Tag Archives: Czech cinema

I, Olga Hepnarová

I, Olga Hepnarova
I, Olga Hepnarová

Seen at Fantasia 2016, Montreal (Canada)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 November 2016

Distributor: Mubi

Directors: Petr Kazda, Tomas Weinreb

Writers: Petr Kazda, Tomas Weinreb

Cast: Michalina Olszanska, Martin Pechlat, Klara Meliskova, Marika Soposka

Alternative title:
I, Olga

Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, France 2016

105 mins

The brutal, moving tale of an abused young woman’s revenge in Communist Czechoslovakia had its North American premiere at Fantasia.

***** out of *****

While watching this grim, superbly realized feature-length dramatic biography about the last person ever executed in Czechoslovakia, my mind occasionally drifted to the famous tagline for Meir Zarchi’s rape-revenge exploitation classic I Spit on Your Grave. It read:

‘This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned four men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!’

Within the context of that vile, but oddly affecting grade Z drive-in picture, it’s hard not to agree with the provocative sentiments expressed in the aforementioned declaration. I Spit on Your Grave is, however, pure fiction, whereas I, Olga Hepnarová is hardly an exploitation film: it is based on a true-life revenge-crime story that actually occurred in Prague during the summer of 1973.

Watching it, I imagined my own tagline:

‘This woman has just hijacked a two-ton diesel truck in Prague and plowed it full-throttle into a street full of innocent bystanders… but no jury in Czechoslovakia would ever convict her!’

Ah, but they did.

Writer-directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb have crafted a compulsive, moving and shocking film out of their title character’s life and the events leading up to her capture, conviction and execution. Most importantly, their picture pulls you in so closely and deeply that it’s impossible not to feel for this lonely young woman living a life of neglect and abuse in the post-Prague-Spring world of Communist repression, one in which all of former Czech party leader Alexander Dubček’s progressive reforms were reversed with a vengeance.

The astonishing young actress Michalina Olszanska plays Hepnarová from age 13 to her death 10 years later. She manages to pull off the near-impossible task of a poker-faced intensity that forces us to look beneath the veneer and into her eyes, which alternate between shark-like death stares and deep humanity, ranging from innate intelligence, sensitivity and confusion, to pain and anger, and even, on occasion, humour. She delivers one of the great screen performances of the new millennium and it serves the superb screenplay and austere mise en scène perfectly.

Using gorgeously composed long takes, shooting in evocative monochrome (via the expert lensing of Adam Sikora of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing fame) and presenting Hepnarova’s sad tale using voice-over excerpts from her haunting journals, the filmmakers offer a compelling arms-length plea for understanding. It’s their carefully controlled, often Kubrickian observations that deliver the kind of humanity and emotional core with which the late director of Dr. Strangelove, et al, was so often not properly credited with. Control and austerity does not mean the kind of coldness many critics mistakenly attribute to such work and in contrast, can often guarantee the film’s ability to reach right into the flesh and rip our hearts out.

I, Olga Hepnarová goes even further by tearing into us and exposing our nerve endings – pulling and tugging at the raw tendrils and putting us in as much pain as humanly possible to capture the life and emotions of this young woman. The film shares her life with us and we’re placed in the eye of the storm of this woman who spent a lifetime being callously neglected by her mother (‘To commit suicide you need a strong will, my child. Something you certainly don’t have. Accept it.’), raped by her father (captured with a subtlety that’s far more horrific than any graphic depiction), numerous attempts to kill herself, incarceration in a Soviet-style snake pit of an asylum (suffering even more physical and psychological abuse) and an early adulthood of exploring her sexual identity with often very sad results.

And finally, the filmmakers present us with the visuals depicting the results of Olga’s actual words:

‘I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people… I have a choice – to kill myself or to kill others. I choose to avenge my haters. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide victim. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.’

Of course we weep for her victims, but the film achieves the extraordinary by allowing us to weep for the ‘destroyed woman’ whose pain goes so undetected and neglected that her only choice seems to be the declaration of a death sentence upon a society bereft of caring.

To say the film takes a story from the 70s and makes it even more vital for our contemporary world would be an understatement. We weep for Olga Hepnarová, but we’re also placed in a position wherein we might be able to weep for those who carry out acts of violence and, in so doing, kill themselves.

