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Top Ten Memorable Czech New Wave Movies

Czech New Wave was a film movement in Czechoslovakia of films made in Czech and Slovak languages. The movement began in the beginning of 1960’s and ended officially after the Prague Spring of 1968, though films which shared the themes, features, ideas and ideologies prevalent during the Czech New Wave continued to be made till the early 1970’s. The wave was a result of a period of political liberalization, which gave an arena to experiment, to indulge in topics which were hitherto considered sensitive or taboo by the state, along with subsidised state funding, access to state supported studio and a sudden influx of young, bold directors from the fabled FAMU (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague).

Czech New Wave was a deeply political film movement broaching areas of youth, love and sexuality, the 2nd World War, the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, Fascism, Totalitarianism and the modern nation state. It dabbled with a range of cinematic forms, from social realist to high avant-garde, along with a proclivity to mix professional actors with non-professional performers. This period gave us a lot of extremely bold, visually wondrous and technically marvelous films.

10. Marketa Lazarová (1967)

Credit: Barrandov Studios

A period-epic drama which mesmerizes with its sheer scope, Marketa Lazarova is set in the 13th century when Christianity was beginning to replace Paganism from the land. The story follows the Kozlik family, who pillage travelers that pass through the countryside. One such pillage incident incurs the wrath of the king. The situation is exacerbated when the Kozliks abduct the maiden Marketa Lazarova (Magdelena Vasaryova), from a rival clan who are under the king’s pity patronage.

The movie which spans almost three hours is an epic in the true sense, and is narrated like a fable from a book of tales, with titles describing the incidents and location of the upcoming sequence. A brutally violent, cinematically ambitious and visually arresting film, Marketa is about the near inhumanity needed to survive the harsh cold winters, in a merciless land. The characters are wild in their demeanour and savage in their aims – the aim is survival at any cost. The film also comments on the sheer lack of reassurance given by religion and religious faith. Both Paganism and Christianity are deemed to be futile when it comes to real matters of survival. Faith does not bring food and Gods do not stop violence. It also shows the corruption of the church who have amassed and hoarded food, but do not share it with the hungry masses. Marketa Lazarova is a film which evokes the brutal past, the hardships of staying alive when nature and the human enemy is working against you, the helplessness of people caught in a constant cycle of hate, violence and death.

9. Diamonds of the Night (1964)

Credit: Criterion Collection

Diamonds of the Night is one of the early movies of the Czech New Wave. Director Jan Nemec’s debut, this is the shortest film on the list, running a mere 68 minutes. The film is a pure cinematic experience, working largely through abstract imagery and extended shots, with exceptionally few dialogues. Though it is visual storytelling crystallized, the deliberate pace, unconventional narrative, maybe not make it a movie for all.

Diamonds of the Night follows two Jewish boys who have escaped from a train, which is transporting them to a Nazi concentration camp. The film follows them through the forest, in their attempt to stay alive and their subsequent recapture by a group of old, drunk men, who are the administrators. The film excels in telling its story – the horror, the respite and desperation of the two kids through stark, interspersed at times with surreal images. The film has an impressive sound design which exteriors their interior emotions. The film flits between timescapes, jumping between the past and an imagined future, which shows us that character exposition can be done without long lengths of dialogues.

The film critiques the Nazi administration and portrays them as a bunch of drunk, old men who have nothing better to do than to incriminate young people without reason. It also shows the fervid desperation of the boys to stay alive when death can come in the form of bullets or hunger. Diamonds of the Night is visual storytelling, distilled to its purest.

8. Pearls of the Deep (1965)

Credit: Criterion Collection

Pearls of the Deep is an anthology of five short films made by five Czech directors. Each segment is based on a short story by the famous Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. Hrabal’s stories are about people in different stratas of society, caught up in their own tangles with life. His characters are the common masses, his stories involve the everyday mundanity of their lives. He tends to find the surreal in the mundane and the stories have a tragic-comic undertone.

‘The Death of Mr. Balthazar’ by Jiri Menzel shows the surrealness of modernity by setting a motorcycle to the score of classical music and the inherent violence of the modern enterprise. It suggests hardening of human emotions to acts of violence in modern society. ‘Imposters’ by Jan Nemec, shows us the frailty, or rather the power of memory to construct a life which is not true. ‘House of Joy’, by Evald Schorm put forth the penury of art and the workings of an idiosyncratic artist. About how commercialism finally subsumes art by ruthless persistence. In ‘At the World Cafeteria’ by Vera Chytilova, death and marriage are juxtaposed to show how the establishment interferes in both, and that only an artist is outside the clutches of propriety. It is also the most experimental of the five shorts. ‘Romance’ by Jaromil Jires, shows a simple love story between a working-class boy and a gypsy girl, with a genuinely funny sequence in the end, bought about by ingenious editing. Pearls of the Deep is considered the manifesto of the Czech New Wave movement, as it captures the people, their lives, anxieties, hopes and anticipations of the times.

