Tag Archives: Czechoslovak new wave

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

Birds, Orphans and Fools

Birds Orphans and Fools 1
Birds, Orphans and Fools

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 June 2014

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Juraj Jakubisko

Writer: Juraj Jakubisko, Karol Sidon

Cast: Philippe Avron, Jirí Sýkora, Magda Vášáryová

Original title: Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni

Czechoslovakia 1969

78 mins

It’s easy to see why director Juraj Jakubisko was known as the Slovak Fellini. Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969) instantly sweeps the audience along with a liberated camera that plunges joyfully into the film’s carnivalesque world. It has been called a surrealist film, and like other films that fall under this loose designation, Birds, Orphans and Fools focuses less on storyline, more on original images and unpredictable digressions. Unlike some so-called surrealist films which alienate the audience with a lack of structure, Jakubisko’s work has a developed sense of timing, keeping the audience engaged by regular changes of scene. Furthermore, these diverse scenes are given meaning and unity by the continued presence of a central trio: Yorick, his girlfriend Marta, and his best friend Andrej, a photographer. They live in a tumbledown barn, presided over by a maudlin old man, with a variety of little birds flying in and out at will. The title comes from the old Slovak saying that God looks after birds, orphans and fools, but the film seems to contradict the proverb with a tragic ending, announced by the director’s voice-over during the opening sequence.

The source of the tragedy is jealousy, already present early on when Yorick, Marta and Andrej live together in near-utopian bliss. They enjoy a playful existence, always clowning about, living up to their reputation as fools. But every so often, the men show signs of resentment towards Marta: Andrej sees her as an unwelcome newcomer who disrupts his friendship with Yorick, while Yorick suspects her of unfaithfulness. The men’s unkindness and injustice in these moments is emphasized by their regression into anti-Semitic insults. Later, when the characters adopt a more bourgeois lifestyle, feelings of ownership and exclusion become more pronounced, leading to the film’s shocking finale.

Completed in 1968 just after the Soviet invasion and banned the year after, Birds, Orphans and Fools is a key example of the lesser-known Slovak side of the Czechoslovak New Wave. With its stylistic experimentation and non-conformist characters, the film recalls Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), but is less manic and more pastoral. It also invites comparison with French New Wave masterpieces: its ménage &#224 trois recalls Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), but its stylistic virtuosity and affinity for youth culture makes it closer in spirit to Godard’s Breathless (1960). Jakubisko has a talent all his own when it comes to integrating the contemporary hippie zeitgeist into the traditional Slovak countryside. He emphasizes an organic relationship between modern and traditional lifestyles, rather than taking the more obvious approach of ironic contrast.

In an excellent and wide-ranging essay in the DVD liner notes, Peter Hames traces the film’s lineage back to Slovak surrealism, with its characteristic attachment to folk culture. Equally, though, I would suggest that this film has roots in Poetism, a uniquely Czechoslovak version of dada, which emphasized a good-humoured, self-deprecating, playful attitude to life and a powerful attachment to nature.

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