In his 1987 Report to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev referred variously to “the all-round development of the democratism of the socialist system . . . ,” to “the vital inner link between socialism and democracy . . . ,” and to the need to “allow complete freedom to the creative faculties of the masses. . . .” During his visit to Prague in April, he alluded to the new policies in the USSR, hoping that the Soviet experience would be of value to Czechoslovakia. Before the visit, President Husák announced support for the new Soviet policies. After his visit, the Prime Minister, Lubomír Štrougal, spoke of the urgent need to follow the Soviet lead in economic restructuring.
Of course, neither Husák nor Štrougal meant to imply anything like a return to the Prague Spring of 1968. Both referred primarily to economic restructuring; Štrougal had already been identified with that cause for some time. But, in the Soviet Union, alongside perestroika (restructuring) has come glasnost (openness) and alongside that, the reinstatement of Pasternak, the publication of Nabokov, Tenghiz Abuladze’s film attacking Stalinism, the reissue of banned films by Elem Klimov, and others, a reassessment of the role of the Old Bolsheviks, including Trotsky—in fact, a genuine liberalization in the field of culture. Reform has a habit of spreading from one area of society to another and, if Gorbachev’s policies are right for the Czechoslovak economy, might they not also be right for culture? By the time this chapter appears, we may have some answers.
The parallels between the Gorbachev reforms and the Prague Spring of 1968 when Alexander Dubček was leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party have often been noted. Despite differences, the economic reforms, the promotion of democratization, and the abolition of censorship all have elements similar to the changes currently envisaged in the Soviet Union. Dubček, it has been remarked, was the right man at the wrong time. Not surprisingly, the Czechoslovak reformers sometimes discussed their proposals for reform with their opposite numbers in the Soviet Union.1
If a policy of glasnost were to be applied in Czechoslovakia, it is impossible to assess the ultimate implications. It is no doubt Utopian to expect the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 to be seen as a “mistake” or to await the rehabilitation of the thousands in exile or associated with the reform movement. However, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Prague Spring would no longer be deemed counter-revolutionary or that many of its reforms would be seen as having been, in certain senses, correct. The crisis would probably be seen increasingly as the result of political and tactical error. What is certain is that the Gorbachev line, if applied, would result in an inevitable and progressive move beyond the restrictive policies that have prevailed in the seventies and early eighties.2
The Warsaw Pact invasion was, of course, designed to liquidate the reforms of the late sixties. As such, it had wide-ranging effects on culture, and not least on the cinema. The international success of the Czechoslovak new wave in the sixties, said the novelist Jiří Mucha, did more to attract international attention to his country than any previous industrial or cultural endeavor.3 Directors such as Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer, Ján Kadár, Jan Němec, Věra Chytilová and Jiří Menzel, were—all too briefly—international figures. Yet they remained only the tip of the iceberg, the creative range and diversity of the period being scarcely recognized to this day. Unfortunately, the policies of “normalization” that followed the invasion led to exile, silence, or accommodation. International interest in Czechoslovak cinema (and Czechoslovakia itself) faded after the sixties. In order to understand both the achievements and failures of the seventies and eighties, it is necessary to understand something of the society that has emerged, a society in itself part of the continuing tragedy of Central Europe.
In the past seventy years, the former Austro-Hungarian provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia (present-day Czechoslovakia) have undergone what can only be regarded as a traumatic experience. After 300 years of Hapsburg domination, they have experienced a democratic state, Nazi domination, a briefly reinstated democracy, Stalinism, the Prague Spring, and the period of normalization that has lasted since 1969. On two occasions, the government has capitulated to superior force without a struggle—in the case of the Munich Diktat of 1938 and the Soviet invasion of 1968. Some would also single out the Communist putsch of 1948—although that is an altogether more complicated case.
Democracy cheaply won, it has been argued, can also be cheaply surrendered. A leaning towards policies of “realism” and accommodation with superior powers has often been condemned as destructive of pride, spirit, and self-confidence, yet it can equally be argued that the creation of the new state in 1918 was a gift of the Great Powers. As such, the interests of Czechoslovakia (and indeed, other Central and East European countries), have always remained subservient to wider strategic interests. The view of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the time of Munich, that Czechoslovakia was “a faraway country of which we know nothing,” was not, unfortunately, historically specific.
Despite its position as “the bastion of democracy” in Central Europe, Czechoslovakia was callously dismembered by the 1938 Munich agreement when Britain and France sacrificed their democratic ally in the cause of appeasement. If the Yalta Conference of 1945 did not actually divide Europe into “spheres of influence,” it was conducted in the context of such a strategic reality. When Churchill urged an allied advance into Central Europe in early 1945, General Eisenhower replied for Washington, “Why should we endanger the life of a single American or Briton to capture areas which we will soon be handing over to the Russians?”4 Before the Soviet invasion of 1968, President Johnson reaffirmed his adherence to the Yalta and Potsdam agreements. When one is without powerful allies, a strategy of survival and accommodation can seem remarkably rational.
The suppression of the Prague Spring, with its attempt to further the democratic and human face of socialism in the face of bureaucracy and power politics, was a tragedy not only for Czechoslovakia. While it confirmed the fact of realpolitik as the governing principle of international relations, it also confirmed the conservatisms of both Left and Right. In Eastern Europe, any attempt to reform the system could be presented as the creeping face of counter-revolution while, in the West, all forms of socialism could be presented as steps on a slippery slope leading to neo-Stalinism. It reaffirmed the political simplifications on which continuing Cold War politics depend.
But what of the society that now exists in Czechoslovakia? As one of the most economically advanced of the Eastern bloc countries, its standard of living is high—in some respects indistinguishable from West European countries. Also, its tradition of progressive social legislation has been maintained. As Vladimír Kusin puts it,
A Czechoslovak citizen is reasonably satisfied with his material standing. . . . He has, relatively, enough money, and he does not have to work too hard to earn it. He is assured of his job as long as he does not show deviation from the official political line. He knows that for his money he can buy relatively good food and adequate merchandise. . . .5
However, the political and cultural repression that followed 1969 cannot be seen as a necessary accompaniment.
If one accepts that the policies of normalization were aimed at restoring the situation that prevailed before the Prague Spring, then a variety of tactics were possible. It was not inconceivable that, as many members of the government argued in 1968, some aspects of the reforms might be preserved, and that, with the confirmation of the “leading role of the Party,” moderate progress might be possible while recognizing the new political realities.
The extreme form that normalization, in fact, took has been variously blamed on Dubček’s successor, Gustav Husák, his right-wingers, and the Soviet Union. The rumor in 1969 that the Soviet defense minister, Marshal Grechko, had threatened a second invasion and even military rule, was clearly significant. The removal of Dubček at that time, and the triumph of the conservatives, led to the elimination of the progress achieved by the Prague Spring and to official affirmation that the Soviet invasion was the correct tactic.
Normalization proved a massive task. Between 1968 and 1970 it has been estimated that 170,000 people left the country. In order to cleanse the Communist Party of reformist elements, 70,000 were expelled (while another 400,000 were removed from the list of members).6 An interesting statistic from the period is that Departments of Marxism-Leninism in the universities were reconstituted, and in the process, 60 percent of their staff were lost.7 Similarly extensive purges extended to all walks of life. The reformist virus, it seemed, was so deep rooted that it had to be eliminated at every level.
The political scientist Milan Šimečka has pointed out that normalization, as it affected the Party, was not aimed at the creation of an ideologically right-minded membership. On the contrary, it aimed “simply to turn the membership into what it used to be: a political conglomerate of the most varied concealed denominations, united only by obedience and a readiness to fulfill its role as a trustworthy receiver of instructions and directives.”8
This exercise in screening led to a system in which “the ruling party of existing socialism became the vanguard of mediocrity, obedience, and fear.” The screening boards were not made up solely of what was termed the “healthy core,” but also those being given a chance to prove their loyalty, and even “supposedly decent people.”9 Thus the burden of guilt was spread and an atmosphere of distrust and fear encouraged. If this was the case in the Communist Party itself, it was entirely logical that similar tactics would be applied throughout society, particularly in the professions, the arts, and the media, including the cinema.
With the desire to institute a model of society in which directives were obeyed, the regime inevitably promoted a depoliticized culture, one in which the only political expression allowed reflected that of the Party itself. Alongside this, people were encouraged to concern themselves with material benefits, private life, and cottages in the country. It is a situation well dramatized in Václav Havel’s play, Private View (Vernisáž, 1975), where the dissident hero is entertained by an affluent and materialistic couple who want to help him adjust. However, the confrontation only serves to make them face the hollowness and evasions of their own “adjustment.”
After domination by the oppressive Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy before the First World War and a sequence of nearly fifty years since the Munich Diktat where democracy has been, at best, intermittent or nascent, it might be argued that a particular kind of society or psychology may have developed—a society forced to accept oppression as a fact of life. Of course, one can point to Charter 77, the human rights group set up to monitor the Helsinki agreement, but even that has remained scrupulously legalistic in its approach and in no way aims at confronting the Party. In the Czechoslovak context, of course, this still rates as dangerous subversion. While Charter 77 has an influence far beyond its signatories, the fact remains that most of those who agree with its position keep their views to themselves. The public expression of such views is regarded as self-indulgent and even foolish.
The unique nature of the Czechoslovak experience has led to two quite remarkable works of political philosophy. The first, based on the experience of the fifties and sixties, was Karel Kosík’s Marxist analysis, Dialectics of the Concrete,10 The second, based on the post-1968 experience, is Václav Havel’s non-Marxist The Power of the Powerless.11 The wider significance of both is that they see the Czechoslovak experience as but merely an extreme manifestation of tendencies present in all advanced societies, but more effectively masked or less completely developed.
