10 Essential Films From The Czech New Wave
6. Pearls of the Deep (1966)
Pearls of the Deep melds five short films based on stories by Bohumil Hrabal, an esteemed Czech writer. Viewed as a kind of manifesto of the Czechoslovak New Wave, each short is directed by a major player of the movement: Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec, Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, and Evald Schorm, all former classmates at FAMU, the Czech national film school.
Dipping into the surreal, the absurd, and the nitty-gritty of Czechoslovakian life, Pearls of the Deep overtly subverts the social-realist code, with its focus on the individual rather than the collective, a focus also favored by Hrabal, who appears in cameos.
7. Marketa Lazarova (1967)
Often cited as an “experimental action film”, František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarova mixes a stark, gothic aesthetic with a eerie tempo full of poetic juxtapositions and symbolism. The story is ostensibly about a feudal lord’s daughter who gets kidnapped by neighboring knights and becomes the lover of one of them.
In its depiction of clashes between paganism and Christianity rooted in Slavic history and culture comes an exploration of sin and sexuality, innocence, love, nature, and violence.
Marketa Lazarova is an epic, with disorienting passages set against sweeping landscapes that evoke a dreamscape. Its hypnotic effect is also heightened by its score of chamber music.
8. The Cremator (1969)
Juraj Herz’s The Cremator offers a plateful of expressionistic horror and dark, really dark, comedy at its best. It features an incredibly creepy narrator and protagonist whose mind is so twisted that it offers a fascinating study into state-sanctioned madness. Based on a novel by Czech author Ladislav Fuks, the film centers around the owner of a crematorium who is suddenly struck by his key role in supporting the Aryan cause.
Given that his wife is half-Jewish, he is now in the position to determine her fate by sacrificing her to a greater good, or so his logic goes. He also believes that he is releasing souls for future reincarnation, seeing himself as a benevolent enabler of said freedom.
The film is also note-worthy for its stylized flair, which is masterfully employed to depict the fragmented mind of the protagonist.
9. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Touching on psychological horror when showing a girl’s maturation, Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie comes off as a surreal, gothic fairy-tale.
Aesthetically, it is a beautifully macabre horror show. Beginning with an “innocent” mouth sipping water from a fountain, and the eponymous Valerie laying down on the grass, her hair splayed, her eyes closed in an expression of bliss, it quickly moves onto blood dropping on pristine daisies in a field, effectively signalling the protagonist’s far-from-sweet rite of passage.
Valerie then delves into the territory of fantasy, with ample jolts of deathly figures, uneasy sexuality, thirsty vampires, a lecherous grandmother/vampire, religious icons, and many terrors that seem to spring directly from your most vivid nightmares, brimming with poetic symbolism.
10. The Ear (1970)
Orwellian themes – state surveillance and control and its accompanying paranoia, for example – synthesize this political noir-drama. Expectedly, no sooner was it completed than the censors clamped down on its circulation.
The story centers around a middle-aged couple cooped in an apartment over one night, where they quarrel in a manner reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Except the couple is quarreling behind the Iron Curtain in the height of totalitarian rule.
The pair – a party official and his disgruntled, alcohol-fueled wife – go about recalling tidbits of the party they just attended, which comes in flashes interspersed between their revealing conversations. Eventually realizing that they are exposed and under surveillance, the couple’s mutual vulnerability bonds them.
The Ear is a sharp, intellectually-gratifying Czech New Wave film that reminds one of Vaclav Havel’s (the former Czech president) plays in his dissident years.
Other well-known Czechoslovak New Wave films, such as The Shop on Main Street, The Firemen’s Ball, and The Joke could have easily made the list; however, the sampling above captures the sensibility of the time in its many shades, paving the way for further discoveries.
These films show that regimes, no matter how repressive, cannot clamp down on the creative impulse. In fact, the opposite tends to happen, as creative expression often thrives on attempts to restrict it.
Author Bio: Mariana Sabino is a freelance writer and script consultant. After college, she studied Screenwriting at FAMU, the Czech national film school.
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