February 2021 – 1st Attempt
Phew! I’ve finally made it to 100 posts! It has been quite a ride with plenty of great movies along the way, but it wasn’t always a smooth one. This time last year the blog was languishing at around 25 reviews and I was struggling to find the enthusiasm to carry on with it. Firstly, I hadn’t seen enough films to fully eradicate the more negative preconceptions I had about Czech movies at that point. Secondly, I realised that I’d picked a topic so niche that almost no-one was visiting the site, which was a little disheartening…
So to celebrate reaching the 100th post I’ve decided to create a top 25 list of my favourite Czech movies so far. It was a tough task with plenty of soul searching involved, and you will see that there are some notable exclusions. This is partly because I have tried to capture the sheer diversity of the films I’ve seen to date, which means some very good movies got the chop!
From the beginning, this project was intended as my personal exploration of Czech cinema, trying to get a handle on it from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider. Therefore I have also tried to make a list that might be handy for someone who wants to get into Czech movies but isn’t sure where to start. Trying to make a list packed with great picks for other people while also staying true to both my personal taste and critical pretension wasn’t always easy. Take for example Jiří Menzel. I have some misgivings about his films – many of them are basically the same – but he is such a huge presence in Czech cinema that I still ended up with four on my list. It will be interesting to see if they get whittled down as I see more movies in the future.
Also, I have tried to give modern Czech movies a fair shout. I know there is a common belief that Czech cinema isn’t a patch on its heyday in the 60s and 70s, and that is probably true. However, there are some very solid movies from this century out there – films like Zelary, The Snake Brothers, and The Teacher wouldn’t look out of place on the Best Foreign Language ballot at the Oscars. Nevertheless, they still lack the magic of the classic stuff and it is a reflection of this that none of my top 10 is less than 40 years old.
Speaking of which, it is crazy when you look at the quality of the stuff being made in this country during the Czechoslovak New Wave. Talk about troubled times producing great art. The cinematic movement was already well underway before the Prague Spring, yet the sheer explosion of gobsmacking films concentrated around that historic time is simply dazzling.
Before we get into the list, I also want to mention that I would still be some way off the 100 mark without the terrific contributions of Kai-Ming, Jakub, Jack and Catherine. Although I originally intended this as a purely personal blog, I did accept a little help to bulk out the content. Otherwise, with my rate of production, it would only be useful as a resource sometime around the dawn of the next epoch. Thanks guys! So let’s get cracking!
I’ll update the list on a semi-regular basis, every 25 or 50 films or so. I might also do a Bottom 10 at some point as well…
#25. Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy) – Karel Zeman, 1958
I grew up loving Ray Harryhausen monster movies and the fantastic tales of Jules Verne, so it is no wonder I was quickly smitten with the films of Czech animation genius Karel Zeman. Popping up on Netflix, Invention for Destruction came as a tonic during a shitty lockdown period. It a lighthearted ripping yarn involving a secret weapon, a fabulous steam-powered submarine, a dashing hero, a master criminal in his volcano lair. Zeman’s inventions and the mastery of his craft are a constant delight, and it is great entertainment for kids, too.
“Shooting in crisp black and white, Zeman employs an astonishing array of special effects and camera trickery to recreate the look and feel of the engravings from the Jules Verne novels. Live-action footage is frequently sandwiched between several panes of foreground and background to make it look like the characters are moving within an illustration. Zeman laboriously added a cross-hatched pattern to almost everything to complete the illusion.” Read the full review HERE
#24. My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková) – Jiří Menzel, 1985
Jiří Menzel, who sadly passed away last year, was a massive figure in Czech cinema. I tried to limit the number of his films I included in this list but despite my best efforts, I still ended up with four. I have difficulty ranking his work because as entertaining as they undoubtedly are, all the ones I’ve seen so far has basically been the same, and you could argue a case for the inclusion of any of them. The Oscar-nominated My Sweet Little Village is a charming, heart-warming comedy about the relationship between a disabled young man and his long-suffering neighbour and work colleague. Menzel regular Rudolf Hrušínský also appears as a gruff doctor.
“Menzel never misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of rural living over life in the big city. To this end, Hrušínský serves as a spokesperson, delivering lengthy passages of verse about the beauteous countryside, and reminding his fellow village folk that life isn’t so bad while they have beer, woodland, and gorgeous girls following the city trend of wearing no bra. The film basically says: chill out, grab a cold one and enjoy your lot in life, because it’s all pretty sweet.” Read the full review HERE
#23. Beauty and the Beast (Panna a netvor) – Juraj Herz, 1978
The tale may be as old as time but there are few more gruesome versions than Herz’s intensely dark and atmospheric adaptation. The Beauty part might just be the weakest aspect of the film but The Beast is truly frightening and psychotic creation. From the scary opening attack to the Beast’s fog-shrouded mansion, Herz takes the story deep into horror territory, and I loved it.