Describing the Czechoslovak situation as “post-totalitarian,” Havel sees it as only one aspect, albeit a particularly drastic one, “of the general inability of modern humanity to be the master of its own situation. The automatism of the post-totalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilisation.”12
For Havel, the good/evil and Right/Left polarities of the Cold War are increasingly without meaning. Instead, he argues that we should focus much more on issues of “right” or “wrong,” on personal morality, and a commitment to living in truth; “the issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.”13
Havel’s view of Czechoslovak society as an extreme version of tendencies present in Western societies indicates why it is not helpful to regard it solely as a kind of Kafkaesque aberration. Despite the extraordinary process of normalization, it is a society of complexity and contradiction where the truth is rarely simple. If many follow Havel in his commitment to morality, others hold to the bureaucratic conformity to which they have been forced to adjust. Inevitably, the position of most people is between these extremes or a mixture of both. Perhaps this is not too unlike the kind of adjustments made in more open societies.
The effect of normalization on culture and, in particular, literature, has been described by Charter 77 as one of “systematic suppression . . . a frontal attack threatening the very spiritual, cultural, and thus also national identity of the Czechoslovak society.”14 In 1982, Charter 77 issued a list of 282 Czech writers alone who were unable to publish. To a Western observer the reasons for this often appear to be trivial or incomprehensible.
If, as was certainly the case, the aims of the new regime included the liquidation of the intelligentsia’s traditional role as “the conscience of the nation,” then the banning of all but captive intellectuals can be seen as logical. On the other hand, recantation has often meant no more than a formal rejection of past views and has become a form of Švejkism.15 Thus, while a significant number of works were banned because of their content, others are banned because of the current attitudes and/or exile of the authors.
Attitudes to the cinema have reflected those in other areas. In view of the international success of the sixties movies, they have proved somewhat difficult to disown. On the other hand, they have been successfully marginalized and only a select few are revived with any regularity. Internationally, many of the films have been withdrawn and, like the problems of Czechoslovakia itself, virtually forgotten. In this connection, it is worth noting that many Western film histories now minimize and simplify the contribution of the sixties wave often to little more than a reference to the work of Miloš Forman.
In Czechoslovakia, the work of directors who left the country has been largely disowned and banned, and their names eliminated from the history of Czechoslovak cinema.16 These included Forman, Passer, Kadár, Němec, Jasný, and Weiss. Among leading filmmakers who remained behind, a veil has been drawn over the work of Ladislav Helge, Evald Schorm, and Pavel Juráček, and they have been unable to make films. Ester Krumbachová, whose scripts and design contributed so much to the sixties films, has completed a script for only one film—Chytilová’s The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun (Faunovo příliš pozdní odpoledne, 1983).
Under the policies adopted after the invasion, the management of the film industry was changed and the autonomous production groups that had given birth to the sixties achievements were abolished. The objects of the newly centralized industry were, according to the then executive producer at the Barrandov Studios, Ludvik Toman, dedicated to an art “which rejects and criticises scepticism, feelings of alienation, desperation, inconsiderate sexuality, egoistic bourgeois individualism. We want to support by our films those properties which strengthen our society and not those which break it up.”17
These views clearly reflected official policy. The production schedule therefore reintroduced orthodox movies about the Second World War, industrial heroes, films based on classics and fairy stories, and an endless chain of domestic and detective comedies. The objectives could be described as ones of official optimism, support for the status quo and the role of the Soviet Union, and a reassertion of the threat from the West.
In the immediate post-invasion period, very few leading filmmakers were able to make films but, gradually, most have made a reappearance. Thus the mid-seventies saw the return of Frantršek Vláčil, Jan Schmidt, Antonín Máša, Dušan Hanák, Věra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, and Juraj Jakubisko. No doubt they were all required to give a satisfactory account of their attitude to the sixties—witness Jakubisko’s denunciation of his own films at the 1983 Venice Festival—but that was par for the course. What is certain is that they were now required to work within the guidelines of normalized Czechoslovak cinema.
A number of the sixties films were considered controversial for their political content and, in 1973, four films were apparently banned “forever.” These were Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1967), Němec’s The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966), Jasný’s All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci, 1969), and Schorm’s End of a Priest (Farářův konec, 1969), scripted by Josef Škvorecký.
In fact, the directly political film was relatively rare, Schorm’s Everyday Courage (Každý den odvadhu, 1964) and Jasný’s All My Good Countrymen being two of the few. When they were made, they were never crude and frequently sympathetic and ironic. In Everyday Courage the Stalinist central character is virtually a tragic hero.
What is striking about many of the condemned films of the sixties is that they can be seen as allegorical—either intended as a direct political comment or capable of being interpreted that way. This leads to a major problem—the tendency of Czech audiences to interpret everything as political. Since both the artists and the regime share in this atmosphere, it is only a short step to the banning of anything remotely suspect.
The distrust of the allegorical was inevitably linked to a rejection of the avant garde and anything that smacked of intellectualism or elitism. Writing in 1967 in the context of the banning and subsequent release of Němec’s The Party and the Guests and Chytilová’s Daisies (Sedmikrásky,1966), Jan Žalman indicated that these films were not alone in being at the center of controversy.18 Other films that met official criticism included Němec’s Martyrs of Love (Mučedníci lásky, 1966), Antonin Máša’s Hotel for Foreigners (Hotel pro cizince, 1966) and Štefan Uher’s The Miraculous Virgin (Panna zázračnica, 1966). Complex, poetic and surreal, none were susceptible to an easy interpretation. They were accused of being unintelligible, pessimistic, undisciplined—even of being deceitful and constituting “ideological sabotage.” One is reminded of the reputed attitude of the British censor when banning Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or—that the film was meaningless but, if it had a meaning, it was doubtless objectionable. Žalman also noted the official preference for conventional narrative and an increasing concern with the real or imagined tastes of the audience. A preoccupation with accessibility and the box office in the seventies and eighties was not therefore a simple product of normalization—even if it was facilitated by it.
The times have rigorously excluded formal innovation, and political films in any way equivalent to Polish and Hungarian movies like Wajda’s Man of Marble (Cłowiek z marmuru, 1976), Zanussi’s Camouflage (Barwy ochronne, 1976), Gábor’s Angi Vera (1978) or Sándor’s Daniel Takes a Train (Szerencsés Dániel, 1983) have not been produced since the sixties. In these circumstances, should films be judged for their achievement in world cinematic terms or should allowances be made for the ideological straightjacket? Should filmmakers be judged by their movement in new directions or by an ability to preserve at least some of the critical edge and formal freedoms of a forbidden past? Are we not also looking at the rise and fall of talent quite independently of the socio-political situation?
If we consider films more obviously produced to meet the government’s ideological objectives, it is difficult to find anything very persuasive. The most productive area has been that of the war film, which, functioning much like a Hollywood genre, allows a diverse range of products. At its most conventional it has produced films of considerable banality. It is perfectly possible to regard films like Vladimir Čech’s The Key (Klič, 1971) or Otakar Vávra’s The Liberation of Prague (Osvobození Prahy, 1976) simply as bad films. However, the same cannot be said of a more recent example, Juraj Herz’s I Was Caught by the Night (Zastihla mě noc, 1986). Herz is best known in the West for his nightmarish black comedy The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1968), the story of an employee in a crematorium who rises to power and insanity through cooperation with the Nazis. Although he had previously managed to avoid films with an explicit propagandist purpose, here he takes the true story of a Communist journalist in wartime concentration camps and treats it with a great deal of technological and dramatic brio. But conviction, it seems, exposes the creaking ideology of the formula as much as its opposite.
Films adopting correct attitudes towards industrial initiatives are no more impressive. Films such as Jaromil Jireš’s People of the Metro (Lidé z metra, 1974) or Menzel’s comeback film Who Looks for Gold? (Kdo hledá zlaté dno? 1975) share the vestigial qualities of the scripts filmed in the early seventies. Perversely, both films attain a kind of purely formal beauty with Jires making a poem about underground trains and Menzel introducing a waltz of the trucks.
A more sophisticated example of the genre is Jaroslav Balík’s Nuclear Cathedral (Atomová katedrála, 1985), which at least developed its characters with domestic and work situations leading to dramatic conflict. However, its idealized hero, fighting careerism at work and lack of understanding at home, is too obviously a moral symbol and too remote from recognizable reality to carry much conviction. If the schematic quality of the film is apparent to a foreigner, how much more apparent is it to those who have a lifetime of familiarity with the stereotypes?
The trouble with these kinds of simplified productions is that they have not moved much beyond the formula established by the Vasiliev brothers’ Chapayev of the thirties. They are films in which the policies and role of the Party can never be questioned, where the role of the Soviet Union is like that of the Seventh Cavalry, where simple working men overcome difficult odds. Even if the analysis offered were correct, their schematic nature inspires disbelief. When films manage to transcend the formulae, they encourage a response on quite a different intellectual and aesthetic level that invalidates the very restrictions within which they have been conceived.
Although the threat to the nation’s cultural identity has been genuine, the government has clearly allowed the promotion of national culture at a certain level. There seems to have been fairly systematic support for Czech traditions and achievements in the field of classical music, while older literary traditions have not been found as subversive as their modern equivalents. Nationalist work, provided it is respectable, historical, and preferably traditional in style, has not been considered a threat.
The veteran director Otakar Vávra, despite some embarrassments and a heavy-handed style, has remained true to his commitment to Czech literature and history. Working with established writers like the historical novelist Miloš Kratochvíl and the novelist and playwright Jiří Šotola, he has made two films centered on nineteenth-century literature. The first, A Meeting with Love and Honor (Příběh lásky a cti, 1977) was a dramatization of the relationship between the poet Jan Neruda and the novelist and pioneer feminist Karolina Světlá. The second, Veronika (1986), focused on another famous woman novelist and patriot, Božena Němcová. He also filmed a screenplay he had written in conjunction with a leading poet, František Hrubín. A major lyric poet of the older generation, Hrubín had often championed the role of the intellectuals and had previously scripted two of Vávra’s best films, The Golden Rennet (Zlatá reneta, 1965) and Romance for a Bugle (Romance pro křídlovku, 1966). The new film, Oldřich and Božena (Oldřich a Božena, 1985), filmed fourteen years after his death, was set in the tenth and eleventh centuries and concerned the consolidation of the Czech state under the Premyslid dynasty and the resistance to foreign intrigues. Hrubín’s work had originally been a successful play in 1968 and carried the subtitle A Bloody Plot in the Czech Lands. No doubt, the fact that audiences took the play allegorically at the time accounted for its slow transition to the screen.
