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The Czech film industry in the 1960s was a weird place. With the nation under communist rule, many filmmakers opted to make coded critiques of a system they considered to be oppressive and corrupt – but often, these directors were working officially for the nationalized studios, so that they were (quite justifiably) biting the hands that fed them.
Indeed, often their strange and subversive movies would end up being banned as the authorities sensed they were being ‘got at’ even as they couldn’t comprehend the political messages embedded in these allegorical tales.
Beyond the identifiably ‘new wave’ directors, though, the same distinctive Czech sense of humour (familiar from the work of Franz Kafka) was identifiable in movies ranging from children’s adventures to serious sci-fi. It was truly a fertile time in the Czech arts – but that time was running out.
I cast my hat out into the universe, let it greet those who are on thier way from earth. From this day forward, the moon is no longer a dream…
Influencing far more famous figures than himself, including Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson (particularly the latter’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014)), Karel Zeman remains a unique figure in cinematic history for his bold visualisations of children’s adventure stories.
Combining live action, scale models and different animation techniques (often all within the same shot), Zeman’s is an enchanting universe packed with bizarre contradictions and its own physical laws. ‘Baron Munchausen’ seems to take place in a world that is almost two-dimensional, yet, at the same time, the movie feels like a living toy that could be endlessly explored for its secret layers and portals.
With a magical soundtrack from composer Zdeněk LiŠka – a figure as notable in Czech cinema as any director, in my mind – ‘Munchausen’ is the most satisfying of Zeman’s many epics, and contains plenty to fast-spin the imagination of any adventure-seeking adult or child.
If you want to go somewhere you must tell me the truth…
MiloŠ Forman is best known internationally for intelligent American movies such as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975), but the discerning cineaste can find a number of extraordinary and important gems amongst the early works he created in his native Czechoslovakia.
As one of the pioneers of the short-lived Czech New Wave, Forman experimented with a documentary-style approach to fiction films, casting non-actors and catching an exciting sense of improvisation and unpredictability.
His first feature, ‘Audition’, was, in fact, two short movies pasted together: ‘If Only They Ain’t Had Them Bands’ is a wryly comic tale about musicians from rival bands preparing for an upcoming contest.
The longer, second part of the feature is the titular ‘Audition’ and is the real gem here. Set during the try-outs for a female singer to join a local theatre group, Forman seamlessly blends the fictional stories of two auditionees with footage from the group’s real-life open call.
Knowing just where to place the camera, how to observe, and when to cut, Forman crafts a mesmerizing portrait of Czech youth at a moment when western pop culture was fusing with a short-lived period of relative laxity in the local communist regime.
The gestures, neuroses and dreams of the teenagers – singing of the twist and blue jeans – feel universal, as well as being very much of their time, capturing a particular brand of self-consciousness that feels purely social rather than in reaction to the soon-to-be-ubiquitous movie cameras of our times.
If you don’t return a cat on a term, you will pay twice of an ordinary payment every day…
Coming in at just under forty minutes, ‘Joseph Killian’ is a brief but full blast of tongue-in-cheek symbolism and political satire that seems (at least to modern audiences) more applicable to the general absurdity of human nature than to the Czech situation of the time.
Gently mocking the work of Franz Kafka, ‘Joseph Killian’ begins with a clinically framed shot of a barren Prague street, where progressively older troops parade through the shot: children, soldiers, a funeral procession. Out from this march of inevitability strides our hero, who is on his way to hire a cat from, of course, the cat-rental shop. On attempting to return the cat the following day, he discovers the shop has vanished, saddling him with the kitty – and initiating his descent into bureaucratic hell.
This kind of absurd humour, coupled with inky black cinematography recalls Kafka’s works – and adaptations, such as Orson Welles’ ‘The Trial’ (1963) – whilst positing an essential new tone of irreverence that would come to characterize the movies of the Czech new wave.
We set out into the Universe to discover life, while life discovered us…
Science-fiction from the communist end of Europe tended to be more interesting and philosophically-oriented than Hollywood’s mid-twentieth century output, and ‘Ikarie XB-1’ is no exception – indeed, it was later redubbed and released in the States in a dumbed-down version.
The original, based on the novel by Stanisław Lem (as was Tarkovsky’s legendary ‘Solaris’), is a kind of foreshadow to Star Trek: a crew of forty scientists and engineers are on a long haul spaceflight into the unknown, and have to cope with strange new phenomena and perilous encounters in addition to cabin fever and negotiating interpersonal relationships in the confined quarters of the spaceship.
The homely humour is dated now, but the speculative dialogue, imaginative sets, and meticulously constructed soundscape continue to stimulate on both an intellectual and emotional level. One for the geeks and ostalgics!
I’m going to open a brothel there only kola-loca lemonade would be serving…
Situated somewhat to the west of the burgeoning new wave, Lipský’s cowboy spoof takes a far sillier approach to socio-political satire than the more sophisticated movies it numbered amongst its contemporaries.
A crowd-pleasing parody that pits the eponymous hero against the evil Hogofogo and his morality-rotting Trigger Whisky, ‘Lemonade Joe’s’ unsubtle humour provides a blast of originality in the unexpectedness of its form and providence.
Ostensibly ridiculing capitalism and western forms of hero worship, ‘Lemonade Joe’ is equally derisive of communist puritanism, propaganda and hypocrisy. The films disguised it well enough behind the silliness for the movie to have enjoyed wide success across the Soviet bloc, while other contemporary satires were banned or suppressed for their insidious critiques or perceived artiness.
The Czech new wave was just getting started by the middle of the sixties – and the tightening of conditions meant that by the end of the decade, it was largely snuffed out. For the time being, though, the directors of Czechoslovakia could consider themselves amongst the most inventive filmmakers in the world.
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