A History of Czech and Slovak Cinema

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Before Communism

At the turn of the 20th century, Czechoslovakia was part of the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prague, the historical capital of Bohemia, the third largest city of the empire after Vienna and Budapest, was the center of a vibrant German-speaking and Jewish community of writers. Kafka wrote in German his masterpiece novels and tales, such as "Die Verwandlung/ The Metamorphosis" (1912), "Der Prozess/ The Trial" (1915) and "Das Schloss/ The Castle" (1922). So did Gustav Meyrink, author of the expressionist novel "Der Golem" (1915). Most Czech writers of the era fled provincial Prague for the great capitals of Europe: Robert Musil wrote "Die Verwirrungen des Zoeglings Toerless/ Young Torless" (1906) in Berlin and "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften/ Man Without Qualities" (1933) in Vienna; Franz Werfel wrote the play "Spiegelmensch" (1920) in Vienna; and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote "Das Buch der Bilder/ The Book of Images" (1902) and "Das Stunden-Buch/ The Book of Hours" (1904) in Germany, "Neue Gedichte/ New Poems" (1908) in France, and completed the "Duineser Elegien/ Duino Elegies" (1923) and the "Sonette an Orpheus/ Sonnets to Orpheus" (1923) a decade later in Switzerland.

The Jews were an important element of Prague. In 1909-11 the Zionist philosopher Martin Buber gave lectured about Judaism in Prague, galvanizing a large audience of young Jews. The city was friendly enough to Jewish scientists that Albert Einstein moved there in 1911-12, attending the intellectual salon of a secular Jewess, Berta Fanta, at the Cafe Louvre, and playing violin at their gatherings for the delight of the members (which included philosophers Christian von Ehrenfels and Hugo Bergmann, theosophist Rudolf Steiner, and even Kafka). Prague is where Einstein, searching for a new theory of gravity, abandoned flat Euclidean space for Riemann's curved space that would become the foundation of General Relativity.

Czechs and Slovaks had been part of the Habsburg Empire since 1526, although in different kingdoms: Czechs were technically part of Austria while Slovaks were technically part of Hungary. Czech ambitions for independence exploded in 1848, first with the Slavic Congress in which intellectuals discussed the role of the Czech nationality within the empire, and then with the Prague Uprising. During World War I the Czechoslovak provisional government in exile in Paris, led by Tomas Masaryk, basically resurrected that dream and expanded it to the Slovaks. Austria lost World War I and after 1918 was reduced to a small country, while three of its regions became independent countries: Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; while Galicia (the most ethnically and linguistically diverse region, inhabited by Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Jews, Armenians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Roma) was assigned to the newly reborn country of Poland. The winning powers created an independent Czechoslovakia as a federation of Czechs (Bohemia and Moravia) and Slovaks with its capital in Prague. In reality it had more Germans than Slovaks (in 1930 7.1 million Czechs, 3.3 million Germans, 2.6 million Slovaks, 720 thousand Hungarians, etc). It was the only Western-style parliamentary democracy in Eastern Europe in the period between the two world wars: Yugoslavia (initially called Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were kingdoms, and in 1926 Pilsudski became dictator in Poland. It was also one of the most multi-ethnic countries in the world, a melting pot of Czechs, Slovaks, other Slavic people, Germans and Jews. The new country was friendly towards France, where the government in exile had resided, but wary of Austria and Germany. In 1920 Czechoslovakia formed the "Little Entente" with Romania and Yugoslavia to protect against a possible a Habsburg restoration.

For whatever reason, the Czech people had become, first and foremost, a nation of poets. Between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s, the Czechs produced an impressive number of great poets. The movement started at the turn of the century, led by poets such as: Jiri Karasek, author of the collections "Sodoma" (1895) and "Sexus Necans" (1897); Otokar Brezina, whose "Tajemne Dalky/ Mysterious Distances" (1895) was one of the most important collections of European poetry; Antonin Sova, the author of "Udoli Noveho Kralovstvi/ Valley of the New Kingdom" (1900); Karel Hlavacek, with "Mstiva Kantilena/ Vengeful Cantilena" (1898); and Stanislav-Kostka Neumann, with "Sen o Zastupu Zoufajicich/ Dream of the Hordes of Desperate People" (1903). Then the avalanche came in the 1920s with Josef-Svatopluk Machar, the surrealist Vitezslav Nezval, later author of "Absolutni Hrobar/ Gravedigger of the Absolute" (1937), Antonin Sova's main works ("Krvacejici Bratrstvi/ Bleeding Brotherhood", 1920; "Jasna Videni/ Clarvoyant", 1922; "Drsna Laska/ Tough Love", 1927; "Lyrika Lasky a Zivota/ Love and Life", 1927), Karel Toman's "Stolety Kalendar (1926), Jaroslav Seifert's first masterpiece "Na Vlnach TSF/ On the Waves of Wireless Telegraphy" (1925), and Vladimir Holan's collections "Blouznivy Vejir/ Delirious Fan" (1926) and "Triumf Smrti/ Triumph of Death" (1930). A later addition to this world-class tradition was Frantisek Hrubin ("Zeme Sudicka/ The Judge of the Earth", 1941; "Cikady/ Cicadas", 1943; "Mavnuti Kridel/ Flap Your Wings", 1944). Czech fiction was not quite comparable but still produced significant novels such as Karel-Matej Capek-Chod's "Turbina/ The Turbine" (1916), Ladislav Klima's "Utrpeni Knizete sternenhocha/ The Suffering of Prince Sternenhoch" (1928), and especially Capek's and Vancura's novels in the 1930s. Karel Capek became famous with the theatrical dramas "Vec Makropulos/ The Makropoulos Secret" (1920) and "R.U.R." (1921), but also and mainly wrote novels such as "Hordubal" (1933), "Povetron/ Meteor" (1934) and especially "Obycejny Zivot/ An Ordinary Life" (1934). Vladislav Vancura, influenced by surrealism like Nezval, wrote "Posledni Soud/ The Last Judgment" (1929), "Hrdelni Pre Aneb Prislovi/ Trial for Murder or Proverbs" (1930), "Marketa Lazarova" (1931), one of Czech literature's masterpieces, and "Rodina Horvathova/ The Horvath Family" (1938).

