A Short Trip Around Czechoslovakia

I’d watched very few Czechoslovakian movies before I started on this, frankly ill-advised, journey in January. I’d seen the American films of Miloš Forman, including the great ‘Amadeus‘ and disturbed myself silly with Jan Švankmajer’s short animations, hunted down his adaptation of ‘Faust’ on VHS, and watched his 2000 fantasy ‘Little Otik’ at the cinema. I would have struggled to distinguish the movies of Poland, Hungary, Russia and Czechoslovakia, each seemed to have a shared style that unsettled me and were at odds with the familiarity of British films and the glossy spectacle of Hollywood. Part of this is to do with the locations – the Soviet era decaying cities and impoverished farms, but there’s something else, something that isn’t on screen. Movies from the east of the Iron Curtain always seemed to have a kind of mordant rebelliousness about them, something that was alien to me as a middle class, comfortably settled person from the UK. Gradually, as I watched films from each country, however, I began to see the differences. With the exception of Forman’s ‘The Fireman’s Ball’ which adopts a dangerously direct satire to commentate on politics, the Czechoslovakian movies below all couch their resistance in a kind of mythic fantasy. In the cases of ‘Daisies’, ‘Alice’ and ‘Conspirators of Pleasure’, this fantasy is playful and anarchic, albeit creepy in Švankmajer’s films. In the case of ‘Marketa Lazarová’, the fantasy is deeply historicized and is rooted in a Tarkovsky-like obsession with the land. Finally, ‘Valerie and Her Week of Wonders’ stands as a bizarre and dark fairytale. With the exception of the 1996 film, made after the fall of the Soviet Union, the very existence of these films, and the fact that they are so inventive and so individual act as a testament to the bravery and single-minded drive of the directors to defy the control of the state. The fantasy might be alien and the look of some of the films might be grim and depressing, but the fact that they are on a list of movies that are acclaimed transform them into something more than their subject. They transcend their physical existence movies and become defiant statements about liberty and freedom.

Daisies (1966)

“Dedicated to Those Whose Sole Source of Indignation is a Messed-Up-Trifle.”

‘Daisies’, a 1966 Czechoslovakian movie directed by Věra Chytilová, is an avant-garde comedy following the adventures of two teenage girls as they seduce and let down a string of men. They party, eat food, break things and generally cause havoc. It’s an experimental film, the performances are heightened and the scenarios are clearly symbolic, filled with religious and political prelapsarian references. Chytilová uses different colours and tints to create a sense of carnival that embraces the playful performances by the two main characters. The film was banned by the authorities, apparently because of its riotous and decadent imagery, a fact that lends it a weight akin to Bernie Boston’s photograph of a carnation being pushed down the barrel of a gun during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. This, I think, is the true power of the film: protest, not through the use of the dark and apocalyptic, but through the use of colour and innocence. It’s short – which is probably a good thing considering it’s not easy to watch – whilst bright and, at times amusing, the childlike repetition of the characters and the lack of any kind of tether with reality makes it a difficult film to invest any emotion in. The highlight for me was the final scene: following a gluttonous food-orgy by the two girls, they return to clean up which entails them putting the broken plates and glasses back on the table in an approximation of their original state and them finally bringing a massive chandelier crashing down. It’s breezy, fun, at times infuriating and filled with symbolism that I only half understand.

Marketa Lazarová (1967)

“I think the point about ‘Marketa Lazarová’ is that when you first see it you’re confused, and by that I mean you know that the whole story of what you’re looking at is obscured, but it’s still there, but you have to look hard.”

‘Marketa Lazarová’, directed by František Vláčil in 1967, is a long, impenetrable Czech movie that doesn’t offer many concessions to the viewer. The film is set in the Middle Ages and focuses on the power struggles between a lord and itinerant bandits. It’s difficult to summarise the plot, mainly because I get the impression that Vláčil doesn’t intend it to be easy to summarise but, much like those of Tarkovsky, the power of this movie lies in the individual scenes, with the cinematography and with the intricate texture of what appears on screen. This falls into the camp of films that present history authentically as opposed to ironically. So Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ is a good parallel. The act of watching this film, the mesmerizingly slow pace and the refusal by the director to dumb-down the story or to provide exposition, makes you feel like you’re gazing into an alien world as lovingly designed and crafted as any high fantasy novelist. Highlights of the film are the dark nods towards paganism and the brief glimpses into the brutal sadism of the time. The main thing I was left with from this film though was the use of landscapes: characters become mere shapes against the brutal countryside and the atmosphere of the movie is dictated by the seasons, from the snowy chill of winter, through the dripping thaw and then back into the ice. It’s a film that makes you feel it both emotionally and almost physically. I’ve no idea what happened – but I certainly experienced it happening.

The Fireman’s Ball (1967)

“The movie is just plain funny. And as a parable it is timeless, with relevance at many times in many lands. Remarkable, how often when I learn of a bureaucratic brainstorm I think of the fireman moving the farmer’s chair closer to the flames.”