Other historical films by Vávra worth noting would include his careful reconstruction of the Munich crisis, Days of Betrayal (Dny zrady, 1971) and his Jan Amos Comenius (Putování Jana Ámose, 1983), about the seventeenth-century Czech educator condemned to a lifetime of exile. The first was remarkably honest for the time and in its treatment of democratic leaders such as President Benes and Jan Masaryk, and the second was not without irony in its reference to an intellectual community forced abroad for its failure to conform.
The traditions of Czech music have been well served by a number of screenplays by Zdeněk Mahler, nephew of the composer. František Vláčil’s Concert at the End of Summer (Koncert na konci léta, 1979) was a tribute to the work of Dvorak, while Jiří Krejčík’s The Divine Emma (Božská Ema, 1979) was an old-fashioned biographical film about Emmy Destin, a successful opera star in the United States before the First World War. Her refusal to act as an agent for the Austrian secret police was considered by some to offer political parallels. Mahler, who acted as a consultant on Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984), which was filmed in Prague, also wrote the script for Miloslav Luther’s Forget Mozart (Zabudnite na Mozarta, 1986). Similarly, Jaromil Jireš made a two-part documentary on Janáček in 1973 and supplemented this with his biographical feature, Lion with a White Mane (Lev s bílou hřívou, 1986).
Given the restrictive situation described earlier, the preservation of artistic identity and a personal perspective in itself becomes an achievement. Věra Chytilová and Jiří Menzel are widely seen as directors who have survived without compromising their artistic integrity and, not surprisingly, continue to attract international attention. However, if one makes allowances for generic limitations, a whole range of films are of interest, in particular, the work of Jaromil Jireš and František Vláčil and the Slovak directors Štefan Uher, Dušan Hanák, and Juraj Jakubisko.
Jireš, whose contribution to the new wave has sometimes been underestimated, made one of new wave’s most important early films with his formally innovative The Cry (Křik, 1963). Two of the most significant films of its later phases were his adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke (Žert, 1968) and the kaleidoscopic surrealist fantasy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů, 1969).
In the early seventies, Jireš made one of a select group of convincing films set against a Second World War background with his And Give My Love to the Swallows (A pozdravuji vlaštovky, 1971). The story of a Communist resistance heroine, Maruška Kudeřiková, it was a morally uplifting story about imprisonment and sacrifice in the name of a better future. Reduced to its essentials, it differs little from a film like Herz’s I Was Caught by the Night. Under Jireš’s poetic control, however it was given a spiritual emphasis that transcended the sterility of the genre to produce a film of genuine conviction and humanity. Subsequently, his work has failed to attain the same aesthetic level—although he can scarcely be blamed for the limitations of People of the Metro!
Two of his more recent films, Young Man and the White Whale (Mladý muž a bílá velryba, 1978) and Catapult (Katapult, 1983), both based on novels by Vladimir Paral, shared a new engagement with social realities. Páral, one of the leading writers of the sixties, has written a whole sequence of novels based on the frustrations of life in industrial society. Private Hurricane (Soukromá vichřice, 1965), his damning portrait of the alienation of provincial life, the apathy of work in a factory, and a lack of both public and private morality, was filmed by Hynek Bočan in 1966.
According to Alfred French,19 Páral’s novels almost exactly match the environment of the fifties’ novels of “socialist construction” but, in place of forced optimism, offer a disillusioned world of alienated horror. Catapult, first published in 1967, tells the story of a modern Don Juan, who locates a series of mistresses along the route of his commercial journeys. His sexual exploits are a means of filling the emptiness in his everyday life but finally lead to self-destruction. However, rather like Bočan and Private Hurricane, Jireš makes his points without the film becoming the dreadful lesson implied by the book. What is interesting, however, is the fact that the films should have been made at all.
Jireš’s other recent films could perhaps be characterized as exercises in mild social criticism. Payment in Kind/The Rabbit Case (Causa králík, 1979) tells the story of an eminent lawyer forced by ill health to retire to the country. There, he wins a case against the odds only to lose out in the final analysis to a world of manipulation and influence. Other recent films focus on subjects such as blindness (Incomplete Eclipse [Neúplné zatmění], 1980) and cancer (Prolonged Time [Prodloužený čas], 1985). While none of them present world-shaking themes, they do dramatize problems crucial to everyday life. If Jireš often approaches them with a spirit of lyrical optimism, one suspects it may have as much to do with his own predilections as official policy. His pleasure in making films is evident, even if his subjects since the sixties have never really matched his obvious ability.
In contrast to Jireš, the films of František Vláčil present a rather bleak view of human nature. He first attracted attention with his visual poem, The White Dove (Holubice, 1960), and confirmed his reputation with a remarkable series of historical films, of which his adaptation of Vladislav Vančura’s Markéta Lazarová (1966) is the best known. Even in the sixties, he tended to select simple, oblique, sometimes allegorical themes that allowed him maximum creative flexibility. This experience has stood him in good stead in the seventies and eighties, where he has produced a number of films of integrity.
The atmospheric but low-keyed Smoke on the Potato Fields (Dým bramborové natě, 1976) concerns itself with the late middle age of a doctor and his friendship with a young girl expecting an illegitimate child. Both are victims of misfortune, but, despite the positive relationship between the two, there is a tragic ending. A touching film that offers only oblique social analysis, it can best be seen as a sad and rather fatalistic account of a reconciliation with the disappointments of life.
A contrast in style, his dramatic World War II film Shadows of a Hot Summer (Stíny horkého léta, 1978), shared the Grand Prix at Karlovy Vary. A group of Banderite guerrillas (Ukrainian nationalists), fleeing the Russian advance, occupy a Moravian farm. Although the film simplifies historical reality by turning the Banderites into little more than surrogate Nazis, the subject—the defense of the home against foreign occupation, has a wider resonance. The theme has obvious parallels with Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, with the difference that Vláčil’s hero is finally destroyed by the occupiers. It is a powerful movie that provides an ultimately pessimistic view of human nature.
In 1985, Vláčil adapted a pre-war novel by the painter Josef Čapek, brother of Karel, with whom he wrote The Insect Play. The Shades of Ferns (Stín kapradiny) is the tragic story of two youths who go on the run after shooting a gamekeeper. Their search for escape and adventure is doomed as they are hunted by an unsympathetic society and destroyed by their own contradictions. The theme of pursuit has marked parallels with Němec’s adaptation of Arnošt Lustig’s Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964) but, though made with his usual sensitivity, Vláčil’s film lacks the same degree of dynamism. But he has again made a rather morose personal statement with none of the redeeming optimism of a Jireš.
Conditions in the smaller Slovak industry have sometimes seemed less restrictive than those in its Czech counterpart. Štefan Uher, for instance, is one of the few directors who has been able to maintain a continuity of work without compromising his sixties reputation. His pioneering and poetic work, Sunshine in the Net (Slnko v sieti, 1962) may look less radical than it did at the time and, while there has been no repetition of the surrealist exaggerations of The Miraculous Virgin, he has maintained work of a formally and thematically interesting level. In 1972, when most of his Czech colleagues were producing films of unbelievable banality, he made If I Had a Gun (Keby som mal pušku). A film about the last days of the fascist regime in Slovakia, it was a remarkable and authentic portrait of children growing up in wartime. One of the most interesting of his recent films is Concrete Pastures (Pásla kone na betóne, 1982), adapted from her own short stories by the film’s leading actress, Milka Zimková. Set in a remote village in Eastern Slovakia and filmed largely in dialect, it examines the problems of the unmarried mother across two generations. The setting allows for a dramatization of the process of social change and evolving moral attitudes while emphasizing the truth of the repeated maxim, “There’s no roof without a man.”
Two Slovak directors who originally made their reputation in the sixties but did not return to features until the late seventies were Hanák and Jakubisko. Hanák made the Mannheim prizewinner, 399 (1969), never released in his home country, while Jakubisko’s trio of films, Crucial Years (Kristove roky, 1967), The Deserter and the Nomads (Zbehovia a pútnici, 1968), and Birds, Orphans, and Fools (Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni, 1968) rank among the most controversial of the sixties, both for their content and their provocative style. As mentioned earlier, he recently denounced them and commended his critics during an interview at the Venice Festival.
Hanák’s return to feature films, Rose-Tinted Dreams (Růžové sny, 1976), a love story involving a Slovak and a gypsy girl, steered just the right side of sentimentality through its gentle humor, poetic sensibility, and awareness of social realities. The more polemical Silent Joy (Ticháradosł, 1985) attracted attention with another examination of the changing role of women, this time dramatized through the story of a woman who gives up her marriage in order to follow an independent career.
Jakubisko’s comeback picture Build a House, Plant a Tree (Postav dom, zasad strom, 1980), while extremely well made, hardly equals his achievements of the sixties. Still, its tragic story of a dropout truck driver who decides to build his own house and a life outside of the community is sympathetic and emotionally involving. The Millennial Bee (Tisícročna v čela, 1983), an epic about the life of a Slovak village from the turn of the century to the end of the Second World War, varies in level but includes several scenes showing the folk inspiration of Jakubisko’s earlier work. The most impressive is during a village funeral. As a funeral party carries a coffin through the snow, it slips from their grasp and the whole event is converted into a wild toboggan ride. Visually, the episode is remarkable and evokes an enormous sense of liberation.
As the work of Menzel and Chytilová is clearly considered the most significant of the seventies and eighties, it is worth discussing in rather more detail.
After a striking debut with his Oscar-winning film of Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966) and an adaptation of Vladislav Vančura’s Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto, 1967), Menzel directed Škvoreckýs Crime in the Nightclub (Zločin v šantánu, 1968) and Hrabal’s Larks on a Thread (Skřivánci na nitích, 1969). Larks on a Thread was never released and seems to be regarded as one of the most controversial of the sixties films.
Not surprisingly, Menzel had difficulty in reestablishing his film career, and it was not until 1974, after a recantation, that he was allowed to direct Who Looks for Gold?, a conventional socialist realist film that presumably indicated contrition. Since then, he has directed five comedies, most of which stand well above the general level of production. They also belong to the classic tradition of film comedy, owing a clear debt to silent comedy and its various descendents from Tati to Tashlin. His love for early cinema is made explicit in his homage Those Wonderful Movie Cranks/Those Wonderful Men with a Crank (Báječní muži s klikou), 1978, and in his references to Lupino Lane in Cutting It Short (Postřižiny, 1981).