Prague was the intellectual center. The most influential group of its avantgarde was Devetsil, founded in 1920 by interdisciplinary minds such as architecture critic Karel Teige and painter/writer Adolf Hoffmeister, which assembled novelist Vladislav Vancura, poets Jiri Wolker, Frantisek Halas, Vitezslav Nezval and Jaroslav Seifert, theater actors Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich, painters Jindrich Štyrsky and Marie "Toyen" Cerminova, playwright and musician Emil Burian, photographer Jaroslav Rossler, etc. Jiri Frejka and others founded in 1926 Osvobozene Divadlo (Liberated Theatre), influenced by Dadaism and Futurism, which mainly relied on the bizarre musical plays created and performed by Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich (with music by Jaroslav Jezek).

The literary boom didn't quite translate in the visual arts, especially since so many original artists moved abroad (like art-nouveau illustrator Alfons Mucha and cubist painter Frantisek Kupka), nor to music, despite Antonin Dvorak (who died in 1904) and Leos Janacek, author of several operas "Diary of One Who Disappeared" (1919), "Katja Kabanova" (1921), "The Cunning Little Vixen" (1924), "The Makropulos Case" (1925) and "From The House of the Dead" (1928) and of the "Glagolitic Mass" (1926). Alois Haba, a pioneer of microtonal music, moved to Vienna in 1918 and the prolific Bohuslav Martinu left in 1923 first for Paris and then for New York.

Cinema arrived in 1896 (when a representative of Thomas Alva Edison and a representative of the Lumieres came to exhibit their new technologies), and in 1898 the photographer Jan Krizenecky made short movies using a Lumiere cinematographe, all three starring the cabaret singer and comedian Josef Svab-Malostransky, and movies were regularly shown as part of vaudeville shows at the Theatre Variete` (later known as Karlin Theatre) since 1899, but the nation didn't have a national industry until much later. Krizenecky was probably the only Czech cameraman of the first decade of the century. He shot a short movie, To Nejlepsi Cislo/ The Best Number (1902), shown during the intermission of the theatrical performances of a musical farce by Julius Freund, and he shot a short movie, Satanova Jizda po Zeleznici/ Satan's Railway Ride (1906), that theater director Antonin Vaverka commissioned to enhance a scene of his production of James Harry's farce "Satan's Last Trip" (basically an early multimedia production), both performed at the Smichov Arena (the latter movie is often incorrectly credited to Antonin Pech). In 1907 a Viktor Ponrepo opened the first movie theater in Prague. The first film production companies were Antonin Pech’s Kinofa (established in 1911), Max Urban’s Fotokinema (established in 1912, later renamed ASUM) and Alois Jalovec's Illusion Film (established in 1913).

In 1911 Pech directed four short comedies about a character named "Rudi" written and acted by cabaret actor Emil Artur Longen (born Emil Pitterman), who was the ultimate Bohemian and also a painter and a playwright (as well as young Vlasta Burian's mentor in theater).

The first full-length Czech film was probably Max Urban's adaptation of a Smetana opera, Prodana Nevesta/ The Bartered Bride (1913), but, again, no major development took place until much later.

Female director Thea Cervenkova, who had already made short farces such as Zlodej/ The Thief (1919), co-founded with her cinematographer Josef Brabec the Filmovy Ustav (Film Institute) and devoted herself to adaptations of Czech literary classic, starting with Babicka/ Grandmother (1921), an adaptation of Bozena Nemcova's novel.

Otravene Svetlo/ The Poisoned Light (1921) debuted the formidable trio of director Karel Lamac, cinematographer Otto Heller and actress Anny Ondra (born Anna Ondrakova) who went on to make many popular movies both in Prague and later in Germany, including Lucerna/ The Lantern (1925), an adaptation of Alois Jirasek’s 1905 play which marked the transition to longer films (80 minutes and longer). The screenwriter Vaclav Wasserman helped Lamac and Heller to adapt Jaroslav Hasek’s novel into the 86-minute film Dobry Vojak Svejk/ The Good Soldier Schweik (1925), starring the actor Karel Noll, basically an adaptation of Emil Artur Longen's dramatization of Hasek's novel which had featured the same actor.

Milos Havel's A—B Company (established in 1921) produced Jaroslav Kvapil's Zlaty Klicek/ The Golden Key (1922), based on an idea by Karel Capek (who had just written the play about robots).

Karl Anton imitated Mack Sennett's slapstick farces in Unos Bankere Fuxe/ The Kidnapping of Fux the Banker (1923), starring both Ondra and Lamac, and photographed by both Heller and Vaclav Vich (perhaps the two most respected cinematographers of the decade), and then made the more ambitious Pohadka Maje/ The May Fairy (1926), adapted by Vaclav Wasserman from Vilem Mrstik's novel and photographed by Vich (almost two hours long).

Svatopluk Innemann launched the comic career of former football goalkeeper Vlasta Burian with Falesna Kocicka Aneb Kdyz si Zena Umini/ Faithless Pussy-Cat (1926) and Milenky Stareho Kriminalnika/ The Lovers of an Old Criminal (1927), both photographed by Heller, and the latter also starring Ondra.

Premysl Prazsky cast the influential theater actor, singer and director Karel Hasler (as well as cabaret performer) in Batalion/ Battalion (1927) and directed the actor Theodor Pistek in several movies such as Prazske Svadlenky/ Prague Seamstresses (1929).

