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Czech Cinematography: FAMoUs Children of Czech(oslovakia)

The Czech cinematography (or these days Czechoslovakian) came exceptionally late compared with other European cinematographies. It only began at the beginning of the 1960’s when filmmakers from the Czech film school, also called the Czech New Wave, started creating their works. Only the graduates of the worldwide famous FAMU (FILM AND TV ACADEMY OF PERFORMING ARTS IN PRAGUE), in which i.e. Agnieszka Holland and Emir Kusturica studied, initiated the revival of the Czech cinema.

The very core of “new wavers” was composed of Milos Forman (pictured), Jiri Menzel and Vera Chytilova. Their films have the substantial literary foundation in the works of Bohumil Hrabal and Milan Kundera, the most important Czech writers of that time. One of Hrabal’s novels Perlicky na dne (Pearls of the Deep) was screened as five shorts made by debutants: Vera Chytilova, Jan Nemec, Jiri Menzel, Evald Schorm and Jaromir Jires. Perlicky na dne (1963) became the New Wave’s manifesto. Observation of everyday life, often assuming the form of documentary recordings became the most important theme. The directors focused on introspection and psychological truth. Their films mixed a dramatic tone with a warm and friendly approach to a character, all seasoned with a dose of the specific Czech sense of humour and distance to each other. They often cast amateurs too. In the years 1963-68 a few of them, all-time finest pieces of Czech cinema were made. Jiri Menzel Ostre sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains) 1966, which was awarded an Oscar for the best foreign-language film), Cerny Petr (1964), Lasky jedne plavovlasky (The Loves of a Blonde) (1965) and Hori ma panenko (The Firemen’s Ball) (1967), for which Forman was awarded the Golden Lions at the Venice Film Festival which opened the gate for his international career.

Jiri Menzel and Miloś Forman are two of the most respected Czech directors that constitute the New Wave’s core. After the success of his Ostre sledované vlaky in 1969, Menzel adapted another novel by Bohumil Hrabal, Skrivánci na niti  (1969). But the film was only premiered in the year 1990. In the meantime, in 1980 he brought Hrabal’s Postriziny (Cutting It Short) to screen, for which he was awarded the Special Mention at Venice Film Festival. After the Prague Spring broke out, Forman emigrated to the United States where he directed many world-class masterpieces such as Hair (1979), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), just to mention few. 

Back in Czechoslovakia Ivan Passer shot Intimni osvetleni (1965), while Vera Chytilova realised her reflective and experimental films tinged with a feminist trait (O necem jinem (Something Different), 1963 and Sedmikrasky (Daisies), 1966). In 1969 Jaromir Jireś screened Milan Kundera’s Zart (1969), under its original title.

In 1968, after the Warsaw Pact’s armies invaded Czechoslovakia and pacified the Prague Spring, the authorities prohibited the new-wavers creating which resulted in a big wave of emigration and general inertia of the creative milieu. Some, like Jiri Menzel, stayed in the country, though had to reach a compromise with socialist authorities. For a long time, the Czech cinema meant trivial, commercial comedy productions and TV series (Nemocnice na kraji mesta, Arabella).

Not until the 1990s and the liberation of The Czech Republic from the socialist yoke did the new generation of filmmakers emerge who refreshed the stiff Czech cinema. Firstly, in 1996, Jan Sverak, with his father Zdenek, produced the Oscar-winning film Kolja. Other Sverak’s films are Obecna skola (The Elementary School) (1991), Jizda (Drive) (1994), Tmavomodry swet (Dark Blue World) (2001). However, the manifesto of this generation, giving one of its best psychological and moral analysis appeared to become Samotari (Loners) (2000) directed by David Ondricek and written by Jan Sverak.

Amongst the youngest generation’s artists, Petr Zelenka gained the biggest recognition with Knoflikari (Buttoners) (1997), Rok dabla (Year of the Devil) (2002) and Pribehy obyczejneho silenstvi  (Wrong Side Up) (2005), all of which mixed bitter satire with warm reflection over the human lot. He is also one of the authors of the script for Samotari. Petr Zelenka is a master of telling about reality and ordinary problems with a pinch of salt. What could seem as a serious drama, strikes often as the tragicomedy in his films.

To the new generation also belongs an inseparable trio: Jan Hrebejk, Petr Jarchovsky and Ondrej Trojan. They made various films together, for example, Pejme pisen dohola (Let’s All Sing Around) (1991) and Musime se pomahac (Divide We Fall) (1999). Saśa Gedeon with his Indianske leto (Indian Summer) (1995) and Nawrat idiota (The Idiot Returns) (1999) should be mentioned too.

A separate chapter of Czech cinema is written by Jan Śvankmajer, who creates a kind of author animation. His surreal and fantastic visions stroke as a puppet film Faust (1994), Spiklenci slasti  (Conspirators of Pleasure) (1996), or half-dramatic, half-animated film Otesanek made in the year 2000.

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