Mental illness is a genuine affliction. It can result in evil actions, but the perpetrators are, more often than not, sick in mind, body and soul. Healing and caring has escaped them. I, Olga Hepnarová speaks not just for one, but all of them.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:

Something Different/A Bagful of Fleas

Something Different

Format: DVD

Release date: 29 February 2016

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Věra Chytilová

Writer: Věra Chytilová

Original titles: O něčem jiném (Something Different), Pytel blech (A Bagful of Fleas)

Cast: Eva Bosáková, Věra Uzelacová

Czechoslovakia 1963/1962

81/43 minutes

This new release explores Věra Chytilová’s early 1960s documentary-inflected pre-Daisies work.

‘It’s like guarding a bagful of fleas,’ says the chaperone at the textile-factory workers’ dance. The young employees jive to a rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ with new Czech lyrics, which have special poignancy for Jana, who is about to lose her boyfriend to the army. She’s been creating trouble, both on the job and in the girls’ dormitory where she lives, boarding-school style. No smoking, no flirting, no sneaking out to the cinema, and up for work at 4:30 am – those are the rules. A subjective camera represents the point of view of Eva, a new recruit, making the audience literally share her newcomer’s perspective. We’re in her shoes as she first enters her new living quarters, where the girls stare, tease, and talk directly to the camera in close-up. We listen in on Eva’s private opinions about everything that she observes: ‘Go on, eat something, you’re thin as a rake,’ she thinks, as the dorm’s chubbiest member snacks away. ‘Strange, women dancing together,’ remarks her inner voice, as she watches her co-workers practising for the next party.

Fans of Věra Chytilová’s famously experimental and anarchic Daisies (1966) are in for a treat with another release of her work on DVD by Second Run. Last year they released two later films, Fruit of Paradise (1970) and Traps (1998), which took Daisies’ fantasy and feminism even further. This release of Something Different (1963) and A Bagful of Fleas (1962) takes us back to the beginning of Chytilová’s career.

Something Different presents a parallel montage of the lives of two women: stay-at-home mum V?ra and professional gymnast Eva Bosáková. The housewife is played by Chytilová’s friend Věra Uzelacová, with her actual son, Milda, as her naughty little boy. The athlete is shown taking part in a real-life international championship, but there are also obviously scripted sections of her story, just like the fictional narrative of Věra and her family. Their lives only intersect briefly at the very beginning of the film, in a transition from the opening sequence of Eva competing, to the living room of Věra’s house where Milda is watching the competition on TV. Chytilová’s talent for rhythmic editing, geometric framing and inventive perspective is already in evidence. Viewers might expect a film of contrasts between the mother in her private sphere and the gymnast in the public eye, but the women share a similar degree of boredom and frustration, and both briefly resist the confines of routine, expectation and isolation.

Compared with Daisies, these early films show more of the influence of documentary realism. The young factory workers in A Bagful of Fleas are non-professional actors improvising their lines; real foremen and officials preside over the Works Committee meeting where Jana is pulled up for bad behaviour. Even so, a gulf in attitude separates this from other films in the Czech New Wave, such as Milos Forman’s A Blonde in Love (1965); there’s also less of Jiří Menzel’s whimsical good humour, and more of Daisies’ knowing cynicism. Both A Bagful of Fleas and Something Different emphasise the oppressive narrowness of their characters’ situation.

Alison Frank

Dragon’s Return

Dragons Return

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 August 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Eduard Grečner

Writer: Eduard Grečner

Cast: Radovan Lukavský, Gustáv Valach, Emília Vášáryová

Original title: Drak sa vracia

Czechoslovakia 1967

81 mins

When Martin Lepiš (Radovan Lukavský) comes home after a prolonged absence, his fellow villagers aren’t exactly pleased to see him. ‘Dragon’s back.’, ‘Dark days are coming.’, they mutter in terror. Martin’s only apparent connection with dragons is the kiln he uses to fire his whimsical pottery. It’s unclear why the villagers should fear this aging, quiet and artistic man with an eye-patch.

When their cattle are stranded by a forest fire, the villagers blame ‘Dragon’ for bringing them bad luck. He offers to lead the cattle to safety in exchange for being allowed to live once more in his potter’s cottage in the village. But someone must go with him, and the villagers appoint Šimon (Gustáv Valach), the man who married Dragon’s former lover, Eva (Emília Vášáryová), and the one who has most to lose from Dragon’s return.

