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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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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Top 25 Czech Films So Far…

Phew! I’ve finally made it to 100 posts! It has been quite a ride with plenty of great movies along the way, but it wasn’t always a smooth one. This time last year the blog was languishing at around 25 reviews and I was struggling to find the enthusiasm to carry on with it.

Firstly, I hadn’t seen enough films to fully eradicate the more negative preconceptions I had about Czech movies at that point. Secondly, I realised that I’d picked a topic so niche that almost no-one was visiting the site, which was a little disheartening.

So to celebrate reaching the 100th post I’ve decided to create a top 25 list of my favourite Czech movies so far. It was a tough task with plenty of soul searching involved, and you will see that there are some notable exclusions. This is partly because I have tried to capture the sheer diversity of the films I’ve seen to date, which means some very good movies got the chop!

From the beginning, this project was intended as my personal exploration of Czech cinema, trying to get a handle on it from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider. Therefore I have also tried to make a list that might be handy for someone who wants to get into Czech movies but isn’t sure where to start.

Trying to make a list packed with great picks for other people while also staying true to both my personal taste and critical pretension wasn’t always easy. Take for example Jiří Menzel. I have some misgivings about his films – many of them are basically the same – but he is such a huge presence in Czech cinema that I still ended up with four on my list. It will be interesting to see if they get whittled down as I see more movies in the future.

Also, I have tried to give modern Czech movies a fair shout. I know there is a common belief that Czech cinema isn’t a patch on its heyday in the 60s and 70s, and that is probably true. However, there are some very solid movies from this century out there – films like Zelary, The Snake Brothers, and The Teacher wouldn’t look out of place on the Best Foreign Language ballot at the Oscars. Nevertheless, they still lack the magic of the classic stuff and it is a reflection of this that none of my top 10 is less than 40 years old.

Speaking of which, it is crazy when you look at the quality of the stuff being made in this country during the Czechoslovak New Wave. Talk about troubled times producing great art. The cinematic movement was already well underway before the Prague Spring, yet the sheer explosion of gobsmacking films concentrated around that historic time is simply dazzling.

Before we get into the list, I also want to mention that I would still be some way off the 100 mark without the terrific contributions of Kai-Ming, Jakub, Jack and Catherine. Although I originally intended this as a purely personal blog, I did accept a little help to bulk out the content. Otherwise, with my rate of production, it would only be useful as a resource sometime around the dawn of the next epoch. Thanks guys!

So let’s get cracking! I’ll update the list on a semi-regular basis, every 25 or 50 films or so. I might also do a Bottom 10 at some point as well…

First up:

#25. Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy) – Karel Zeman, 1958

I grew up loving Ray Harryhausen monster movies and the fantastic tales of Jules Verne, so it is no wonder I was quickly smitten with the films of Czech animation genius Karel Zeman. Popping up on Netflix, Invention for Destruction came as a tonic during a shitty lockdown period. It a lighthearted ripping yarn involving a secret weapon, a fabulous steam-powered submarine, a dashing hero, a master criminal in his volcano lair. Zeman’s inventions and the mastery of his craft are a constant delight, and it is great entertainment for kids, too.

“Shooting in crisp black and white, Zeman employs an astonishing array of special effects and camera trickery to recreate the look and feel of the engravings from the Jules Verne novels. Live-action footage is frequently sandwiched between several panes of foreground and background to make it look like the characters are moving within an illustration. Zeman laboriously added a cross-hatched pattern to almost everything to complete the illusion.”

Read the full review HERE

#24. My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková) – Jiří Menzel, 1985

Jiří Menzel, who sadly passed away last year, was a massive figure in Czech cinema. I tried to limit the number of his films I included in this list but despite my best efforts, I still ended up with four. I have difficulty ranking his work because as entertaining as they undoubtedly are, all the ones I’ve seen so far has basically been the same, and you could argue a case for the inclusion of any of them. The Oscar-nominated My Sweet Little Village is a charming, heart-warming comedy about the relationship between a disabled young man and his long-suffering neighbour and work colleague. Menzel regular Rudolf Hrušínský also appears as a gruff doctor.