The two films he has made with Bohumil Hrabal are probably the most substantial. One of the most popular writers of the sixties, Hrabal’s work derived its impact from his depiction of scenes from everyday life. However, it is an everyday life full of eccentricity and illogicality and a far cry from socialist-realist stereotypes. In the seventies his work was banned, but he was later reinstated after reaching an accommodation with the authorities.20
Cutting It Short was the most successful film of 1981 but has not achieved the international recognition it deserves. Set at the turn of the century, and based on Hrabal’s novella about his mother, it is no exercise in conventional nostalgia. Rather, the heroine is seen as the personification of female sexuality. But despite flirting outrageously with men, Maryška is in no danger of becoming a latter-day Lulu. Her presence—and more especially her long hair—give quiet pleasure to the inhabitants of a provincial town dominated by the local brewery.
Maryška’s husband, Francin, is a shy and rather straight-laced young man who travels the country checking on the quality and cleanliness of the brewery’s clients. His careful and respectable dress is complemented by an absurd juxtaposition with the motorbike and sidecar in which he travels.
The film’s comedy is triggered by the arrival of his brother, Pepin, an uncouth cobbler given to shouting and ear-splitting monologue. In particular, he is full of typical Hrabalian tales about pet raccoons, Austrian officers, aunts and uncles, and dentists who pull out one another’s teeth. His disruption of the brewery executives’ meeting prompts the comment: “This is not a Charlie Chaplin comedy with Lupino Lane.” When he and the beautiful Maryška are rescued from the top of a factory chimney by the local fire brigade, they observe: “We are a voluntary fire brigade, not a Keystone Kops comedy with Lupino Lane.”
Apart from the references to Lupino Lane, one is irresistibly reminded of Forman’s satire on bureaucracy, The Firemen’s Ball (1967), where the firemen were frequently posed in compositions reminiscent of the Keystone Kops. Of course, Menzel’s respectable organized groups are also bureaucrats, and there is one uncomfortable scene, following a pig-slaughtering sequence, in which the gluttonous brewery committee gorge themselves on pig fat like caricatures from an early film by Eisenstein.
Despite its glancing but uncomfortable attacks on bureaucracy, the film is primarily an assertion of the values of sexuality and nonconformity. Magda Vašáryová’s tender beauty is filmed lyrically, with a predictable emphasis on her billowing dress as she cycles through town or stands on a phallic chimney in the wind above the town. There are a number of explicitly erotic scenes—Maryška’s night-time bath in the brewery, the marital massage with a strange piece of medical equipment, the public spanking of her backside. In another chauvinist scene, her beautiful hair turns out to be a horse’s tail. When her hair is cut, one of the references of the film’s title, it is a symbol of inevitable change and a move beyond the film’s frozen fantasy.
The uncouth Pepin’s role as protagonist mirrors that of Tati’s Hulot as he sows chaos about him—particularly in the running gag where one of the workers at the brewery becomes permanently accident-prone after meeting him.21 The film is also full of references to silent comedy, right down to the systematic use of the iris throughout.
In many ways, Cutting It Short is the best post-Tati comedy. However, as with Closely Watched Trains, Hrabal’s occasionally bitter humor turns it into something else—and Tati would never have included the slaughter of a pig. But there is no doubt that it is Menzel’s best film since the sixties and, on every level, the most successful Czech film of the post-invasion period.
With The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek, 1983), Menzel and Hrabal sounded a more somber note. Set in the countryside near Prague, it examines the conflict between two villages in their dispute over the right to the corpse of a wild boar. The initial incident with the boar is filmed as silent comedy until the unfortunate beast is tracked down to a classroom at the local school and shot dead in front of the children. As the dispute over the carcass begins, the children sing “My Bohemia.”
Menzel’s portrait of Czech village life is here somewhat removed from the idylls he portrays, albeit satirically, in his other work. His camera travels past houses at night, each echoing to the sound of television and identical banalities. It is a countryside where the vegetation is tipped by the white of junkyards and penetrated by a regular influx of joggers and motorcyclists. Hrabal’s expected gallery of reprobates and misfits, despite comic procedures, seem to lack the redeeming qualities of their equivalents in Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně, 1965) and Closely Watched Trains. The scene in which one of the characters plays a flute to his goats only seems to emphasize the bitter nature of much of the comedy. The film’s one optimistic character, the delivery boy, is killed in a road accident following the drunken celebration at the Snowdrop Inn. Perhaps the film is not quite as grim as this implies, but it is certainly some way from the publicity handout’s reference to a tale of ordinary folk exhibiting “a profound awareness of man’s part in the wondrous range of the beauties of nature.”
The role of Hrabal in Menzel’s success should in no way be underestimated—it is the considered amalgamation of the abrasive and the lyrical that has produced a unique combination in which access to a wide audience involves no sacrifice of aesthetic level. Although Menzel’s tribute to the early Czech cinema, Those Wonderful Movie Cranks, the story of a filmmaker and a traveling picture-show man, has been considerably underestimated, the absence of a strong script allowed the domination of a rather hermetic exercise in nostalgia.
Menzel’s second major collaborator has been the actor and playwright Zdeněk Svěrák, who has made a multi-level contribution to Czech film culture in recent years. His scripts for Seclusion Near a Forest (Na samotě u lesa, 1976), co-written with Ladislav Smoljak, and My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má, středisková, 1986) share many characteristics, and are both satirical and critical while lacking the more abrasive elements of the Hrabal collaborations. Seclusion Near a Forest was a film of social relevance produced at a time when Czech production was emerging from its most banal and simplistic period, while My Sweet Little Village was one of the smash hits of 1986.
Seclusion Near a Forest deals with the subject of a Prague family in search of a country cottage to which they can retreat during holidays and weekends. This has every appearance of being a national obsession and the film concentrates on the conflicts between the city dwellers (the “Praguers”) and the local inhabitants. The Praguers try to buy up the property, while the locals set up as landlords and building consultants.
The central situation is based on that of a nice middle-class family who want to buy a country cottage but find they must share the accommodation with its aging owner. He shows little sign of either moving or dying and, when they discover that his father is still alive at the age of 92, they recognize that the future must be based on compromise.
The happy conclusion may be a case of wishful thinking, but the film makes some sharp observations on the weekenders. One successful couple lives in a working replica of a flour mill and keeps a stuffed stork that can only go out in the fine weather. Another visiting Praguer tries to smoke out the occupant of his weekend retreat by bricking up the chimney.
The search for a “Czech idyll” not only involves social conflict but also the obverse of the romantic dream. Behind the picturesque house secluded near woods lies the reality—of rotting floorboards, mildew, snakes, and marauding goats.
The preoccupation with private life and material possessions has been encouraged by the regime in the post-1969 period. However, it nominally disapproves of the growth in petty bourgeois preoccupations. The criticism is, therefore, permitted criticism—even if it is relevant and apt. At the same time, Menzel’s nostalgic and visually romantic treatment asserts the reality of the dream.
My Sweet Little Village is an obvious complement to the earlier film, albeit with a more complex script amid ambiguous mood. The film begins with a lyrical and nationalistic music theme as two men walk to work in a fog and meet (or rather come together) at precisely the same point outside the gate of the second. There is a physical discrepancy between the short, fat truckdriver and his long and lean assistant. The second breaks into a marching pace in time with the first. We hear the vain efforts of car ignition and come across the local doctor in a rusty and battered old Skoda. The truckdriver gets him started.
As the doctor drives through the countryside, he launches into a romantic and pseudo-poetic commentary on its delights as the images both reflect and contradict what he is saying. As in Seclusion Near a Forest and The Snowdrop Festival, Menzel seems anxious to draw a distinction between the fantasy Czechoslovakia and the reality, even if he loves the fantasy.
What follows is a simple but multifaceted comedy, a portrait of characters and of a community with a rich variety of intertwining subplots. The story of Otík, the truckdriver’s simple-minded assistant, provides the lynchpin for the film. After Otík has provoked a series of minor disasters, his friend tries to get rid of him and plans are approved for his removal to Prague. This is a city where, in the words of an abominable pop group with short haircuts who appear on TV, the sun always shines and life is always fun even when it is raining. Otík, however, faces another reality—a new flat in a soulless new apartment bloc where the toilet flushes but the shower does not work. There are plans for Otík’s village house to revert to his Prague-based boss who will, of course, import a flushing toilet and plastic thatching from West Germany. This piece of direct criticism, with its echoes of Private Hurricane, is clear but somewhat muffled by the film’s happy ending.
There are several illicit affairs conducted and Otík is maneuvered into leaving his shared accommodation to leave the coast free for a friend’s extracurricular activity (masquerading as the preparation of a lecture on livestock). Otík’s fate is to go and see a Romanian film and to promise not to leave before the end. Another youth nurtures a passion for the local schoolteacher, only to have his hopes dashed when he spies through her window to see a visiting artist (Svěrák) with her panties on his head.
Rudolf Hrušinský, as the doctor, provides the film with “philosophical” reflection, rather like one of the aging Lotharios of Capricious Summer. As he drives his rusty old Skoda into ditches, his pseudo-romantic commentary continues and he sings about the “steadfast Czechs” of olden days. He reflects on the beauty of young girls (and the fashion for no bras), confronts the hypochondria of patients and jokes with a seriously ill patient about the merits of giving up both smoking and drinking at the same time (“a body should be partly decayed”). In a later conversation on what people could possibly want more than a television set and a car, he suggests a grave.
The film is full of neatly observed incidents—the avid interest in a U.S. film on television (titled Harpoon, it promises death and violence so the audience ignores the announcer’s obligatory denunciation of U.S. corruption that precedes it), the discussion on how to address old ladies in the countryside (they are no longer called “auntie”), the full-sized plaster cast for an injured farmhand that resembles a socialist-realist statue to his immortality.
