6. The Firemen’s Ball (Milos Forman, 1967, Czech)
Not every film from the Czech New Wave was dismal and dour. Milos Forman (who would later go on to helm One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) understood that strong political and social messages can be disseminated just as effectively through absurdity and farce. And that’s exactly what he did with bureaucratic ineptitude send-up The Firemen’s Ball.
The firemen in a small Czechoslovakian town are throwing an absurdly extravagant party to honor their retiring fire chief. The party itself is a showcase of general foolishness, as everything from the dance to the raffle is micromanaged and mishandled in to oblivion.
Absurdity mounts as raffle prizes are casually stolen throughout the evening, beauty contest candidates are poked and prodded for what seems like hours on end, and, in the ultimate display buck-passing and misguided values, an elderly man whose home burned to the ground during the party is offered the recently recovered raffle prizes as consolation from the firemen.
Forman’s film is not only a hilariously genius peek behind the curtain of the Communist state, but also a master class in economical filmmaking as all of this fits neatly in to The Firemen’s Ball’s 71-minute runtime.
7. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961, UK)
For some reason there is a severe lack of truly great ghost stories in 1960’s European cinema. Perhaps the pronounced political tumult of the time period kept filmmakers from straying in to the metaphysical realm. Or perhaps there was still a sort of negative connotation that went along with monster flicks and other B-movies that caused “serious” directors to keep their distance. Fortunately, Jack Clayton had no qualms with tackling the ripe territory.
For his 1961 foray in to the horror genre he chose to adapt Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” a haunting story of a governess tasked with looking after a palatial English estate and two young children who seem to be afflicted in some way by ghostly apparitions. Deborah Kerr delivers a wonderful performance filled with tenderness for her charges and curiosity for the increasingly unnerving situation; a performance that naturally progresses to steely fearlessness when the time comes.
The real star of the film, however, is the man behind the camera: cinematographer Freddie Francis. Many of the most tense scenes are lit naturally with nothing more than candlelight, giving the proceedings a unique feel that is best described as authentically cinematic. At times, Francis also placed glass filters along the edges of the frame, effectively creating an intimate, claustrophobic atmosphere. The Innocents is a true gem in every regard.
8. Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967, France)
One of those filmmakers that eschewed the supernatural in favor of the explicitly political and formally daring – during his late-1960’s period in particular – was none other than Jean-Luc Godard. Instead, he chose to look ahead, ahead towards a chaotic society that he felt was becoming all too real.
Beginning as a piece of jet black comedy (motorists get in to a knock down drag out fight over the color of their cars), the circumstances within Godard’s Weekend quickly devolve in to the most base of human behavior: murder, cannibalism, etc.
The story itself concerns a bourgeois French couple, Roland and Corrine Durand, that set out on the road for the weekend, their ultimate (though ultimately inconsequential) being to kill each other after killing Corrine’s mother.
The two are met with a number of politically-charged encounters that give shape to Godard’s oftentimes obtuse messages: a blue collar Arab and an African migrant worker directly address the audience during a lengthy espousing of Marxist ideology; they meet two individuals from the world of fiction – Tom Thumb and Emily Bronte – whom recite pieces of revolutionary and poetic reflection that simultaneously bore and anger the Durand’s.
Beyond the sociopolitical commentary at the heart of Weekend, Godard and frequent collaborator cinematographer Raoul Cotard employ an incredible amount of dynamic visual tools that help keep the audience engaged.
There’s the legendary 9-minute tracking shot of an exceptionally violent traffic jam, a whirling circular shot of an unusually serene courtyard, and perhaps most impressively, a number of elaborate boom shots of wrecked, burning vehicles that act as a brief summation of the depths that this bourgeois society has sunk to.
9. Love is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969, Germany)
For some reason, the films of German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder have taken a backseat to the sexier cinematic movements of the French nouvelle vague and film noir. While his later output is indisputably riveting, perhaps if Fassbinder had remained on the path laid out by his slick debut Love is Colder Than Death, young cinephiles would be quicker to delve in to his work.
The raw, black and white crime flick couldn’t be further removed from the soulful melodrama Fassbinder would become known for, which makes it all the more intriguing as a glimpse in to a filmmaker’s early days. The film deals with Franz, a small-time pimp being chased down by a larger syndicate that he has unwisely spurned.
When Bruno, the syndicate’s hired gun, catches up to Franz, they become fast friends, even going so far as to become romantically intertwined with Franz’s girlfriend, Joanna. Things quickly spiral downwards once Joanna becomes bored of Bruno and the situation in general, alerting the police to his future plans.
While Love is Colder Than Death is unpolished in several aspects – Fassbinder in particular had yet to find his range as a performer, and the characters are shallow and shapeless – Fassbinder’s camera always, even in his debut picture, had a knack for capturing beautiful images. Whether it be the extended tracking shot inside a drab warehouse that opens the film or the climactic shootout that closes it, there is rarely a dull visual moment to be found.
10. Marketa Lazarova (Frantisek Vlacil, 1967, Czech)
Perhaps the crowning achievement in a cinematic movement chock full of mesmerizing films, Frantisek Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarova fully exhibited the narrative and formal daring that made the Czech New Wave so special. The A.V. Club’s Sam Adams described it as “Game of Thrones filtered through Ingmar Bergman and Alejandro Jodorowsky.” That might be the most apt description for this nearly-3 hour medieval fever dream. It’s also been called disorienting, and enigmatic, and brutal, and undecipherable.
In truth, it’s all of those things and more. It’s important to note that Vlacil realizes these things as well, plainly asserting with a title card “This tale was cobbled together almost at random and hardly merits praise.” The former could very well be true but the latter certainly is not.
The plot, at it’s most basic level, is as such: Mikolas and his brother Adam are part of a roving clan of Czech raiders that becomes embroiled in a feud with a group of German nobles. Marketa, belonging to neither group, is caught in the middle, and is eventually kidnapped by Mikolas.
The narrative can be obtuse at times, with different plot strands unfolding seemingly out of order; it takes time and brain power to connect the dots. However, one would not even need to connect those dots to make Marketa Lazarova a satisfying experience. Vlacil and cinematographer Bedrich Badka’s camera work is lush and beautiful, offering a striking contrast to the frequent brutality captured on-screen. The sheer artistry and self-assuredness with which Vlacil weaves this tale is something to behold.
Author Bio: Dustin recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a BA in Journalism and Media Production. He enjoys basketball, craft beer, and everything from Jodorowsky to Jarmusch.