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.

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.

The Girl on a Broomstick is endearingly cheerful throughout and Černocká, a singer who also provided the ridiculously catchy theme tune, is an appealing lead. She plays Saxana with the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and sassiness, and her performance has dated better than some of the others. Otherwise, much of the acting is pretty panto-level stuff, especially among Saxana’s classmates and teachers at school. Helena Ruzicková (The Slunce, Seno… trilogy) has a cameo as Saxana’s roommate during her brief stay on a psychiatric ward.

The film zips along and the special effects, while primitive, are used effectively and with gusto. Although dated and very lo-fi, The Girl on a Broomstick is still capable of casting a happy spell over kids and their parents, so it’s a great pick for families with young children learning Czech. My four-year-old daughter loved it, and I won’t be terribly put out by having to watch it again with her.

A belated and poorly received sequel, Saxána a Lexikon kouzel (Little Witch on a Broomstick), arrived in 2011.

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You can pick up a copy of The Girl on a Broomstick at Amazon. Just click on the cover art below –

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.

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.

Adapted from Ladislav Fuks’ novel, The Cremator is a rare example of a Czech horror film. Herz creates an intensely disturbing atmosphere through the use of stark black and white photography, tight close-ups on people’s eyes and mouths to create a sense of dreadful intimacy, and bold edits to further discombobulate the viewer. Zdeněk Liška’s ethereal score adds another layer of eeriness.

The subject matter may be grim, but there are two things that make The Cremator one of the most easily re-watchable Czech films I’ve seen to date: Herz’s intuitive direction, and Rudolf Hrušínský as Kopfrkingl.

Some of the film making here is absolutely breathtaking. There are hidden transitions between scenes that made me want to stand up and perform a one-man Mexican Wave … while I was watching it alone in my front room. In one scene, Kopfrkingl is sermonizing at a carnival barker about disease and modern science. While he’s talking he unbuttons his shirt cuff, rolls up his sleeve, and starts flexing his arm. It makes absolutely no sense in the context of the scene he’s in. But then we cut to a close-up of a needle penetrating a vein, and suddenly we’re in the doctor’s office with Kopfrkingl getting a blood test.

Only in hindsight do we realize that he’s warming up for the jab in the previous scene, totally separated by time and space – it has a really astonishing effect. Herz uses several of these transitions through the film, creating a further sense of dislocation.

Then you have Hrušínský. It’s early doors in my journey through Czech cinema and he was quickly becoming my favourite Czech actor. His massive performance as Kopfrkingl sealed the deal. He’s incredible here in a fully realized, minutely observed performance, all the way down to Kopfrkingl’s petty eyes and little self-satisfied twitches of the lips; his courtly manner and how he uses his substantial bulk to intimidate people around him; the hand laid calmly yet threateningly on their necks; the way he tenderly combs the hair of the deceased, then subconsciously uses the same comb on his own hair. 

When Kopfrkingl finally tips over into violence the most disturbing aspect about it is the complete lack of aggression. “The banality of evil” is a phrase so overused that it has become banal itself, but Kopfrkingl is a perfect example. Once he’s decided on a victim, it’s totally passionless. I was reminded of Passolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom where, under the influence of a fascist regime, people become accustomed to performing the most heinous and depraved actions as a matter of course.

It also made me think about Divided We Fall, which showed how difficult it was for decent people to make a stand against the Nazis and do the right thing. The Cremator is the opposite, showing how easy it is for someone to fall under the influence of a pernicious ideology and enthusiastically do its bidding.

Blackly comic, masterfully crafted and extremely disturbing, The Cremator is a Czech horror masterpiece that deserves to be seen by a far wider audience, especially in our current troubled times.

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You can get a copy of The Cremator Blu-Ray over at Amazon.co.uk – click here!

Seclusion Near a Forest (Na samotě u lesa) – Jiří Menzel, 1976

There can be no greater picture of contentment than a Czech guy standing with a beer in his hand, meat on the grill, and his feet in the grass on a summer’s day. Czechs rarely need an excuse to evacuate the towns and cities at the weekends and holidays and head out to the forests, lakes and hills, where many still own a vacation cottage. They genuinely seem to draw spiritual energy from contact with their nature, which stands in stark contrast to back home in Britain. For many urban dwelling Brits, a trip to the countryside is something to be dutifully endured rather than enjoyed. This may be the reason that we have folk horror, and the Czechs have gentle folk comedies like Na samotě u lesa.

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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?

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Cosy Dens (Pelíšky) – Jan Hřebejk, 1999

Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) is an immensely satisfying tragicomedy set in the months preceding the fateful Prague Spring of 1968. It’s a robust family drama featuring some wonderfully poignant comic performances from a formidable cast of Czech and Slovak character actors.

The picture opens in the winter of ’67, and lovelorn teenager Michal  Šebek (Michael Beran) wants to end it all. He is hopelessly in love with his upstairs neighbour Jindřiška (Kristýna Nováková). The trouble is, she is going out with his much cooler mate Elien (Ondřej Brousek), who gets all the latest movies, music and fashion from his parents living in the States.

To make matters worse, her father, Mr Kraus (Jiří Kodet) is a rabid anticommunist and war hero, and often has flaming rows with Michal’s own father. Mr Šebek (Miroslav Donutil) is a staunch supporter of the Communist government, an army officer so petty and regimented that he types out a weekly menu for his family.

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Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) – Jiří Menzel, 1966

Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) is probably one of the best known Czech films beyond the country’s borders, having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. Adapted from Bohumil Hrabal’s slender novel, it was also the first Czech movie I saw by a long way, years before the idea of even visiting the country crossed my mind, let alone immigrating here.

I was pretty underwhelmed on first viewing – it was when I was first getting heavily into film, after the treble-whammy of Pulp Fiction, Seven and Trainspotting first made me conscious that there was a director behind the camera making decisions resulting in the movie I saw up there on the big screen. I could handle the nonlinear structure of QT’s early efforts, but struggled a bit with the rhythm and pace of my first Czech movie – having been brought up on a diet of largely British and American films, usually with a distinct beginning, middle and end, Closely Watched Trains seemed a lot like all middle with a little bit of end.

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