Gustav Machaty too made a successful literary adaptation, Kreutzerova Sonata/ The Kreutzer Sonata (1927), from Lev Tolstoy's 1889 novella, photographed by Heller, and then continued the Hasek saga with Svejk v Civilu/ Schweik in Civilian Life (1927), but his major contribution to Czech cinema were the erotic melodramas Erotikon/ Seduction (1929), scripted by poet Vitezslav Nezval and photographed by Vaclav Vich, the film that launched the career of the Slovenian actress Ita Rina (born Italina Kravanja), and the talkie Extase/ Ecstasy (1933), photographed by Jan Stallich, with the famous scene of Austrian actress Hedwig Kiesler (later known as Hedy Lamarr) bathing naked in a pond. In between he also directed the realist drama Ze Soboty na Nedeli/ From Saturday to Sunday (1931), also scripted by Nezval and shot by Vich, with music by jazz musician Jaroslav Ježek.

Perhaps the best silent movie of Czechoslovakia was the one made by German communist film critic Carl Junghans, Takovy je Zivot/ Such Is Life (1930), starring the Russian actress Vera Baranovskaya and the German cabaret performer Valeska Gert next to local star Theodor Pistek, a film derived from Emile Zola's L’Assommoir and influenced by Soviet montage. (Junghans never completed another film. Ironically, after a stint in the Soviet Union, the leftist returned to Germany to make documentaries of Nazi propaganda, was imprisoned in the USA, and ended up a gardener in Los Angeles).

Karl Anton also directed the first Czech talkie, Tonka Sibenice/ Tonka of the Gallows (1930), a Pabst-esque melodrama starring Ita Rina as a prostitute, an adaptation of Egon Kisch’s novella (which had first dramatized for the theater by Longen). It was first shot as a silent film and the sound was then added in France.

The early hits of sound Czech cinema were: Karel Lamac’s musical comedy C.a K. Polni Marsalek/ The False Marshal (1930), starring Vlasta Burian, the adaptation of a theatrical farce that Emil Artur Longen had written specifically for Burian; and Fryderyk Feher's Kdyz Struny Lkaji/ When the Strings Wailed/ Her Boy (1930), based on a Lev Tolstoy story and photographed by Vich, and perhaps the first true Czech talkie.

Innemann moved to sound with the comedy Muzi v Offsidu/ Men in Offside (1931), starring the famous stage actor Hugo Haas, and especially with Pred Maturitou/ Before Graduation (1932), co-directed by writer Vladislav Vancura, adapted by Josef Neuberg from a novel by Julius Schmitt. Vancura followed it up with the more experimental Na Slunecni Strane/ On the Sunny Side (1933), scripted by poet Vitezslav Nezval and Russian linguist Roman Jakobson.

Vaclav Havel (brother of Milos and father of the future Czech president) financed the construction of the Barrandov studio, designed by Max Urban, whose first film was Svatopluk Innemann's Vrazda v Ostrovni Ulici/ Murder on Ostrovni Street (1933).

While the 1930s were mainly the decade of comedies, one drama stood out next to Machaty's, Reka/ The River (1933), directed by veteran actor Josef Rovensky, who had acted in Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Tagebuch Einer Verlorenen/ Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and then in countless Lamac and Fric movies.

The prolific Martin Fric, a frequent Lamac collaborator who directed Lamac the actor in movies such as Kantor Ideal/ The Ideal Schoolmaster (1932) and S Vyloucenim Verejnosti/ Public Not Admitted (1933), both written by Wasserman and photographed by Heller, adapted Longen farces for Burian such as Anton Spelec Ostrostrelec/ Anton Spelec the Sharp-Shooter (1932) and Pobocnik Jeho Vysosti/ His Majesty's Aide-de-camp (1933), both photographed by Heller, and directed Hugo Haas in movies photographed by Vich such as Zivot je Pes/ Life is a Dog (1933) and Mazlicek/ The Little Pet (1934). Fric's most ambitious films were perhaps Revizor/ The Inspector General (1933), an adaptation of Gogol's 1836 play, starring Burian and photographed by Stallich, and the Slovak-language Janosik (1935) about the Slovak national hero; but he also directed two political comedies conceived and performed by Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich (the pillars of the Osvobozene Divadlo): Hej Rup/ Workers Let's Go (1934) and Svet Patri Nam/ The World Is Ours (1937). Later, Fric directed the screwball comedies Kristian (1939) and Eva Tropi Hlouposti/ Eve does Stupid Things (1939) that turned operetta actor/singer Oldrich Novy into a movie star.

Rovensky's screenwriter Otakar Vavra worked with cinematographer Jan Roth (who had been Heller's assistant for Lamac's films) on Panenstvi/ Virginity (1937), an adaptation of Marie Majerova's 1907 novel, starring the future diva Adina Mandlova and his first collaboration with actor Zdenek Stepanek, Cech Panen Kutnohorskich/ Guild of the Girls of Kutna Hora/ The Merry Wives (1938), a costume comedy set in the 16th century about a poet and womanizer who fights a charlatan alchemist, Humoreska (1939), adapted from Karel Matej Capek-Chod's 1924 novel, the film that launched the career of actor Rudolf Hrusinsky, Divka v Modrem/ The Girl in Blue (1939), one of the comedies that launched Oldrich Novy, and more movies for Mandlova such as Kouzelny Dum/ The Magic House (1939) and Pacientka Dr Hegla/ Dr Hegel's Patient (1940).

Vladimir Slavinsky directed Holka nebo Kluk?/ Girl or Boy? (1938), the film that launched actress Adina Mandlova.

Frantisek Cap directed Nocni Motyl/ Nocturnal Butterfly (1941), based on a Karel Novak novel and starring Mandlova, and Muzi bez Kridel/ Men without Wings (1946), shot by Stallich.

