10 Weird And Wonderful Films That Will Get You Hooked On Czech Cinema
A few years ago it occurred to me that after a decade of visiting the Czech Republic and twelve years as a resident, I had only seen a handful of Czech movies. As a film buff and movie critic, that seemed a little negligent on my part. Over a few beers, I asked a fellow expat what he thought about Czech cinema.
"Boring," he said. "Just a bunch of villagers moaning about life while drinking beer and chasing women."
That sounded like a bit of a generalisation, but then those few films I had seen featured quite a lot of villagers waxing philosophical while supping large tankards of lovely Czech beer and lusting after local beauties. Indeed, that description would serve as a one-line synopsis for about half of legendary director Jiří Menzel’s films.
That was when I started blogging about Czech cinema and sharing my experiences. After all, as a cinephile, shouldn't I at least know the films of the Czechoslovak New Wave? It is still highly regarded and produced filmmakers like Menzel (Oscar winner for Closely Watched Trains), Věra Chytilová (Daisies ranks in Sight & Sound's Top 250 list) and Miloš Forman (winner of two Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus). Despite this, the common perception is that the Czech film industry has declined since its heyday in the '60s and '70s.
There are still plenty of very solid movies made in the country today. Agnieszka Holland's Charlatan was shortlisted for this year's Academy Awards and certainly wouldn't look out of place among the Best International Feature Film nominations. However, many of the good ones tend towards Oscar-bait material and lack much of the verve, wit and innovation of the New Wave, which found its fullest voice around the time of the Prague Spring in 1968. It was a sweet spot for the country's filmmakers. The film industry was state-sponsored and the communist regime had little interest in box office returns. Meanwhile, a period of relative political liberalisation in the country gave directors an unprecedented amount of freedom to make the films they wanted, resulting in a burst of artistic energy.
Needless to say, a lot of those films criticised the communist regime, either directly or obliquely, and were subsequently "banned forever". Menzel’s Larks on a String, Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, and Jan Němec’s A Report on the Party and the Guests are just a few of the important works that fell foul of the censorious government.
While these films remain invigorating masterworks, they aren’t always the best introduction to Czech film. Many require at least a basic knowledge of the country's tribulations under communism to get the most out of them, something of an alien concept to many of us from the English-speaking world.
With this in mind, I'd like to share some of the weird and wonderful leftfield gems from the New Wave and beyond. These are the oddities that really made me fall in love with Czech cinema...
One Hand Can’t Clap (Jedna ruka netleská) – David Ondříček, 2003
Ondříček’s generation-defining previous film, Loners, might be held in higher esteem, but One Hand Can’t Clap is simply funnier and more easily accessible for a foreigner like me. It’s a goofy crime caper with an ambling stoner vibe, struck through with a typically Czech sense of fatalism. The story follows a gullible loser and his dim-witted mate as they try to solve the mystery of a vegetarian restaurateur's illegal trade in rare animals. It just gets weirder, darker and sillier the longer the movie goes on. The humour is a bit hit and miss but the laughs pile up cumulatively, building towards an incredibly offensive and funny rant from Czech regular Ivan Trojan. His villainous performance is sublimely strange.
Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu) – Jan Švankmajer, 1983
Animator and filmmaker Švankmajer is a hugely influential figure in Czech culture, like the nation's favourite anarchist, surrealist granddad. He is revered for his tactile, disturbing stop-motion animation and was himself banned from making films during the 1970s. Internationally he is best known for Alice, his unsettling take on Lewis Carroll's classic tale, but that isn't necessarily the best place to start with his oeuvre. His style is so aggressive that it can be a little exhausting when stretched to feature-length, so it is worth experimenting with his shorts first.
Dimensions of Dialogue is a stunning triptych of animated skits that focus on communication and miscommunication, and it will tell you right away whether Švankmajer is your cup of tea or not. It is gross, vivid, vulgar, funny, and packs more ideas into 14 minutes than most Hollywood movies ten times the length.
The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Tajemství hradu v Karpatech) - Oldřich Lipský, 1981
Oldřich Lipský was on a one-man mission to keep his fellow Czechs laughing through the communist era with his quirky pastiches. For The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians, he re-teamed with the stars of his earlier killer plant movie, Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet, to great effect. Jan Švankmajer was also on board again to provide a cornucopia of wacky proto-steampunk inventions. Michal Dočolomanský plays an unflappable opera-singing aristocrat who believes that his long-lost love is captive in a sinister old castle, and sets off to the rescue. It’s cheerfully funny and endlessly inventive, with an off-the-wall silliness offset by unexpected touches of melancholy.
