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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3Grapes (3Bobule) – Martin Kopp, 2020

The cinematic threequel is often a recipe for disappointment. The Jaws series had already jumped the shark before the third instalment fouled the water with its cheesy 3D money shots. Francis Ford Coppola waited 16 years before giving us a belated conclusion to The Godfather trilogy – it was an offer everyone was quite happy to refuse. Alien 3 has its defenders but it basically poured cold water over Ripley’s heroics in James Cameron’s rip-roaring second film, turning the franchise into a massive bummer.

Of course, there are some great ones too. Return of the King completed the coronation of Peter Jackson’s Award-festooned adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. On the indie circuit, Before Midnight capped off Richard Linklater’s much-loved trio of romantic walk-and-talks, while in the arthouse field Red was a magnificent conclusion to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy.

So what would happen with 3Grapes, shuffling into theatres in the summer of 2020 after a false start due to the Covid-19 pandemic, eleven years after the previous film? Would it manage to recapture the light and fluffy chemistry of the good-natured original, or maybe carry on trying to raise the stakes like its woeful sequel?

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Pupendo – Jan Hřebejk, 2003

Polivka and Holubova in Pupendo

Apart from being a familiar face in many of the Czech movies I’ve watched over the past two years, Bolek Polívka is omnipresent in my adopted hometown Brno. He stars in public service videos on the trams and peers out of billboards advertising his latest stage performances and is often spotted drinking in the bar at his theatre, Divadlo Bolka Polívky.

His ubiquity also serves director Jan Hřebejk well in his hat trick of turn-of-the-century hits: Cosy DensDivided We Fall and Pupendo.

A bittersweet comedy set in the early ’80s, Pupendo makes an entertaining companion piece to Cosy Dens. They focus on life under Communism, centred around families headed by two very different men, both physically and ideologically…

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Little Baby Jesus (Prijde letos Jezísek?) – Lenka Kny, 2013

Here is the thing about Christmas films – most of them suck.  There are very few true classics, which is why I’m really glad that Die Hard has entered the conversation over the last couple of years. Not only is it an awesome movie, but it is also very Christmassy, once you come to accept it as a legitimate choice as a Christmas flick.

I’ve yet to feel any Christmas tingles this year, so I thought I’d check out some of the Czech festive offerings on Netflix to see if any of them would put me in the mood…

First on my list was Little Baby Jesus (Prijde letos Jezísek?), a romantic comedy from Lenka Kny. As someone leaning more towards Paganism, I’m wary of movies with the word “Jesus” in the title. It is often a sign of a wholesome Christian-themed message movie, and I avoid those like I tend to avoid S&M orgies in abandoned abattoirs. I know people are into both and that’s OK – it’s just not my cup of tea, that’s all.

Buy your copy of Little Baby Jesus from Amazon HERE

So I was about to flick past it to the next film when I saw that it stars veteran Czech actors Josef Abrhám and Libuše Šafránková. The latter was amazing in Three Wishes for Cinderella four decades earlier, perhaps the country’s most famous Christmas film. Would Little Baby Jesus be another festive classic on her resume?

Not exactly, but – I hate to say it – it does have its moments…

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Tiger Theory (Teorie Tygra) – Radek Bajgar, 2016

Tiger Theory review

There is an old Les Dawson joke that goes like this: I said to the chemist, “Can I have some sleeping pills for my wife?” He said, “Why?” I said, “She keeps waking up.”

That is pretty much the attitude of the main character in Tiger Theory, Radek Bajgar’s dramedy about a sixty-something who finds an unconventional way of leaving his controlling wife.

Jan Berger (Jiří Bartoška) is a veterinarian. We first meet him as performs the snip on a tomcat, much to the gratitude of its female owner. It’s a none-too-subtle metaphor for the film’s central thesis, in that most of the male characters feel emasculated by their wives. The only guy who doesn’t has a problem with his sperm and possibly gets cheated on by his free-spirited wife, implying he’s not man enough to get the job done.

