A short history of the Czech Republic's rich film heritage
Film production in the Czech lands dates to 1898, when an architecture student enamored of the new technology turned his Cinématographe on a popular café comic for a short poetically titled The Bill Sticker and the Sausage Vendor (Výstavní párkař a lepič plakátů). But Czech film as such dates from 1933, when Barrandov Studios opened for business.
Founded by Václav and Miloš Havel (father and uncle of the future playwright/dissident/president), Barrandov has long been the epicenter of the domestic industry and a major international production hub, today attracting Hollywood blockbusters and acclaimed directors such as Roman Polanski and Terry Gilliam. Without Barrandov there is no Czech film business, and no Czech film history.
The year Barrandov opened was also the year most international audiences first encountered a Czechoslovak film. A glimpse of a lovely young woman named Hedwig Kiesler (later starlet Hedy Lamarr) frolicking in a sylvan pool made Gustav Machatý's Extase (Ecstasy) an international sensation. Prior Czech filmmakers had taken their cue from Hollywood, churning out slapstick and melodrama. With their thematic maturity, expressionistic imagery and frank eroticism, Extase and its lesser-known predecessor Erotikon (1929) stamped Machatý as the country's first true cinematic artist.
Machatý went to Hollywood, where, sadly, his career petered out in cheap B-movies. Still, he was better off than his peers back home. After marching into Czechoslovakia in 1939 the Nazis commandeered Barrandov for their own lavish, propaganda-soaked productions. They also added massive new soundstages, which came in handy for the Communist overseers who nationalized the industry in 1948 and put it to work churning out ideologically palatable stodge. (One noteworthy film to emerge from this era was a 1956 adaptation of The Good Soldier Švejk (Dobrý voják Švejk), which doesn't do satiric justice to Jaroslav Hašek's rollicking anti-war picaresque but is still good fun.)
Crest of a New Wave
Amid the relative thaw of the post-Stalinist late '50s and early '60s, Czech and Slovak filmmakers edged away from the dictates of Socialist Realism to create films about people's everyday lives. These early forays blossomed into the Czech New Wave, the national cinema's golden age.
Beginning in earnest with Miloš Forman's Černý Petr (Black Peter, 1963) and Lásky jedné plavovlásky (Loves of a Blonde, 1965) and the anthology Perlicky na dne (Pearls of the Deep, 1965, with segments directed by Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová and Jaromír Jireš), the New Wave did not set out to be openly political or dissident. But its humor, humanism, visual flair and anything-but-official subject matter (sex, mortality, youthful disaffection) marked a radical departure.
The burgeoning scene blew up internationally with Oscars for Elmar Klos and Ján Kádar's Slovak-language Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street, 1965) and Menzel's Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1966), a collaboration with writer Bohumil Hrabal and probably still the best-known Czech film abroad. In keeping with the liberalization of Czechoslovak society in the '60s, the new filmmakers increasingly laced their work with oblique criticisms of the regime. By decade's end they were taking dead aim with films such as Menzel and Hrabal's Skřivánci na niti (Larks on the String), Jireš's Žert (The Joke, based on Milan Kundera's first novel) and Karel Kachyna's remarkable Ucho (The Ear).
None would be seen by the public for 20 years. By the time these films were finished Soviet tanks had rumbled into Czechoslovakia to quash its experiment in "socialism with a human face," and the new hard-line government shelved them. Some of the New Wave stalwarts emigrated (Forman became a Hollywood A-lister with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus); others were silenced by censorship or outright proscription (Menzel and Chytilová were unable to work for several years).
Fairy tales and domestic farces dominated in the '70s and '80s. Particularly popular were Kulový blesk (Ball Lightning, 1979), Vrchní, prchni! (Run Waiter Run, 1981) and others in a series of comedies written by Ladislav Smoljak and Zdeněk Svěrák (creators of Czech folk hero Jara Cimrman) that have been both condemned for legitimizing the "normalization" regime and praised as slyly subversive digs.
By the mid-'80s perestroika was creating space for a return to a more personal, humanist cinema. The Velvet Revolution liberated filmmakers entirely to say and shoot what they pleased without fear of any force save the marketplace, equally free to investigate complex political, social and emotional issues or make, say, Panic je nanic (Virginity Sucks).
If there is a dominant form of contemporary Czech film it's the bittersweet ensemble dramedy, exploring family or romantic dynamics via interlocking storylines and genial absurdism. It helps if you have a high tolerance for whimsy, eccentricity and tart irony. The most successful practitioners are director Jan Hřebejk and writer Petr Jarchovský. At their best, as in Pelíšky (Cozy Dens, 1999) and the Oscar-nominated Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000), they explore the epochs of 20th-century Czech history through the prism of everyday life with empathy and gentle wit.
Zdeněk Svěrák and his director son Jan have efficiently adopted the model of glossy Hollywood quality; their sentimental Kolja (Kolya) was a 1996 Oscar winner. Relatively unknown internationally, the films of Petr Zelenka, Bohdan Slama and Tomáš Vořel are among the most domestically acclaimed. Post-communist immersion in the media globalopolis spawned the sharp 2004 documentaries Český sen (Czech Dream) and Ženy pro měny (The Beauty Exchange). Of the old guard, Němec and Chytilová remain active, and Menzel is working on a long-delayed adaptation of Hrabal's novel I Served the King of England.
The singular Jan Švankmajer also emerged in the '60s but is a product of no cinematic era or movement save that bounded by his astounding imagination. From his visionary surrealist shorts to features such as Něco z Alenky (Alice, 1988), Otesánek (Greedy Guts, 2000) and Šilení (Lunacy, 2005), Švankmajer mixes animation, live action and alchemical theatricality to probe the shadowy recesses of the imagination, creating a universe of black humor, bizarre obsessions and inanimate objects that come to deeply unsettling life. It's a brilliant body of work unlike anyone else's, and a heady antidote in a film scene likely to become more like everyone else's with each passing year.
Where to Rent
Neighborhood video shops will generally stock a smattering of "classic" oldies, major '60s works and most everything released in the past decade or so. DVDs will almost certainly have an option for English subtitles, but it's always a good idea to check the box.
For those who aspire to something like connoisseurship, a convenient option is local chain PlanetDVD, which has four branches and a fabulous online database where you can search in Czech or English by title, actor or director, check availability and reserve your choice. The selection is comprehensive, although DVDs that lack Czech distribution - including, surprisingly, some seminal New Wave titles - won't be found here. But the website does promise "a remarkable number of porn films." Discounts for frequent or multiple rentals.
If you want to go deep - like, Ph.D.-dissertation deep - into the Czech cinematic psyche, try MAT, which shares space with the kino of the same name on Karlovo náměsti. The impressively store-spanning wall of domestic titles is loaded with the pohádky (fairy tales) and populist normalization-era comedies that retain nostalgic followings today. Membership is a relatively steep 200 CZK, but there's a frequent-renter program with payoffs ranging from a free beer at five rentals to a meal in the on-site restaurant at 40.
To really satiate your inner film geek, my choice is Radost Video. Part of the eponymous restaurant/bar/club complex at I.P. Pavlova, Radost stocks just about every Czech film worth seeing from the New Wave on, including hard-to-find gems like The Ear, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and (albeit only on VHS) Jan Švankmajer's brain-bending shorts. The selection of classic and cult titles, Czech and otherwise, beats everyone in town. The staff is friendly (and English-friendly), and on weeknights you can rent two DVDs for only 60 CZK.
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