Sound was beneficial to Czech cinema, an exception in eastern Europe where talkies generally depressed the production of films (a silent movie can be shown anywhere in the world, a talkie can be appreciated only by the domestic audience), but most of these early pioneers had either died or had fled Czechoslovakia by the start of World War II, particularly after the Munich conference of 1938, in which the western powers granted Hitler's Germany the Sudetenland (in western Czechoslovakia). And some were even murdered (like Vancura and Hasler). Very few remained: Otakar Vavra, Martin Fric, Vladimir Slavinsky, Frantisek Cap, ... De facto, Czech cinema had to restart from scratch after World War II.

World War II started in 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, and ended in 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the "liberation" of eastern Europe by Soviet troops... which simply became the new oppressor.

A notable episode of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. This was the brutal Nazi commander in charge of eliminating Czech resistance in Bohemia and Moravia. He was responsible for the execution of thousands of people wherever he served, both Jews and suspected partisans, and he set up the Theresienstadt Ghetto that shipped thousands of Jews to concentration camps. The operation was planned in London by Edvard Benes' government-in-exile and carried out by two of its soldiers (Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis), trained by the British. The Nazis retaliated by killing thousands of Czech civilians, particularly the Lidice massacre.

During World War II the Nazis killed almost all the Jews of Prague, mostly in concentration camps (including, for example, Kafka's three sisters).


By 1948 the communists of Klement Gottwald had consolidated power in Czechoslovakia. First the "Iron Curtain" descended on eastern Europe, and then Czech cinema was soon subjected to the ideological pressures of socialist realism emanating from the Soviet Union.

At the end of the war, cinema restarted slowly, like in most of Europe, due to the sheer amount of destruction. A new generation of filmmakers emerged from the ruins: Vaclav Krska made Reka Caruje/ Magical River (1945), photographed by Vaclav Hanus; Veteran screenwriter Karel Stekly made the choral epic Sirena/ The Strike (1947), an adaptation of Maria Majerova's novel about striking miners, and the psychological drama Kariera/ Career (1948); and Vladimir Cech made Diva Bara/ Wild Barao (1949), a mountain movie based on a short story by Božena Nemcova, starring theater actress Vlasta Fialova (also in an almost nude scene) and photographed by Vaclav Hanus, and then directed detective movies starring Karel Hoger as "Captain Tuma" like 105 % Alibi (1959). Borivoj Zeman specialized in fairy tales, notably Pysna Princezna/ The Proud Princess (1952), adapted from Božena Nemcova's story "Potrestana Pýcha/ Punished Pride" (1846), and Byl Jednou Jeden Kral/ Once Upon a Time There Was a King (1955).

The influential theater director Alfred Radok made Daleka Cesta/ Distant Journey (1949) about the Nazi concentration camps, fusing expressionism, Kafka and Sade, and then created the multimedia installation Lanterna Magika (1958) at the Brussels World's Fair in collaboration with film directors, set designer Josef Svoboda and screenwriter Milos Forman.

The greatest Czech follower of Vladislav Starevich's and Aleksandr Ptushko's tradition of puppet movies was Hermina Tyrlova, who made dozens of animated shorts, sometimes mixing animation and live action, and often animating everyday's objects, almost always accompanied with Zdenek Liska's music, such as: Ferda Mravenec/ Fernando the Ant (1944), Vzpoura Hracek/ The Revolt of the Toys (1946), and Ukolebavka/ Lullaby (1948). Starting with Uzel na Kapesniku/ The Knot in the Handkerchief (1958) her shorts became more abstract, culminating with the six “woollen stories” of the 1960s, when she was already in her 60s (e.g., Vlnena Pohadka/ The Woolly Tale, 1964) and with the "felt stories" of the 1970s, via surreal sketches like Modra Zasterka/ The Blue Apron (1965).

Jiri Trnka was another master of stop-motion animation. His films stand out as hallucinatory baroque frescoes that celebrate the legends and customs of the Czech people, notably Spalicek/ The Czech Year (1947), which ostensibly chronicles one year of a Czech village, Cisaruv Slavik/ The Emperor's Nightingale (1948), from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, which mixed puppets and live children in a lavish setting, and the medieval "opera" Bajaja (1950), based on two stories by Bozena Nemcova, which added the music of Vaclav Trojan (set to lyrics by Vitezslav Nezval).

The puppeteer Bretislav Pojar made countless animated shorts: the 17-minute Pernikova Chaloupka / The Pearl Cottage (1951), the 20-minute O Sklenicku Vic/ One Glass Too Many (1953), the 18-minute Paraplicko/ The Little Umbrella (1957), the 14-minute Lev A Pisnicka/ The Lion And The Letter (1959), the 11-minute Bombomanie/ Bomb Mania (1959), the 13-minute Pulnocni Prihoda/ Little Train (1960), the two satirical pieces Úvodni Slovo Pronese/ The Opening Speech (1962) and Biliar/ Billiard (1962), the 14-minute Romance (1962), which also has a creative soundtrack by Wiliam Bukový, and three collaborations with fellow puppeteer Miroslav Stepanek, namely Kocici Slovo/ The Cat's Word (1960), Malovani pro Kocku je Druhou Casti/ Painting for the Cat (1960) and Kocici Skola/ School for Cats (1961). In 1965 the two launched a series of slapstick cartoons featuring two bears, Pojdte Pane Budeme si Hrat/ Come on Sir Let's Play. Pojar emigrated to Canada where he made 14-minute Ilusologie/ To See or Not to See (1969).

Another giant of animation emerged a few years later: Karel Zeman. He combined live action and animation in his films, starting with Cesta do Praveku/ Journey to the Beginning of Time (1954), about children who travel back in time. Each of his major films evoked a design style: Vynalez Zkazj/ Invention for Destruction (1958), based on Jules Verne’s novel "Facing the Flag", imitates the quaint Victorian engravings that appeared in the original editions of Verne's novels, Baron Prasil/ Baron of Munchhausen (1961), a retelling of the legend of Rudolph Raspe's fictional character, imitates the engravings of Gustave Dore', the anti-war satirical Blaznova Kronika/ A Jester's Tale (1964), is inspired by Matthaus Merian's engravings, and Ukradena Vzducholod/ The Stolen Airship (1966) was a tribute to art nouveau.

