The Oddsockeaters (Lichožrouti) – Galina Miklínová, 2016

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Entertaining two young kids during lockdown for eight weeks has sometimes involved a lot of Netflix. Now, I’m a snob and I like my five-year-old daughter to watch as many live-action movies as possible, and it’s crazy how many family films these days are CGI.

That said, I don’t have anything against computer-generated features as such, because studios like Pixar and Laika have produced some of the best family films of the past quarter of a century, balancing rollicking adventure and unforgettable characters with meaningful themes.

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However, for every Toy Story or Kubo and the Two Strings there are tons of poorly animated dross like The Dancing Pumpkin and the Ogre’s Plot, something that looks like it was put together by an algorithm rather than thinking, feeling human beings.

Somewhere in between – and thankfully more towards the Kubo end of the spectrum than The Dancing Pumpkin end – is The Oddsockeaters, a quirky fantasy adventure based on the book of the same name by Pavel Šrut. Directed by the book’s illustrator Galina Miklínová, it’s a playful tale about small magical creatures that love eating socks, but always leave one half of a pair for the owner, thus creating the age-old laundry mystery…

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The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko) – Miloš Forman, 1967

Miloš Forman’s last Czech film, The Firemen’s Ball, starts off as a lighthearted farce. By the time the film reaches its masterful third act, it has become a tragicomedy of tremendous allegorical power.

It can be seen in numerous ways. A literal reading got Forman in hot water with real fire crews up and down the land, who saw it as an attack on their honour and integrity, resulting in Forman touring the country to make amends. You could interpret it as an indictment of human foibles and corruptibility; a satire on corporate groupthink; or a stealth condemnation of the Communist system. The Czechoslovakian Communist party certainly saw it as the latter, resulting in the film being “banned forever”.

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The story is slight but builds irrevocably towards its conclusion, where details that seem innocuous in the set up suddenly take on massive significance. The committee of a small-town fire department is arranging a ball. The entry is 8kc and attractions include a band, a tombola and a beauty pageant. The guest of honour is the firemen’s retired president, and the plan is to get the winner of the beauty contest to present him with a ceremonial axe for his 86th birthday.

Things quickly go south. One of the firemen, Josef (Josef Kolb), is in charge of the tombola and is panicked when the prizes start going missing before the doors even open. The committee hasn’t selected their contestants for the pageant yet, and hurriedly spend the early part of the ball trying to recruit prospects from the attendees. The selection process also seems to have an ulterior motive, as the largely middle-aged committee see it as an excuse to ogle young women…

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Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) – Jan Svěrák, 2001

Much like Michael Bay’s mega-budget travesty Pearl Harbor from the same year, Jan Svěrák’s Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) squanders a fascinating true story in order to indulge in a tepid love triangle. The sad thing is, while all of Pearl Harbor is awful, it’s only the romantic element of Dark Blue World that brings it into disrepute, tainting an otherwise rousing tale.

The film opens in 1950 with our main protagonist, Franta Sláma (Ondřej Vetchý) banged up in a gloomy prison, having been incarcerated by the communists for his time serving in the RAF during World War II. We then flashback to before the war and happier times with his girlfriend before the Germans marched in.

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With the Czechoslovak Army disbanded, Franta and a group of other fliers, including his young hotheaded protégé Karel Vojtíšek (Kryštof Hádek) escape to England to join the RAF. Once there the pilots are sidelined initially, taking part in pointless exercises, learning English, and gazing enviously at the dogfights going on in the skies above them. As the Battle of Britain intensifies the RAF is in constant need of more pilots, so our boys soon get their chance. After a few teething problems they’re soon gunning down German planes with glee, getting a little revenge for all the folks back home…

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Loners (Samotáři) – David Ondříček, 2000

Loners (Samotáři) was the first Czech film I saw in a movie theatre. I was on a teacher training course in Prague at the time, and there was a buzz going around that it was the Czech answer to Trainspotting. I ended up getting completely rat arsed before, during and after the screening, so I couldn’t remember a single thing about it.

That complete blackout has always made Loners something I’ve been eager to revisit. Trainspotting flash-froze a zeitgeist so perfectly that it felt dated by the time it came out on video, so if Loners truly was in any way equivalent, how would it stand the test of time? It’s now half my life since that drunken cinema visit – I was in my early twenties then. What, if anything, would the movie say to me now as a father of two in my early forties?

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Well first up, the Trainspotting comparison was way off. I can kind of see why people at the time were making the analogy, as it focuses on the lives of twenty-somethings in the city and there are drugs involved, albeit ganja rather than smack. Other than that, Loners is a very ho-hum, meandering, mildly amusing look at the lives of a group of young-ish people at the turn of the Millenium. It’s unfair to compare the two really, but since I’ve already started I may as well continue by saying it also lacks Trainspotting‘s vivacity, bleak humour, empathy, and directorial verve. If Trainspotting was a howl of defiance in the dark, Loners is more like a shrug of indifference in a Starbucks…

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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.

Kolya Blu Ray

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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…

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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.

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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…

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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…

Cremator Blu Ray

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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…

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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.

Inheritance DVD

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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…

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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.

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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.

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Hnátek is a profoundly unhappy man. His wife had an affair with the club’s president many years before, but they still co-habit, trapped in a loveless marriage. Football is the only thing that Hnátek lives for, but his harsh and unimaginative methods don’t bring out the best in his browbeaten, lacklustre team. His two key players are club captain Jirka Luňák (Ondřej Vetchý), who shamelessly sucks up to Hnátek and grasses up his teammates about how many beers they had the night before, just because he wants to be coach some day; and Jarda Kužel (David Novotný), the club’s most talented player, who suffers from laziness and a bad attitude…

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