In one of the first TBMYPHS columns I did I suggested Jiri Menzel’s 1966 film Closely Watched Trains. A few people contacted me to say how much they’ve always loved that one. Indeed, it is a masterpiece – and I also think it is a fair representation of the vibe I get from many Czech movies.
It is foolish to say “all Czech movies are like X” (and, indeed, there are some on this short list that don’t quite fit) but many of them have a daffy, boozy, slightly confrontational stream-of-consciousness to them. It is an aesthetic I quite like, so I strongly suggest you pour yourself a Pilsner and bite into the thick sausage that is Czech cinema.
The Fireman’s Ball (1967); Milos Forman, director.
The most famous Czech director is no doubt Milos Forman and this, despite later making Amadeus and The People Vs. Larry Flynt, is quite possibly his best film.
The setting is a small town, which is filled with loathsome (yet strangely familiar) characters who all congregate for a night of drunken revelry. The central plot, such as it is, is the selection of a group of women for a beauty pageant. Each of the authority figures is a bigger knucklehead than the last and the festivities eventually devolve into petty in-fighting, theft and absurdist bafoonery. Considering the political tension of late 1960s Czechoslovakia it was assumed that The Fireman’s Ball was meant as a great anti-government statement, but Forman swears up and down he was just trying to be funny. Either way, the film was banned for years.
Extra points: if you like this one, check out Forman’s previous film Loves Of A Blonde, which is almost as good.
Faust (1994); Jan Svankmajer, director.
It is hard to overstate the influence mixed-media filmmaker Jan Svankmajer has had. You may not know it, but some of the stuff you love (Terry Gilliam, all those Tool videos) was directly inspired by this Czech lunatic.
He made his bones on short films (go to YouTube and start with Meat Love) and in the late 1980s he started making features. Not all are successful, but he’s got two public domain-inspired masterpieces under his belt. The first is Alice, featuring a Wonderland of taxidermied animals and busted-up dolls, and the other is a spin on the story of Faust.
The doctor who sells his soul for knowledge is presented here as an ordinary citizen chosen somewhat at random to get lost in a play-within-a-film that mixes live action, marionettes and stop motion weirdness. It is a surreal trip and, without question, my favorite film adaptation of a Lit 101 title. It is a perfect blend of the high and low-brow and it wasn’t until the third time I saw it that there’s no dialogue other than what is repeated from century’s old text.
Ikarie XB 1 (1963); Jindrich Polak, director.
For those of you who think that Gene Roddenberry stole everything from Forbidden Planet it is my pleasure to introduce you to this Eastern European spin on the exploratory starship.
Of the many things to love about this film besides its cool look is its fealty to “hard SF.” The ship travels at near-light speed, so a trip to Alpha Centauri takes over two years, but back on Earth relative time advances over 15 years. The ship’s compliment is international in true Commie fashion, and the big conflict comes when they encounter a 20th Century vessel laden with those outdated, brutal atomic weapons.
Ikarie XB 1 was chopped-up and re-cut by Roger Corman, then served back to American audiences as Voyage to the End of the Universe, but after many years the original is not only findable but streaming, legally and free and in terrific quality.
The Good Soldier Schweik (1957); Karel Stekly, director.
If we lived in Central Europe we’d have all grown up with stories of Soldier Schweik. The subject of many books, cartoons and plays, this lovable dunce is something of a regional hero. You wouldn’t necessarily think the horrors of World War I would be the setting for family-friendly tales, but, hey, you wouldn’t think those pieces of soft bread they call dumplings would be good, either.
Soldier Schweik’s schtick is that he follows every order literally, and, as such, ends up making a mockery of the armed forces. For a 1950’s film there’s a raging anti-authoritarian streak that also deviates to straight-up blasphemy. Also: many scenes of people drinking delicious looking beer. Come to think of it, I have a bottle of Pilsner Urquell in the fridge, so while you are clicking over to the second page I may take this opportunity to. . .