Increasingly seen as one of the key cinematic movements of the post war era, the Czechoslovak New Wave is receiving a somewhat belated critical and historical recognition. The availability of many of the films on Blu-ray and DVD has meant that it has reached younger audiences for whom the films have often proved a revelation. This selection of seven of its key films crosses aesthetic and political boundaries in striking combination.
At the time, many found it surprising that so many original works should emerge from what was perceived as one of the most conformist regimes in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Film festival recognition soon followed and culminated in the award of Hollywood Oscars to Ján Kadár’s and Elmar Klos’s The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, 1965) in 1966 and Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966) in 1967. Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1967) was nominated in 1968 and Vojtěch Jasný’s All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci, 1968) won the Best Direction prize at Cannes in 1969.
There were probably two reasons for these developments. Firstly, a broad cultural tradition had merely been suppressed by the political orthodoxies and persecutions of the 1950s. Secondly, a predominantly younger generation of filmmakers had emerged from the Prague Film School (FAMU) who sought to develop their talents without reference to outdated ideological guidelines.
One of the first films to indicate a new course was Forman’s Black Peter (Černý Petr, 1963), which charted the low key story of a young assistant in a grocery store, his encounters with authority, and unsuccessful attempts to interest the opposite gender. Influenced by neo-realism and cinéma-vérité, Forman portrayed an everyday world far removed from the idealised and false vision preferred by the Communist Party. As the Marxist critic, Ivan Sviták, put it at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1964, ‘Black Peter is a film in which almost nothing happens, but that “nothing” is presented with such credibility, humour, substantiality, and even a certain cruel lyricism that the audience never loses touch with the screen’.
For a period, Forman and his friend, Ivan Passer, seemed to have established a ‘school’ of filmmaking with their follow-up films, Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, Forman, 1965) and Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení, Passer, 1965). Forman’s later film, The Firemen’s Ball, while continuing to use non-actors, was seen by critics as reminiscent of Gogol and by others as a satire on the Communist Party. It recorded a night of chaos in which a provincial fire brigade attempts to organise an evening of entertainment. Although rooted in the community in which it was set, the authorities considered it to be making fun of the volunteer fire brigades who provided the backbone of the service. However, when shown to the local villagers, who the Party thought would object, it received unqualified approval. It was simultaneously admired by the resurgent Czech Surrealist group as a coruscating examination of the everyday.
The nearest the Czech Wave came to a collective statement was with their adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s stories, Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně, 1965). Menzel, Passer, Věra Chytilová, and Jaromil Jireš all participated along with Jan Němec and Evald Schorm. According to Hrabal, the direct life experience could become a poetic act, and his privately published People’s Conversations (Hovori lidí, 1956) revealed an obsession with authentic speech and a representation of the working class at odds with official simplifications. While Forman and Passer shared some of these objectives, they did not have a similar obsession with the eccentric and the surreal.
Hrabal’s novella Closely Observed Trains was probably his most orthodox. Drawing on his wartime experiences and earlier works that had focussed on the subject of suicide, he now concentrated more on his hero’s search for sexual initiation. Menzel’s film version gave the film a humanist flavour and a romantic and comic turn that won a Hollywood Oscar and made it popular all over the world. While its sensibility shared elements with Forman and Passer, Hrabal and Menzel worked closely on a film that mixed comedy and tragedy with an often magic imagery. Set against a background of the Nazi protectorate and the underground resistance, the theme of heroism receives an ironic and unusual examination. The Czechs’ Švejkian resistance to the Nazi occupation nonetheless met official criticism for ‘making fun’ of the Resistance. The hero’s eventual death was more a matter of accident than heroic sacrifice.
One of the most radical of the 60s directors was Věra Chytilová – the only woman amongst the new grouping. Her film Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) remains challenging to this day and avoided any pretence at realism despite the two protagonists being played by non-professionals. Lacking any conventional narrative, the film takes the form of a series of ‘happenings’ which give full range to the visual experiments of her cinematographer-husband, Jaroslav Kučera. Together with Němec’s The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966), it became the focus of an immediate scandal in which 21 members of the National Assembly demanded its withdrawal on the grounds that it had ‘nothing in common with socialism or the ideals of Communism’.
If the early films of the New Wave were mainly distinguished by their rejection of the aesthetic norms of Socialist Realism (i.e. conventional narrative forms harnessed to the building of an ideal and far from evident reality), no explicit criticism was permitted until 1968. This was the year of the Prague Spring when the Communist Party began to introduce liberal reforms, acknowledged the distortions and failures of the past, sought to combine democracy with the leading role of the Party, and abolished censorship.