Of the pre-war veterans, only Martin Fric was still riding high, thanks to the costume comedy Cisaruv Pekar a Pekaruv Cisar/ The Emperor and the Golem (1951), set in the 17th century, starring Jan Werich (perhaps his most famous role) and photographed by Stallich, and to the fairy tale Princezna se Zlatou Hvezdou/ The Princess with the Golden Star (1959), shot by Roth. Also notable were Vaclav Krska's Stribrný Vitr/ Silvery Wind (1954), based on Frana Šrame's novel, and Otakar Vavra's historical trilogy about a 15th century Czech "heretic", starring Zdenek Stepanek: Jan Hus (1954), Jan Žizka (1955) and Proti Vsem/ Against All (1956).

The period between the "Thaw" (1956) and the "Prague Spring" (1968) marked a literary renaissance for Czechoslovakia. Veran poets such as Jaroslav Seifert ("Koncert na Ostrove/ Concert In The Island", 1965), Vladimir Holan ("Noc s Hamletem/ A Night with Hamlet", 1956; "Pribehy/ Histories", 1963) and Miroslav Holub ("Ackoli/ Although", 1969) delivered their best collections, while new poets like Vera Linhartova ("Prostor k Rozliseni", 1964) emerged. The most powerful new talents in fiction were Milan Kundera, author of "Zert/ The Joke" (1967) and later of "Nesnesitelna Lehkost Byti/ Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1984), and Bohumil Hrabal, who rose to prominence with "Tanecni Hodiny Pro Starsi a Pokrocile/ Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" (1964), besides Arnost Lustig ("Dita Saxova", 1962), Vladimir Paral ("Katapult", 1967), Egon Hostovsky ("Vseobecne Spiknuti", 1961), Ludvik Vaculik ("Sekyra/ The Axe", 1966), etc. Theater was dominated by Vaclav Havel ("Zahradni Slavnost/ The Garden Party", 1963), Josef Topol ("Kocka na Kolejich/ Cat On The Rails", 1965) and Pavel Kohout ("August August August", 1967).

The "Thaw" that relaxed censorship in the Soviet Union also somewhat liberated Czech cinema, allowing for a more varied and sophisticated production.

Jiri Weiss made two films with veteran cameraman Vaclav Hanus and composer Jiri Srnka: Vlci Jama/ Wolf Trap (1957), about a murky love triangle of hypocritical bourgeois, adapted from Jarmila Glazarova's novel of 1938, and Romeo, Julie a Tma/ Romeo, Juliet and Darkness (1959), an adaptation of Jan Otcenasek's novel in which Juliet is a Jewish girl during the war and Romeo is the student who tries in vain to save her from the Nazis.

Jiri Krejcik, one of the many filmmakers who had been making tedious ideologically-aligned movies during the 1950s, rose to prominence with Vyssi Princip/ Higher Principle (1960), set during the Nazi occupation, photographed by Jaroslav Tuzar, scripted by Jan Drda, with music by Zdenek Liska, the film that launched actress Jana Brejchova.

Nova Vlna

Those were the prodromes of the "nova vlna", a movement inspired by the French "nouvelle vague" that rapidly swept aside the dull conformism of the socialist-realism era and instead rediscovered real emotions, individual drama and existential crises.

Typical of this period of transition, between the shy "Thaw" and the full-fledge "Prague Spring" are Zbynek Brynych's films: the gloomy realist drama Zizkovska Romance/ Suburban Romance (1958), starring Jana Brejchova and photographed by Jan Curik, Transport z Raje/ Transport from Paradise (1962), about the Theresienstadt Ghetto, based on the memoir of Arnost Lustig (a survivor of the camp), starring Zdenek Stepanek and shot in documentary style by Curik, and A Paty Jezdec je Strach/ The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1964), an expressionist study of fear among Jews during the German occupation, adapted from Jana Belehradska's short story, shot by Jan Kalis in a style reminiscent of German expressionism and Alfred Hitchcock, and with an unusually creative jazz-classical soundtrack by Jiri Sternwald.

In 1946 the Fakulta Akademie Muzických Umeni (School of the Academy of Performing Arts) or FAMU was founded in Prague a film school along the lines of Moscow's VGIK. The first students were forced to work on socialist-realist propaganda, but in the 1960s they got the freedom to use their talents for artistic purposes. Karel Kachyna, Vojtech Jasny, Pavel Juracek, Stefan Uher, Jaromil Jires, Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, and Vera Chytilova (the first woman accepted there) were prime examples.

A decade older than the stars of the "nova vlna" (Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel and Jan Nemec), Frantisek Vlacil abandoned the dogmas of socialist realism years before that generation did. After Holubice/ The White Dove (1960), photographed by Jan Curik and with music by Zdenek Liska, a poetic allegory about the longing for freedom which was nearly dialogue-free, he crafted his first evocation of a cruel nihilistic society, his first allegorical fresco of the conflict between Christian values and pagan values, i.e. Dablova Past/ The Devil's Trap (1961), loosely based on Alfred Technik's novel "Mlyn na Ponorne Rece/ Mill on a Submerged River" (1956), photographed by Rudolf Milic with music again by Liska, and starring Miroslav Machacek and Vitezslav Vejražka. He turned Vancura's most famous novel into a hallucinated three-hour visual poem, Marketa Lazarova (1967), mostly a series of tableaux that represent the moral and physical misery of that medieval world, photographed by Bedrich Batka with music by Liska, starring Zdenek Stepanek and Magda Vasaryova. Udoli Vcel/ The Valley of the Bees (1968), Vlacil's first collaboration with cinematographer Frantisek Uldrich, writer Vladimir Korner and actor Petr Cepek, another historical epic set in medieval times. Liska scored all his soundtracks, often providing crucial atmospheric clues to the story in a Morricone-esque manner.

