Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, 1965), his second feature, was more ambitious and contained more social criticism. The action starts in a remote town in which, due to an unforeseen consequence of socialist planning, women vastly outnumber men. The arrival of a unit of ageing army reservists to balance the genders leads only to disappointment among the town's women, who had hoped for far younger males. Amongst all this, beautiful young Andula, the blonde of the film's title, dreams of getting married. After being taken advantage of by the piano player in a visiting band, Andula reads in rather more to the musician's commitment than he intended and turns up on his doorstep in Prague, much to the shock of the young man's parents.
The Firemen's Ball
For his third feature, The Fireman's Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967), he was able to bring in Italian producer Carlo Ponti to raise enough money to shoot in color. If Loves of a Blonde had biting social and political criticism lurking beneath its tender, lyrical surface, in The Fireman's Ball, it was out in the open. The event of the title takes place to honor a retiring fire chief who is dying of cancer. During the evening, the organisational bungling of the firemen becomes evermore apparent while the guests steal all the prizes in a raffle. By the end of the evening, only the fire chief has any remaining decency.
Despite Forman's comic touch and his sensitivity with the actors (most of whom were actual firemen), the film is often perceived as highly pessimistic, and Forman's romp had a troubled reception at the time. Carlo Ponti so despised the film that he demanded his dollars back, and Forman claims he almost ended up in jail. Forman's bacon was only saved by a cloak-and-dagger operation to first steal a print of the film (carried out by fellow New Waver Jan Nemec) and then smuggle it out of the country for a special screening for François Truffaut and Claude Berri, who decided to buy the distribution rights.
Although The Fireman's Ball had a negative reception in America at the time, the film turned out to be Forman's ticket to the US and, in 1967, he went to New York to make a feature. While he was there, the invasion of Czechoslovakia began and he simply decided it would be better not to go back, thus commencing a whole new phase to his career. The rest, as they say, is history.
In a movement in which sensitive observation of the minutiae of everyday life was key, Ivan Passer made what is probably the most delicate portrait piece of them all, Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvetlení, 1965). So gentle is the film there is barely a storyline to distract us from the humorous depiction of two musician friends who meet up over a weekend in the countryside. Like Forman, Passer would resume his career in the US. Just as Forman changed direction and moved towards literary adaptations when in America, Passer's Forman-esque observational style would largely be replaced by dramatic narrative, as in films such as Born to Win (1971), Law and Disorder (1974) and Cutter's Way (1981).
Jirí Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal
One of the defining works of the Czech New Wave (although not necessarily one of the best) was the portmanteau film Pearls from the Deep (Perlicky na dne, 1965). Not only did it bring five key directors of the Wave (Chytilová, Jireš, Menzel, Nemec and Schorm) together in one film, making it the Wave's official "coming out" as a group, but it tied them to a writer, Bohumil Hrabal, whose ability to capture the rhythms and refrains of everyday spoken Czech was highly influential on the Wave's direction.
Of the 1960s reworkings of novels for the screen, by far the most successful was Menzel's Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1966), based on a novel of the same name by Hrabal, who worked with Menzel on the screenplay. As is typical for New Wave films, the main protagonist is an awkward young loser with more interest in a personal problem than with the more momentous political events around him. The loser in question is Miloš, a new station assistant on a line feeding the German Eastern front in the Second World War. Despite wearing a German railway coat, Miloš has little time for worrying about ideology and is instead preoccupied with how to lose his virginity; and he hopes joining the Czech Resistance will help him do just that.
Like many central European films (before and after the 1960s), Closely Observed Trains probes the apparently unreconcilable relationships between the individual and the forces of history, heroism and happiness. Mocking of authority and worshipful of the mundane, the film was instantly popular.
Whilst other directors have adapted the books of Hrabal, and Menzel has adapted work by other authors, the pairing of the two together has been a magical combination. Menzel would go on to adapt three more Hrabal novels, but attempts to direct a further one in the 1990s became his undoing. Menzel was promised he could direct the film by Jirí Sirotek, the producer holding the rights, but after a complicated fiasco that wound up in court, the rights had to be sold, and the wunderkind of the Czech 1990s film scene, Jan Hrebejk, was chosen as the new director.
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