Eduard Grečner was part of the first cohort of Czechoslovak New Wave directors who studied at the Prague Film School, FAMU. He assisted fellow Slovak director Štefan Uher on his 1962 film The Sun in a Net, generally considered the first film of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Like Uher, Grečner incorporated avant-garde visual and storytelling techniques into his films, ushering Czechoslovakian cinema into the modernist era.

Unfortunately, a combination of events meant that international audiences were deprived of the chance to see 1967’s Dragon’s Return: the Pesaro Film Festival, where it was meant to be screened, was disrupted by the ‘May 68 protests, and that same year Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact armies. Grečner’s opposition to the Soviet occupation meant that he was subsequently blacklisted.

Now, Second Run have released a miraculously clear transfer of a 50-year-old classic that looks as though it were filmed yesterday. In his engaging and erudite liner notes (which include an interview with the director), Jonathan Owen points out that Grečner was strongly influenced by Bergman and Renais. This film reminded me in particular of The Seventh Seal, with its fateful atmosphere, striking visual composition, and timeless bond with the cycles of nature and local superstition.

Grečner establishes an artistic signature all his own with his 360-degree pans across the mountains, and around Dragon and Eva. The couple is shown in frequent, powerful flashbacks inspired, as the director himself explains, by Surrealism’s insistence on the supremacy of desire. The film’s particular style is also indebted to composer Ilja Zeljenka’s score, which establishes an atmosphere of threat and hysteria early on through its orchestration of human voices, and later develops a sophisticated aural motif from the cows’ bells and their terrified lowing.

In a 20-minute introduction, Peter Hames makes the persuasive suggestion that, in this highly symbolic film, the director is Dragon: an artistic outsider who is hated and attacked for being different. In the films of the later Czechoslovak New Wave, it is hard not to perceive premonitions that the nation’s brief period of grace from the iron fist of political and creative oppression was about to end.

Alison Frank

Fruit of Paradise

Fruit of Paradise 1
Fruit of Paradise

Format: DVD

Release date: 13 April 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Věra Chytilová

Writers: Věra Chytilová, Ester Krumbachová

Cast: Jitka Novákova, Karel Novak, Jan Schmid

Original title: Ovoce stromu rajských jíme

Czech Republic 1969

99 mins

Released in 1969, shortly after the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring, Fruit of Paradise is inevitably more sombre than Daisies, director Věra Chytilová’s most famous film, made in 1966 at the height of the Czech New Wave. Both Daisies and Fruit of Paradise centre on women who refuse to follow the rules. Yet in Daisies, two teenage girls giggle their way through their lives, refusing to take anything seriously, while Fruit of Paradise, with its biblical basis, addresses matters of life and death and is shot through with genuine threat.

The film opens with a lyrical rendition of the story of Adam and Eve. Composer Zdeněk Liška’s haunting, mysterious score combines with a mesmerising sequence of images, the slowly moving figures of Adam and Eve overlaid with close-ups of flowers and leaves. The shifting colours, absence of dialogue and emphasis on bodies in movement evoke early cinema’s hand-tinted shorts, such as Lumière’s Serpentine Dance (1896). The concern with visual innovation and pictorial composition, shared by Chytilová and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, is obvious, and links the film with Daisies, which Kučera also photographed. But the playful spirit of the earlier film has been supplanted, here, by a more sober and pensive form of experimentation.

After the opening sequence, the film takes an allegorical approach to the Adam and Eve theme. Key elements are still clearly identifiable: a central couple featuring a woman named Eva, an apple tree in a pastoral landscape, and a dangerous figure of temptation, here represented by Robert, a redhead in a maroon suit. Chytilová’s most obvious adjustment to the story is in the nature of the three protagonists, and the dynamics of their relationship. Josef, Eva’s husband, is a philanderer, so she is arguably within her rights to pursue a lover of her own, even if she seems ill-advised in her choice of the satanic Robert.

Eva observes, with delight, how playfully Robert interacts with other women. Having thus subjected him to the female gaze, she continues her investigation of him, making off with the key to his room. There, she finds a rubber stamp of the (appropriately demonic) number 6, which she imprints on her thigh, a scene reminiscent of Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (1966), where signalman Hubička stamps the secretary’s bottom. Josef Somr, who played Hubička, actually does the voice-over for Josef in Fruit of Paradise, while the voice of Robert is provided by Jan Klusák, who played the similarly sinister figures of the butterfly collector in Daisies and the bullying host in The Party and the Guests.

