The former Czechoslovakia marks one of the most exciting chapters in film history among the international crop of New Wave films.
For a brief period in the 1960s, Czechoslovakia rode a progressive wave, as it sought to bring liberal reforms to the communist regime. Although the period was short-lived, with Soviet tanks and control snuffing out the momentum, the films produced in this period are living icons of this progressive impulse. During that time, filmmakers overtly subverted the social-realist genre imposed on them while still working under the auspices of the state. As expected, many of these films were swiftly banned after completion, only getting released locally after the Velvet Revolution.
Like in the nouvelle vague of France and elsewhere, the 1960s introduced a vibrant period of experimentation of the medium as well as narrative possibilities; the so-called movement often collided with established conventions while ushering in a bold new approach to them.
The Czechoslovak version, for its part, often drew inspiration from literature, and counted on state funding, which resulted in higher production values than its New Wave counterparts. They also had a particular flavor, delving into the absurd and surreal, and bringing ample doses of dark humor while confronting serious subjects.
Having deservedly achieved cult status, here follows a sampling of 10 gems from the Czechoslovak New Wave.
1. The Sun in a Net (1962)
Štefan Uher’s The Sun in a Net offers a visual medley in its portrayal of youthful awakening and sensuality in one hand, and shackling impositions on the other.
Images of young lovers on a rooftop; the sun through a fishermen’s net; children craning their heads to see an eclipse; moments reflected on the surface of water, of windows, of glass; hands raised at a communist party meeting…Each image tells the story.
The story itself begins with a solar eclipse seen from a panelak (government-sponsored housing estate), focusing around a young couple who are soon to part ways, as each must go to a different camp for state-mandated work. The film then follows their separate adventures over the summer, with each finding new relationships and perspectives.
A parallel story involving a blind mother further explores the theme of sight and the way in which we see and describe the world, or alternatively have it described to us.
2. Loves of a Blonde (1965)
As Milos Forman’s first Academy-award nomination, Loves of a Blonde is a sharply observed depiction of ordinary yearning amid social constraints and arbitrary political decisions. The result manages to be both comical and tender.
The story revolves around a young factory worker whose quest for love turns into a pathetic goose chase. From married duds to balding, pot-bellied army reservists, the town is desperately lacking in suitors. When the local party officials decide to play matchmaker to lift the morale of their all-female workers, the title blonde finally meets and spends the night with an attractive pianist from Prague. Smitten, she decides to show up at his doorstep. Mortification ensues.
With its more conventional story, Loves of a Blonde is a classic film that offers a charmingly accessible entry into the Czechoslovak New Wave.
3. Intimate Lighting (1965)
One of the hallmark films of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting shows slices of everyday life where plot gets submerged by details which, when combined, resonate with an understated poignancy and beauty.
The basic plot is somewhat insignificant in itself, involving a Prague cellist who, accompanied by his lover, go to a village to play at the local orchestra. The couple stays with the cellist’s old classmate, a local musician who lives with his parents, wife, kids, and assorted chickens.
A series of awkward, often tragi-comical exchanges ensue between the parties, which are almost rendered with a fly-on-the-wall perspective, merely observing; at other times, it takes on a compassionate eye, like an unseen friend mingling among them.
4. Daisies (1966)
If ever there was a film impossible to pin down, this is it. Věra Chytilová’s Daisies bursts open a mishmash of concepts. In a flurry of existential dialogue, wacky juxtapositions, editing, and sound effects, the film stands as an avant-garde masterpiece.
The so-called plot is as irreverent as the way in which it unfolds. Ostensibly, it concerns two girls whose attitude in an absurd world is to embrace destruction as the only possible stance. And they take on this stance with a manic zealousness, so that nothing gets spared – be it war, romance, conventions, fashion, food – proceeding to poke fun at all that is, in their view, holy cows.
It came as little surprise then that it sparked the ire of the local censors, and the admiration of the West for its feminist and political subtext. Regardless of any ideology, however, Daisies remains a must-see for filmgoers drawn to bold experimentation of the medium.
5. Closely Watched Trains (1966)
Based on another novel by Bohumil Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains won the 1967 entry of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The film’s theme can be summed up as bumbling innocence leading to unexpected heroism. Centering around an oblivious railroad apprentice working at a village station during Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, who wishes for little else than to lose his virginity at the start of the film, it follows his progression to take a role in the resistance by choosing to blow up a Nazi ammunition truck. It is the everyman’s heroic moment.
Still, the plot again does not matter as much as the details of a very specific time and place, and the authentic characters inhabiting this same place. The tone is wry, witty, with its depth coming through the cracks. Moreover, its subtle humanism has a universal appeal.