Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české) – Jiří Trnka, 1953

After a lean and troubled wartime era, Walt Disney started the 50s with a trio of the studio’s most beloved films – Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. This was the Silver Age of Disney, and it lasted until Uncle Walt passed away during the production of The Jungle Book in 1966.

Around the same time across the Iron Curtain, Jiří Trnka, a Czech film maker referred to as the “Walt Disney of the East” was creating a stunning series of hand-crafted animated features. After an early career illustrating children’s books and learning puppetry, he made his own animated shorts at the end of WWII. His first film with stop motion puppet animation was The Czech Year (Špalíček), which detailed the rites and customs of a small Czech village. It was well-received internationally, picking up prizes in Paris and Venice.

After two more features, The Emperor’s Nightingale and Prince Bayaya, his next major work was Old Czech Legends, based on Alois Jirásek’s novel. Divided into seven parts, it takes us way back to the mythological foundation of the Czech nation. It opens with a dramatic note of despair as a tribe is mourning the death of their kind and noble leader, Forefather Čech. In a flashback, we see how they came to the Vltava after a long and arduous journey and rested near Říp mountain. Čech scaled the mountain alone and saw the bounteous and beautiful land all around him, and declared that this was the place for his people. In gratitude, they insist on naming the country after him…

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Jan Palach – Robert Sedláček, 2018

The nominations for this year’s Academy Awards dropped this week, and the Best Picture category includes no less than two of the most Oscar-baiting of movie genres: the biographical feature. Biopics often tend to be well made and impressively acted, with an air of respectability that makes them very awards-friendly. However, they are also limited by the cinematic medium itself, trying to cram the remarkable events of a complex human being’s life into the time it would take that person to… well, watch a movie.

Robert Sedláček’s Jan Palach makes things a little easier for itself by narrowing the focus to the last year or so of the martyr’s life. After a brief intro set in 1952, where we see Palach as a young child lost in the snowy woods, we fast forward all the way to 1967 where he is now a student (Viktor Zavadil) digging ditches at a work camp in Kazakhstan. The work is hard and the food is basically gruel, but the sun is shining and there are girls to chat up. Here we get some sense of Palach’s strength of character when he sticks up for a Russian pal who gets in trouble with the Communist camp boss for boycotting the food.

After that, it’s back to Prague where Palach spends his time juggling his studies, a rather chaste romance with his girlfriend Helenka (Denisa Barešová) and visiting his widowed mother, a Communist Party member who can’t resist opening her son’s mail if it looks any way official. He gets accepted to Charles University and enjoys being in the presence of lively, politically engaged fellow students. In the background is increasing unrest, culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968.

Palach is enjoying another work-holiday in the vineyards of France when news of the Warsaw Pact troops subduing the rebellion reaches him. He returns home to Prague to find civilians standing up to tanks and guns without any backing from the Czechoslovak authorities, and sometimes paying with their lives.

Palach and his girlfriend are involved when a student protest is brutally put down by the police, and both take a beating for their troubles. Scared and demoralised, the student activists start shying away from further action, leading Palach to devise a shocking solo demonstration of his own…

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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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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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Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení) – Ivan Passer, 1965

Ivan Passer Intimate Lighting

I recently moved from Brno to a small village of about 500 people, which is something I thought I’d never do. I’ve always loved the city and the countryside freaks me out. Sometimes I get spooked when I’m out trudging the lanes and wood trying to fill in the blanks around me – it is the absence of people that makes it so unnerving. Occasionally I’ll stumble upon a cross or a shrine set starkly against a frozen cornfield or a big empty sky, and it seems more imposing than the huge churches and cathedrals that get a little lost in the hustle and bustle of city life.

