Eva Zaoralová: What Czech film has given the world

"In his Histoire générale du cinéma, the French film historian Georges Sadoul noted that, in Central Europe, the vitality of Czechoslovak cinema in particular had shone through from the outset. His description of Czech cinema from its very beginnings, reaching from well before the formation of the independent state in 1918, to the period after the Second World War sheds light on how history dictated the complicated evolution of the Czech film industry.

Despite many difficulties, Czech film managed to win recognition abroad, proving its ability to hold its own on the international stage with the success of Gustav Machatý’s Ecstasy (Extase) at the Venice Festival in 1934. The film caused quite a stir not only because of the central character’s nudity in certain scenes and the eroticism (audacious for the time), but also on account of the avant-garde screen elements that imbued the plot with an extraordinary atmosphere. These first ‘erotic art movies’ – Ecstasy and Erotikon, an earlier silent film, by the same director – can be found in any book on the 1930s’ world cinema, but it was not only Gustav Machatý who brought Czechoslovak film to international prominence before the Second World War. Others included Karel Lamač, Alexander Hackenschmied, Otakar Vávra, and the pioneer of ethnographic film and important Slovak photographer Karol Plicka.

While Czech (until 1993 Czechoslovak) post-war cinema was not home to any major movement equal to Neorealism, given to Europe and the world by Italians, Karel Steklý’s social drama The Strike (Siréna) revived the past success of Czech films by winning the Grand Prix in Venice in 1947. And even in the years after the establishment of the Communist regime, when Czechoslovak film was affected by the notorious aesthetics of Socialist Realism which distorted reality to fit in with contemporary ideology, it still managed to attract international attention thanks to the unique work of the animation genius Jiří Trnka. His puppet films The Czech Year (Špalíček), The Emperor’s Nightingale (Císařův slavík), Prince Bayaya (Bajaja), Old Bohemian Legends (Staré pověsti české), his animations as well as the works of his colleagues and successors from the Prague Jiří Trnka Studio received praise and awards at international festivals as famous as Cannes.

In the 1950s, these films paved the way for a school of European animation that, through its creative originality, was able to compete successfully with the traditional concept developed by Walt Disney. Today, Jiří Trnka but also Hermína Týrlová and her 'Zlín School’ are still admired and respected by experts, and Czech animated films continue to be part of television repertoires across the world. These filmmakers found a worthy, and again a uniquely original successor in the person of Karel Zeman, who – long before Steven Spielberg – created a world of dinosaurs in Journey to the Beginning of Time, also known as Journey to Prehistory (Cesta do pravěku), in which he used his extraordinary imagination and resourcefulness to combine animation with real actors (a technique he used again in The Fabulous World of Jules Verne [Vynález zkázy] and Baron Munchhausen [Baron Prášil]). The tradition of Czech animated film has been taken up by Břetislav Pojar who has contributed to its fame far and wide over many years. In the context of world cinema, Jan Švankmajer is well known for a style that is very much his own, inspired by surrealism and marked by the use of a great diversity of artistic techniques and forms of animated and feature film.

Czech (at that time still Czechoslovak) feature film came under the spotlight at the beginning of the 1960s with the arrival of the ‘New Wave’, made possible by a partial thaw in political ideology. However, the years preceding the thaw had not been entirely devoid of success, thanks to directors such as Jiří Weiss, Martin Frič, Otakar Vávra, Jiří Krejčík, and the Ján Kadár/Elmar Klos team, or the younger generation of Karel Kachyňa, Vojtěch Jasný and František Vláčil, who had made their mark at international festivals. Among these directors, František Vláčil enjoys a special status, as his Markéta Lazarová has been rightly singled out by the world’s film critics as one of the most significant films inspired by history.

The early works by young graduates of the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), such as Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Jaromil Jireš, Pavel Juráček and Ivan Passer (the latter prevented from studying at FAMU on political grounds) stirred great interest at international festivals and the list of prizes won by Czech films steadily grew longer until 1968, when the strait-jacket of Communist ideology stifled Czech cinema again. In the 1960s, the ‘New Wave’ tag was given to filmmakers from numerous European countries, all seeking a new means of cinematic expression closer to the truths of life, finding support for such immediacy and authenticity in simplified techniques. However, no other ‘New Wave’ bears the hallmarks of the early films of the emerging Czech generation – the ability to express serious, even tragic, matters with humour.

This bitter comedy, characteristic of the spirit of films such as Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky), Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení), Black Peter (Černý Petr), Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky), The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko), Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně), A Report on the Party and the Guests, also known as The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech), Daisies (Sedmikrásky), Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání), Case for a Rookie Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata) and other works by the above-mentioned directors or their lesser-known colleagues, is unique to Czech cinema. The humour pervading these films is different from that employed by the satirical commedia all’italiana or French, British and German humour drawing on absurdity. Characters in these Czech films are viewed with an irony that does not deprive them of human dignity, despite drawing attention to their weaknesses and comicality, and the authors’ viewpoint usually does not lack self-irony. It is this specific trait that has earned Czech film of that time a lasting place in world cinema, a fact recognized by some of today’s Czech directors who are members of a generation producing films capitalizing on freedom of expression - an environment very different from the one in which their predecessors used to work."

Eva Zaoralová

Eva Zaoralová

born on 28 November 1932 in Prague

Film critic and translator

From 1968 to 1991, Eva Zaoralová worked for the monthly periodical FILM A DOBA (FILM AND TIME). She was appointed editor-in-chief in 1989. She spent several years as an external lecturer on the history of world cinema at the FAMU film academy. As an artistic director, she has since 1994 been responsible for preparing the programme of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which is now the leading cinematic event in Central and Eastern Europe. She has written many studies, film reviews and articles for daily newspapers and specialised periodicals and translated numerous novels and short stories by prominent French and Italian authors. In 2002, the French government conferred on her the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.


Last update: 16.8.2011 16:02

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