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.

It’s a shame that it has dated in comparison to the likes of Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) and Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto), because as well as ripping the piss out of the petty bureaucrats and their dim-witted slogans (“We’ll pour our peaceful steel down the imperialist war-mongers’ throat!”) it is also an extremely tender and poignant film.

Larks on a String DVD

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Set in a huge scrapyard in the Bohemian town of Kladno in the ’50s, the story centres around a group of so-called dissidents and counter-revolutionaries, sent by the authorities for re-education among the piles of broken typewriters and twisted wrought-iron bedsteads. They’re a mostly meek and browbeaten bunch, resigned to shuffling about among the mountains of waste, having philosophical discussions and sneaking a peek at the group of women detained for attempted defection across the fence…

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Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) – Jaromil Jireš, 1970

Rapturously beautiful, disturbingly erotic, and strangely frightening, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an intoxicating blend from director Jaromil Jireš, a key figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave. It’s a surrealist horror where reality and identity are fluid, yet the film has its own dreamlike logic where it all makes a kind of sense while you’re watching it. Then, like so many dreams, the more you try to remember on waking, the more it slips from your grasp…

That was my first experience of the film. I’ve wanted to write about it for a year now because when I saw it on a crappy Youtube copy, I realized that I’d just watched something very special. I just couldn’t quite define what I’d watched. It probably didn’t help that I forgot a key detail – that our young protagonist, Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), is encountering her first period.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders Blu Ray

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It occurs early on, and provides one of the iconic images of the film – a droplet of bright fresh blood on the head of a daisy – but the moment was lost to me almost immediately in the subsequent whirl of ravishing imagery, potent symbolism, ethereal beauty and earthy sensuality. Luboš Fišer’s score is also transportive, whisking you away to another time and place…

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From Subway With Love (Román pro ženy) – Filip Renč, 2005

From Subway with Love is the English title for Román pro ženy (A Novel for Women), although a more appropriate title may have been Men’s Midlife Crisis: The Movie…

I approached the film with pretty low expectations, because a) I’ve already come into contact with two movies adapted from his own novels by the virulent Michal Viewegh, and b) this DVD cover art –

Let’s take a moment to see what we have here. There’s a beautiful young woman, staring seductively at the camera. She’s in a submissive pose, kneeling as she kisses the hand of a man, who is mostly out of the frame. The positioning of the man’s forearm suggests that the rest of his body is open to the camera. I’m intrigued by what is happening outside the borders of this photo. What could the man be doing while this young woman is humbling herself before his masculinity? Drinking a beer? Unzipping his fly? Playing paddle ball? Check out later in the review to find out…

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The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Tajemství hradu v Karpatech) – Oldřich Lipský, 1981

I love old dark house movies, to the point where whenever a discussion comes up with family or friends about the prospect of building a house, I can’t help railroading the conversation into talk of secret passages, secret doors (bookcase or fireplace, I’m not picky), and of course large paintings where I can remove the portrait’s eyes and peek into the room below.

Due to this, Oldřich Lipský’s silly-funny, endlessly inventive spoof Tajemství hradu v Karpatech was a source of absolute delight for me. It’s basically like a Czech version of Murder by Death, a star-studded mystery set in – yes, an old dark house – peppered with jokes so hoary and dumb that they go all the way around the dial to becoming hilarious again.

Mysterious Castle DVD

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What The Mysterious Castle has over Neil Simon’s groaner-fest and other pastiches of the genre is some genuinely inspired proto-steampunk design work by legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, and a visual style all of its own…

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

Ask a film critic what the best Czech film is, and they’ll probably tell you Marketa Lazarová. Ask your average Czech in the street, however, and they’ll more likely say My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková). Menzel’s second Academy award-nominated film frequently comes in higher than Vláčil’s wild and capricious epic in public polls, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s another celebration from Menzel of the gentle wiles of country folk, and another ode to the idyllic simplicity of village life. In short, it’s exactly the kind of thing that goes down like a curry to a pisshead with the Czechs.

The story concerns Otík (János Bán), a lanky, mentally disabled young man who works as an assistant lorry driver with his rotund, bumptious neighbour, Karel Pávek (Marián Labuda). Mr Pávek has had Otík under his wing for five years now, supervising his work and helping the boy with simple tasks like eating with a knife and fork. Otík totally idolizes Pávek, neatly shown by how he wants to match the older man’s step as the walk to the truck depot each morning.

My Sweet Little Village DVD

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However, as the end of the season nears, Mr Pávek is growing increasingly frustrated with Otík’s simple-minded blunders. He asks for Otík to get transferred to another driver for the following year, the surly and mean-spirited Mr Turek (Petr Čepek). Otík isn’t happy with this arrangement, and accepts a mysterious transfer to Prague…

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Smart Phillip (Mazaný Filip) – Václav Marhoul, 2003

Humphrey Bogart. Elliot Gould. Robert Mitchum. Dick Powell. Danny Glover. James Caan. Many great actors have put their unique spin on the role of Raymond Chandler’s classic sleuth, Phillip Marlowe. Then there’s Tomáš Hanák in Mazaný Filip, who looks about as enthusiastic in the part as a PE teacher who’s been browbeaten by his wife into taking part in a murder mystery LARP, when he could be away on a weekend jolly with his rugby teammates instead.

Starting off by criticizing Hanák’s awkward performance is a bit like standing in front of your house after it’s been flattened by a tornado, and worrying that it’s been ages since you last mowed the lawn. It is maybe the least of the problems with this painfully weak detective spoof, which are so wide-ranging and catastrophic that it’s tough to know where to begin. So it might as well be with the lead.