7. The Joke (1969)

Credit: Criterion Collection

The Joke is based on the novel by Milan Kundera. A very good example of the motto of Czech New Wave that the ‘Personal is political’, the protagonist Ludvik (Josef Somr), returns to his hometown and we subsequently learn about his past and present. Ludvik was ostracized and expelled in college for making a joke on the Communist party, to his girlfriend. After serving six years in military labour camps, he returns to take vengeance on his former party mate Pavel (Ludek Munzar) who expelled him, by committing adultery with his wife.

Jires directs The Joke with a deliberate pace and timely exposition concerning Ludvik’s past. The images have a certain economy, communicating the themes of the movie with minimum images and immaculate framing. The film also has good humour, set in the bleakest of milieus. The film is a scathing indictment on the totalitarianism of the Communist party and how in a pursuit for conformity, individual voices are rooted out by the state. The film also reveals the hypocrisy and double standards of the party, the corruption which has rotted it from the inside. For Ludvik, his revenge ends up making no difference and as he erupts in the final scene, we realise the hollowness of his pursuit. As a film which reveals how the state subjugates one for the smallest of things, The Joke explores the repression of the individual under the Communist regime.

6. Daisies (1966)

Credit: Kouzlo Films

Daisies is one of the most famous films of the Czech New Wave. An incredibly individualistic filmmaker, Vera Chytilova broke onto the Global cinematic scene with Daisies. The film opens with multi-coloured, trippy archival footage of US air force bombing during World War II and then follows two young girls, both named Marie (Jitka Cerhova and Ivana Karbanova), who decide to be bad, “since the whole world is going bad.”

An avant-garde masterpiece, the film breaks all formal rules of cinema. Its visuals are vividly multi-coloured, the color tone shifts abruptly, from glaringly colourful to washed out hazy, the shots fast-forward at a drastic pace, blurring into a haze of beautiful colours, the soundtrack is cartoonish and dissonant at times. The film has no plot per se and is narrative disjointed. Chytilova started out as an experimental film-maker and it shows clearly through the film.

The film is also a feminist piece of art. Through slapstick and farce, the film follows the two characters who are out to break all the rules of civilized society. The entirety of the film, they move from one disruption to another, while disregarding the male notions of love, sex and “decent” behaviour, as is socially expected out of them, by according its female characters a lot of agency. The film is comic, visually striking and inventive, its anarchically playful tone makes it a liberating watch.

5. The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (1965)

Credit: Filmové studio Barrandov

A Holocaust themed psychological drama, the film is about Dr. Braun (Miroslav Machacek) who has been banned by the Nazi party to practice medicine and is working in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, where he feels out of place. One day he is forced to help an injured member of the Nazi resistance and has to acquire morphine for his ailing patient. The film follows him in his desperation attempt to acquire the substance.

The Fifth Horseman is Fear is an under watched classic. A film which shows the mental trauma of living in a society of constant fear, suspicion and oppression, through the character of Dr. Braun examines what happens to humanity and basic decency in humans, when they are forced to save their own skin at the cost of another. The constant burden of living a totalitarian state where one has to self-censor before every word and every action one commits. Dr. Braun also ends up questioning the ethics of responsibility, that, does his allegiance lie to follow the state orders or help a suffering man as is his duty as a human with conscience and a professional doctor. His choices lead to disastrous consequences.

The film is a cinematic beauty, imbued with scenes distilled in pure imagery and marvel. Yet at the same time, the film maintains a taut sense of suspense. It has Dr. Braun breaking the fourth wall (slightly), whenever he goes into a reflective and self-questioning mode, venting out his real feelings and thoughts, giving us a clear view into his inner turmoil. The film needs to be watched for its rendition of psychological miasma of oppression, while being a visual treat, balancing the drama with a high level of suspense and pathos.

4. The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

Credit: Criterion Collection

A landmark movie in the Czech New Wave, The Fireman’s Ball is a black comedy which centers around an annual ball hosted by a local fire-department. Directed by Milos Forman (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) before relocating to the USA, the film was nominated for Best Foreign Film for the 1969 Academy Awards.

An hilarious movie from beginning to end, The Fireman’s Ball has a bleak yet nostalgic undertone. A satire on institutions in general, the film exposes the high incompetency, the stasis in decision making, the dysfunctionality of administration and a lack of sensitivity inherent in institutions. The ball turns out to be an utter failure, whatever could go wrong, does go wrong. The film also implicates the people in the failures, by suggesting the selfish and corrupt nature of multitude, which the audience has been made privy to during the ball.

It is Forman’s first film in color, and uses a lot of non-professional actors which is a marked trait of Czech New Wave. A short film which packs a big punch, The Fireman’s Ball is a critique of the state and how at times even the most well-intention plans go horribly awry. A deeply humanistic film, which finds humour even in the bleakest situations and vice-versa, The Fireman’s Ball is a film which makes you think while you laugh.

3. Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Credit: Barrandov Studios

Winner of Academy Award for the best Foreign language film in 1968, Closely Watched Trains is the story of Milos (Vaclav Neckar), a shy, bumbling adolescent who gets appointed as station guard, after his father retires from the post. Based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabar, Closely Watched Trains is a movie with so much quirky simplicity, that deals with heavy and dark themes. From coming of age, to love and war, suicide and death, everything has a place in the movie and is explored beautifully through the eyes of Milos and other conductors who work with him.

Closely watched Trains is a shot in the mode of a realist film with working class characters true to life. The cast is a mix of professional and non-professional actors. The film’s main theme is Milos trying to be comfortable in his interactions with a girl, but invariably keeps failing. Weaved into his pursuit, is awkwardness, rejection, performance anxiety and eventually an attempted suicide.

Set in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia, the film heavily criticizes the absurdity of the Nazi regime, its weak moral foundations and how it conscripts people into its ideology through mere rhetoric and no substance. Personally, the film explores Milos observing the world around him and learning things on his path to become a ‘man’, by finally joining resistance against the Nazis. Though the film ends on an extremely sad note, Closely Watched Trains is one of those films which make you smile when you think about it, because it’s endearingly lovely.

2. The Shop on Main Street (1965)

Credit: Criterion Collection

The winner of the 1965 Academy Award for the Best Foreign language film, The Shop on the Main Street is about Aryanisation under the Nazi regime. The film follows a loafing carpenter, Anton (Jozef Kroner) who because of his German descent is appointed the ‘Aryan Manager’ of an old, rundown haberdashery store owned by the aging, deaf Jewish lady Mrs. Lautmann (Ida Kaminska). The film follows their unlikely friendship which turns deeply disturbing when the Jewish pogrom finally begins.

The Shop on the Main Street is a perfect example of how to construct a film which deals with a gamut of emotions. It begins on a light and happy tone, ends with the polar opposite emotion, of dread, guilt, sadness and death. The film manages to perfectly build a story which progresses narratively and emotionally, on increasing scales, at the same time posing very difficult questions. The film studies the trauma of betraying people who are close to you,

who suddenly have been proclaimed ‘the enemy’ by the Nazi regime. It shows the deep pain, regret and helplessness of people who want to help the persecuted, but are prohibited by law to do so. It shows the heartless black horror, that was the Holocaust. The film illuminates a dark period of world history when humanity was in crises and it shows characters caught in the cross-currents of a mad regime. Anton tries his best to save Mrs. Lautmann but he realises if he does so, he will be punished. The film shows the madness which grips the soul when it comes down to the choice of saving oneself or saving someone else at the cost of your own life. The guilt, shame and the burden which accompanies that knowledge is hard to live with. The Shop on the Main Street shows us the permanent scar which was left on the fabric of human conscience during Holocaust, how even people with good intentions are sickeningly co-opted by the Fascist regime.

1. The Cremator (1969)

Credit: Barrandov Studios

The Cremator is a dark comedy, bordering on horror. Not visual horror but psychological. Based on a novel by Ludislav Fuks, The Cremator is the story of Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky) who runs a crematorium in Prague in the 1930’s. The film delineates a man’s descent into fascism, with scary effectiveness. Karel is a shrewd businessman, with ambiguous morals who uses the business acuity of Jews as salesmen, to get more people to sign up to his business. He sees himself as a medium of salvation, setting souls free. He cheats on his wife regularly with a prostitute, but is a provider at home and takes good care of his wife and kids. Eventually enlisted into the Nazi party through a membership to a high-class, members only club, Karel quickly turns on his family when made aware of their Jewish roots.

Technically the film mixes realism and surrealism, with documentary effects and follows the cinematic imagery of German Expressionism. The film really triumphs in following the psychological descent, of a morally grey character into the throes of fascism. It shows how public fascism trickles into and eventually invades the private sphere, resulting only in the death of the ones who are deemed ‘different.’ The film explores the tenuousness of morality, in how quickly a man sells out on his morals. Karel by the end of the film becomes so egomaniacal and narcissistic, that he has assigned himself the spiritual liberator of people all over the world.

In portraying the sheer psychological horrors of fascist ideology, how it consumes a sane man, at the same time revealing the flimsy foundations on which such false ideologies stand on, The Cremator is a terrifyingly memorable film.

Honourable mentions:

The Sun in a Net (1963)

Larks on a String (made 1996, released 1990)

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1967)

The Cry (1964)

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

Black Peter (1964)

Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969)

Intimate Lightning (1965)

Case for a Rookie Hangman (1970)

Hotel for Strangers (1967)

Late August at the Hotel Ozone (1967)

A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966)

The Fruit of Paradise (1970)

322 (1969)

The Ear (1970)

Capricious Summer (1968)

Sagar Krishna

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