“Herz’s vision is definitely not for kids, striking a gloomy pop gothic tone that’s somewhere between Hammer horror pea-soupers and Andrew Lloyd Webber – it’s hard to listen to Petr Hapka’s hyperbolically ominous organ score without thinking of Webber’s megahit stage production The Phantom of the Opera that arrived several years later. The film opens with a caravan of merchant carriages lost in a bewitched forest in dense fog…” Read the full review HERE
#22. Those Wonderful Years that Sucked (Báječná léta pod psa) – Petr Nikolaev,1997
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a general loathing of Michael Viewegh adaptations, so just to show it’s no irrational beef I also have one in my Top 25. Those Wonderful Years that Sucked is a genuinely touching coming-of-age tale that spans three decades in the life of a regular family, from the Prague Spring to just after the Velvet Revolution. Despite a few typically queasy Vieweghian moments, I would still say it makes a great introduction to Czech movies and films about life under Communism.
“Much of the charm of Those Wonderful Years That Sucked is the skilful way Nikolaev spans such a long period of time, never losing focus of the dangers facing the family while maintaining an upbeat, comic tone. Even the final third, where the father is driven to the verge of a mental breakdown by the constant fear of surveillance, is treated with a featherlight touch and is all the more effective for it. So many comedy-dramas grind to a halt when things get serious, an obstacle Nikolaev’s film hurdles with bagfuls of good grace.” Read the full review HERE
#21. Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu) – Jan Švankmajer, 1983
Legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer is such a huge figure that I had to include at least one of his works. I was originally going with Alice, thinking it would be a safe introduction because almost everyone is familiar with the source material. The trouble is, Švankmajer’s style is often so aggressive and unsettling that it becomes a little arduous when drawn out to feature-length. Dimensions of Dialogue has all the best things about his visionary work packed into a very manageable 14-minutes – tactile stop-motion animation, a mordant sense of humour and a riot of ideas.
“While it may be short, Dimensions of Dialogue is vivid, vulgar, gross, funny, and best of all, thought-provoking. If you like movies to give you something to think about, you should delve deeper into the weird world of Jan Švankmajer.” Read the full review HERE
#20. Sun, Hay, Strawberries (Slunce, seno, jahody) – Zdeněk Troška, 1983
I know a few people will think I’ve lost my mind by including this movie on my list! People either really love Troška’s bawdy comedy or they really, really, really hate it. I think what that boils down to is that it portrays rural Czechs a little too accurately for some people’s taste and they feel embarrassed by it. It is definitely no great work of art, but my aim from the beginning of the blog was to review all Czech movies, not just the classics. Despite how lowbrow Sun, Hay, Strawberries obviously is, I think it is a genuinely important cultural item. It’s a little like the Carry On movies in Britain, reflecting a certain aspect of the people and their country. Plus it made me laugh more than some of the more well-respected comedy classics!
“Make no mistake, Slunce, Seno, Jahody is extremely loud, crude and stupid. To give an example of the level of humour, one scene features a senile old lady trying to hide a turd from her overbearing daughter. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. However, the film has a directness that I appreciated, unlike the ponderous pace of so many Czech movies I’ve seen so far. It bounces along nicely with goofy energy that I found genuinely charming.” Read the full review HERE
#19. The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Tajemství hradu v Karpatech) – Oldřich Lipský, 1981
It seems that Oldřich Lipský was taking it upon himself to keep his compatriots chuckling through the dark times with his quirky movies, from the pastiche western Lemonade Joe to the story-in-reverse Happy End. I get the sense that The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is considered one of his lesser efforts, but it gets my pick for three reasons – I absolutely love old dark house movies, it’s really funny, and it has a note of fatalistic sadness that made it linger more than the others.
“It’s a fun jaunt, struck through by touches of the macabre and the occasional tinge of genuine melancholy. Otherwise, it’s just an entertaining connect-the-dots between the film’s copious points of reference, from the Fogg-Passepartout dynamic between the Count and Ignac to the retro-futuristic contraptions designed by Jan Švankmajer…” Read the full review HERE
#18. The Teacher (Učitelka) – Jan Hřebejk, 2016
There are many Czech films about life under Communism, but The Teacher pays impressively close attention to someone who is empowered by her obedience to the regime. Hřebejk tells the true story of a teacher who abuses her position as a Communist party member with the efficiency of a good 90s psycho thriller. Zuzana Mauréry is award-winningly nasty and conniving as the corrupt teacher.