‘The Fireman’s Ball’, directed by Miloš Forman in 1967, is a satirical comedy set in a small town in Czechoslovakia. The firemen of the town have organised a ball to include a raffle, a beauty contest and to celebrate the retirement of a senior member. The ball degenerates into farce as the raffle prizes are stolen by the locals, the beauty contest fails to find contestants and an old man’s house burns down. It’s short and simple, but deceptively so. The bureaucratic ridiculousness of the firemen is clearly intended as a swipe at the Communist government, and the petty incidents that occur during the film all contribute towards this satire. It feels raw: the actors are all amateur and real inhabitants of the town, but despite the fact that this shouldn’t work in a comedy it does. Forman is great at creating the illusion of real life through his casting, films such as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Amadeus’ are packed with unusual looking people whose appearance adds a texture to the film. This movie is no different, and this is particularly evident in the hunt for contestants for the beauty contest. Another highlight is the farcical approach by the firemen to the fire in the old man’s house. After the fire engine is stuck, one fireman tries pitifully to shovel snow onto the fire, whilst the others sit the old man down close enough to the conflagration to keep him warm, but facing the other way to stop him being upset by his house burning down. This is both hilarious, but also a powerful and poignant political message. The fact that Forman is being so flagrantly critical of the Communist regime at such a sensitive time is a testament to his bravery and to the strength of his views.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

“He’s one hundred years overdue for death”

‘Valerie and Her Week of Wonders’, directed by Jaromil Jireš in 1970, is a dark, fairy-tale horror, adapted from a 1932 novel, that follows the adventures of the title character as she negotiates a series of dreamlike encounters with vampires, her strange family and the eccentric local villagers. Despite its dark and, at times uncomfortable, eroticism it’s also quite a light and lyrical movie. The central character drifts through the disturbing events with a kind of woozy pacificity, without showing any signs of her adventures being any more than a vivid dream. This gives the whole film an intensely unreal edge: all the performances, the staging, the camera work and the locations combine to make the viewer feel that they are dreaming with the central character. It’s packed with Jungian symbolism and dripping with sexual subtexts, all of which seems to connect with the 1960s appropriation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ stories. This seems to be a particular preoccupation in Czechoslovakia, the movie that springs to mind is Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 adaptation of Alice. It’s also tempting to impose political subtexts on ‘Valerie’ given the timing and nature of its production, but it’s far more fun to just dwell on the weird and uncanny imagery and the unsettling feeling that you’ve slipped down the rabbit hole as well.

Alice (1988)

“Alice thought to herself: Now you will see a film made for children, perhaps. But, I nearly forgot, you must close your eyes, otherwise you won’t see anything.”

‘Alice’, directed by Jan Švankmajer in 1988, is a Czech adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s novel. It loosely takes scenes from the book and uses Švankmajer’s characteristic stop-frame animation, along with a single human performance by Kristýna Kohoutová, to create a version of the story that captures the twisted and grotesque logic of the original. Švankmajer’s style is unsettling. Some creatures (the white rabbit and the march hare) are real stuffed animals, others are socks filled with sawdust with dentures, pin cushions, giant playing cards, all these are given weird characteristics. There is a strong sense of surrealism in Švankmajer’s work: like Dali he combines soft and hard objects to create an almost sexually charged atmosphere. For example, during the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the march hare periodically removes a pocket watch from the tea pot and smears it with butter, whilst the white rabbit also has a pocket watch that it removes from his sawdust insides and licks clean. Švankmajer fetishizes objects and images: the pocket watch, a pair of scissors, slabs of meat, the close up of Kohoutová’s mouth as she narrates the story. All this is shown without music, only with grating and eerie sound effects. It’s the kind of movie that skates around the edges of horror, the sets are all stained and grimy, wallpaper peels from the walls, the metal rusty, and the animals are moth eaten and old. It’s riddled with a decay that speaks of the ennui and stagnation of Czechoslovakia, and the whole of Eastern Europe, in the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. For all this, Švankmajer still injects his creatures and their personalities with a sense of ridiculous humour. It’s strange, beautiful, terrifying and poignant but also surprisingly funny.

Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)

“Tactile wooden spoons, pot lids, rolling pins and boards are alchemistic tools and our bodies are the crucible for the Magnum Opus of tactilism.”

‘Conspirators of Pleasure’, directed by Jan Švankmajer in 1996, is a darkly surreal comedy that focuses on the paraphilic fetishism of a group of suburban Czechs. It’s a movie with very little dialogue, each character-based story is driven by the actions of the protagonists and by the characteristically gungy and dislocated sound effects. Švankmajer’s traditional stop motion is used surprisingly sparingly, mostly as the dramatic climax of each episode, but when it is used it has that disconcerting combination of wit and horror. Švankmajer is an expert at bringing inanimate objects to life, and occasionally at turning animate objects (for example the human characters) into corpse-like models. The central story is of a man who fashions a chicken suit for himself out of feathers, umbrellas, chicken fat and blood and clay. He wears this suit in a run-down part of the city and dances in front of a stuffed mannequin. His dance turns into an attack as he tortures and finally ‘kills’ the dummy. Returning home, he discovers his sexual adventure has merged with his neighbours, a woman who takes another mannequin (this time stuffed with straw) to a church where she whips him. You get the idea. The movie is riddled with occult and religious symbolism: blood, bread, water, sacrifice, all these themes are seeded into the different fantasies that Švankmajer’s characters indulge in. As with his two previous feature films ‘Alice’ and ‘Faust’, it’s easy to see this as a horror because of the dour settings, the earthy textures and the fixation on body parts and death, but the extremes of the characters and the nature of their paraphilia tips this movie into black comedy. There is also a possible moral message that Švankmajer is reaching for here – it’s telling that all the characters are shown to be alone and shown to shun, or even be hostile towards other people. Švankmajer’s characters from Alice to the fetish-driven characters in ‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ are all lonely, with only creepy stuffed animals and mannequins for company.

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