Jewels Of The Czechoslovakian New Wave

In film when we speak of the new wave it conjures within us ideas of revolutionary work. Contributions to cinema that have been cutting edge, fresh and ultimately risky

Generally speaking, it signifies a period whence a generation of filmmakers had collectively reshaped the cinematic landscape; often bending or breaking the rules in the process.

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In the 60’s, the region of Czechoslovakia was certainly no exception. Perhaps the dynamic of a postwar populace with strong cultural values and traditions, being compromised by the opportunistic aggression of invading Fascism and eventually Soviet ideologies was the catalyst. In any event, a collective of groundbreaking directors crafted bold cinema; encompassing everything from the satirical and scathing, realist and absurd. Some of these works were even banned, condemned or unseen for many years.

One might argue that unlike their more famous school of French counterparts, the Czechoslovakian New Wave of the 60’s was much more than just innovative cinema. It boldly and successfully peeled back the complex layers of ordinary lives through parody and black humour. Exposing these characters; bare and honestly, under the temperamental rain cloud of a volatile political climate of postwar Europe.

This week, Privilege Of Legends had the pleasure in chatting with Lukas at The Subtitles Café in Dalston, East London. When he isn’t pouring flat whites or screening some of these jewels of Czech cinema on his projector in-house, he is adding to one of the largest private collections of Czech film posters. We asked him if he could share his thoughts on one of the more colourful eras of cinema history. We also briefly discuss 5 significant contributions to the Czechoslovakian New Wave.

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1. In your opinion what are some of the distinguishing features of the Czechoslovakian New Wave?

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that the Czechoslovakian film industry has a rich history that dates as far back as the end of the 19th century, and enjoyed steady growth up until the beginning of the 2nd World War and the resulting Nazi occupation.

The New Wave of cinema in Czechoslovakia was somewhat influenced by the Neorealism movements of postwar Italy. However, the most striking element that separated them apart from their visual approach was their strange sense of humor and clever use of social or political criticism.

2. Describe in your words the political environment and backdrop of Czechoslovakia in the 50’s and 60’s. How did this affect the arts?

A big part of the Czechoslovakian film industry was Barrandov studios which subsequently became the property of the communist state in the 50’s, where it was transformed to become a tool for rigid state propaganda. This was indeed a dark and cruel period of political persecutions and fake trials. Many artist’s works were banned or they were forbidden to work in the industry.

With the political landscape changing somewhat through the 60’s with Nikita Krushchev in power in the Soviet Union, some artists were rehabilitated and could join new and fresh avenues through the arts. This decade saw a new generation of filmmakers, influenced by scholars and those attending Prague’s film school, FAMU. From there many of these directors learned to develop their craft and channel inspiration.

However through the Soviet occupation much of the arts was censored and many films never made distribution or were deemed ‘banned forever’ by communist officials.

3. Are there any particular films or director’s works you would recommend to those who may be unfamiliar with this period of cinema?

I would have to pick some of my overall favourites like The Cremator by Juraj Herz, the brilliant comedy Behold Homolka by Jaroslav Papousek, Milos Forman’s lesser known film Black Peter, and the Slovakian contributions like the visually stunning Sun In A Net and the Academy Award winning Shop On Main Street.

4. What is it about the art of the film posters of Czech Republic and Slovakia that makes them so unique?

Probably the fact that it was more or less a free form of visual art. Although primarily controlled by the communist censors at the time (images of nudity, flags and currencies were strictly forbidden) many of these posters were designed by talented artists who went above and beyond the conventional means of simply using still photos from the film. Despite the fact that at times they were not even permitted to view these films, the artists still maintained the creative freedom to use their imagination to design the posters.

5. Do you have any particular favourites from your personal collection?

It’s difficult to pick just a few, but I would definitely say the posters for Marketa Lazarova by Zdenek Ziegler, Who Wants To Kill Jessie? by Kaja Saudek and Vaclav Bidlo’s playful collage for The Fireman’s Ball would be some notable mentions.

The Shop On Main Street (1965)

‘He can go to the devil- my own brother in-law…’

‘Hold on! If you wait long enough, you may see the day’.

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Upon the modest backdrop of a small Slovakian town during the 2nd World War, a struggling carpenter’s prospects soon change when he is confronted with the opportunity to seize control over the small sewing business of an elderly Jewish woman as part of the forced Aryanization of the local community.