“Just as Nurse Ratched [in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest] was a totemic figure of ‘The Man’ in US counterculture, Drazdechová is emblematic of the Communist regime as a whole, and the parents and children become a microcosm of the Czechoslovak society of the era. Those willing to conform and sacrifice their ideals are rewarded, while those standing up to the authorities (personified by the teacher) are punished…” Read the full review HERE
#17. Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) – Jiří Menzel, 1969
Entry number two for Menzel, adapted again from a work by his friend and regular collaborator Bohumil Hrabal. Larks on a String is unusually sarcastic for a Menzel joint, openly making fun of the Communist regime. As a result, it was banned until 1990 by the authorities. The setting is also different, taking place in a huge city scrapyard rather than one of the director’s usual countryside idyls. It feels a little dated compared to his more timeless classics, but it is a genuinely compassionate film with plenty of satirical bite.
“It’s a testament to Menzel’s magnanimity that he depicts them [the Communist party members] with almost as much compassion as the prisoners. His refusal to demonize the other side during a time of oppression is reminiscent of the wartime works of Powell and Pressburger, who angered Winston Churchill by portraying a great friendship between a British and German soldier in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” Read the full review HERE
#16. The Snake Brothers (Kobry a užovky) – Jan Prušinovský, 2015
The Snake Brothers is easily one of the best modern Czech films I’ve seen to date. It’s a gripping crime drama about a loser desperately trying to make something of his life, but constantly finding himself neck-deep in shit thanks to his incorrigibly dodgy younger brother. Matěj Hádek puts in some solid work while his real-life bro Kryštof, usually such a lightweight presence, puts in a showy but impressively edgy performance.
“The Snake Brothers is a world of shady pubs, forgotten shopping precincts, seedy pawnshops, dismal karaoke nights and crappy discos with empty dancefloors. Within this milieu, Prušinovský displays an assured eye for the details of everyday working-class life. Like Shane Meadows, his characters inhabit a dead-end world, but he doesn’t wallow in their misery. He goes for a blackly comic tone that also celebrates the tenacity and pithy humour of the working class.” Read the full review HERE
#15. Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) – Jan Hřebejk, 2000
Hřebejk followed up the perennial favourite Cosy Dens with the Oscar-nominated Divided we Fall, a suspenseful black comedy about a couple harbouring a Jewish friend and colleague from the Nazis during World War II. Hřebejk gets outstanding work from his lead actors, balancing Polívka’s carefully nuanced performance with Jaroslav Dušek’s OTT turn as a loathsome Nazi collaborator.
“These three relatively realistic and low-key performances leave plenty of room for Dušek to cut loose as the odious Horst, an enthusiastic bootlicker with an oily combover and a comically small Hitler moustache. He’s over-the-top but strangely accurate. We’ve all encountered grovelling jobsworths who will do anything to haul themselves a few rungs up the ladder, and that’s what makes him such a scary character – there are people like him in all walks of life.” Read the full review HERE
#14. Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku) – Václav Vorlíček, 1973
Fairy tales are big in the Czech Republic, especially around Christmas time, when films like Three Wishes for Cinderella are traditional family viewing instead of more typically western festive movies like Home Alone. Vorlíček’s delightful fantasy is one of the best, featuring a star-making turn from Libuše Šafránková as an unusually kickass fairy tale heroine.
“Šafránková’s Popelka leaps the divide between the pristine, simpering naifs of classic Disney princesses and postmodern takes admirably. Sure, she squanders her three wishes on pretty clothes, but she’s not about to fall at the feet of the Prince without putting him through his paces. Indeed, she’s an ace horse rider and crack marksman who puts the rather dull prince charming to shame before he eventually wins her heart and her hand.” Read the full review HERE
#13. The Way Out (Cesta ven) -Petr Václav, 2014
The population of the Czech Republic is around 95% Czech, and that percentage is certainly reflected in their films. A huge proportion of the characters are white Czech, with ethnic minorities only really finding their way into more recent movies. It is no great secret that the Romani people, a small but noticeable ethnic group, aren’t terribly well treated by the rest of the country. Václav’s bleak and eye-opening slice of life examines the day-to-day struggle of a young Roma mother as she tries to find a better life for her child. The picture it paints is despairing but offers at least slim optimism for our courageous protagonist.
