Hastrman – Ondřej Havelka, 2018

Hastrman 2018

One of my favourite folk tales from back home is the Wild Man of Orford, a small coastal village not far from where I grew up. In the 12th Century, a group of local fishermen hauled their nets to discover they’d caught a strange naked man covered in greenish hair. He was taken to the nearby castle for interrogation, but after six months his torturers realised he wasn’t able to speak. 

After that they let him exercise in the sea, stringing nets across the harbour so he couldn’t escape. The Wild Man easily swam under them, but each time he returned willingly to the castle. Eventually, he tired of life on the land, slipped under the nets one last time and vanished out to sea.

A similar water-dwelling character from the landlocked Czech Republic is the vodník, or hastrman, a water goblin popular in fairytales and made famous by folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben in his collection of ballads, Kytice. The creature lives in bodies of water and is capable of drowning the unwary if he’s in a bad mood, or providing bumper catches of fish for the locals if kept happy with sacrifices and offerings…

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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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Bathory: Countess of Blood – Juraj Jakubisko, 2008

Bathory bathing in virgin blood (allegedly)

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most prolific female murderer of all time was Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman. She is said to have murdered over 600 young women, practising vampirism and bathing in their blood to preserve her own youth and beauty.

Now I don’t know what the verification process is for the Guinness Book of records (it’s been a long time since my own unsuccessful attempt to build the world’s largest pyramid out of empty beer cans) but this seems like an iffy one to me. Many of the testimonies were based on hearsay from superstitious bumpkins or extracted from “witnesses” by torture. The exact kill count is thought to be greatly exaggerated.

Buy your copy of Bathory: Countess of Blood from Amazon HERE

Going to bat for poor old Elizabeth is veteran Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko with Bathory: Countess of Blood, an expensively mounted Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and British co-production. Setting out its stall as a revisionist historical epic, the movie veers wildly between horror, political intrigue and bodice-ripping romance, with some wacky comic touches thrown in for good measure – monks on clockwork rollerskates, for example.

In short, it’s a pretty kooky way to try clearing someone’s name, as Jakubisko attempts to rescue Báthory from the naughty step of history by spinning his own unreliable yarn…

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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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Voyage to the End of the Universe (Ikarie XB-1) – Jindřich Polák, 1963

Influential sci-fi Ikarie XB-1

Despite the turmoil currently on planet earth, things are looking more optimistic up in space. Only last week scientists announced that they have picked up potential signs of life on Venus and, depending on the sources, a manned mission to Mars could launch within the next 10-20 years. Ambitious initiatives like Breakthrough Starshot are looking even further afield, with a vision of sending a tiny unmanned probe to investigate exoplanets orbiting our next-door neighbour in the cosmos, Alpha Centauri.

Long-distance space travel raises many physical and mental challenges for potential crew members. How will we keep our bodies from wasting away without gravity for our muscles to fight against? How will our minds cope with the isolation and the knowledge that, for future colonists of distant planets, it may be a one-way ticket? Will there be a decent curry house, and do they take visa?

Buy Ikarie XB-1 on Amazon here

Some of these questions are tackled in Jindřich Polák’s visionary sci-fi thriller, Ikarie XB-1. Based on The Magellanic Cloud by legendary science fiction author Stanisław Lem, it charts the adventures of the crew of a near-light speed ship, Ikarie XB-1, on its 28-month mission to Alpha Centauri…

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Gangster Ka (2015) – Jan Pachl

The first thing you’ll become aware of while watching Gangster Ka is that people talk about money. A lot. And by a lot I mean all the time – in the first half an hour, I was so bombarded by characters I’d barely met talking about large sums of cash that I considered breaking out the abacus to help keep up.

So what? You might think. Gangsters like money, don’t they?

Of course they do, but it got me thinking about how true classics of the gangster genre aren’t really about money at all. Take Goodfellas, for example. There’s plenty of cash floating around throughout the movie, and at one point some characters pull off a lucrative airport heist. Yet while our protagonist Henry Hill sure enjoys the money, it’s the life of a gangster that he’s addicted to. And, through his eyes, we are too.

The main problem with Gangster Ka is that it thinks the most interesting thing about its protagonist, Radim Kraviec (Hynek Čermák), is how much loot he’s making through his various scams. Ironically, this preoccupation with cash really cheapens an otherwise routine crime thriller.

