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Good Czech Movies (1965-70): Chaos under Order

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GJ Cole itcherThe Czech New Wave blossomed in the late ‘60s, with the playful invention of its pioneers inspiring a generation of filmmakers to exploit the surreal Czech sense of humour through the medium of cinema. Humour and absurdity abounded, but the flighty characters and visual jokes tended to symbolize a deeper social malaise inflicted by a repressive communist regime that would only worsen after the short-lived ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968. ~ GJ Cole

The Beat Goes On

The first rumblings of a Czech New Wave were heard in the early sixties, when smart directors from the ‘FAMU’ film school manipulated the nationalized film industry in order to make inventive films that undermined the powers through allusion and metaphor.

The second half of the decade was an opportunity to capitalize on these discoveries. The great Juraj Herz, for example, set out on his path with the surreal but modest mid-length film ‘The Junk Shop’ (1965), honing his technique ahead of more ambitious projects over the next few years. His ‘Cremator’ (1969) would be a true masterpiece of audio-visual manipulation and narrative sophistication – and politically, it was black as night following the false hopes and betrayals of the Prague Spring.

The same political catastrophe was the catalyst for Miloš Forman’s emigration to the US in 1968, where he would make such well-received films as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975) and ‘The People vs. Larry Flynt’ (1996) – but not before making ‘Loves of a Blonde’ back home, an affectionate but resigned look at Czech society.

And Věra Chytilová made her monumental feminist fantasia ‘Daisies’, which won international acclaim even as it was banned by Czech authorities. Along with ‘The Cremator’, it’s an absolute must-see for any serious cinephile – and the rest of the films here are pretty urgent viewing, too.


Playful Czech Movie Recommendations

‘Lásky jedné plavovlásky’ / ‘Loves of a Blonde’ (MiloŠ Forman, 1965)

Haven’t I always said your son is nuts? Here’s your proof…

The brilliantly scatty narrative of Forman’s new wave comedy concerns a Czech factory worker trying to find happiness in a town where the girls outnumber the boys by sixteen to one.

When a dance is arranged between the young women of the factory and the out-of-shape army reservists nearby, she is one of the few to find what at first appears to be a good romantic match. Her illusions are short-lived, though, when she returns to visit him on his home turf.

If our heroine Andula is at the centre of the story, Forman’s genius is, however, in completing fully-rounded observations of the other characters and subplots without us ever feeling like we’re being led astray from what is important.

What might have been a realism-laden tale is given levity by wonderfully combatant dialogue, psychological insight, and a cast of non-actors selected for their oddness and charisma. It all makes for a simple but cinematic coming-of-age comedy that transcends its cultural trappings.

‘Sběrné surovosti’ / ‘The Junk Shop’ (Juraj Herz, 1965)

Playfulness abounds in the legendary Herz’s directorial debut, an adaptation of a short story by highly-regarded satirist Bohumil Hrabal.

Over the course of a day, various larger-than-life characters gravitate around a paper-pulping mill where the absurdity of bureaucracy and the minutiae of their daily lives plays out in an almost Grand Guignol parade of grotesquery.

Statues come (briefly) to life and the sentimental charm of other such ornaments and chintz is belied by a darker sense of humanity, where greed and lust make the world go around as assuredly as love. Herz’s inventive camera trickery and sound design was just getting started: four years later his ‘Cremator’ (see below) would become one of the greatest movies of the 1960s.

‘Sedmikrásky’ / ‘Daisies’ (Věra Chytilová, 1966)

That’s what I don’t understand. Why does one say “I love you”? Do you understand? Why can’t one say, for example, “egg”?

For many years an overlooked masterpiece, ‘Daisies’ is an astonishingly playful piece of cinema that manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking without making the slightest attempt to fit into the typical framework of what we imagine a narrative movie to be.

Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová play two young women living in their own fantasy version of Prague, where the rules are dictated by their mutual whim and Chytilová’s subversion of cinematic convention. Vowing at the beginning to “be bad”, the two women follow their instincts in a surreal fashion, toying variously with surrounding objects and the hearts of potential sugar daddies in an apparent war on ennui and the shackles of conventional morality.

Absurd dances and dialogues, posing, animation and aesthetic experiments are patched together as the girls make their way towards their inevitable downfall – a fate shared by the director, who was blacklisted for a decade after making this palpably hedonistic and satirical oddity.

For those unaccustomed to experimental cinema, it’s worth just going along with the unfamiliar structure and lack of narrative drive – this is pure filmmaking where joy, colour, sound, and movement are far more highly prized than drama and plot.

‘Kdo chce zabít Jessii?’ / ‘Who Wants to Kill Jessie?’ (Václav VorlíČek, 1966)

So I propose: Firstly that he be banned from dangerous dreaming, and secondly that he be condemned for towards his wards…

While the special effects are hardly ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ level, VorlíČek’s comic book-movie crossover is all the more charming for the low-budget shortcuts and meta-jokes that take their place.

A science-fiction satire on marriage, social status and (of course) bureaucracy, ‘Jessie’ follows the adventures of a middle-aged couple who both work as scientists: she’s hoping for a Nobel prize for her cure for bad dreams; he has the less glamorous task of solving the problem of a collapsing bridge.

Turning to a superhero comic for inspiration, Doctor Jindrich finds himself dreaming of the eponymous heroine. His jealous wife injects him with her dream-curing serum, with little knowledge that its side-effect will be Jessie and her supervillain foes materializing in the ‘real world’ and unleashing all sorts of chaos.

Cardboard speech bubbles, bovine dream sequences, and amusing sound design make for a particularly silly adventure best enjoyed as a peculiar trashy piece of ephemera from a long-lost time.

‘SpalovaČ mrtvol’ / ‘The Cremator’ (Juraj Herz, 1969)

I’ll save them all… the whole world…

If the defining or uniting tendency of the Czech new wave can be said to be a form of critical playfulness, it allowed for a wide range of approaches, from the absurd realism of Forman’s work to Herz’s surreal, expressionist horror, ‘The Cremator’.

Building on the rich mises-en-scènes of ‘The Junk Shop’, Herz delves further from the ‘real’ world whilst unveiling unspoken, unpalatable truths through metaphor, mood, and distortion.

Over-the-top performances, dissolution of the fourth wall, wonky lenses, and thick swathes of Zdeněk Liška’s incredible score make a fairy tale of this horror story.

Set concurrently with the rise of Nazism in neighbouring Germany, the tale follows a Prague cremator who believes that his job is not just disposal of the body, but liberation of the spirit.

Malevolently influenced by the political atmosphere, Kopfrkingl begins to attend to his duties a little too enthusiastically.


Czeching Out

With many of the era’s filmmakers banned, exiled or burned-out after the turmoil of the 1960s, the golden age of Czech filmmaking was coming to an end.

Many of these amazing filmmakers, however, went on to make fantastic movies elsewhere or later in their careers, and their 1960s movies are an extraordinary refracted window into a lost place and time.

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