This new Second Run DVD release also includes Chytilová’s stylish graduation film, Ceiling, a cinéma vérité-style short about the life of a young model. It also features thorough liner notes by Czech New Wave expert Peter Hames, who provides all sorts of useful and intriguing insights into both films, their background and context.

Alison Frank


Traps 1

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 March 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Věra Chytilová

Writers: Věra Chytilová, Eva Kacírková, Michal Laznovsky

Cast: Zuzana Stivínová, Miroslav Donutíl, Tomás Hanák

Original title: Pasti, pasti, pastičky

Czech Republic 1998

116 mins

Věra Chytilová was one of the Czech New Wave’s most innovative directors, best known for Daisies (1966), where the antics of two mischievous teenage girls are matched by the director’s own cheeky stylistic experimentation. Traps (1988) comes much later in Chytilová’s career, and is among her more conventional films. Where her earlier work tended to elude traditional cause-and-effect narrative in favour of a liberated, episodic structure, Traps pursues its dark satire in an inexorable succession of attacks and counter-attacks.

In her essay to accompany this new Second Run DVD release of Traps, Carmen Gray situates the film among a ‘new proliferation of mass-appeal comedies’, which Traps is clearly ‘parodying’. Certainly, with its graphic opening images of pig castration, searing attack on contemporary trends and attitudes, and broad spectrum of female characters, Traps sets itself apart from mainstream comedy’s tendency to stereotype.

The story revolves around Lenka, a country vet, who is raped by ad executive Petr and environment minister Donhal after they offer her roadside assistance. Knowing that their crime will go unpunished by the judicial system, Lenka uses her professional skills to make sure the two men don’t go on to attack other women.

Although the rape itself is more or less elided through whip-pans across the treetops of the forest where it takes place, Chytilová deftly shifts the focus by dwelling on the long struggle that precedes the attack and the debilitating nightmares and flashbacks Lenka suffers from afterwards. The large number of films that graphically depict rape wade into a dubious territory of sly titillation or sadistic humiliation. Chytilová conveys sexual assault’s true impact on women by taking a broader perspective.

Petr and Donhal’s light-hearted attitude towards rape, enjoying the struggle of one woman against two men, turns the episode into an example of why women may live their lives feeling constantly under threat. Chytilová also offers a succinct glimpse into the consequences of rape, which extend far beyond the terrifying and violent event itself, affecting Lenka’s professional and personal life. She can no longer stand the sight of breeding animals on the farms where she works, and her relationship with her boyfriend is destroyed, as she is initially afraid to tell him, then disgusted when he finds out and ‘forgives’ her for being raped.

Lenka’s cheerful professional competence prior to the attack is reminiscent of Anna’s in Chytilová’s earlier The Apple Game: the midwife, though comically clumsy at times, shines with confidence whether delivering a baby at the hospital or a calf at the farm. Although it is this competence that allows Lenka to punish her attackers, the action does not empower her. When her boyfriend learns what she has done, he says ‘I’ve never seen you like this’. ‘Maybe it’s not me anymore,’ she replies. Rather than suggesting, in the simplistic way of Hollywood, that taking the law into your own hands brings catharsis, Chytilová demonstrates that happy endings can’t truly exist in an unjust and hypocritical society.

Alison Frank

A Jester’s Tale

A Jesters Tale
A Jester’s Tale

Format: DVD

Release date: 15 September 2014

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Karel Zeman

Writers: Pavel Jurácek, Radovan Krátký, Karel Zeman

Cast: Petr Kostka, Emília Vášáryová, Miroslav Holub

Original title: Bláznova kronika

Czechoslovakia 1964

81 mins

A Jester’s Tale (1964) is a delightful and entertaining period piece that combines live action and animated engravings in an original and ingenious way. A farmer named Petr is happily ploughing his field when a group of soldiers press gang him into joining the king’s army. Petr’s independent and ironic attitude makes him completely unsuited to army life. As the army marches into battle in the Thirty Years’ War, Petr stumbles over rocks and is distracted by forget-me-nots.