Karel Kachyna collaborated with screenwriter Jan Prochazka for his extensive Bergman-ian phase, notably for the trilogy on romantic teenage girls that started with Trapeni/ The Sorrows of Lenka (1961), a lyrical tribute to nature, and includes Zavrat/ Vertigo (1962) and Vysoka Zed/ High Wall (1964); but also for Nadeje/ The Hope (1963), about an alcoholic and a prostitute against the backdrop of a vast and alienating factory, At Zije Republicka/ Long Live the Republic (1965), which views the end of the war (retreating Germans and invading Russians) through the eyes of a young boy, the anti-communist ballad Noc Nevesty/ The Nun's Night (1967), and Ucho/ The Ear (1970), which was banned for 30 years.

Oldrich Lipsky's collaboration with screenwriter Milos Macourek yielded the sci-fi comedy Muz z Prvniho Stoleti/ Man in Outer Space (1961) and especially Happy End (1967), a film filmed backwards, as well as Zabil Jsem Einsteina Panove/ I Killed Einstein Gentlemen (1969), a sci-fi comedy about time travel based on Josef Nesvadba's novel. Another sci-fi comedy written by Macourek was Kdo Chce Zabit Jessii?/ Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (1966), directed by Vaclav Vorlicek.

Vojtech Jasny made the lively allegory Az Prijde Kocour/ The Cassandra Cat (1963), a collaboration with veteran actor Jan Werich, and Vsichni Dobri Rodaci/ All My Compatriots (1968), a lyrical saga about a Moravian village, both of them starring Vlastimil Brodsky and photographed by Jaroslav Kucera.

Pavel Juracek specialized in sociopolitical anecdotes such as the Kafka-esque short Postava k Podpirani/ Josef Kilian (1963), co-directed with Jan Schmidt, and the satirical Pripad pro Zacinajiciho Kata/ Case for a Rookie Hangman (1970).

Evald Schorm crafted psychological dramas that explore tormented souls, typically on the verge of existential bankruptcy. Kazdy den Odvahu/ Courage for Every Day (1964), scripted by Antonin Masa, photographed by Jan Curik and starring Jana Brejchova and Jan Kacer, depicts the existential crisis of a militant communist who feels "deceived by history", a metaphor for the confusional state of a younger generation coming out of Stalinist dogmas in an atmosphere of crumbling ideals. The claustrophobic Navrat Ztraceneho Syna/ The Return of the Prodigal Son (1966), the debut of cinematographer Frantisek Uldrich, starring Jan Kacer, Jana Brejchova and Jiri Menzel, follows the depression of a suicidal man, unable to become a "normal" person, continues the theme of existential bankruptcy. Den Sedny Osma Noc/ The Seventh Day the Eighth Night (1969), scripted by Zdenek Mahler and shot by Vaclav Hanus, is an absurdist Kafka-esque parable (or, better, passion play) that hints at the Soviet invasion. It's a mosaic of episodes that span a Bosch-esque multitude of characters and exposes pettiness, selfishness and cruelty. The film captures the feeling of despair and the total moral disintegration of a community gripped by fear.

Jan Nemec directed the expressionist and Kafka-esque Demanty Noci/ Diamonds of the Night (1964), adapted from a story by Arnost Lustig, and the grotesque parable of totalitarian society O Slavnosti a Hostech/ A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966), co-written with his wife Ester Krumbachova.

Milos Forman made tragicomedies about frustrated young people living in an ossified society, influenced by the French "nouvelle vague", the British "free cinema" and latter-day Italian neorealism, such as notably two scripted with Ivan Passer and photographed by Miroslav Ondricek, Laskj Jedne Plavovlaskj/ Loves of a Blonde (1965) and Hori Ma Panenko/ Firemen's Ball (1967). He left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion and started a more lucrative career in the USA with films such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975), based on Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, and the biopic Amadeus (1984).

Ivan Passer opted for a chamber drama with little plot but a lot of psychological analysis, Intimni Osvetleni/ Intimate Lighting (1965).

Vera Chytilova collaborated with screenwriter Ester Krumbachova and cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera (her husband) for the wildly chaotic and surrealist Sedmikrasky/ Daisies (1966) and the philosophycal parable Ovoce Stromu Rajských Jeme/ Fruit of Paradise (1969).

Jiri Menzel's opus is a testament to the immense popularity that novelist Bohumil Hrabal enjoyed among his generation. Menzel rose to prominence with the satirical Ostre Sledovane Vlakj/ Closely Watched Trains (1966), photographed by Jaromir Sofr and debuting actor Vaclav Neckar, and the Kafkian satire of communist bureaucracy Skrivanci na Niti/ Larks on a String (1969), both Hrabal adaptations.

The Slovak filmmaker Stefan Uher portrayed the existential malaise of young people in Slnko v Sieti/ The Sun in a Net (1963), scored like most of his films by composer Ilja Zeljenka. Another Slovak filmmaker, Jaromil Jires, was influenced by documentary practice as well as by Antonioni (mood of anxiety and alienation), Resnais (camera work) and Godard (improvised dialogues) for Krik/ The Cry (1963), scripted by Ludvik Askenazy, shot from a "hidden camera" perspective by Jaroslav Kucera and featuring several non-actors. He then adapted two famous novels: Milan Kundera's "Zer/ The Joke" in 1969 and especially Vitezslav Nezval's "Valerie a Týden Divu" (1932) in 1970. Valerie a Tyden Divu/ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is a spectacular flight of the imagination, a visual masterpiece like few others in the history of cinema. Slovakia also produced Jan Kadar's and Elmar Klos' Obchod na Korze/ The Shop on Main Street (1965), a tragic story of ordinary people caught in the persecution of Jews during the Nazi occupation, written by Ladislav Grosman, shot by Vladimir Novotný with music by Zdenek Liska.