“Throughout the film, Václav explores the idea that destitution and prejudice are hereditary for the country’s Roma population. They are born into a doomed situation because of their ancestry, and prospects of change are bleak because of the entrenched hatred towards them. This comes across most strongly when Žaneta’s father says that he always wanted the best for his kids but has given up hope of helping them. ‘I’m useless,’ he concludes and it is heart-breaking. He says it without self-pity, just like it is the way of the world.” Read the full review HERE
#12. Cosy Dens (Pelíšky) – Jan Hřebejk, 1999
The third and final entry from Hřebejk on this list, and really there is very little to choose from between this, Divided we Fall and The Teacher. Cosy Dens scores higher for me because it is the complete package, a really well-made comedy-drama that wraps up warring neighbours, family strife and Communism all in one beautifully presented Christmas gift. As such it has become a perennial festive classic in the Czech Republic, although it is just as good any time of the year.
“By the end of the film, I felt like I genuinely knew these people. Despite their faults, I also loved them, which made the conclusion so heartbreaking.” Read the full review HERE
#11. Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto) – Jiří Menzel, 1967
My last two picks from Menzel are quite similar and rank highly simply because of the feels they give me. Capricious Summer is slender of plot, focusing on three middle-aged men lusting after a travelling magician’s beautiful assistant. Yet it gives me the gorgeous feeling of sitting outside on a gorgeous Czech summer’s afternoon drinking with friends. There isn’t much more to my high regard for the film than that, and that it was my first introduction to Rudolf Hrušínský, who has become one of my favourite actors.
“Rozmarné Léto has come to represent the bittersweet impermanence of summer for me. That haze of summer it casts has come to represent my summers, rafting and camping with friends, wine tasting in the vineyards of South Moravia, cycling in the hills and valleys around Znojmo, going swimming and playing in the park with my children, meat on the grill with a beer in my hand and my feet in the grass…” Read the full review HERE
#10. Tomorrow I’ll Wake up and Scald Myself with Tea (Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem) – Jindřich Polák, 1977
I have seen plenty of great movies during my time watching Czech cinema, but not many gave me the same sense of pure, silly joy as Polák’s wacky, kitschy sci-fi comedy. An obscure piece of film folklore back in the UK thanks to its one-time-only screening in the early 80s, it’s a cult curio that involves shenanigans with time travel, identical twins, a handheld nuclear bomb, and Nazis.
“Like all the best farces, the plot escalates through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, peaking with a sustained sequence of comic brilliance set in Hitler’s bunker. Without giving too much away, it involves a good old fashioned suitcase switcheroo, green faces, and time-travelling tourists. [Jiří] Sovák’s performance throughout this scene is worth buying the movie for alone.” Read the full review HERE
#9. The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) -Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965
Privately I was feeling a little fatigued with Holocaust films before seeing The Shop on Main Street, which completely put the horrors of genocide in fresh perspective for me. The focus of the immense tragedy is narrowed down to the relationship between an elderly Jewish shopkeeper and the good-natured but weak-minded man assigned as her “Aryan Controller”. Starting out lightly but evolving into almost a ticking-bomb thriller as the old woman’s fate closes in, I’ve rarely been so terrified for a pair of film characters.
“The first time around I was on the edge of my seat, feeling a little bad about enjoying the film so much – I guess that’s why it is so powerful. It doesn’t batter you over the head with gruelling horrors like, say, Son of Saul. It delivers its message in a really enjoyable cinematic package and is all the more effective for it.” Read the full review HERE
#8. Cutting it Short (Postřižiny) – Jiří Menzel, 1980
My last entry from Menzel, a film that gives me such nostalgic vibes for a Czech summer in the sun. This leaps above Capricious Summer for me largely down to the central performance from Magdaléna Vášáryová at the heart of the film. So many of Menzel’s films focus on wistful, slightly frustrated male protagonists, and by contrast she is such a blissful presence that she makes the whole film glow brightly from within. It is also one of Menzel’s best-looking films, and the supporting cast including Rudolf Hrušínský and Petr Čepek are all superb.
“It is yet another idyllic shaggy dog story based on a Bohumil Hrabal work, a rose-tinted yet ultimately kinky tale about the writer’s parents when they conceived the future literary legend… another typically Menzelian joint lovingly satirizing small-town life, populated by a familiar bunch of cranks and oddballs.” Read the full review HERE
#7. Marketa Lazarova (František Vláčil, 1967)
Back-to-back entries starring Magdaléna Vášáryová in my top 10, with another captivating performance from her in this wild and capricious medieval epic from Vláčil. It frequently tops critic picks of the best Czech movies, but comes comparatively low down my list due to its rather chilly, daunting aura. While the breathtaking quality of the filmmaking is unquestionable, it just doesn’t grab me. It is a film that I marvel at rather than actively enjoy.