Winner of the 1965 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and nominated at Cannes that same year, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s The Shop On Main Street is a powerful drama with deeply moving subject matter and touching performances from lead actors Jozef Kroner and Ida Kamiñska.

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A clever combination of innovative camera work and unorthodox angles make this film particularly memorable: the protagonist observing the others at the dinner table through a murky shot glass; the low-hanging kitchen light swinging ominously as he stands on a kitchen chair and mockingly imitates the Führer; various canted and twisted angles as he lays inebriated and awkwardly on his bed. This alongside some visceral dream sequences and poignant monologue voice overlays makes for one of the more eloquently moving examples of New Wave cinema.

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Closely Watched Trains (1966)

One of the more widely known products of the Czechoslovakian New Wave, and powerhouse actor/director Jiri Menzel’s first and most famous work, Closely Watched Trains is a coming-of-age tale that manages to deliver on many levels.

At first glance it is purely just that; a coming-of-age study on teenage adolescence. But upon closer inspection it’s subtext reveals much more. Cultural identity, tyranny, subversion.

Filmed on location in Central Bohemia by cinematographer Jaromir Sofr, the film is based on one of celebrated Czech author Bohumil Hrabal’s novels. Menzel had previously attempted to rework another of the author’s novels for his films, and the two worked closely together on the set. This collaboration continued with such films as the controversial 1969 Larks On A String, long banned and not released until over 2 decades later.

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Closely Watched Trains was an instant success abroad, and deservedly won the 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

A Report On The Party & Guests (1966)

A Report On The Party & Guests 1

Briefly released in Prague during the 1966 spring, and then subsequently banned for the next 20 years for what was perceived as it’s satirical critique of totalitarian regimes, was Jan Némec’s character study of the absurdity of human interaction and blind acceptance to authority. 

In essence, A Report On The Party & Guests is minimalist and straight-forward. At a picnic in the countryside a group of friends find themselves the victims of a sadistic bully who forces them to conform to a set of bizarre rules. But as is typically the case with much of the Czechoslovakian New Wave, the satire and dark humour insinuates much more.

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Described by film historian Peter Hames as the ‘enfánt terrible of the Czech New Wave’, director Jan Némec was forced to leave his homeland for his scathing depiction of society under tyranny. In the 70’s he was advised by the authorities that should he return they would manufacture some justification or another to have him jailed.

The Fireman’s Ball (1967)

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What was to be the last film Milos Forman would make in Czechoslovakia before going into exile in the United States, and making waves with such films as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus; The Fireman’s Ball is a riotous black humour piece, bordering on the absurd with elements of slapstick and tongue-in-cheek wit.

With sharp editing, unpretentious visual style and vibrant colour, the film portrays a group of firemen (most of whom were nonprofessional actors and actually firemen themselves) in a small provincial town that undergo a series of hilarious calamities during the evening of their annual ball.

Fireman's Ball 3

Forman, himself a master storyteller and astute director, cleverly skims our attention across various conversations and conflicts that ensue among the ball. From scouting eligible young women for the beauty pageant, to guarding a table of miscellaneous prizes that seem to keep disappearing; all the while music from the big band plays on in the background. This is indeed Czech satire at it’s boldest and most entertaining.

Unsurprisingly, the film was met with some harsh criticism at the time, and banned for many years after the Soviet occupation in the late 60’s.

The Cremator (1968)

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The setting is Prague in the 30‘s. The context is a city baring the looming threat of an imminent Nazi invasion. The protagonist is an obsessively compulsive sadist who believes he has a dutiful calling to liberate the souls of the dead by incinerating their corpses in his crematorium. The result is an utterly dark piece of satire; revelling in the morbid and macabre.

From a screenplay developed by director Juraj Herz and novelist Ladislav Fuks (from whom the story was adapted from) comes one of the most stylised and visually stunning contributions of the Czechoslovakian New Wave. Banned after it’s premiere in 1969, The Cremator remained unseen by many until the fall of the Eastern Bloc in the late 80’s.

The Cremator 1

Praised by many for it’s black and white cinematography by Stanislav Milota, his bold use of claustrophobic close-ups, fisheye lens work, cutaways and flash imagery are what makes this film such a groundbreaking piece of cinema. It’s no coincidence that his work has been likened to the contrasting visuals of German Expressionism

Nowadays very much a prominent cult film among critics and fans alike, it could well have been one of the greatest Czech films to have never been seen.

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