The greatest of the Slovak filmmakers, Juraj Jakubisko, the "Slovak Fellini", crafted Kristove Roky/ The Years of Christ/ Crucial Years (1967), about the existential crisis of a young man, perhaps an eccentric autobiography which also stood as a statement about his generation, Zbehovia a Putnici/ Deserters and Pilgrims (1968), three baroque, expressionist, Bergman-ian and visually exuberant "ballads" about death, Vtackovia Sirotj a Blavnovia/ Birds Orphans and Fools (1969), a brutal apologue of the apocalypse, a surrealistic phantasmagoria that follows the misadventures of three "orphans of the twentieth century", and Dovidenia v Pekle Priatelia/ See You in Hell Friends (started in 1968 but completed only 22 years later), an allegorical tale overflowing, as usual, with symbols.


The "Prague Spring" lasted only eight months: Alexander Dubecek was appointed in January 1968, he presided over a number of liberalizing reforms, but four nations of the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, and set the clock back to the Stalin era. Several filmmakers went into exile: Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jan Kadar, Vojtech Jasny, Jan Nemec, Jiri Weiss, Bretislav Pojar, ... The others lived in political hell until 1989.

The great films that hinted at the political cataclysm of 1968 or satirized life under communism, notably Menzel's Skrivanci na Niti/ Larks on a String (1969), Schorm's Den Sedny Osma Noc/ The Seventh Day the Eighth Night (1969), Jires' Zer/ The Joke (1969) and Kachyna's Ucho/ The Ear (1970), suffered identical fates: they were banned until 1990. So was Drahomira Vihanova's Zabita Nedele/ Squandered Sunday (1969), a day in the life of a frustrated man in an atmosphere of hopelessness, a picture of his physical and moral decline; and so was Zdenek Sirovy's Smutecni Slavnost/ Funeral Ceremonies (1969), based on a novel by Eva Kanturkova that criticized communism; and so was Juraj Herz's expressionist grotesque Spalovac Mrtvol/ Carnival of Heretics/ The Cremator (1969), based on Ladislav Fuks' novel and starring Rudolf Hrusinský.

The so-called "normalizac" ("normalization") unwound Dubcek's reforms and restored the strictest communist dictatorship. It lasted until 1989, when the Berlin Wall was dismantled and communist regimes collapsed all over eastern Europe.

Many filmmakers turned to children's films and/or fairy tales. A typical example is Štefan Uher's Javor a Juliana/ The Maple and Juliana (1972), based on medieval Slovakian legends. Herz specialized in horror movies, like Morgiana (1972), adapted from Aleksandr Grin (the Russian equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe), photographed by Jaroslav Kucera and starring Iva Janzurova.

Oldrich Lipsky was the king of comedy during this era. Two of them starred Jiri Sovak and Iva Janzurova: Cirkus v Cirkuse/ A Circus in a Circus (1975), scripted by Milos Macourek, photographed by Kucera, and Marecku Podejte mi Pero/ Marecek Pass Me the Pen (1976), scripted by Zdenek Sverak and Ladislav Smoljak. But his specialty was the sci-fi comedy: Zabil jsem Einsteina Panove/ I Killed Einstein Gentlemen (1970), written by Milos Macourek and sci-fi writer Josef Nesvadba, starring Sovak, Janzurova and Jana Brejchova; Adela Jeste Nevecerela/ Adela Has Not Had Her Supper Yet (1978), written by Jiri Brdecka; Srdecny Pozdrav ze Zemekoule/ Heartful Holiday from the Earth (1982), written by Alexander Lukes; etc. Sci-fi comedy was a popular genre during the "normalization". They were mostly written by Milos Macourek, for example: Jindrich Polak's Zitra Vstanu a Oparim se Cajem/ Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977), adapted from Nesvadba, and Vaclav Vorlicek's Pane vy Jste Vdova/ You Are a Widow Sir (1971), starring Janzurova, and Coz Takhle Dat si Spenat/ How About a Plate of Spinach (1977).

Slovak filmmaker Dusan Hanak was one of the few who managed to make art films, notably 322 (1969), a study of a middle-aged man dying of cancer, and Ruzove Sny/ Rosy Dreams (1977), a lyrical paraphrase of "Romeo and Juliet", the love story between a Slovak village boy and a gypsy girl (Iva Bittova). The condition of women was best documented by two Slovakian films: Stefan Uher's Pasla Kone na Betone/ Concrete Pastures (1982), starring Milka Zimkova and mostly spoken in a dialect of eastern Slovakia, and female director Ellen Hanak's Ticharadosl/ Silent Joy (1985).

Vlacil's opus continued to tower over Czech cinema. Both Adelheid (1970), his second collaboration with Uldrich, Korner and Cepek, and Stiny Horkeho Leta/ Shadows of a Hot Summer (1978), both scored by Liska as usual, are harrowing sociopolitical dramas that emerge out of domestic situations immersed in a desolate, quasi-existentialist atmosphere. The black-and-white Hadi Jed/ Snake's Venom (1981), with Uldrich manning the camera, is in a sense an allegory of Vlacil himself as he depicts a drunkard who can't succeed in life.