In a characteristically humorous turn of events, our hero manages to break his rifle stand, and is forced to shoot from ground level, which serendipitously saves him and an ageing fellow soldier from the firing line. Things begin to look up as the pair find themselves the only survivors of the battle, gaily make off with a carriage full of loot, and even pick up a pretty peasant along the way. But when the three friends are surrounded by enemy soldiers once more, they decide to impersonate the king, his steward and his jester…

Those who are already connoisseurs of the sly humour and sheer inventiveness of Czechoslovak New Wave cinema will not be disappointed with this 1964 instalment, directed by Karel Zeman. The political liberalisation that took place in 1960s Czechoslovakia meant that filmmakers were blessed with an enviable cross between relative artistic freedom and central planning’s guaranteed funding and facilities. Directors of the time were particularly keen to make films about everyday life, previously a tricky subject: Socialist Realism prescribed films that glorified a heroic past or looked forward to an ideal future when Communism’s contemporary difficulties would be ironed out.

Films by documentary-influenced directors like Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer turned their lens on a contemporary setting, but even historical films like A Jester’s Tale had something to say about everyday life. Petr is a perfect example of an individualist who does everything he can to avoid the honourable roles that society attempts to impose on him, because he sees the hollow reality behind the hype.

Zeman makes a mockery of war by representing it through animation. There is something innately irreverent about taking static book illustrations and bringing them to life, and all the more when animation allows unlikely events, like the rank and file soldiers getting their heads blown off in unison. It will remind many viewers of the Monty Python animations by Terry Gilliam, who cites Zeman as one of his influences, along with Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk. Zeman stands out for his ability to combine live action and animation in the same frame, to the magical point where it’s hard to tell where the drawings end and reality begins.

In his engaging liner notes, Ian Haydn Smith tantalises us with descriptions of Zeman’s early shorts, including a popular series of satirical puppet films and Inspiration, a lyrical animation of glass. At just 81 minutes’ running time, A Jester’s Tale leaves some spare space on a DVD, so any of these shorts would have been a welcome addition to this release.

The Second Run DVD is presented in a new anamorphic digital transfer and features a new essay on the film by writer and book editor Ian Haydn Smith.

Alison Frank



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 23 May 2011

Distributor: BFI

Director:Jan Švankmajer

Writer: Jan Švankmajer

Based on Alice in Wonderland by: Lewis Carroll

Original title: N?co z Alenky

Cast: Kristýna Kohoutová

Czechoslovakia 1988

86 mins

Games have been a constituent element of many Czech films, from the improvisation and word play of Voskovec and Werich in the 1930s to the unpredictable inventions of V?ra Chytilová (Daisies) in the 1960s. When Jan Švankmajer made Alice, his first feature film, in 1987, he was already part of a culture in which the game was central. Indeed, one of his early films, in which he ‘plays’ with stones, forming them into different combinations and Arcimboldo-like faces, was called Game with Stones (1965).

The Czech Surrealist Group, which had remained ‘underground’ during the years of Stalinism after the Second World War, reconstituted itself in 1968 and Švankmajer became a member in 1970. When they were again forced underground after the Soviet invasion of the country in 1968, they began a whole series of group explorations and games, investigating such areas as touch, fear, eroticism, analogy, interpretation, creativity and, of course, dream, humour, and game itself. Collective games and interpretative experiment form the essential context of Švankmajer’s work.

Cruelty - indeed, one might say sado-masochism - was an element of many of his short films, from the competing magicians of The Last Trick (1964) to the self-devouring and destructive heads of Dimensions of Dialogue in 1982. His three films dealing with childhood - Jabberwocky (1971), Down to the Cellar (1982), and Alice (1987) continue to explore this vein. Švankmajer argues that childhood is a time with which he maintains a continuing dialogue but that he remembers it as a ‘time of cruelty’. His Jabberwocky (1971), with its references to Carroll’s nonsense poem and to the pre-war leader of the Czech surrealists, Ví­t?zslav Nezval, focused very precisely on the world of children’s play. As the then leader of the Surrealist Group, the poet Vratislav Effenberger, put it, the film was a variety show from a child’s imagination with its individual ‘turns’ divided by a wall of bricks repeatedly knocked down by a black cat.

Extras include the first screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic, 1903’s Alice in Wonderland, the Brothers Quay’s Alice-inspired Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? and Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong without You as well as a 34-page booklet.