“Menzel never misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of rural living over life in the big city. To this end, Hrušínský serves as a spokesperson, delivering lengthy passages of verse about the beauteous countryside, and reminding his fellow village folk that life isn’t so bad while they have beer, woodland, and gorgeous girls following the city trend of wearing no bra. The film basically says: chill out, grab a cold one and enjoy your lot in life, because it’s all pretty sweet.”

Read the full review HERE

#23. Beauty and the Beast (Panna a netvor) – Juraj Herz, 1978

The tale may be as old as time but there are few more gruesome versions than Herz’s intensely dark and atmospheric adaptation. The Beauty part might just be the weakest aspect of the film but The Beast is truly frightening and psychotic creation. From the scary opening attack to the Beast’s fog-shrouded mansion, Herz takes the story deep into horror territory, and I loved it.

“Herz’s vision is definitely not for kids, striking a gloomy pop gothic tone that’s somewhere between Hammer horror pea-soupers and Andrew Lloyd Webber – it’s hard to listen to Petr Hapka’s hyperbolically ominous organ score without thinking of Webber’s megahit stage production The Phantom of the Opera that arrived several years later.

The film opens with a caravan of merchant carriages lost in a bewitched forest in dense fog…”

Read the full review HERE

#22. Those Wonderful Years that Sucked (Báječná léta pod psa) – Petr Nikolaev,1997

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a general loathing of Michael Viewegh adaptations, so just to show it’s no irrational beef I also have one in my Top 25. Those Wonderful Years that Sucked is a genuinely touching coming-of-age tale that spans three decades in the life of a regular family, from the Prague Spring to just after the Velvet Revolution. Despite a few typically queasy Vieweghian moments, I would still say it makes a great introduction to Czech movies and films about life under Communism.

“Much of the charm of Those Wonderful Years That Sucked is the skilful way Nikolaev spans such a long period of time, never losing focus of the dangers facing the family while maintaining an upbeat, comic tone. Even the final third, where the father is driven to the verge of a mental breakdown by the constant fear of surveillance, is treated with a featherlight touch and is all the more effective for it.  So many comedy-dramas grind to a halt when things get serious, an obstacle Nikolaev’s film hurdles with bagfuls of good grace.”

Read the full review HERE

#21. Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu) –  Jan Švankmajer, 1983

Legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer is such a huge figure that I had to include at least one of his works. I was originally going with Alice, thinking it would be a safe introduction because almost everyone is familiar with the source material. The trouble is, Švankmajer’s style is often so aggressive and unsettling that it becomes a little arduous when drawn out to feature-length. Dimensions of Dialogue has all the best things about his visionary work packed into a very manageable 14-minutes – tactile stop-motion animation, a mordant sense of humour and a riot of ideas. 

“While it may be short, Dimensions of Dialogue is vivid, vulgar, gross, funny, and best of all, thought-provoking. If you like movies to give you something to think about, you should delve deeper into the weird world of Jan Švankmajer.”

Read the full review HERE

#20. Sun, Hay, Strawberries (Slunce, seno, jahody) – Zdeněk Troška, 1983

I know a few people will think I’ve lost my mind by including this movie on my list! People either really love Troška’s bawdy comedy or they really, really, really hate it. I think what that boils down to is that it portrays rural Czechs a little too accurately for some people’s taste and they feel embarrassed by it. It is definitely no great work of art, but my aim from the beginning of the blog was to review all Czech movies, not just the classics. Despite how lowbrow Sun, Hay, Strawberries obviously is, I think it is a genuinely important cultural item. It’s a little like the Carry On movies in Britain, reflecting a certain aspect of the people and their country.  Plus it made me laugh more than some of the more well-respected comedy classics!

“Make no mistake, Slunce, Seno, Jahody is extremely loud, crude and stupid. To give an example of the level of humour, one scene features a senile old lady trying to hide a turd from her overbearing daughter. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. However, the film has a directness that I appreciated, unlike the ponderous pace of so many Czech movies I’ve seen so far. It bounces along nicely with goofy energy that I found genuinely charming.”

Read the full review HERE

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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.

Buy your copy of The Good Soldier Svejk from Amazon HERE

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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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.

Buy your copy of Forbidden Dreams from Amazon HERE

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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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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