Even during the darkest times, Czechoslovakia's cultural scene remained one the most creative in Europe, but many of the key literary works appeared only in "samizdat" or abroad. Bohumil Hrabal wrote three of his best novels in the 1970s ("Prilis Hlucna Samota/ Too Loud a Solitude, 1976; ("Mestecko kde se Zastavil Cas/ The Little Town Where Time Stood Still", 1978; "Obsluhoval Jsem Anglickeho Krale/ I Served the King of England", 1980). Ladislav Fuks (1923) published "Mysi Natalie Mooshabrove" (1970) and Daniela Hodrova "Podoboji/ In Both Kinds" (1978). Josef Skvorecky, a new major talent, fled to Canada where he founded the publishing house 68 Publishers specializing in works banned in communist Czechoslovakia, including his own masterpieces, "Mirakl/ The Miracle Game" (1972) and "Priben Inzennyra Lidskych Dusi/ The Engineer of Human Souls" (1977).

One way or another, Czech authors were able to publish outstanding novels throughout the 1980s: Zuzana Brabcova ("Daleko od Stromu/ Far from the Tree", 1984) Jiri Kratochvil ("Medvedi Roman/ Bear's Novel", 1985), Ivan Klima ("Laska a Smeti/ Love and Garbage", 1986), Iva Pekarkova ("Pera a Perute/ Plums and Pinions/ Truck Stop Rainbows", 1989), etc.

Poetry took a beating in the 1970s but surged again in the 1980s with veteran Miroslav Holub ("Interferon cili o Divadle/ Interferon or on Theater", 1986), veteran Jan Kresadlo ("Mrchopevci/ Grave Larks", 1984; and the science-fiction epic poem "Astronautilia", written in Homeric Greek hexameters, that he would never finish), Karel Siktanc ("Cesky Orloj/ The Czech Astronomical Clock", 1981), Vladimir Janovic ("Dum Tragickeho Basnika/ The House of the Tragic Poet", 1984), Jachym Topol ("Miluju Te k Zblazneni/ I am Crazy About You", 1988), Michal Ajvaz ("Vrazda v Hotelu Intercontinental/ Murder in the Intercontinental Hotel", 1989), etc.

Zdenek Sverak (Menzel's favorite screenwriter) and Ladislav Smoljak, the main forces behind the dada-inspired Jara Cimrman Theater, teamed up on Smoljak’s own absurdist comedy Vrchni Prchni/ Run Waiter Run (1980).

Also notable in the 1980s were: Jiri Svoboda's Schuzka se Stiny/ A Meeting with Shadows (1982), Zdenek Trocka’s stylish historical movie Poklad Hrabete Chamare'/ The Treasure of Count Chamare' (1985), and Karel Smyczek’s docudrama Proc?/ Why? (1987).

Milos Macourek (the master of sci-fi comedies) was also the screenwriter of Adolf Born's and Jaroslav Doubrava's animated shorts, such as Nesmysl (1975), Hugo a Bobo (1977) and Mindrak/ Hang Up (1981). A master of puppet animation was Jiri Barta, notable for the 11-minute short O Chlapeckovi, Který se Stal Kredencí/ The Boy who Became a Cupboard (1989) and the 55-minute feature Krysar/ The Pied Piper (1986).

Jan Svankmajer had started out in the 1960s but had been silenced during the "normalization" just when he had moved into surrealism with animated shorts such as Zahrada/ The Garden (1968). He emerged as one of the world's giants of animation with shorts such as Moznosti Dialogu/ Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) and Jidlo/ Food (1992). His full-length films, in which he mixed live action with stop-motion animation (and increasingly moved towards live action) were often delirious revisitations of classic stories, starting with Neco z Alenky/ Alice (1988), from Lewis Carroll's classic, and its wildly anarchic plot. The strand of surrealism that had permeated Czech culture since the time of influential writers like Vitezslav Nezval and Vladislav Vancura found in Svankmajer his ultimate visionary.


Finally, in 1989 the communist regime fell (the "Velvet Revolution") and Vaclav Havel, the playwright, a former dissident and son of the founder of the Barrandov studios, became the first democratically elected president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. In 1993 Czechia and Slovakia peacefully split into two independent states. They both eventually joined the European Union and NATO. Jan Svankmajer continued his surrealistic mission with Lekce Faust/ Lesson Faust (1994), where Faust is an everyman imprisoned in a Kafka-esque universe (perhaps an allegory of communism), Otesanek/ Little Otik (2000), a horror variation on Karel Jaromir Erben's story "Otesanek", and Sileni/ Lunacy (2005), from Edgar Allan Poe, a parody of all revolutions. Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), one of Europe's all-time masterpieces, a completely wordless film that is ostensibly about sex but more likely about the absence of it, indulges in meticulous details of the demented and amoral rituals of its characters. The psychoanalytic comedy Surviving Life (2010) is basically set in the world of dreams, the ultimate surrealistic paradise.

Jan Hrebejk, screenwriter Petr Jarchovský and cinematographer Jan Malir (documentarist and jazz musician) made the hilarious Pelisky/ Cosy Dens (1999) and especially Musime si Pomahat/ Divided We Fall (2000), in which he managed to carve a surrealist show and a moral tale out of a historical tragedy (the Holocaust).

Other notable films of the 1990s include: Martin Sulik's eccentric comedy Zahrada/ The Garden (1995) in Slovakia, Petr Vaclav´s harrowing Marian (1996), about a gypsy boy raised in orphanages, Jan Sverak's Kolya (1996), made by the son of screenwriter Zdenek Sverak, and Sasa Gedeon's Navrat Idiota The Idiot Returns (1999).

Notable films of the 21st century include: Petr Zelenka's Pribehy Obycejneho Silenstvi/ Tales of Common Insanity (2005), an adaptation of his own play, Tomas Vorel's Skritek (2005), David Ondricek's Dukla 61 (2018), made by the son of cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, Vaclav Marhoul's Nabarvene Ptace/ The Painted Bird (2019) and Ivan Ostrochovsky's Sluzobnici/ Servants (2020). Jan Hrebejk made two films about personas who abuse society, namely Kawasakiho Ruze/ Kawasaki's Rose (2009) and Ucitelka/ The Teacher (2016).

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