A carefully contrived and balanced script full of comic repetition, My Sweet Little Village continues Menzel’s apparently conscious attempt to work within the major traditions of screen comedy. His love for Renoir is evident and, in the balance of his performing ensemble and use of music, so is the lyrical style of the Czech director Václav Krška.
The film has other senses in which it seems familiar. The manipulation of the party scene recalls Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and, leaving aside Hrušínský and Svěrák, whose faces are familiar from many films, the presence of actors from films by Forman and Passer provide the sense of a continuing reality. The film is basically a satirical but “philosophical” reflection on the absurdity of the human condition. Its observation of the “small” events of everyday life place it not only in a tradition that permeated the new wave but extends back in literature to Jan Neruda and forward to writers like Škvorecký and Klíma.
Menzel’s low-key satires have allowed him to maintain his artistic integrity without attracting the attention of Western critics that accompanied Closely Watched Trains. This has been partly due to the “invisibility” of Czechoslovakia in the festival circuit in recent years, partly to a certain reluctance to promote the films (e.g., The Snowdrop Festival), and partly to changes in critical fashion.
A director less easy to ignore is Věra Chytilová. While Menzel has balanced his insights with order and good taste, Chytilová is not prone to compromise. Although her sixties work was not amongst the most politically controversial in the narrow sense of the word, she was the most formally radical of the filmmakers. In Something Different (O něčem jiném, 1962), she juxtaposed documentary and fiction in her portrait of two women and the choices offered them by society. With the iconoclastic Daisies (1966), her non-narrative montage of the destructive antics of two teenage girls, she provoked outrage and admiration. In The Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromů rajských jíme, 1969), she made an incredibly beautiful but, from the point of view of conventional narrative, obscure allegory on the relations between men and women. Had they been West European films, they would be regarded as among the key modernist works of the sixties.
It was precisely this kind of “unintelligible” and avant-garde work that was criticized in the late sixties and has been rigorously excluded ever since. In a sense, what Chytilová did was to assert the primacy of film as a visual art and to demand freedoms regarded as routine in painting, poetry and music. But as the “most important” (ideologically) and most popular art, cinema must abide by other rules.
As the most eminent exponent of this avant garde, Chytilová was unable to work for seven years. However, she mounted a personal campaign, appealed to the President, and affirmed her commitment to socialism. As a result of this, and backroom intrigues by others, she was able to make a return with The Apple Came (Hra o jablko, 1976) which was, unusually, a feature film produced by the short-film studios. Since then, she has made five features, all of which are relatively orthodox by her standards of the sixties.
The Apple Game is a feminist comedy about a nurse who is seduced by a philandering doctor (played by Jiří Menzel). She becomes pregnant, loses her lovesick illusions, and decides to have the baby out of wedlock. The film had a somewhat checkered career at the outset, being entered and then withdrawn from the Berlin Festival and promoted with seeming reluctance before finally enjoying both domestic and international success. Like the firemen who objected to their portrayal in The Firemen’s Ball, some representatives of the health service were apparently not pleased. However, it is unlikely that many people seriously thought the service played doctors and nurses on the floor of the delivery room while patients waited for attention. Many people who remained unconvinced by her more experimental work thought it her best film.
Despite The Apple Game’s more orthodox form, it is still a film that provokes a sense of shock and surprise. It begins with a blank screen and the crying of a newborn baby. A sequence that includes various images of apples is accompanied by the breathing of a woman giving birth and the counting of a doctor. Red apples give way to the blood-covered head of a baby emerging from the womb and a rapid montage ends with a close-up of milk being expressed from a nipple. While the apples of the credits link the film to the imagery of her previous two films, to the themes of paradise and the game between men and women, the aesthetic shock of the opening also provides an intensely physical framework and a web of natural associations.
The film’s feminist perspective hits some predictable targets—the position of women as housekeepers and “washing machines,” male irresponsibility in the begetting of children combined with the need for the same doctor to be present during births at the hospital. The nurse also breaks the rules by seducing the male philanderer.
There is also a wider criticism of sexual behavior. Dr. John works with a colleague on a research project while sleeping with his wife behind his back. The wife is a willing participant and, in one of their scenes together, reveals that she likes “immoral things.” Since she does not love him, it is vital that she have a climax every time.
Despite a few jokes at the expense of the economy and political jargon, the film is no wide-ranging dissection of the ills of society. Rather it presents a spirited and comic view of the battle of the sexes that convinces by its irreverence, feminine perspective, and (for its time) free approach to film form.
With Prefab Story (Panelstory, 1979), however, Chytilová produced what is quite probably the most critical film of the past twenty years. A satire on life in a contemporary housing project, it touches on such issues as theft, bad management, unprofessional work, and reified sex. It enjoyed only a limited release in Czechoslovakia and has never been screened publicly in Prague.
The film opens with shots of a building site and of a couple grappling on a bed in a high-rise apartment. The sun rises from behind the estate as a bright abstract globe and an opening montage of scenes from life on the estate is accompanied by music that is determinedly modernist.
Chytilová then opts for a multilevel portrait of families and individuals that is quite unrelenting—stories of the teenager who gets pregnant to the despair of the mother (only to hear her mother being seduced later by a TV star to the accompaniment of a discussion of morality), of the old woman who looks forlornly through the window of her apartment with her only companion, a tape recorder, of the worker who wishes he could sleep at night, of the child who engages in the willful destruction of nearly everything in sight.
Grafted onto this are smaller observations—the woman who sorts through the garbage dumpster complaining about what people throw away, the need to give bribes to get children into day care, competition for attention in the doctor’s waiting room, the house painters who make love to the clients, the petty theft of a baby carriage, the cutting off of the water supply just before lunch, the problems of pregnancy, the lack of motivation (“Why should I study? I’ve got a flat and a new washing machine”).
This observation is reinforced by blunt and aggressive imagery—a baby carriage stuck firmly in a morass of mud surrounding the site, the cross-cutting of the painters’ sexual conduct with images of construction and destruction. At the end of the film, another abstract globe (the moon) rises above the estate as a young couple meets. “Wouldn’t you like to go to the moon?” says the boy. “No, it’s so pleasant here,” replies the girl. Kiss and fade out.
It is reasonable to take Chytilová’s portrait of life in a contemporary housing development as a symbolic portrait of contemporary society. The housing developments are a reality and life in the various apartments provides her with a concentrated cross-section of society, from youth to age, from TV star to painter, or colored worker. Whether the film excited controversy for its symbolic level or because of what was construed as a literal attack on Prague building projects, one can only speculate. Surprisingly, there was a fairly positive review of the film in Film a doba.22 However, it did add the rider that Chytilová had failed to maximize the positive aspects in the situation.
Here, of course, one touches on a basic problem of Czechoslovak filmmaking. Faults in society can be recognized but must form the basis of constructive criticism. The correctness of the system is beyond reproach, while the faults of individuals are not. But the wrapping up of criticism in permitted clothes only muffles it. The achievement of Chytilová lies in the fact that her film is designed for maximum impact—to force society to look at itself and the nature of its morality and material preoccupations. No one has ever accused Chytilová of being “anti-socialist,” and Prefab Story can be seen as the work of someone who really wants to improve society rather than paper over the cracks. Her ironic “happy ending” is even more transparent than her “correct” conclusion to Daisies in exposing the artificiality of official optimism.
Chytilová has directed four further features, Calamity (Kalamita, 1979), The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun (Faunovo příliš pozdní odpoledne, 1983), Wolf’s Cabin (Vlčí bouda, 1986), an underrated “morality” for young people, and the still-to-be released The Jester and the Queen (Šašek a královna, 1987). Calamity is the story of a young student who drops out of the university in order to become a train driver, his training for his job, and his sentimental education. Underneath it all, it seems, is a typical Barrandov moral tale, but the film is enlivened by philosophical discussions, virtuoso editing, and social comment. The couples frequently seen copulating in fields from the moving train seem to mark a continuation of the criticism of sexual morals that extends from The Apple Came and Prefab Story. And, for the allegory-conscious, the image of a train stuck in the snowdrift (the “calamity” of the film’s title) might just mean something else.
The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun was adapted from a short story by the writer and animator Jiří Brdečka. It marks a renewal of Chytilová’s collaboration with Ester Krumbachová (screenplay/artistic consultant) who had worked with her on Daisies and The Fruit of Paradise. A study in the life of a middle-aged man and “determined erotic” who preys on younger women, it provides some sitting targets for a female director. However, the portrait of the gap between desire and reality is not entirely unsympathetic and the humor is not only targeted on the man’s physical decay. The young girls, who resolutely fail to conform to his romantic ideas with their shallow perceptions, chewing gum, refusal to shut the lavatory door, and casual attitude to sex, are hardly presented as positive models. Technically, the film employs a consistent but idiosyncratic use of subjective camera that is quite disconcerting. It is unusual in the context of an apparently commercial comedy and testifies to Chytilová’s continuing commitment to experiment. Her film about Prague, made for Italian television about the same time, further developed her collaboration with cinematographer Jan Malíř in an intentionally experimental film that was very clearly the work of the director of Daisies.
In an interview following the U.S. premiere of The Apple Game, Chytilová spoke of her control of editing in her work and stated that this was a freedom shared by her colleagues. “But most of them have a conventional approach and edit the way they have been taught. . . . I want to give new meaning to a film with my editing—I want to put things together in a new way.”23 Her views differ little from those she expressed in the sixties. Basically, her commitment to the promotion of thought, of new ideas, of creation outside of prejudice and convention remains unchanged. “We live in a dark time, a film should be a little flashlight.”24
It has often been pointed out that, in the fifties, when the political situation was at its darkest, Czechoslovakian animated film astonished the world. The feature productions of Jiří Trnka—Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české, 1953), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sen noci svatojanské, 1959)—and Karel Zeman—Journey to Primeval Times (Cesta do pravéku, 1954), An Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958) and Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil, 1961)—set a standard that has never been equaled. Precisely because the area of fairy tale and folk fantasy was acceptable, there was much less censorship. Likewise, small-scale production groups and the complex process of creation rendered day-by-day interference less of a possibility. Since the censorship of the seventies in some ways mirrored that of the fifties, it is worth considering the extent to which animation has followed a similar path to that time.