Smart Philip DVD

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The plot of Mazaný Filip is a mish-mash of Chandler-esque story beats. Hanák plays Marlowe, a world-weary detective who spends time between cases peering out through the Venetian blinds in his office, or taking generous slugs from the bottle of liquor that he keeps in his filing cabinet. He’s approached by a character who calls himself “Charlie Brown” (Pavel Liska in an almost unwatchably bizarre performance, which is still not the worst acting in this movie) to find his twin brother…

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A Prominent Patient (Masaryk) – Julius Ševčík, 2016

It was a full house at Kino Art for a Friday night screening of Julius Ševčík’s Masaryk (aka A Prominent Patient), and it made uncomfortable viewing. I was about the last one in and had to sit on the front row, one English guy watching a film about how my country sold out Czechoslovakia with a room full of Czechs.

I grew up thinking that we were unconditionally the good guys. In history class, we learnt a little about the Munich Agreement, saw pictures of Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper and his infamous “Peace for our time” speech. Our teacher never really got into the human consequences of it – who cared about Czechoslovakia anyway? He just wanted to get to the fun stuff, and it was just a prologue before Winston Churchill sparked up a big cigar and guided us to our Finest Hour.

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History is written by the victors, and we were raised on our grandparent’s war stories. Although they all lost friends and family during the war, they always talked about it with pride and nostalgia. Pride in playing their own small part in defeating the Nazis, and nostalgia for the sense of identity and purpose it gave them.

Then I grew up a bit, and found out that we weren’t always the good guys. In fact, there were many occasions when we were the bad guys. That boggled my mind for a while because I’d always been unthinkingly proud of my country’s role in World War II and the world as a whole, and it didn’t occur to me that other countries might not like us very much. Then it dawned on me – perhaps there is a reason no-one votes for us in the Eurovision Song Contest…

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The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil) – Karel Zeman, 1961

“Truth isn’t truth!” – Rudy Giuliani

“You’re fake news!” – Donald Trump

“Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts…” – Kellyanne Conway

I don’t wish to link every single movie I review to current events, but I was curious coming into Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil) to see how it would play in our post-truth world. Here is a beloved literary and cinematic character whose tall stories have enchanted people for over two centuries. But let’s face it, he’s a bullshitter, brazenly embellishing tales of his own amazing feats while deriding his rival as a fantasist – would Munchausen seem so charming in a world where Donald Trump constantly does the same thing, albeit with much less elan? Nowadays our social media feeds are bombarded with stories of people who, not liking the facts, make up their own and then vociferously rage at their opponents as liars. Against this backdrop, can we listen to any more bullshit on our free time?

Thankfully yes, but I’ll come to that later.

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Zeman starts by bringing the Munchausen tale right up to date with a moon landing, and astronaut Tony (Rudolf Jelínek) discovers that he’s not the first to arrive – footprints lead to an old gramophone and a bullet-shaped capsule straight out of Jules Verne’s From Earth to the Moon. He’s greeted by some gentlemen in 18th century clobber who don’t seem phased by lack of oxygen, along with Cyrano de Bergerac and Baron Munchausen. They mistake Tony for an inhabitant of the moon, and the Baron decides to take him to earth to show him how things are done down there. Travelling in a galleon drawn by flying horses, they splash down in 18th century Constantinople, where their fanciful journey begins…

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Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto) – Jiří Menzel, 1967

Unlike where I come from in England, we tend to get long hot summers here in the Czech Republic. The good weather sets in towards the end of April and usually runs through until late September. It’s my ninth summer here now and each year, sometime around late August, when the nights are drawing in and there’s a breath of autumn on the breeze, I’m always struck by a bittersweet feeling. It’s a sense of longing and loss and melancholy, a sensation that has intensified as the years ticked down towards my 40th birthday. Somewhere inside I sigh and think, “Well, that’s another year over.” Followed by a nasty little whisper at the back of my mind, “How many good summers have you got left?”

That bittersweet feeling is captured so beautifully by Jiří Menzel’s Rozmarné Léto. I first saw it very early after we arrived to live in the Czech Republic, and initially I was quite dismissive of it. I hadn’t adjusted to the rhythm and pace of Czech films and to me it felt like a pilot for a sitcom, mainly because of its surface similarity to the long-running British comedy series, Last of the Summer Wine, which followed the shenanigans of three retired blokes in a small town in northern England.

Capricious Summer DVD

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Rozmarné Léto is a perennial favourite in the Czech Republic. It is Menzel’s follow up to his Oscar-nominated Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), adapted from the novel by Vladislav Vančura. It’s a gentle yet neatly observed bedroom face about three old friends whose comfortable boredom is disrupted when a travelling acrobat rolls into town, and each one’s trousers are set a-rustling by his beautiful young assistant.

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I, Olga (Já, Olga Hepnarová) – Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, 2016

I was excited to see Já, Olga Hepnarová as part of a full house crowd on its first release. Often when I watch Czech movies at the cinema the audience is me, the projectionist and his dog, so it was pleasing to see people resisting the lure of the multiplex to support a film as resolutely un-popcorn as this. It’s a sombre arthouse character study of the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.

We meet Hepnarová (Michalina Olszanska) recovering from a failed suicide attempt, and after a spell in a psychiatric hospital she shuns her comfy middle-class family to take work as a truck driver. Bitter and alienated, she lives in semi-squalor in the family’s summer cottage, drinking, smoking and seducing local women. As her mental health deteriorates, she imagines herself the victim of a bullying society and plots callous revenge.

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Up and coming Polish actress Olszanska puts in a fantastic performance as Hepnarová. She never asks for the audience’s sympathy and is immensely watchable despite her permanently glowering countenance.

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