Primer: Czech New Wave

The upcoming series New Czech Cinema (May 6 — May 14) shines a spotlight on a new generation of up-and-coming Czech filmmakers. The exuberance of these rising filmmakers brings up fond memories of the great turning point in Czech Cinema which occurred in the 1960s, known as the Czech New Wave. Driven by students of the Film and TV School of The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, Czech cinema in the 60s saw an explosion of formally radical, politically charged films which shattered paradigms and launched long-running careers. Although many were banned by authorities for their content at the time, the films of the Czech New Wave are far more available to watch now, and maintain the same sense of vibrancy and energy that they had over 50 years ago. The breadth and diversity of the movement can be daunting, so here are a few films that serve as good jumping off points into the world of the Czech New Wave to prepare audiences to get the most out of our series:

Daisies

Věra Chytilová’s anarchic feminist fable is one of the more visually radical films from the Czech New Wave, or anywhere else. Telling the story of two teenage girls wandering through a series of loosely-connected misadventures, Daisies uses surreal dream logic, colorful cinematography, and fragmented editing to piece together a kinetic and exciting portrait of rebellion. The movie’s shifty political commentary and sexual undertones saw it banned by Czech authorities, but its free-spirited antics survived the test of time, and the film remains a smorgasbord of gleeful disorder.

The Fireman’s Ball

The last film made by Miloš Forman in his native Czechoslovakia, The Fireman’s Ball caused his exile from the country, launching him into a successful career in the United States with films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Despite all of the controversy it generated at the time, from complaints about the depiction of fire departments to worries about allegorical anti-Communist implications, at its core, The Fireman’s Ball is an enjoyable farcical workplace comedy. Running at a brisk 71 minutes, the film depicts the escalating chaos of a small town’s fire department’s ball, which includes a disorganized beauty pageant and raffle with mysteriously disappearing prizes. Starring mostly non-actors, the low-key humor draws on the nuances of social faux pas and bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. The corruption aspect may have hit a little too close to home for the Soviet censors that banned it, but it strengthens the film’s relevance and watchability today.

Pictures of the Old World

Coming late in the life cycle of the movement, Dušan Hanák’s documentary is a poignant meditation on the decaying culture of rural farmers in the Slovakian countryside. The farmers, steeped in poverty and alcoholism, are depicted candidly, with refreshing honesty and pathos, the scrappy but resilient remnants of a dying way of life. Although the film was banned by Communist authorities (notice a pattern?), Hanák’s approach is largely apolitical, cutting to the humanity at the heart of these people left behind by the “progress” of modernity. The stark chiaroschuro compositions of his shots add a visual flare to the images of the film that will burn into your memory.

The Cremator

Juraj Herz began his career as a puppeteer, which may have informed his creative compositions, lively camerawork, and distorted eye for beauty. His talents are on full display in The Cremator, an unsettling horror comedy which feels far ahead of its time in both style and content. Led by a delightfully demented performance by renowned Czech actor Rudolf Hrusínský, The Cremator is a bizarre look into the life of the enigmatic Kopfrkingl, a family man and cremator in Prague, whose obsession with death and paranoid delusions escalate over the course of the film’s runtime, leading to a chilling climax. The queasy cinematography (frequently employing distorting wide-angle lenses) and staccato editing rhythms are perfect showcases for Herz’s innovative style, and the score by Zdeněk Liška is unforgettable. Banned by Czech Censors from its release in 1969 until 1989, The Cremator is a dark surrealist gem.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Ostensibly a coming-of-age story, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is elevated by a hearty dose of surrealism and dream-like imagery that paints an impressionistic portrait of a young girl’s transition into the often scary world of adulthood. Based on a surrealist Czech novel, the film concerns the 13 year-old Valerie, who puts on a pair of magical earrings which transform her idyllic life into a nightmarish dreamscape populated by untrustworthy shapeshifting family members and mysterious vampiric men. The film uses beautiful poetic images to portray the transition between childhood and adulthood, innocence and maturity. Director Jaromil Jireš treats the touchy subject of Valerie’s budding sexuality with tasteful frankness, acknowledging both the harsh realities and the incomprehensible strangeness of growing up. The story may not make a whole lot of logical sense, but the emotional truths it draws from its fragmented editing and folkloric imagery give the film a hypnotic power.

 

Written by Vincent Warne, PR/Marketing Intern