This, together with Down to the Cellar (1982), which grew out of the Surrealist Group’s exploration into the subject of Fear, were obvious precursors of his work on Alice. Although based on his own experiences of being sent ‘down to the cellar’ to fetch potatoes, his heroine is a young girl. In this sense, the film recalls both Alice and Little Red Riding Hood, as the girl confronts the unknown. In the cellar, she meets a man who makes a bed out of coal and offers her a place beside him, an old woman who bakes cakes from coal dust, an enormous cat that stalks her, shoes that fight for a piece of bread she is eating, and potatoes that follow a life of their own and escape from her basket.

Alice, technically a Swiss-British-German co-production although, in all creative respects, entirely Czech, was filmed in Prague with Švankmajer’s regular team. Significantly, the Czech title translates as ‘Something from Alice’, indicating that it should in no way be considered a straightforward adaptation of Carroll. Having said that, one could argue that the similarities are greater than one would have expected. However, where Carroll attributes the origins of Alice’s dreams to the reassuring sounds of the countryside, Švankmajer anticipates the images of her fantasy ‘in the brooding preliminary shots of her room, with its shelves of relics and mysteries from other, previous lives - the furniture she has not yet earned the right to use. Alice’s quest is a hunt for her own context.’ (Philip Strick)

While Alice is played by a real little girl, the world of her imagination or dream world is represented by puppets and animated figures. Her transformations in size are represented by changing from human to doll and, in this sense, Švankmajer seems to suggest an instability in identity. On the other hand, the intermittent close-ups of Alice’s lips speaking short lines of narrative suggest that she ultimately has control of these imaginings. At the end of the film, when she has been condemned to death and the White Rabbit, armed with a pair of scissors, appears as an actual executioner, she announces: ‘Perhaps I’ll cut his head off.’

Like Faust, in Švankmajer’s later ‘variety collage’ of the Faust stories, Alice moves from scene to scene and from world to world and, in this sense, the film also provides a parallel to the earlier Jabberwocky. But, unlike Carroll’s original, the characters have become much more explicitly threatening. The principal puppet figures that she meets all have the appearance of old toys - to echo André Breton on the ‘magically old’ - ‘old-fashioned, broken, useless…’ The March Hare constantly has to be wound up and have his eye pulled back into place, the Mad Hatter is made of carved and beaten wood and, despite his hollow innards, constantly drinks cups of tea. The White Rabbit continually has to replace his stuffing - a constant resurrection revealing, suggests Brigid Cherry (in Kinoeye), the influence of Gothic horror, and representing the Undead. Undoubtedly, the rabbit is far from reassuring, arrogant, domineering and, armed with his pair of scissors, a ‘castrating’ figure.

Švankmajer’s most nightmarish creations are his ‘animals’, who pursue her at the White Rabbit’s behest after she has escaped from his house. These skeletal monsters - imaginary beasts made largely from bones - first made their appearance independently as part of Švankmajer’s sequence of constructions entitled Natural Science Cabinet in the early 1970s. They include a coach pulled by chickens with skull heads, a fish-like skeleton with legs, a skull dragging a bone body, and a skull head that snaps out of a jam pot. This array of visions is far from the antiseptic world of Disney or the reassuring middle-class images of Sir John Tenniel. But, as one Czech critic put it, Alice’s confrontations with fear and humiliation are more than compensated by her ‘outstanding character and extreme intelligence’.

When the film was shown on British television one Christmas, episodes were shown during the day and the whole film late at night. The experiment of day-time screenings was never repeated. Swiss parents apparently removed their children from cinema screenings. But is this world of imagination really more harmful than the readily available synthetic violence of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? As Švankmajer once said: ‘Unless we again begin to tell fairy tales and ghost stories at night before going to sleep and recounting our dreams upon waking, nothing more is to be expected of our Western civilisation.’

There will be a screening of Alice on June 16 at the Barbican (London), followed by a Q&A with Jan Švankmajer and Peter Hames.

Peter Hames

This article was first published in the autumn 08 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Larks on a String

Larks on a String
Larks on a String

Format: DVD

Part of The Czechoslovak New Wave Collection Vollume II DVD box-set

Release date: 7 December 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Jiří Menzel

Writers: Bohumil Hrabal, Jiří Menzel

Original title: Skřivánci na niti

Cast: Rudolf Hrušínský, Vlasimil Bfodský, Václav Neckář, Jitka Zelenohorská

Czechoslovakia 1969

94 mins

Because Menzel’s film is explicitly set during communism, it is hard not to focus on the bitter reality of the situation.

