You’d Better Czech New Wave Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

I recently tackled yet another film from the Czechoslovak New Wave- a movement I’ve mentioned a few times but never fully detailed beyond a flippant, meant-for-humor pie chart. I’ve called it the “Czech New Wave” but apparently it’s “Czechoslovak” because there are both Czech and Slovak films in the movement. So what is the Czechoslovak New Wave? Here’s how Andrew James Horton at GreenCine describes it:

The Czech New Wave is usually defined as by a relatively small group of directors, including Miloš FormanJirí MenzelVera ChytilováJaromír Jireš and Ivan Passer, who made their debuts in or around 1963 and continued to produce internationally acclaimed work through most of the rest of the decade.

However, there was no manifesto or theoretical writings that the group, which was never a formal one, drew on, and it’s hard to pin the Wave down to any one style: works of playful observation, visual poetry, biting sarcasm, gentle humanism, mocking absurdism, tender eroticism and formal experimentalism count among the films by the Wave’s directors.

And then later:

…the Czech New Wave was inspired more by Czech literature, generally sought a more polished style, used either classic shot lengths or experimental montages with very rapid cutting and showed little interest in cheekily borrowing from film classics.

Generally speaking, it’s about sexual freedom. It’s about revolution. It’s about political upheaval, and (to quote the wiki page on the same topic) making “the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.” But there’s a certain whimsy to it. It’s almost always accompanied by overt sexual symbolism, dark humor, and usually (but not always) the aformentioned fast-paced cutting and editing. Of the limited list of Czechoslovak New Wave films that I’ve seen, here are the five that I would say are “must see”- indicative of the movement.

The Cremator (1969)
This is the film I watched this week. It’s about (what else?) a cremator in 1930’s Prague who gradually loses his grip on reality as the Nazis slowly approach the city. He ultimately becomes a serial killer, feeling that to murder (and cremate) a body is to free the soul. He constantly cites eastern philosophy as his guideline along the way. And in his wonderfully perverse mind, turning everyone to dust (via cremation) is the solution to the anti-semitic sentiment in Prague around the dawn of World War II. If everyone is dust, then nobody is inferior, and souls are free.

The protagonist is expertly played by Rudolf Hrušínský, who has an incredible flair for creepiness. If you could squish together the acting abilities of Peter Lorre and Timothy Spall, that’s the character you’d have here. And the soundtrack does such an amazing job of building the eerie feeling throughout the film. But mind you, all of this is done in such a way that you eventually laugh at what’s going on. I’d say it’s almost Tim Burtonesque- you find yourself giggling at the morbidity and the horribly misdirected ideals. Visually, it’s a great example of the fast-paced editing that punctuates so much of the Czechoslovak New Wave. A clip, although one without any dialogue since I can’t seem to find a good clip with subtitles. This should give you an idea of what you’re in for in regards to the soundtrack and the editing and (momentarily) the eerie protagonist:

Daisies (1966)
I love this film. It details two young girls who have “gone bad” (a phrase that they constantly utter throughout the film). They misbehave in quirky ways from start to finish, and ultimately are “punished”. It’s feminist revolt on LSD. It’s as ripe with sexual symbolism as any other Czechoslovak New Wave film I’ve seen, with the lone possible exception being Closely Watched Trains. It also possesses the trademark mad-capped editing style and the subject matter- a feminist anthem, of sorts- is purely revolutionary. Here’s the opening segment:

The Firemen’s Ball (1967)
Milos Forman’s Firemen’s Ball is a visual dessert. The sexual tension and humor is both light and decadently satisfying. It’s a lot like Forman’s Christmas party scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest spread out over an entire movie. This scene is indicative of the tone of the whole film:

Closely Watched Trains (1966)
This isn’t exactly your typical coming-of-age tale. It’s kind of a Czechoslovokian version of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, with a very eccentric, farcical group of characters placed into the completely antithetical setting of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia. Miloš, the protagonist, is a teenage virgin and is working at a train station that the Nazis frequently use. Miloš also has an object of his affections and would like to properly sate her desires. But, as a virgin, he doesn’t know how. And so he sets about trying to gain “experience” (you know, trying to bone whoever he can).  Along the way, there are women stroking very long goose necks; couches that are torn, exposing fuzzy little openings; and trains. Lots and lots of trains, including an exploding train. In other words, the sexual symbolism isn’t even subtle. Here’s a clip of a woman getting her ass stamped by a train station employee. So… you know, NSFW if bare buttcheeks will get you in trouble at work.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
This is sort of the sister piece to Closely Watched Trains– a coming of age tale with not-very-subtle sexual symbolism, but this time told from the female perspective. It’s quite unconventional- a shocking blend of the surreal and the gothic. Director Jaromil Jires explores the quandary of maturation from both sides of the coin- the elderly seeking to regain their youth, and the youthful yearning for maturity. The film also works as a fantastic send-up of organized religion. Visually, it’s stunning and the score punctuates the visuals. Who would’ve thought that using a child’s fantasy about vampires and lesbians as an allegory for menstruation could yield such a tremendous film? Unfortunately, the clip I’d like to show has no subtitles. So instead, accept this trailer:

If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy:
Iron Director: Truffaut v. Fassbinder
Malle, Adjusted
My Criterion Top Ten


Filed under Foreign Film, Movies

4 responses to “You’d Better Czech New Wave Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

  1. Kristal

    LOVE Daisies. At first I thought it was kinda pretentious but as it kept moving along I was totally captivated by those visuals. Valerie and The Cremator are good ones too. Haven’t seen the others…yet

    • I stumbled onto a list of 30 Czechoslovak New Wavers and I hadn’t even heard of half of them. I’m excited to check them out. Of the others, Closely Watched Train is my favorite.

  2. Great writeup John. I’m definitely bookmarking this to refer to when I get to those films in my new blog feature.

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