The Best Czech Movies You Probably Haven't Seen

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. . .

Late August at the Hotel Ozone (1967); Jan Schmidt, director.

Set in the feral wastelands of a post-nuclear Earth, LAATHO features a band of young, hot women who know nothing of civilization. They are led by an Earth Mother as they scrounge for food and shelter. Sounds like an exploitation picture, and while there are moments of adventure, this is more of a heavy, heady trip.

It ends up in a dilapidated luxury hotel and that's when things really get dark.

Toys In The Attic (2009); Jiri Barta, director.Toy Story. It's nice and all, but this is the real deal.

One of the craftiest and most clever pieces of stop motion animation I have ever seen, this film about toys who come to life when there are no humans around (hey – it's a device!) is jaw-dropping in its meticulous design. It is the anti-Pixar, intentionally lo-fi, all leading to an adventure of good toys outsmarting bad toys. It makes remarkable use of found objects, claymation, drawing and a live action cat.

Please, for the love of us all, hunt this movie down. It is also known as In The Attic and Who Has A Birthday Today? if you are having trouble.

Extra points; Jiri Barta also made a terrific version of Pied Piper in 1986 (using a lot of wood cuts) that is also worth tracking down.

I Served The King of England (2006); Jiri Menzel, director.

As I mentioned before, this was all inspired by Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains, so I'd be a jerk if I didn't represent him in some way. His most recent film is a strange allegory (at least I hope it was an allegory) about Capitalism and how the drive to succeed can lead good men toward evil.

A diminutive, somewhat Chaplin-esque bartender has but one desire: to be rich. His mostly-forgivable, scampy road to success eventually makes him a Nazi collaborator. What is odd is how the film never condemns him, just shows him as being a bit of a lovable klutz. It is an unsettling feeling to laugh at a fortune built on stolen goods from deported Jews, but our hero isn't intentionally malicious.

Also: I Served The King of England has some of the stranger scenes mixing sexual perversity and food I've ever seen. It is a weird picture that I'm not 100% sure works, but there's an indelicate essence that, I think, is central to so much of what makes Menzel a unique voice.

Daisies (1966); Vera Chytilova, director.

If Czechoslovakia had an Easy Rider it was this surrealist tale of two hot women spitting in the eye of bourgeois culture. It is considered the essential text of the Czech New Wave and, hell, I'm not going to lie to you. . .I saw this in college in the "right frame of mind" and barely remember it at all, other than it was wild.

But looking at the clip above has inspired me to track it down as it has, I'm sure, done to some of you.

I don't claim to be the world's greatest authority on Czech cinema – please, if there's stuff I left out, let me know in the comments below. My queue on GreenCine can use a refresh!

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