Unfortunately, the same claims cannot be made. This is not to suggest that the quality of animated films is low, merely that the possibly unique achievements of Trnka and Zeman have not been matched. Trnka himself died in 1969 while Zeman’s features from this later period (The Magician’s Apprentice [Čarodêjův učen, 1977] and Tales of Honzik and Marenka [Pohádka o Honzíkovi a Mařence, 1980]) have not been of the same order. Feature animation has continued in the eighties, most notably in a sequence of coproductions with both West and East Germany. Stanislav Látal’s The Life and Incredible Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the Sailor from York (Dobrodružství Robinsona Crusoe, 1982) was followed by Jiří Tyller’s The Odyssey (Odyssea, 1985), Jiří Barta’s The Pied Piper (Krysař, 1986) and Ivan Renč’s Salar (1986).
The Czech animation tradition remains strong and most of its best-known practitioners—Hermina Týrlová, Bretislav Pojar, Zdeněk Miler—have stayed active. However, it is the fate and perhaps the advantage of the maker of short films to be eternally ignored and underestimated. Children’s films are conventionally ghettoized, but Miler’s Mole series had a great international success and set a standard of design and sensibility that has few equals in its field.
Amongst the most successful of the makers of short animated films has been the trio of Adolf Born, Jaroslav Doubrava, and Miloš Macourek, whose work goes beyond the simple moralities characteristic of the sixties’ tradition. Macourek is a writer who is also active in features (his Who Would Kill Jessie? [Kdo chce zabít Jessii? 1966] attracted attention), but his ideas are rarely as well matched as in his collaborations with Born and Doubrava.
In Hang Up (Mindrák, 1981), for instance, we have the story of an intelligent dog that speaks French and reads Dostoyevsky in its spare time, a moral and intellectual superior to its beer-swilling, football-fan master. The dog’s talents are only appreciated by his mistress. The master’s plans to poison him or blow him up are frustrated and, finally, through a grim trick of fate, the master blows up his wife. Her arms and legs drop by the dog’s kennel, rendering this a particularly black comedy. Finally, the master is sentenced for murder while the dog urinates on the leg of a court official.
The story is complemented by Born’s caricatured vision—large men and women with fat legs, the dog more like a large bear—a specific style removed both from Disney and the matchstick abstractions of the “art” cartoon. The elements of fantasy and black comedy give both this and other films an edge that is missing from most of their competitors.
In puppet animation, Jirí Barta, one of the younger directors, should be mentioned not only for the considerable technical achievement of his films but also for his ambitious projects. His prize-winning film, The Extinct World of Gloves (Zaniklý svět rukavic, 1982) takes an array of gloves in different styles and from different periods of history, and animates them as a short history of the cinema—from silent cinema via pastiches of Buñuel and Fellini, to a futurist junkyard where tin cans become animated police cars in a city of urban decay. His feature film, The Pied Piper, attempts a gothic style based on carved walnut puppets, set against expressionistically carved sets and combined with live rats. There are no children in this tale, which draws on other traditions, including the work of the Czech poet Viktor Dyk. A vehement condemnation of a corrupt society, it involves images of rape and vengeance, recalling the black medieval epics of Bergman and Vláčil. However, in both films, the ideas at script level do not really match the invention of the superstructure, rather providing a trigger for a vision that is not totally integrated.
But integration is certainly an operative word in the case of Jan Švankmajer, not only the outstanding figure within Czech animation but also the one filmmaker whose work appears unrestricted by the political situation. No doubt, this was partly due to his making short films and also to the fact that “avant garde” work is more acceptable if contained within the generic term of the “trick film” (anything but live action)—a term which suggests, at any rate, a certain freedom. On the other hand, he was unable to complete any films between 1972-77 and his international success has been received in a mixed fashion. His best known film, Dimensions of Dialogue/Possibilities for Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu, 1982) has been condemned and he has become something of a filmmaker “for export only.”
One of the characteristics of the late-sixties phase of the new wave was an interest in the avant garde tradition. Surrealism was a strong influence and films directly inspired by its ideals included Němec’s Martyrs of Love, Uher’s film of Dominik Tatarka’s The Miraculous Virgin, and Jireš’ adaptation of Vitězslav Nezval’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Švankmajer began to make films at this time but, unlike the feature directors, he did not just make surrealist films but worked as a surrealist, joining the Prague surrealist group in 1969.
To make sense of this, it is worth recalling that the Czech forerunner of surrealism, known as poetism, was instituted in the twenties, the term being applied by the critic Karel Teige. According to Teige, “poetism” was a style of life that favored an art that was “playful, unheroic, unphilosophical, mischievious and fantastic.”25 Poetism led to surrealism in the thirties and one of its leaders, the poet Nezval, contributed to major films of the period—ErOtíkon (1920), Extase (1932), From Saturday to Sunday (Ze soboty na neděli, 1931), On the Sunny Side (Na slunečni straně, 1933). Many of the avant garde writers (Nezval and Vladislav Vančura, for example) were Communists, with the result that, despite the subsequent imposition of socialist realism, the thirties are a period that it has been difficult to completely disown. It was the surrealists who first published a Czech translation of Kafka’s The Trial, subtitling it “a surrealist novel.”
Paris and Prague have sometimes been described as the “twin poles of surrealism.” While the significance of the Prague connection in the prewar period has not been fully appreciated, what is even less well known is the fact that surrealism has continued as an active force (albeit an underground one) until the present day.
Petr Král has pointed out that the poetist/surrealist tradition of the twenties and thirties did not share in the negative, apocalyptic, and utopian objectives of the French. Optimism, nostalgia, and romanticism were more vital—after all, the regaining of national independence provided an opportunity to participate in the building of a new culture and a new society.26 Although the links with Marxism were not simple, a dialogue and interplay continued until the triumph of Stalinism in the fifties. The experience of Stalinism resulted in a plurality and relativism of approach within the movement and an emphasis on its critical role. However, the seventies ushered in a new era of cohesion and a greater emphasis on practice. But, argues Král, the other options are always present. The examination of the imaginative mechanism and the concern with games were inseparable from a reflection on the epoch and the way in which it conditioned individuals. “Humor, sarcasm, a sense of the absurd, traditional characteristics of the Praguers, always find a way of manifesting themselves.”27
Jan Švankmajer has only recently attracted major critical attention and this is partly due to the obscurity within which makers of short/animation films conventionally work. His background is in the fine arts and he also studied in the Dramatic Art Faculty (or Marionette Faculty) of the Academy of Fine Arts in the fifties. It was not until 1964 that he made his first film, The Last Trick (Poslední trik pana Edgara a pana Schwarzwalda), and while this and his other early films won awards, they could still be contained within the “invisible” world of the short film.
It was only with a remarkable sequence of films produced between 1968 and 1972 that the full force and originality of his vision could be felt. Some saw his Kafkaesque The Flat (Byt, 1968), The Garden (Zahrada, 1968), and A Week in the Quiet House (Tichý týden u dome, 1969) as sharing the atmosphere of the new wave. Yet Švankmajer has always denied any direct involvement and there is no reason to doubt this. Rather, it could be argued that a shared socio-political context often promotes a similar mood and concern among those with different points of departure. A further sequence of films ending with Jabberwocky (1971) and Leonardo’s Diary (Leonardův deník, 1972) brought his film career to a virtual standstill, and he was only able to complete one short film in the next eight years. The fact that The Flat, The Garden, and Jabberwocky could not be shown indicates that someone somewhere disapproved.
It was only with The Fall of the House of Usher (Zánik domu usherú, 1981), Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope (Kyvadlo, jáma a naděje, 1983) and Down to the Cellar (Do sklepa, 1983) that he finally established a major international reputation. Crucial to this were the Grand Prix awards to Dimensions of Dialogue in 1983 at both Berlin and Annecy and the retrospective of Švankmajer’s work at Annecy. Predictably, Dimensions of Dialogue was not shown publicly in Czechoslovakia and the authorities were not keen to help in its international promotion.
Švankmajer has characterized his work as surrealist investigation—an attempt to liberate feelings of fear and anguish using the weapons of sarcasm, objective humor, and black comedy.28 Dimensions of Dialogue consists of three sections: Eternal Dialogue, Passionate Dialogue, and Exhausting Dialogue. In the first, a human head consisting of cutlery, crockery, and kitchen implements devours another made of fruit and vegetables. The two then merge in a chaotic synthesis, reform, and undergo further conflict and transformation. Finally, a perfectly modeled human head emerges and begins to vomit replicas of itself. In Passionate Dialogue a male anc a female figure touch and embrace in gestures of love but finally enter intc conflict and tear each other to pieces. In Exhausting Dialogue, two head: are formed from the same matter and engage in complementary activities From the mouth of one emerges a toothbrush and from the other a tube of toothpaste to be squeezed onto the brush, a knife spreads butter on a piece of bread, a shoe is laced, and a pencil sharpened. But the process goes wrong, each head produces the wrong object, and chaos and destruction follow. Finally, the bulging eyes of the rather unpleasant heads give way to cracked and exhausted dissolution.
If one looks for a simple interpretation, we are faced with dialogue as an eternal fact and eternal conflict designed to produce a single uniform truth (Eternal Dialogue). However, dialogue between lovers is irrational and destructive, and the attempt at complementary dialogue easily converts into destructive conflict. An essentially negative, but perhaps realistic, view of human possibilities, it is a far cry from official optimism or simple-minded pacifism. Indeed, any conclusion one might reach would be anti-utopian and relativistic. The film could be interpreted as a demonstration of the surrealist view of life as dialectic, as a flux in which logic and abstraction can at best only envisage part of the totality.
While the importance of the film is grounded in a particular perspective, its force derives from its imagery. Here, it is important to recall Švankmajer’s involvement with tactile experiments and his view of the resonance of objects. He sees objects as possessing a kind of “interior life” a content derived from their previous use. A good example is Jabber-wocky, where old children’s toys are animated to create a world of lost childhood.
There is certainly a strong resemblance between the object montage in Dimensions of Dialogue and the tactile combinations produced during his film silence between 1972 and 1980 (particularly the unusual tactile combinations of kitchen implements). His view that objects can provide an aesthetic “message” cannot be transferred to film, but his own sensitivity to textures and objects allows a selection and “total montage” that promote a tactile dimension. The qualities of materials are emphasized: of bristle and plastic when they are sharpened, of bread when it is tied with shoelaces, of pencil lead when it penetrates toothpaste.
