The Art of Resistance

The brief, bright flowering of the Czech New Wave
by Steve Erickson  posted April 24, 2012
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The Czech New Wave began in the mid '60s and ended a few short years later, crushed by the growing conservatism of the Czech government following the 1968 Soviet invasion. (All of the films in Eclipse's four-DVD, six-film Pearls of the Czech New Wave box set, out this week, were made between 1966 and 1969.) Some of its filmmakers, like Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, emigrated to the U.S. Vera Chytilová stayed behind and suffered a ban on directing that lasted almost a decade. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has written, '60s Eastern European cinema was, despite governmental restrictions, more radical politically than the French New Wave, apart from Jean-Luc Godard. The films included in Pearls of the Czech New Wave have few overt similarities—one being an ironic use of pastoral imagery—but they share an antiauthoritarian attitude and a tendency to use humor as a weapon.

Pearls of the Deep

Vera Mrázková in Pearls of the Deep

The penultimate scene of Chytilová's Daisies sums up the spirit of the New Wave at its most rebellious. The film's two heroines, both named Marie, get into a dumbwaiter. Peering out, they see a butcher chopping meat and, more incongruously, an orchestra performing. Then they exit and find themselves in a banquet hall. Gingerly at first, they sample the food. As the film switches from tinted black-and-white to color stock, their actions get messier until they're throwing cake at each other and dancing on tables. Marie and Marie's behavior throughout the film isn't exactly admirable, but its attitude toward them is largely celebratory. It never passes judgment on them until its blatantly insincere "happy ending."

Daisies seems to have found a cult following—it was previously available on a Region 1 DVD from Facets—and has influenced films from Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating to Athina Rachel Tsangari's recent Attenberg. It's also a landmark in feminist film history. Although made in 1966, it predicts the riot grrrl movement—Chytilová combines a surface girlishness with seething anger. Marie and Marie pass the time by going on dates with middle-aged men and then running away from them, as well as chopping up phallic food. They prefer each other's company to that of the lovelorn men who constantly call them, but they're not lesbians—in fact, their desires seem rather pre-sexual. Chytilová's direction is lush and sensual, combining black-and-white stock, beautiful color cinematography, animation, and quick editing. She draws on silent comedy, Godard, and Richard Lester, but unlike other films in this box, Daisies never seems tied down to the time and place in which it was made.

The centerpiece of the Eclipse box is the anthology Pearls of the Deep, a collection of shorts (based on stories by Bohumil Hrabal) by Chytilová, Jan Nemec, Jaromil Jires, Jirí Menzel, and Evald Schorm. Pearls of the Deep shows the diversity of the Czech New Wave—there's no common stylistic thread to its shorts—while hinting at a few thematic points of contact: the importance of art, the constant presence of death. Nevertheless, the anthology varies wildly in quality, and not all of its directors turn in their best work within a limited time frame. Next to Daisies, Chytilová's contribution seems disappointingly thin.

Nemec's A Report on the Party and Guests is a vague allegory, but that didn't prevent the Czech government from banning it anyway. Seen now, its opacity looks like a strength: it describes the authoritarian mentality that occurs under fascism, communism, or "democratic" lynch mobs. Starting out in an idyllic country party, its action gets underway when two men crash the festivities, taking them over and forcing the guests to reorganize themselves according to their rules. They prove all too willing to do so. Nemec's film almost plays like alternate-universe science fiction, as it veers from a naturalistic opening to a vision of human behavior striking in its cynicism about our essential conformity. The film never explains itself, except by suggesting the rewards of playing by the rules—its final 20 minutes offer a vision of luxury akin to the banquet crashed by the Maries of Daisies, except that no one sneers at it. A Report on the Party and Guests' black-and-white images have a plainspoken quality—Nemec never tries to capture the sensuality of countryside revelry—that conceals a bite that grows progressively stronger.

A Report on the Party and the Guests

A Report on the Party and the Guests

Menzel's Capricious Summer, his 1968 follow-up to the hugely popular Closely Watched Trains, is less politically challenging than Daisies or A Report on the Party and Guests, though it proves more complex than the simple ode to the pleasures of sun, food, and summertime that it initially appears to be. It centers on three middle-aged men whose lives are changed by their encounter with a female circus assistant. Menzel's direction brings out the seductive aspects of lazy afternoons spent fishing, and he uses a color palette of pastel blues and bright greens. However, the film takes a surprisingly dark turn, suggesting the impossibility of realizing the characters' erotic fantasies in '60s Czechoslovakia. One way or another, all three men wind up wounded by their experiences. Beneath a hedonistic surface, Capricious Summer stages an encounter with cold, hard reality.

Capricious Summer

Capricious Summer

Jires's The Joke, adapted from Milan Kundera's novel, was made after Soviet tanks arrived in Prague, but you'd never know it from the film itself. This may be the most politically daring of the films in the box set, with images of life in a '50s military prison reminiscent of scenes from concentration camps. A revenge drama that foregoes the usual thriller trappings, it focuses on Ludvik, a man betrayed by a friend when he sends a politically incorrect joke on a postcard to his girlfriend. His praise for Trotsky leads to the brig. While Jires's style is more conventional than that of Daisies, The Joke is just as much a triumph of editing. The film cuts back and forth between the past, when communist idealism still seemed justifiable, and the disillusioned present. Ludvik's nemesis is a violinist, and Jires uses cheerful music in harsh counterpoint, often setting it to scenes of prison life. In weaker hands, this might seem like cheap humor, but The Joke has a finely honed sense of irony, right up to its very end.

The Joke

The Joke

The only real dud in the set, Schorm's Return of the Prodigal Son is the kind of film that feels like it's perpetually on the verge of real substance but never quite gets there. The tale of a man in a mental hospital recovering from a suicide attempt, it pursues the analogy of Czechoslovakia as one big hospital a bit too bluntly. Its strongest quality is its cinematography. The halls of the clinic are full of inky voids in which people seem to get trapped in pools of black space.

For American cinephiles, the Czech New Wave is generally reduced to a handful of films: Closely Watched Trains, Forman's Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen's Ball, and, for more adventurous viewers, Daisies and Jires's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Reportedly, Criterion plans several more box sets exploring the history of this movement. Films like Daisies, A Report on the Party and Guests, and The Joke defy stereotypes about Communist repression; like some recent Iranian and mainland Chinese films, they show how artistry can flourish under unpromising conditions. Unfortunately, the Czech government's experiment with moderate socialism was forcibly ended, and the movement died with it; the set's liner notes tell tales of exile and ruined careers. One has to wonder what directors like Chytilová and Nemec could have accomplished if Czech politics had allowed their talents to flourish with no restrictions for decades. All that said, most of the films in the set testify to the enormity of what they did produce in the '60s. 


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The Criterion Collection
Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová in Daisies, directed by Vera Chytilová
Photo Gallery: The Art of Resistance
Video: Daisies


Czech cinema  |  Cold War


Steve Erickson lives in New York and writes for Gay City News, Film and Video, Baltimore City Paper, and GreenCine.

More articles by Steve Erickson