Those who know Jiří Menzel from his Oscar-winning debut feature Closely Observed Trains (1966) may find Larks on a String (1969) disappointing. Unlike the earlier film, Larks is in colour, but this attribute only serves to accentuate the ugliness of the film’s drab and bleak setting: a scrap metal yard in 1940s Czechoslovakia. Here, hard labour is the means of re-educating opponents of the new communist regime: a group of female prisoners who attempted to defect to the West, and a collection of men who are guilty of middle-class origins. Happily, Larks is a comedy, and so not entirely as oppressive as it sounds.

There are two types of humour in the film: political satire and romantic comedy. The satire would be more enjoyable if it were not so direct. In The Party and the Guests (1966), for example, Jan Nemec created a metaphor for authoritarianism in a party where the guests were implicitly forbidden to leave. In this abstract context, it was easy to identify and condemn the hypocrisy of the host and the guests who tried to win his favour. Because Menzel’s film is explicitly set during communism, it is hard not to focus on the bitter reality of the situation: despite the prisoners’ attempts to identify and laugh at the absurdity of their situation, the ultimate power of the authorities to control their lives makes the film more tragic than comic. This is particularly so because the film focuses mainly on the prisoners: the villains in power make occasional appearances, and so can only be occasionally mocked.

The two-stranded romantic comedy is by far the most winning element of the film. Angel, the soft-hearted guard in charge of the female prisoners, marries a young Roma girl named Terezka. Her difficulties in adapting to married life, and particularly to a fixed abode, make for some enjoyably playful scenes. There is also a romance between two prisoners, Pavel and Jitka. As the male and female prisoners are supposed to be kept strictly separate, their relationship calls for ingenuity. The underlying faith in the determination of the individual spirit brings a much-needed element of optimism to the film.

Second Run’s release comes with liner notes by leading academic Peter Hames. Although his essay at times feels like a barrage of information, it usefully outlines the numerous collaborations between Menzel and writer Bohumil Hrabal: Larks was based on one of Hrabal’s short story collections of the same name. There is also a brief contribution from Jaromír Šofr, the film’s cinematographer. He explains the impact of censorship on Larks, which was ultimately banned after the Warsaw Pact invasion brought the Prague Spring to an end. Larks was not released until 1990, when it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Best of all, the DVD includes an extra feature: a short video piece by Menzel himself, specially made for this release, where the director talks about Larks, communism and film in general.

This review refers to the original DVD release of the film by Second Run in 2011. The special features are the same as included on the new box-set edition. For a full list of extra contents, visit the Second Run website.

Alison Frank

A Blonde in Love

A Blonde in Love
A Blonde in Love

Format: DVD

Part of The Czechoslovak New Wave Collection Vollume II DVD box-set

Release date: 7 December 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director:Miloš Forman

Writers: Miloš Forman, Jaroslav Papousěk, Ivan Passer, Ví¡clav Sasek

Original title: Lí¡sky jedné plavovlí¡sky

Cast: Hana Brejchoví¡, Vladimí­r Pucholt, Vladimí­r Mensí­k, Ivan Kheil

Czechoslovakia 1965

81 mins

Miloš Forman’s bittersweet comedy drama is a gem of the Czech New Wave.

A Blonde in Love (Lí¡sky jedné plavovlí¡sky, 1966) is a gem of the Czech New Wave. As Czechoslovakia’s communist censors relaxed their hold on culture in the 1960s, directors still had the benefit of 100% state funding for their films, but with greater freedom of expression. Some directors took advantage of this freedom by making stylised, fanciful films that would previously have been condemned as avant-garde. For other directors, the most exciting part of the liberalisation was the permission to make films about everyday life, warts and all, rather than idealised propaganda pieces. Within the Czech New Wave, a distinctive strand of filmmaking emerged: fiction films that were strongly influenced by documentary, but which also highlighted the absurd in everyday situations. As Miloš Forman was the most prominent representative of this approach, it became known as ‘The Forman School’. Based on a true story, and featuring many non-professional actors even in leading roles, A Blonde in Love typifies the Forman School’s successful combination of fiction, documentary and comedy. Its candid portrayal of young love led to problems with the censors in Australia and Argentina. But this same candidness and humour also made the film immensely popular both domestically and internationally: it is among the most successful films ever made in the former Czechoslovakia, and was only the second Czech film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

The blonde in question is Andula, a young woman who lives and works at a shoe factory a remote little village where there are 16 women for every man. The film follows this endearing character as she naívely navigates sparse romantic terrain. The factory manager, worried about his employees’ future, organises a dance, and convinces the army to send some men. To the girls’ disappointment, it is middle-aged reservists who arrive to socialise with them. Andula’s eye turns to the band’s young pianist from Prague, and her bittersweet love story begins.