Kraviec, based loosely on the real-life crime boss Radovan Krejčíř, is a mobster from Ostrava who heads a gang of Albanian criminals. Deciding the city is too small for him, he sets his sights on Prague and wastes no time hustling his way into some big scores, such as taking over Čepro, a company that owns the whole country’s fuel supplies. Along the way, he double-crosses the capital’s established kingpins, Milota (Miroslav Etzler) and Sivák (Alexej Pyško), and gains a glamourous wife, Sandra (Vlastina Svátková). His next goal is muscling into politics, with a view to getting the future Prime Minister in his pocket.

Things quickly go south when an associate informs on his plan to make his 3 billion Čepro tax bill disappear, and Kraviec finds himself doing porridge while his lawyer and his loyal lieutenant Dardan (Predrag Bjelac) busy themselves bribing judges to ensure his quick release. Meanwhile, Milota and Sivák realize it’s the perfect time to seek revenge…

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Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor) – Juraj Herz, 1978

Panna a Netvor 1

From subterranean lairs beneath Paris opera houses to the belfries of Notre Dame, it’s a story we’ve heard time and time again. Here’s another version – boy is a giant ape from Skull Island who falls in love with a human girl; girl freaks out because the boy is a giant ape who’s carrying her around like a rag doll. Boy snaps a few dinosaur necks to protect her, and the girl suddenly realises he’s just a big sweetie inside. Girl goes back to New York and the boy is captured, goes on a rampage through the city. Boy finds girl again and drags her to the top of the Empire State Building, where gets shot down by some biplanes. Just in case the viewer missed the influence, the original King Kong concludes with the line: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

The format first found widespread popularity in Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 fairytale, La Belle et la Bête, although the story itself can be traced to much older myths like Cupid and Psyche in the 2nd Century AD – hence the lyric “Tale as old as time” in the Disney version.

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Filmmakers were relatively late in making a movie version of the story, starting with Jean Cocteau’s revered La Belle et la Bête in 1946, widely regarded as the definitive film adaptation of the tale. Then, of course, there was the Disney version, a prized asset in the House of Mouse’s Renaissance in the 90s.

Before and since there have been many other adaptations, including Juraj Herz’s 1978 Panna a Netvor. With Herz, the mastermind behind The Cremator and Morgiana, in charge, it’s safe to say you’re not going to get any singing teapots in this version…

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All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci) – Vojtěch Jasný, 1968

All My Good Countrymen cinematography

When people find out that I write about Czech movies, one of the questions they sometimes ask is: why are so many Czech films about the Communist era?

The example I always use is this: I’m from England, and such a large part of our national identity is defined by World War II, which lasted six years. Three iconic events from the conflict – Dunkirk, the Blitz, and the Battle of Britain – are still touchstones in our collective conscience and influence how we think of ourselves as a people. Even seventy-odd years later, nostalgia for the war played a part in the campaign to leave the European Union.

And, of course, we’re still making successful movies about it.

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Czechoslovakia, by comparison, spent over forty years in the clutches of a Communist regime, only to regain independence relatively recently. It’s little wonder that the period still exerts such a powerful hold on the Czech national psyche and is ingrained so deeply in the country’s culture. Not only that, but forty years is a long time, so even films that aren’t directly about it still have life under communism very present as background scenery. We can probably expect Czech cinema to go on exploring those decades of subjugation for many years to come…

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Food (Jídlo) – Jan Švankmajer, 1992

Svankmajer's Jidlo (Food)

Introducing Jan Švankmajer (Alice) to anyone always nets you a reputation for being a weirdo. From the word go, Food’s style is absurd and choppy, often very naturalistic, and more than a little risqué. But I think it’s well worth anyone’s time – so please indulge this weirdo as I talk about Švankmajer’s 1992 film Food and why it’s a lesser-known gem of Czech cinema.

Food contains three shorts films – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – that are thematically connected. They all contain some sort of food consumption (surprisingly) but there is often a twist that turns the simple daily rituals to downright bizarre affairs. In sixteen minutes, Food shows people who turn into machines, hungry diners devouring their clothes, and various kinds of gourmands digging into their own body-parts. So yeah, there’s a lot going on…

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Wild Flowers (Kytice) – F.A. Brabec, 2000

Vodnik Dan Barta Kytice 2000

Like a struggling Hogwarts student about to flunk their final exam, F.A Brabec fails to conjure the requisite magic to transform Wild Flowers into something completely worth watching. Flashy visuals and a strong cast can’t disguise the fact that this is an extremely patchy anthology based on the ballads of Czech folklorist, Karel Jaromir Erben…

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