With his two subsequent films, Švankmajer returns to a style closer to The Flat since both are live-action films employing animation techniques. In The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope, based on Poe and Villiers de I’lsle Adam, the audience is placed in the position of victim and the action is filmed entirely with a subjective camera. The central character is not seen at all; we are supposed to become him. We begin strapped to a bench as the pendulum swings and the knife blade comes closer to cutting us in half. However, with the aid of the remnants of a last meal, the containing straps are smeared with meat, attracting rats who come to nibble at the bonds. A last-minute escape—which is not permitted some of the rats, who are sliced in half by the blade—leads to a frantic and breathless stumble down a subterranean passage and a climb upwards towards the light. There we are confronted by a caped religious figure that blocks our escape in the name of “brotherhood.”
A frightening and neurotic film capable of being seen politically, it also corresponds to the much more personal form of the nightmare and the fear of entrapment. The black and white photography has the murky and depressing quality of The Flat in a film totally without compromise in its black vision.
Down to the Cellar, made in Slovakia, is a little more upbeat and is filmed in color. A little girl is sent to the cellar to fetch potatoes but, in the process, encounters a sequence of nightmarish events. It is a film that has obvious links with Little Red Riding Hood or even Alice in Wonderland (his current project). In the cellar she meets an old 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. The man is seen as a possible child molester—he offers her a sweet—and an attack is heard on the soundtrack. Yet the film has a certain simplicity and the threats lack the quality of an omnipresent nightmare characteristic of The Flat and The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope. Finally, the girl escapes from the cellar but drops her basket of potatoes. She returns to the cellar but whether the ending implies a repetition of her nightmare or an ability to confront her fears remains open.
If the focus of discussion so far has been largely restricted to the work of filmmakers who established their reputation in the sixties, this is entirely understandable. Whatever the limitations of their work in the seventies and eighties, it can frequently be seen as a continuation of tendencies present in their more substantial early works or defined in relation to them. Faced with restrictive policies, younger filmmakers have found it less easy to transcend their limitations. However, there is certainly a range of young directors who, if given their heads, could make some significant movies.
One director who has created a recognizable body of work is Jiří Svoboda, particularly with his A Meeting with Shadows (Schůzka se stíny, 1982), The End of the Lonely Farm Berhof (Zánik samoty Berhof, 1983), and Scalpel, Please (Skalpel prosim, 1985). Characterized by a strong visual style, they also provide impressive dramatic roles for actors like Jana Brejchová, Radoslav Brzobohatý, and Miroslav Macháček. Although his style is more forcefully dramatic, his liking for simple themes capable of wider resonance is sometimes reminiscent of Vláčil.
One of his most impressive films is A Meeting with Shadows. Set against the background of an archaeological expedition, it concerns the relationship between the expedition’s driver and the wife of an English archaeologist. The mystery is centered on the driver’s peculiar, negative, and disturbed behavior. At times the film approaches its problems much like an exercise in Bergmanesque existentialism, with a similar use of symbolism and acting in depth. But it is less the solution to this psychological thriller (both protagonists had been involved in Nazi medical experiments on children) than the basic situation that gives the film its particular resonance.
Earlier reference was made to Zdeněk Svěrák’s varied contribution to Czech cinema. Apart from his work with Menzel, he is best known for his collaborations with writer/director Ladislav Smoljak and, together, they are identified with a particular brand of black absurdist humor. In the sixties, they were the principal playwrights and producers of the Jará Cimrman Theatre. According to Škvorecký, it offered “a hugely sophisticated, irreverent, nonsensical and often socio-politically critical dramaturgy, with roots in the ‘decadent’ dada and pataphysical mystification.”29
Jará Cimrman, who gave the theater its name, was an imaginary character and universal genius, equally adept as a writer, inventor, and filmmaker. The absurdist humor to which the plays gave birth has found its way to the screen in a variety of guises—not least through guest appearances by Svěrák and Smoljak in other people’s films.
Together they scripted a number of films, including two for the veteran comedy director, Oldřich Lipský, Joachim, Put It in the Machine (Jáchyme, hod ho do stroje, 1974) and Mareček, Pass Me a Pen (Marečku, podejte mi pero, 1976). Their work for Menzel on Seclusion Near a Forest, though not typical, was the most successful from this period. More recently, since Smoljak himself turned director, their stage humor has transferred more successfully to the screen with Run, Waiter, Run (Vrchní, prchni, 1980), Jára Cimrman, Lying Asleep (1983), and Dissolved and Let Out (Rozpustený a vypustený, 1984).
Run, Waiter, Run concerns the exploits of a bookshop assistant and father of several illegitimate children, who impersonates head waiters in a number of Prague restaurants in order to supplement his income. As head waiters are the ones who collect the money, it presumably hit some predictable targets and was a great commercial success. In Jára Cimrman, Lying Asleep, set at the end of the nineteenth century, Cimrman is involved in a petition to change the Austro-Hungarian monarchy into an Austro-Hungarian-Czech monarchy. However, his quixotic manipulations of the Austrian state come to nothing when both the Archduke Ferdinand and the Emperor turn out to be doubles. The title of Dissolved and Let Out refers to a body dissolved in a bath of acid. A turn-of-the-century detective drama, it features a hero (sometimes represented by a clockwork replica) who is constantly frustrated by an unseen superior. Its strange, almost Kafkaesque mood and deadpan humor certainly make it unusual—and probably inaccessible—to a non-Czech audience. Svěrák and Smoljak can scarcely be categorized as new young filmmakers; they are more of a phenomenon—and a specifically Czech one at that.
Among younger filmmakers worth noting are Vladimír Drha, Karel Smyczek, Jaroslav Soukup, Zdeněk Flidr, Zdeněk Troška and, in Slovakia, Vladimír Balco. Both Drha and Smyczek have made sensitive films on the theme of youth and Drha’s A New Boy Started Today (Dneska přišel nový kluk, 1981) attracted attention for dealing with inequalities in the education system and negative industrial practice. However, a comparison of Smyczek’s Just a Little Whistle (Jen si tak trochu písknout, 1980) with Forman’s Black Peter/Peter and Pavla (Černý Petr, 1964) reveals how much is still being missed. Soukup’s Love in the Arcade (Láska v pasáži, 1984) addressed problems of teenage crime and drugs for virtually the first time, while Flidr’s They’ve All Got Talent (Všichni mají talent, 1984) criticized the attitudes of a mid-level bureaucrat whose only interest in the fate of an amateur folk dance group lies in the prospect of foreign travel. Neither is world shaking, but both show considerable sensibility.
The work of Troska and Balco is of more interest for its for formal initiatives. Troška’s The Treasure of Count Chamaré (Poklad hraběte Chamaré, 1985) adopted a freewheeling approach, rather reminiscent of a pop video, to a standard historical novel set in the seventeenth century. It looks quite unlike anything else produced in recent years and, if its interest is almost exclusively stylistic, it is important for all that. Balco’s Angle of Approach (Uhol pohladu, 1985) achieves a mixture of form/content interest in its story of a young filmmaker who makes a “cinéma vérité” film about his girlfriend’s father, a famous organist. It offers some quite sharp observation on materialist and careerist motivation, and not least that of the filmmaker himself.
In the last two years (1986-87) there has been a definite increase in the degree to which social problems, specifically drugs and delinquency, have been openly treated. Zdeněk Zaoral’s The Cobweb (Pavučina, 1986), which began life as an independent film, was subsequently completed with official backing, and was the first film to confront the drug issue head-on. Despite a certain spontaneity and a convincing sullen performance by its leading actress (Eva Kulichová), it has some uncomfortably arty effects and presents an ultimately stereotyped analysis. Viktor Polesný’s short film, Half Time (Poločas rozpadu, 1986), scripted by Radek John, who also wrote an influential book on the subject, avoids the stereotypes, but is more of an exercise in mass aversion therapy.
Altogether more successful is Karel Smyczek’s Why? (Proč?, 1987), also scripted by Radek John, a drama documentary reconstruction of a riot by football fans in the early eighties. Avoiding a simple narrative, it takes six of the young people brought to trial and examines both their backgrounds and their involvement in the incident. A deliberately violent and sometimes shocking film, it significantly avoids simple moralizing or ready-made solutions. The young people are, in fact, quite ordinary and the roots of their behavior by no means obvious. The film suggests some explanations—and the image of a girl looking down over a deserted cityscape from a high-rise apartment speaks for itself—but is fundamentally an attempt to promote analysis and discussion.
Another interesting development in the same period has been some rather successful Western-style commercial films. Vít Olmer’s Like Poison (Jako jed, 1985) analyzes the love affair between a middle-aged architect (Zdeněk Svěrák) and a young Slovak girl, while Anthony’s Chance (Antonyho šance, 1986) is the story of a young widower who tries to bring up his daughter and create a new marriage. While touching on some genuine social issues, the prime focus is entertainment, achieved through attractive performances, atmospheric photography (Ota Kopřiva), and lively music scores from Jiří Stivin. If Anthony’s Chance is Czechoslovakia’s answer to Kramer vs. Kramer, Soukup’s Fists in the Dark (Pěsti ve tmě, 1986) has been described (misleadingly) as the Czech Rocky. Despite its boxing theme, it is primarily an exercise in the nostalgic recreation of period (the thirties) with not a few stylistic nods in the direction of Clayton’s The Great Gatsby and Polanski’s Chinatown.
The most encouraging fact about the younger filmmakers is their obvious talent. But it is also sad that their films often acquire significance through simple or tepid points of social criticism or stylistic innovations that, in an international context, are quite unremarkable.
One of the ironies of the post-invasion period has been the international success of Czech literature. If most of the leading writers have been banned at home, many have at the same time acquired an international following. The critical recognition of the emigré writers Milan Kundera and Josef Škvorecký has had much to do with this, as did the winning of the 1984 Nobel Prize by Czechoslovakia’s best-loved poet, Jaroslav Seifert.30 However, the success of the emigré writers has not derived from any “dissident” quality and their work has remained resolutely Czech in its inspiration.