Showcasing the black humour for which Eastern Europe is rightly famed, it is the film’s most poignant situations that have the most comic potential. When Andula visits the pianist in Prague, his scolding mother won’t let them sleep together. He is forced to squeeze into his parents’ bed, where he has an endless, and endlessly comic, argument with them about who has the most duvet, who should sleep on the join in the middle of the bed, and above all, about the unwanted visitor. Unfortunately, Andula can hear their argument clearly, and is crying alone outside the door.

Second Run’s DVD comes with informative liner notes written by Michael Brooke, commenting on the film’s themes, political significance, international reception and influence. There is one significant gap in this account, though: it fails to explain the context and nature of the Czech New Wave. It is also disappointing that the DVD itself contains no special features. An interview with Miloš Forman would have offered welcome insights into life and filmmaking under communism.

This review refers to the original DVD release of the film by Second Run in 2011. The special features are the same as included on the new box-set edition. For a full list of extra contents, visit the Second Run website.

Alison Frank



Format: DVD

Release date: 11 October 2010

Distributor: Second Run

Screening on: 26 November 2010

Venue: Riverside Studios, London

Part of the 14th Czech Film Festival

Director: Juraj Herz

Writers: Vladimír Bor, Alexander Grin, Juraj Herz

Cast: Iva Janzurová, Josef Abrhám, Nina Divísková, Petr Cepek

Czechoslovakia 1972

99 mins

Juraj Herz, director of the acclaimed and creepy The Cremator, wants us to look upon Morgiana (1972) as a stylistic exercise. And certainly the aspect of the film that first hits is the disturbing, crazy-house visuals, a combination of fisheye lurch and decadent, Klimt-inspired design, with psychedelic colour experiments and shots taken from the point of view of a Siamese cat. Add in the sinister, seductive score and the extreme, silent-movie theatrics of lead actress Iva Janzurová, and the stylistic richness of the film might tend to overwhelm any content.

In fact, that content was surgically removed at the demand of the Czech censors who, in the years following the Prague Spring, were particularly sensitive. The film as it stands documents, or dreams, the melodramatic and murderous battle between two sisters (both played by Janzurová, normally a comedy actress), but Herz’s original plan, derived from the source novel by Alexander Grin, was to reveal halfway through the film that only one sister exists. A case of multiple personality disorder was apparently too disturbing for the state to accept, so the plot twist was deleted before filming was allowed. (MPD has been diagnosed almost exclusively in America, so perhaps the communist state could not accept the implication of it crossing the iron curtain?)

From Herz’s point of view, this undercut the whole point of the film, but he was forced to proceed anyway. He entertained himself by coming up with crazy visual ideas, although with the doubling of the main actress the shoot was already arduous enough. Should I have told you this? Does knowing that its author believes it to be senseless prejudice you against investigating the film’s meaning? I don’t think it should: the film pretty openly declares itself a piece of fin-de-siècle pop-art extravagance from the off. The warring sisters theme often invites comparisons with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), although The Dark Mirror (1946) and A Stolen Life (1946) more directly anticipate the use of one actress in two roles. Whatever the Western influence might be, melodrama is the keynote of Iva Iva Janzurová’s performances, Herz’s approach and the operatic tone set for the whole movie.

If the film’s intended meaning was killed by censorship, so that only the casting hints at Herz’s duality theme, can we divine our own meanings from the kaleidoscopic whirl of images? I think perhaps we can, but they are always going to be provisional and incomplete. Rather than risk encoding any subversive message into this work, the filmmaker has satisfied himself with an echoing void, surrounded by beautiful colours and striking scenes. Whatever we yell into this chasm will echo back to us, distorted and fragmented, and that will have to be our meaning.

Morgiana will be screened at Riverside Studios, London, on 26 November 2010 together with The Cremator in a Juraj Herz double bill as part of the 14th Czech Film Festival.

David Cairns