Vojtěch Jasný, one of the older directors, had planned his All My Good Countrymen for many years but it was only given the go-ahead in 1968 (apparently with the approval of Party leader Alexander Dubček). The film focuses on life in a single Moravian village from the years 1945-58 together with an epilogue set in 1968. A collection of stories and characters apparently based on his mother’s reminiscences, it follows the processes of dispossession, collectivisation, and corruption that followed the Communist takeover. Despite its political theme, it’s fundamentally a lyrical film set against the enveloping beauty of the landscape and progression of the seasons. Unfortunately, its reference to the hopes presented by the Prague Spring proved to be premature.
Jireš’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s seminal novel The Joke (Žert) was prepared with the author prior to publication and completed filming against a background of the invading armies. Again set in Moravia, it tells the story of a former Communist who ends up enduring forced labour and imprisonment for an ill-advised political ‘joke’. Intent on revenge, he returns to his home town during the Prague Spring only to discover that the hardliner who denounced him has become a ‘reformer’. Presented mainly through flashbacks, the film strikes a powerful interplay and debate between past and present.
Following his success with Closely Observed Trains, Menzel made two further features before reuniting with Hrabal for Skylards on a String (Skřivánci na niti), which was completed in 1969. This comic and sometimes lyrical portrait of a forced labour camp in the early 1950s was nonetheless a powerful attack on the Communist bureaucracy. As a result, it could not be released until after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. Over 20 years after its production, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1990.
All of the films released prior to August 1968 had been produced under conditions of censorship. However, they appeared at a time when the ideological ice was beginning to crack. Technically, the films had to be approved at script stage, after completion and finally by the ideological commission of the Communist Party. According to a recent study, these negotiations could sometimes lead to constructive outcomes. But, in what has retrospectively – and probably inaccurately – been dubbed ‘The Golden Sixties’, many things were possible. Apart from the movement for change within the Party, there was an official policy of encouraging youth – a youth that had grown up and been ‘nurtured’ under Communism.
Following the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968, the reforms of the 1960s were reversed in favour of a static and sterile world that was to survive for the next 20 years. While censorship had been formally abolished, even stricter controls were now imposed. Hard line Communists were placed in key positions to ensure that no deviations from official policies could be initiated. This ‘Nomenklatura’ system was consistently applied and senior Party positions were approved by Moscow. As one critic put it, the ‘Nomenklatura’ system supported cynics or, at best, pragmatists. The New Wave was swiftly disowned. The head of dramaturgy at the Barrandov Studios described the films as part of ‘a premeditated strategy…designed to build up a climate of scepticism, cynicism, vulgarity and hysterical emotions’. Over 100 films were banned with four listed as ‘banned forever’. Two of the four were The Firemen’s Ball and All My Good Countrymen. To produce a film that might appear ambiguous – or open to different meanings – would become almost impossible. Aesthetic ambiguity was in itself, subversive. The Party largely succeeded in its self-appointed task – the liquidation of a culture.
Forman, Jasný, Passer and Němec (among thousands) emigrated either voluntarily or because of pressure. Menzel and Chytilová were unable to work again until 1976 while Jireš found The Joke deleted from his filmography. None were able to continue the level of work that had previously been possible and despite some achievements - Menzel made two further adaptations of Hrabal - interesting work was deliberately sabotaged and promoted neither at home nor abroad. Chytilová’s struggles have been well documented. Her film The Apple Game (Hra o jablko, 1976) was withdrawn from international festivals and unreleased until 1978. Prefab Story (Panelstory, 1979) was not promoted internationally and denied a Prague screening until 1987. Calamity (Kalamita, 1981) was banned after completion and re-edited. Compromise was the norm and some directors found their careers at an end. Others, however, exploited the situation to their own advantage. Forman noted that it was Czech filmmakers who were behind the withdrawal of his Czech citizenship and opposed his shooting of Amadeus (1984) in Prague. Financial considerations prevailed and shooting went ahead, but only under conditions of press blackout. In other words, censorship was now a matter of bureaucratic control. In his book, The Restoration of Order, Milan Šimečka characterised the period as an ‘age of immobility’.
The New Wave was one of the most remarkable movements in film history when filmmakers achieved an unusual degree of artistic freedom combined with the rejection of repressive artistic codes and the promotion of new social realities. Whatever the conditions from which it arose, the originality and freshness of the films continues to astonish and surprise.
Peter Hames is author of The Czechoslovak New Wave (2005), Czech and Slovak Film: Theme and Tradition (2009), and Best of Slovak Film, 1921-91 (2018). He is editor of The Cinema of Central Europe (2004), The Cinema of Jan Švankmajer: Dark Alchemy (2008), and Cinemas in Transition in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 (with Catherine Portuges, 2013).