A discussion of whether the same might apply to filmmakers may seem odd since, unlike writers, they are forced to take their material from other cultures and to work within a non-Czech production context. Yet, just as German directors brought a new sensibility to Hollywood in the thirties, Czech directors have brought their own insights. To varying degrees, the European and North American work of Jasný, Kadár, and Passer can be seen to have links with their work in Czechoslovakia. Films based on Czech themes have, however, been nonexistent—unless one counts Stanislav Barabás’s Comenius (from Kokoschka) and Ivo Dvořák’s Metamorphosis (from Kafka).
Nonetheless, there is justification in the view that Miloš Forman has maintained a Czech tradition—particularly in his best-known films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1983). His first American film, Taking Off (1970) was, in many respects, like one of his Czech films transplanted.
While One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Amadeus, are taken from very specific non-Czech sources, they contain many ideas that would fall on fertile ground in Czechoslovakia. These would include the rebellion of the individual against the restrictions of an asylum where the patients are voluntary inmates (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the persecution of the talented by the mediocre, and censorship portrayed as total absurdity (Amadeus). Amadeus, of course, has the additional advantage of having been made in Prague with a largely Czech team that included Miroslav Ondříček (cinematography), Karel Černý (art direction), and Theodor Pištěk (costumes). Other collaborators included the opera designer Josef Svoboda, screenwriter Zdeněk Mahler, and the film directors František Vláčil and Jan Schmidt.
Not for the first time, the continuing theme of Czechoslovak cinema in the seventies and eighties has been the struggle of filmmakers to make good movies and to reconcile this with the ideological demands of the state. As David Anderman put it in a report from Prague in the New York Times, the seventies saw the growth of “an apparatus of censors, ‘literary advisors’ and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to make certain that the system did not produce anything that could be construed as ‘reactionary,’ or even ‘introspective’—anything that did not educate people to ‘the socialist realities’.”31 Antonín Liehm wrote in 1976: “Every attempt at even the slightest originality is stifled at the screenplay stage, and the studio maintains a vigilant eye during the shooting to ensure that the style of the film remains faithful to the very worst traditions, now almost universally rejected throughout Eastern Europe. . . .”32
Luckily, such policies can ultimately be self-defeating. The production of screenplays designed purely to promote official ideology results not only in sterility but also in expensive and monumental flops that embarrass even those who demand them. In 1980 Radek John complained in Film a doba of directors’ “fear of reality.”33 The answer was simple, of course: no one was allowed to confront it. When films within permitted ideological trappings do convince—And My Greetings to the Swallows, Shadows of a Hot Summer, A Meeting with Shadows, or Antonín Moskalyk’s Cuckoo in the Dark Forest (Kukačka v temném lese, 1985)—they go well beyond the ideological brief and raise entirely different issues.
It is frequently asserted that few people in Czechoslovakia now believe the official ideology—that having made obligatory noises, people just get on with their daily work and their private lives. An exercise in practical materialism is encouraged, part of the unwritten exchange of affluence for acquiescence. Havel sees such consumerism in negative terms, but Ernest Gellner argues that it might have benefits, that the necessary level of affluence can only be attained by allowing a degree of honesty, efficiency, and liberty.34 Pragmatism might, in the end, supersede ideological dogma and fear of ideological deviation.
A degree of pragmatism has certainly been evident in the film industry. The re-employment of important directors in the mid-seventies can be seen as evidence of this, as can the reorganization of the industry in the early eighties into new production groups and the deliberate promotion of more ambitious screenplays. An increasing number of foreign productions have been based in Prague (Yentl, Amadeus, The Howling II, Rosa Luxemburg), and coproductions with Western Europe have again become possible.
The situation within the film industry is clearly more flexible than it was and—without denigrating the achievements already made against the odds—it may not be long before Czechoslovakia’s filmmakers again interest the world. Change is inevitable and there seems little reason to continue the paranoid vigilance that has prevailed since 1969.
All this depends, of course, on the situation of Czechoslovakia itself, on the fate of Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, on relations between the Great Powers. If it is truly possible to move beyond the ideological simplifications of Cold War politics, then the situation of Central Europe should be reviewed. Both sides may equate silence and acquiescence with the preservation of peace. Yet a stability based on demoralization and a developed use of police methods is no stability at all. Without some acceptance of the legitimate demands and freedoms of the “small” countries, there can be no genuine accommodation between the powers. While it may seem utopian, the recognition of such freedoms need not imply any threat to legitimate Soviet security interests. As Churchill said to Stalin at the Yalta Conference, “The eagle should permit the small birds to sing, and care not wherefore they sing.”35
I would like to thank Simon Field and Igor Hájek for valuable comments on the first draft of this chapter. I am grateful also to the North Staffordshire Polytechnic for financial assistance. Stills were supplied courtesy of the British Film Institute, Peter Cargin, and the National Film Archive.
1. Zdeněk Mlynář, a leading member of the Dubček government now in exile, was apparently a fellow student of Gorbachev, who was at that time already interested in the possibilities for reform. See Christian Schmidt-Häuer, Gorbachev: The Path to Power, trans. Ewald Osers and Chris Romberg (London: Pan Books, 1986), pp. 48-52, 59.
2. On the other hand, Yegor Yakovlev, the “arch-priest” of Soviet glasnost, has justified the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 on the grounds that counter-revolutionaries were planning civil war. It remains to be seen how far the permitted democracy of glasnost will be allowed to go outside of the Soviet Union. See Mary Kaldor and Jonathan Steele, “Interview with Yegor Yakovlev”, END Journal (London) 28-29 (Summer 1987), pp. 11-12. Hans Starek points out that while there is much debate on the subject of přestavba (restructuring), there is almost no media discussion of otevřenost (openness). Přestavba is not presented as contradicting the policies of recent years but as a natural progression from Poučení (Lessons from the Crisis Years). See Hans Starek, “ ‘Přestavba’ Rules—But What Is It?,” Labour Focus on Eastern Europe 9 (2) (July–October 1987), pp. 44–45.
3. Jiří Mucha, interviewed by Antonín J. Liehm, The Politics of Culture, trans. Peter Kussi (New York: Grove Press, 1973), p. 221.
4. Quoted in Michael Charlton, The Eagle and the Small Birds: Crisis in the Soviet Empire: From Yalta to Solidarity (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984), p. 56.
5. Vladimír V. Kusin, From Dubček to Charter 77: A Study of “Normalisation” in Czechoslovakia, 1968-1978 (Edinburgh: Q Press, 1978), pp. 239-240.
6. There is some dispute over the precise figures but, however constituted, the total number of those who left the party approaches half a million. See Kusin, pp. 85-87.
7. See Kusin, p. 97.
8. Milan Šimečka, The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia, trans. A. G. Brain (London: Verso Editions, 1984), p. 37.
9. Šimečka, p. 43.
10. Karel Kosík, The Dialectics of the Concrete: A Study of Problems of Man and World, trans. Karel Kovanda and James Schmidt (Dordrecht and Boston: Reidel, 1976).
11. Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” trans. Paul Wilson, in John Keane (ed.), The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe (London: Hutchinson, 1985).
12. Havel, p. 90.
13. Havel, p. 93.
14. “Czechoslovaak Writers and Charter 77 Address the Budapest Cultural Forum” (Charter 77 Document No. 24/1985).
15. O. Sojka (pseudonym), “The Bounds of Silence,” Index on Censorship 5(3) (Autumn 1976).
16. Although the work of Forman, Kadár, and Weiss has been partially reinstated, their names, unlike those of pre-war emigrés, are not included in recentfilm graphies and histories. Perversely, their films are acknowledged under the names of their cinematographers and art directors.
17. Ludvík Toman, “Czech Feature Films: Variety of Genres and Subjects,” Czechoslovak Film 1-2 (1972), pp. 6-7.
18. Jan Žalman, “Question-Marks on the New Czechoslovak Cinema,” Film Quarterly (Winter 1967-68), pp. 18-27.
19. Alfred French, Czech Writers and Politics, 1945-1969 (Boulder: East European Monographs; New Yorki: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 372-373.
20. Despite his partial reinstatement, Hrabal’s work was subject to censorship and many of his books have only been published outside the country. Similarly, the script for Cutting It Short was carefully vetted before production.
21. A point noted by the emigré critic Jan Uhde. See Josef Škvorecký, Jiří Menzel and the history of the Closely Watched Trains (Boulder: East European Monographs; New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 91.
22. Miroslav Zůna and Vladimír Solecký, “Ještě k filmovému svetu Věry Chytilové,” Film a doba 28 (5) (May 1982), pp. 266-271.
23. Věra Chytilová, in Harriet Polt, “A Film Should Be a Little Flashlight: An Interview with Věra Chytilová,” Take One (November 1978), p. 43.
24. Chytilová, p. 44.
25. Karel Teige, “Poetism” (1924), quoted in Alfred French, The Poets of Prague (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 39.
26. Petr Král, Le Surréalisme en Tchécoslovaquie (Paris: Flammarion, 1983), pp. 14-15.
27. Král, p. 63.
28. Jan Švankmajer, in Petr Král, “Questions à Jan Švankmajer,” Positif, No. 297 (November 1985), p. 42.
29. Škvorecký, p. 9.
30. Other emigré writers to attract attention include Arnošt Lustig, Jiří Gruša, and Pavel Kohout. Ivan Klima, who is unable to publish in Czechoslovakia, has also been translated along with other writers still in Czechoslovakia, including Havel, Hrabal, Miroslav Holub, and Ladislav Fuks.
31. David A. Anderman, “New Czech Film Has Drama in Its Own History,” New York Times, March 12, 1978, p. 59.
32. Antonín J. Liehm, “Triumph of the Untalented,” Index on Censorship 5(3) (Autumn 1976), p. 60.
33. Radek John, “Hlavní tendence v české filmové komedii” (part two), Film a doba 26 (5) (May 1980), pp. 274-281.
34. Ernest Gellner, “Between Loyalty and Truth,” The Times Literary Supplement (London), October 3, 1986, p. 1090.
35. Quoted in Charlton, The Eagle and the Small Birds, p. 13.