted yet ultimately kinky tale about the writer’s parents when they conceived the future literary legend. Set around the end of the First World War and shortly before the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic, it is a typically Menzelian joint lovingly satirizing small-town life, populated by a familiar bunch of cranks and oddballs…

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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…

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Ghoul (2015) – Petr Jákl

Found Footage Horror "Ghoul"

This is the blurb on Netflix for Petr Jákl’s Ghoul:

“Three filmmakers investigating a story about cannibalism during a 1932 famine find themselves trapped in a haunted house after conducting a seance.”

Holy shit, I thought, this movie has it all… cannibalism! a haunted house! Seances! Directed by the action-packed former stuntman who gave us the hugely enjoyable Kajinek! How could I refuse?

Unfortunately, despite its lurid premise, Ghoul doesn’t hit the spot quite as well. Jákl’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach that worked so well in his wrongly accused hardman thriller works to the detriment of this by-the-numbers found-footage horror, bogging the movie down with evermore plot when we should be getting to the scares…

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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.

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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