Morgiana - Juraj Herz, 1972
Juraj Herz had little love for Morgiana, claiming it was just a bit of a lark to keep his directorial hand in. That didn’t stop him from creating an utterly bonkers piece of gothic camp that had a big influence on Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. Iva Janžurová stars in a brilliant dual role as the sweet-natured Klara Trangan and her bitterly jealous twin sister Vitoria. After Klara receives the sweetest part of their father's inheritance, Vitoria retreats to her haunted hunting lodge, where she conjures up a plan to poison her unwitting sibling. Morgiana is a wickedly fun melodrama with sumptuous visuals and a wonderfully malicious antagonist you can't help rooting for.
Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem) - Jindřich Polák, 1977
Jindřich Polák is perhaps best known for Ikarie XB-1, his influential interstellar adventure that blended hard science fiction with a utopian vision of the future. He took a different route with this cult curio, creating a kitschy sci-fi farce involving time travel, Nazis, identical twins, and handheld hydrogen bombs. In the spirit of all the best farces, the plot escalates through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, culminating in an epic suitcase switcheroo in Hitler's bunker that is a masterclass in comic timing.
Daisies (Sedmikrásky) - Věra Chytilová, 1966
Both breezy and acerbic, Daisies is simply one of the most entertaining avant-garde films ever made. We follow two manic pixie girls as they cut a hedonistic swathe through a staid, chauvinistic society, and it is a riot of colour and ideas. Chytilová clashes film stocks and aggressive editing for a cinematic experience that fizzes with anger, energy and humour. Predictably, it was banned by the Czechoslovak authorities, although its target is broader than just the communist regime, an agitator's film heckling the larger patriarchy beyond. While Daisies is a key film of the New Wave it also feels like something that stands apart, something more daring and universal.
Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy) - Karel Zeman, 1958
Karel Zeman was Czechoslovakia’s answer to Georges Méliès, a master filmmaker and animator whose magical movies display an incredible amount of time and detail devoted to his craft. His The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a big influence on Terry Gilliam, who made his disastrous big-budget version in the '80s. Zeman based many of his works on Jules Verne novels and arguably the finest of these adaptations is Invention for Destruction. The story follows a gallant hero on his quest to thwart a megalomaniac's dastardly plan to take over the world. It is a terrific ripping yarn that showcases Zeman's brilliantly impractical vehicle designs, a stop-motion giant octopus, and a supervillain lair built inside a volcano. A thing of joy.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) - Jaromil Jireš, 1970
The arrival of Jireš's bewitching Valerie coincided with a spike in similarly-themed films like Witchfinder General and The Devils in Britain and Belladonna of Sadness in Japan. It is a surrealist adult fairytale about a young girl who finds herself pursued by a lecherous priest and a menacing cloaked figure, who both have designs on her virginity. Luckily her magic earrings help her escape would-be rapists and getting burned at the stake. It is a ravishing fantasia of beautiful and disturbing imagery that progresses with the logic of a dream, its elusive nature heightened by Luboš Fišer's wondrous score.
Happy End (Šťastný konec) - Oldřich Lipský, 1967
Many years before Christopher Nolan started tinkering with time, Oldřich Lipský made this macabre story of an executed murderer entirely in reverse. We begin with a severed head leaping back onto its shoulders and work backwards (forwards) to happier times for our hangdog protagonist, played to deadpan perfection by Czech stalwart Vladimír Menšík. While Happy End is a throwaway bit of fun, it is also meticulously constructed - everything makes narrative sense in reverse order, including the backwards dialogue.
The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol) - Juraj herz, 1969
Saving the best for last: The Cremator is a deeply unsettling, dream-like horror that follows the murderous rise of Karel Kopfrkingl, a sanctimonious, self-serving cremator who has merged Buddhism with his own peculiar ideas about reincarnation. As the threat of Nazi Germany looms over Czechoslovakia, go-getting Kopfrkingl gleefully realises that he might prove very useful to the Third Reich in his professional niche...
The Cremator is the blackest of black comedies, a pure study of that well-worn phrase, "the banality of evil". Kopfrkingl is the formidable Rudolf Hrušínský’s finest role, simply mesmerising in a monstrous yet minutely detailed performance. Herz’s filmmaking is dazzling, creating an eerily unreal atmosphere, aided by Zdeněk Liška’s otherworldly score that blends Asian motifs with Waltzing melodies. One of the best films that the country has to offer.
So there you have it: ten weird and wonderful movies that will get you hooked on Czech cinema, and hardly a beer-drinking villager in sight...
Till next time!