“František Vláčil spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates, names and places, but of the deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of present day’s unsteady ship.” Read the full review HERE
#6. Daisies (Sedmikrásky) -Věra Chytilová, 1966
Daisies is the film that showed me avant-garde cinema could actually be fun and enjoyable. While some of the other Czech New Wave stuff can seem a little dated, Věra Chytilová’s acerbic surrealist comedy is still a pure jolt of cinematic energy. Fresh and funny with two brilliant lead performances, Daisies has plenty of bite.
“With its zeitgeisty Sixties vibe and explosions of colour, it also makes a spiky alternative choice for a summer movie pick.” Read the full review HERE
#5. The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko) – Miloš Forman, 1967
After One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus I was eager to check out some of Forman’s earlier Czech stuff, and I have to admit I was left a little cold by Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde. Thankfully I persevered until I got to The Firemen’s Ball, which is an absolute masterpiece. It builds steadily from a lighthearted farce into a tragicomedy of immense allegorical power.
“As cynical as it undoubtedly is, it casts humans as the victim of a larger tragicomic play -political, biological, or cosmic – that they are ultimately unable to escape or control. And, as usual with Forman, he captures all that with his innate sense of grace, wisdom and wit.” Read the full review HERE
#4. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) – Jaromil Jireš, 1970
I’m always knocked over by films that feel truly unique, and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders certainly fits that category. It fits nominally in the folk horror category, which is another big plus point for me, but really it is completely its own thing. Jireš creates a fantastical whirl of sensual and disturbing imagery, and it’s a transportive experience that should be basked in.
“Even if the story proves elusive, the film is so beautiful to look at that you likely won’t care. This is easily one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve ever seen, set in a bucolic wonderland that seems simultaneously medieval times and the early 20th century.” Read the full review HERE
#3. All my Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci) – Vojtěch Jasný, 1968
There are many, many Czech films about life under Communism, which isn’t surprising given the country spent over forty years under an oppressive communist regime. Towering above all of them is All My Good Countrymen with its astonishing blend of toughness and lyricism. It’s a bold and compassionate film that has a deep understanding of its characters and their connection to the land. It is also absolutely gorgeous.
“Jasný has a natural understanding of the rhythms of rural life, where people’s connection to the land is tangible and runs many centuries deep. His vision is enriched by Jaroslav Kučera’s stunning cinematography, which captures the spirit of each season in beautiful rustic hues; and Svatopluk Havelka’s marvellous score, which forms an almost symbiotic link with the images on screen.” Read the full review HERE
#2. Adelheid (František Vláčil, 1970)
I have always liked my silver screen romances tragic. That is probably why I took so fast to Vlacil’s sombre, heart-rending tale of two fatally star-crossed lovers amid the psychic fallout of World War II. The director’s earlier black-and-white epic Marketa Lazarova often tops critic’s picks, but Adelheid is my choice because it hit me deep in my soul, as well as offering a masterclass in elegiac, bleakly beautiful film making.
“Čepek and Černá develop the growing bond between their characters through lengthy, almost wordless scenes, told through a series of glances which convey a wide range of feelings – sorrow, anger, despondency, arousal, trust, suspicion, and so on. It’s breathtaking work, and the tension between them – not only sexual – is palpable.” Read the full review HERE
#1. The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol) – Juraj Herz, 1969
The Cremator became my favourite Czech film from the moment I first saw it. Despite some of the great stuff I’ve seen along the way it was never really in danger of losing the top spot. It is the complete package for me. I’m a horror guy so it ticks that box, and Rudolf Hrušínský’s performance is just immense. There is some filmmaking in The Cremator that had me moonwalking around my living room with joy, things that I haven’t seen in a movie before or since. To top it all off, it has a re-watchability factor that a lot of Czech movies don’t always have – I’ve popped it on a couple of times just to check something out and had to watch it all the way through to the end. It’s one of those movies I want to stop people in the street and insist they watch immediately.
“Kopfrkingl (Hrušínský) 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…” Read the full review HERE
So there you go, that is my Top 25 Czech Films so Far. Please bear in mind that this is a work in progress and things might change significantly as I see more and more movies. What do you think? Go ahead and throw in some comments, I’d love to hear your opinion!
Last Updated: Feb 2021