by Andrew James Horton
For such a small country (10 million inhabitants), the Czech Republic's cinematic clout has been relatively large on the international scene. Czechoslovakia (which existed from 1918 to 1992 before the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia) won two Oscars in the 1960s and the Czech Republic has had a further win at the Academy Awards in the 1990s - and that's just the tip of the acclaim.
Loves of a Blonde
Like all central European countries, the Czech and Slovak republics have been buffeted around by the whims of history, as borders have flown back and forth and regimes have come and gone. Any journey into these countries' cinematic cultures, then, is inevitably also an exploration of their complex histories and senses of identity.
But don't be put off!
Compared to neighbors Hungary and Poland, the republics have produced far lighter screen fare, with plenty of delicate humor, even as they explore (or were made in) some of the countries' darkest moments. Moreover, both national cinemas have been strong on drawing on universal themes and, while a knowledge of either country's past will add another level of understanding, it is not at all necessary to have a PhD in European history to enjoy these works.
The Czech New Wave
Boasting some of the most attractive films produced in the Europe of the 60s, the Czech New Wave is the "golden era" in the country's distinguished cinematic history and the obvious starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about Czech film. The Czech New Wave is usually defined as by a relatively small group of directors, including Miloš Forman, Jirí Menzel, Vera Chytilová, Jaromír Jireš and Ivan Passer, who made their debuts in or around 1963 and continued to produce internationally acclaimed work through most of the rest of the decade.
However, there was no manifesto or theoretical writings that the group, which was never a formal one, drew on, and it's hard to pin the Wave down to any one style: works of playful observation, visual poetry, biting sarcasm, gentle humanism, mocking absurdism, tender eroticism and formal experimentalism count among the films by the Wave's directors.
French New Wave films were associated with an interest in American cinema, a rough-and-ready aesthetic, long takes and cinematic self-referentiality. By contrast, the Czech New Wave was inspired more by Czech literature, generally sought a more polished style, used either classic shot lengths or experimental montages with very rapid cutting and showed little interest in cheekily borrowing from film classics. In fact, there was some animosity between the two waves, and Jean-Luc Godard was particularly scathing, describing Czech cinema of the time as being "bourgeois." What the waves of both countries shared in common was an interest in a natural, less studio-bound cinema that focused on real people and captured their concerns.
Although the New Wave is associated with liberal humanism and Czechoslovakia is famous for its 1960s experiment in "socialism with a human face" during the Prague Spring of 1968, there was little overlap between the two phenomena. Few of the films commonly associated with the Wave were made in the short spell (just over eight months) of political liberalism, and by then the wave had largely peaked and international interest in it was declining.
If the Prague Spring didn't define the group's beginnings or development, it certainly defined the group's end. Disturbed by the country's new-found liberal direction and worried it might turn to the West, Russia led the Warsaw Pact countries in an invasion of Czechoslovakia and harsh reversals of the reformist measures were enacted (a process called "Normalization").
In cinema, artistic creativity was clamped down upon and some directors were unable to make films (Evald Schorm), some left the country (Forman, Passer, Jan Nemec) and some had to compromise their artistic freedom to stay in the business (Menzel). The events of 1968 were obviously completely out of bounds for filmmakers, and if you want to brush up on the historical background and the personal pain the geopolitics caused, you have to look to literature: Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not only one of the most popular literary renderings of this tempestuous period, but it was turned into a Hollywood film, with a relatively high degree of sensitivity, by Philip Kaufman in 1988 (New Waver Nemec was an advisor to the production).
A few films that had been planned before the invasion were able to be made before the new regime cracked down on the cinema industry, but these were banned and remained unseen until the late 1980s when the final, fatal cracks in Communism started to appear. Included in this group is Jireš's The Joke (Zert), whose screenplay by Milan Kundera would form the basis for Kundera's first novel. (Kundera, in case you wonder why his name keeps cropping up, taught literature at Prague's film school FAMU in the 1960s and was close to many of the directors.)
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