Czech films from all eras at Karlovy Vary

The international film festival showcased several gems and drew praise from filmmakers

Karlovy Vary is the largest accredited film festival in Central and Eastern Europe, it’s also one of the oldest, dating back to 1946. Between 1959 and 1993 it alternated with the Moscow Film Festival.

Feature films in the main category cannot have appeared at other festivals before. Its internationalism stretches beyond Europe and the United States to include this year strong representation from South America and the Middle East.

Czech production is well-represented alongside other classic films in the Out of the Past section.

Attracting huge audiences in the 1,300 seat Grand Hall, this year's revived films include Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, and as is becoming a tradition, newly restored and digitized Czech films.

This year saw the first Czech screening of the restored Jan Nemeč film from 1964, Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci), with an explanation of the process of digitization and restoration from the National Film Archive. The film tells the tale of two Jewish boys who try to escape from a train during the Holocaust. One difficulty with restoring the film was that it was shot on several different types of black-and-white film, which don’t match well when they are transferred to digital.

It wasn’t the only restored Czechoslovak film. Flying a bit under the radar was White Paradise (Bílý ráj) from 1924, shown in the ornate Municipal Theater. Only a few original copies exist of this drama starring screen icon Anny Ondráková, aka Anny Ondra. She later starred in Hitchcock’s 1930 film Blackmail, Britain’s’ first talkie. The heavily tinted film was shown with live avant-garde music.

Other Czech films were in the program as well. Jan Svěrák introduced a remastered version of his 1994 film Akumulátor 1, about a parallel world behind TV screens.

He said that remastering a film was like digging it up out of a grave, putting in a new dress, pinching its cheeks and sending it out into the world again.

He then led the audience in a breathing exercise to bring the film back to life.

The 1980 Czech film Sigmum laudis, about World War I was also in Out of the Past, and the classic 1967 costume drama Marketa Lazarová was shown in a different retrospective section.

Keeping up with the Czech sci-fi genre tradition, the new film Mars was shown as an official selection out of competition. Two characters in space suits were among the film’s large entourage at the late-night screening. The low budget comic film, mostly in English, sees a group of Czechs visiting Mars after it has become a somewhat rundown tourist destination manned by one lone robot. It was show at an abandoned training base in a desert.

The Czech entry in the competition was Domestique, looking at a professional cyclist who puts an oxygen tent in his house to try to improve his performance. It takes a toll on his marriage, though.

The festival is popular festival with filmmakers. This year Richard Linklater said he became aware of Czech film and culture through the many towns in Texas with Czech heritage. Scottish¬¬/Irish director Mark Cousins says he feels at home at Karlovy Vary. He seems to have a special rapport with Czech audiences, and is always quick to spot Czech cultural influences while he is here. This year on Twitter he identified the Karlovy Vary home of a little known Dadaist Walter Serner on the street T.G. Masaryska.

A guest this year with his new film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam at a press conference paid tribute to the influence of Czech filmmakers and animator Karel Zeman, and in a separate interview mentioned Jan Švankmajer. Gilliam also looked back fondly at the time he spent in Prague while filming Brothers Grimm in 2005.

While introducing his new film Paterno, director Barry Levinson thanked the Czech Republic for giving the world director Miloš Forman, who passed away earlier this year. It was one of many such tributes.

Tickets for films go quickly, and empty seats are rare. Audiences have been voting on the quality of the films they have seen and votes will determine a special award. Even the older films are eligible, and there have been many retrospectives this year so it is wide open. 

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