Out in the countryside, it feels like mankind has sprouted out of the earth along with their dwellings over the millennia. In the dark months of winter, the village air is full of woodsmoke. It’s the first time I have really thought about the fact that people grow trees just to chop them down and burn them to keep warm. Similarly, some village folk grow their own creatures to kill, disembowel and eat. It all seems a bit medieval after a lifetime of central heating and buying pre-murdered supermarket chickens in the same way I might choose an apple, checking for size, shape and blemishes before dropping one into my basket.

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These observations bring me, in a roundabout way, to Intimate Lighting. The divide between city and the village seems more sharply felt in the Czech Republic than back home in the UK, and many Czech films revolve around this dichotomy. One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Passer’s mini-masterpiece is how it explores this theme in such a hushed, minutely detailed way…

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In the Shadow (Ve stínu) – David Ondříček, 2012

Ve Stinu 2012 In the Shadow

Around the time U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was fervently whipping up fear of Communism during the Red Scares of the 40s and 50s, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was conducting witch hunts of its own. The purpose of these show trials was twofold – to trick citizens into believing that the country was under threat from real and imagined enemies, and to frighten the populace into staying in line while the regime consolidated its power. Over 250 people were executed as a direct result, while many others were incarcerated or sent to work camps.

In the Shadow is a sombre paranoid thriller set against this backdrop of fear and intimidation, in the run-up to the devaluation of the country’s currency which left many Czechs and Slovaks facing financial hardship.

It might seem churlish to call it a paranoid thriller when the regime really was oppressing, torturing and vanishing people, but I mean it in a positive sense. The film is in the tradition of the classic American paranoid thrillers of the 70s, like The Parallax View, The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor. It also recalls Chinatown with its period setting, noir-ish touches and a larger public scandal running in the background. And, in evoking the Hollywood style, it plays more like a straightforward thriller than a typical low-key Czech movie. With more violence, too.

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The film opens on a dark rainy night where we meet with two small-time crooks as they break into an office and rob a stash of gold and jewels from a safe. It seems a fairly straightforward case for Captain Jarda Hakl (Ivan Trojan), the methodical detective assigned to investigate. However, a planted clue leads him to another “suspect” instead, a middle-aged Jewish chap named Kirsch (played with hunted intensity by Miroslav Krobot).

Hakl smells B.S. straight away as Kirsch’s alibi holds up – he was locked up in a drunk tank on the night of the robbery. Nevertheless, the patsy confesses to the crime and State Security agents muscle into the case. To further stoke his suspicions, a German agent called Zenke (Sebastian Koch, who also starred in the similarly-themed The Lives of Others) takes up residence in Hakl’s apartment building and seems to pay more attention to his wife and kid than he does…

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Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Tenkrát v ráji) – Lordan Zafranović, Peter Pálka & Dan Krzywoň

World War II has provided inspiration for movies for over 80 years now, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of incredible tales. Sometimes I wonder, though, when I see a film as weak as Once Upon a Time in Paradise, whether the well is drying up and people are starting to run out of ideas.

That may seem unfair on the source material, Josef Urban’s novel and the true story that inspired it. It sounds like rousing stuff on paper – a talented rock climber hides from the Nazis in the wilderness, evading capture for years – and maybe that is where it should have stayed. It was a similar situation with the Laurent Binet’s page-turner HHhH – an intensely gripping read that spawned two insipid film versions. Maybe not every book needs a movie adaptation.

After a Saving Private Ryan-style bookend we meet Josef Smítka (Vavřinec Hradilek, an Olympic medal-winning canoeist in his first film role) hiking in the Tatras with his best friend Heinrich (Petr Smíd). They are on their way to tackle the Gerlach Peak, the highest mountain in the range. Along the way, they spot a beautiful young woman swimming naked in an alpine lake.

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The woman turns out to be Vlasta Brázdová (Vica Kerekes), a well-known writer and accomplished climber who is married to a much older man, the possessive painter Ota (Miroslav Etzler). Josef – or Joska to his friends – is instantly smitten. When the two friends run into trouble on the mountainside, it is Vlasta who abseils to rescue them…

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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.

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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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