A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech) – Věra Chytilová, 1962

Perhaps more than any other film of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Věra Chytilová’s anarchic Daisies has transcended its origins and become an arthouse darling. The Criterion Collection hails it as “one of the great works of feminist cinema” and it is only one of two Czech movies to make the exalted Sight and Sound Top 250, the other being Marketa Lazarova. Over 50 years later, it still attracts attention from modern film buffs thanks to its absurd humour, zeitgeisty vibe and abundance of sixties style.

Chytilová made many other films, including the popular comedy The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday, but Daisies remains her most famous work. Sometimes when a director is so closely associated with one film it is fun to look back at their earlier catalogue to see how their style developed. With this in mind, I thought I’d check out her second short feature, A Bagful of Fleas

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A Report on the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech) – Jan Němec, 1966

Political satire can take many forms, but sometimes all that’s required is some actors, a few tables and chairs, and a patch of woodland. That’s all Jan Němec needed for A Report on the Party and the Guests, his abstract but high impact critique of life under communist rule in Czechoslovakia. It was considered scathing enough that it allegedly had Antonín Novotný, the president at the time, climbing the walls.

The concept of A Report on the Party and the Guests is about as simple as it gets. A group of middle-aged, middle-class lovers are having a picnic in a peaceful glade on a hot summer’s day. There is plenty of food and drink to go around, the weather is warm, and the friends are enjoying each other’s company. After freshening up in a babbling brook, the group are accosted by a shady little man in squeaky shoes – we later find out his name is Rudolf (Jan Klusák) – and his thuggish-looking cohorts.

Rudolf and his gang bundle the picnickers away to a clearing where he subjects them to an impromptu interrogation. The group are separated into men and women and locked up in an imaginary prison marked by a line drawn in the dirt, with two rocks representing a door.

The picnickers uneasily play along with Rudolf’s game for a while, with Josef (Jiří Němec) acting as their spokesperson. Conversely, Karel (Karel Mareš) gets fed up and grumpily storms off, crossing the line of their prison. In response, Rudolf instructs his mob to chase after the escapee and torment him a bit.

The game is interrupted by a suave older gent in a shining white jacket, known only as the Host (Ivan Vyskočil). He apologises for Rudolf’s actions and charms the group, especially the ladies, and invites them to his birthday banquet by the lake. The picnickers are quickly intermingled with the other guests when they are all assigned seating away from each other. Any complaints are forgotten with the plentiful food and drink on offer, and Josef is rewarded for his attempt to parley with a seat at the head table.

As the celebrations progress, it soon becomes apparent that one of the picnickers, a taciturn man who quietly refused to suck up to the Host previously, has discreetly left the party…

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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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Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání) – Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, 1963

Sometimes a film just doesn’t grab me at all and then I’m sat looking at a blank document thinking, “I don’t know if I can be bothered to write anything about this”. It is extra frustrating when I can see the film’s qualities, but feel so neutral towards it that I struggle to muster any enthusiasm.

One such film is Juráček & Schmidt’s Joseph Kilian, a paranoid short drama from the Czechoslovak New Wave. Knowing that the review is going to be a battle, I face a dilemma. Do I –

a) Give up on the movie and watch something else, then maybe come back another time when a change of mood or circumstances might make it chime differently.

b) Plough ahead regardless and eke out 700-800 words on it, going through the motions and stating the obvious, like the clear influence of Franz Kafka and blah blah blah.

Or

c) Find a hook, a way to approach the film that will entertain me and, in turn, hopefully make the article more entertaining for the reader. My first instinct with Joseph Kilian is to go with option C, but what is the hook?

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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.

Buy your copy of In the Shadow from Amazon HERE

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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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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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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