The film sets out its stall early, with Berger’s wife Olga (Eliška Balzerovádelivering a lecture to a group of students about the life expectancy of men. They drink more, smoke more and eat unhealthily, all of which affects their longevity. And it is the woman’s lot to keep control of their man’s worst impulses, she asserts.

For the men in Tiger Theory, this equates to endless nagging… Continue reading “Tiger Theory (Teorie Tygra) – Radek Bajgar, 2016”

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem) – Jindřich Polák, 1977

Here’s an obscure piece of UK film folklore… 

One Saturday night in the early ’80s, a man goes home early from the pub to watch the football highlights on Match of the Day. He settles down in front of the TV with a fresh beer, but the broadcast hasn’t started yet. He turns over to see what’s on the other two channels and drops into a strange film about identical twins, time travel and Nazis.

He becomes so engrossed that he watches to the end, missing the footie. On Monday morning he goes to work and tells his mates about this peculiar film, but no-one knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know the title because he missed the start, and trying to elaborate on the plot just makes him sound crazy…

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On the Roof (Na střeše) – Jiří Mádl, 2019

Na střeše 2019

There was a time when every pub and restaurant in Brno seemed to be competing for the title of the city’s best burger. Everyone I knew had an opinion on whose was top, and my own pick wasn’t too popular with pub-owner friends who prided themselves on their homemade patties. 

A new craze put paid to all that nonsense, and we partially have the country’s burgeoning Vietnamese community to thank for that – suddenly everyone was head-over-heels for Bún bò Nam Bô and Bánh mì sandwiches.

Vietnamese immigrants began settling in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era, arriving as guest workers invited by the government. Nowadays Vietnamese people make up the Czech Republic’s third-largest ethnic minority, after Slovaks and Ukrainians.

The first Czech film I’ve seen so far that touches upon the Vietnamese-Czech experience is Jiří Mádl’s On the Roof, a comedy-drama that focuses on the growing friendship between a lonely old man and a desperate young immigrant…

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Tank Battalion (Tankový prapor) – Vít Olmer, 1991

Miroslav Donutil in Tankový Prapor

Vit Olmer’s bawdy comedy Tank Battalion (Tankový prapor) made history as the first privately produced Czech film after the Velvet Revolution. And what did they decide to make a movie about after four decades under an oppressive Communist regime? You’ve guessed it – a movie about life under an oppressive Communist regime…

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Josef Škvorecký, the film is set in 1953. We meet intelligent, demob-happy Staff Sergeant Danny Smiřický (Lukáš Vaculík) who has almost finished his two-year stint in compulsory military service. In between tank manoeuvres and covering his mate’s guard shift in the stockade, there’s little for him to do apart from smoking cigarettes, try to avoid flak from his perpetually enraged commanding officers, and dream about an unobtainable girl he once knew in Prague.

He’s almost made it to the end of his service, but now he risks trouble by getting into an affair with an officer’s lonely wife. Tensions are also growing between the conscripts and the officers, culminating in a dangerous drunken standoff…

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Doubles, aka Doppelgängers (Dvojníci) – Jirí Chlumský, 2016

Dvojnici Doubles

In 1999, a resident of Kansas City, Missouri named Richard Jones was banged up for aggravated robbery. The crime took place across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas, where a woman was knocked to the ground in a Walmart car park by three muggers who made off with her phone. Jones claimed that he was home at the time, but eyewitnesses identified him as one of the culprits. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.

17 years later, Jones was released when police traced the real perpetrator, Ricky Amos, Jones’s “doppelgänger” who lived on the Kansas side of the city…

The idea of the doppelgänger, or a person’s perfect double, has long caught the imagination and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples in literature, film and TV. More often than not, the appearance of a doppelgänger in a character’s life spells trouble.

The well-worn concept is the subject of Jiří Chlumský’s likeable crime comedy Doubles (Dvojníci). Ondřej Sokol has fun in a dual role as two men with a striking similarity to one another: Honza Rambousek, a down-on-his-luck Prague thief in debt to his crime boss, and Richard Prospal, a mild-mannered teacher who is in town for a conference…

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