The Czech Cinema After the “Velvet Revolution” (1990-2000)
In the last decade, after the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 in which the totalitarian regime in the country collapsed and was replaced by a democracy, Czech cinema has undergone a number of developments.
First, let us look at the general state of film production during the ’90s. I should say that, when selecting the films to be discussed in this article, I grew intensely skeptical because of the blandness and mediocrity of most of the Czech film production in the past decade. Was there anything of universal interest, something that transcended the merely local, if not provincial dimension?
I shall begin by outlining briefly the characteristic features of Czech cinema by exploring aspects of post-totalitarian, contemporary Czech culture and society-not simply as allusions to specific characteristics more deeply embedded in the national character.
In taking stock of the past decade, apart from a few exceptions, the new regime and the freedom it brought did not result in the expected boom of creative originality. Nor did the artistic quality of the new films rise above mediocrity.
Although the economic and ideological disorientation of the years immediately following the transformation has been overcome, the films made during the last decade are for the most part either formally inept and unoriginal, or sophisticated but vacuous. The megalomaniacal projects of the “supra-national” mainstream rapidly gained most of the market, and only rarely do we come across ambitious films that have something to say.
The commercial trend has come to the forefront, with its conjunctural emphasis on the fashionable as well as its economic pragmatism.
Many aspiring filmmakers zealously adopted ready-made American patterns that they then forcibly and inorganically applied to their Czech subject matter.
A few talented directors who used American influences with more subtlety fared better. As a rule, their ultimate goal is not success with audiences at home-rather, they seek international recognition, aiming for the coveted Academy Award.
I. Popular Cinema: The Race for the Oscar
Among the most successful directors of this stamp is Jan Sverak. His 1991 feature debut Elementary School was nominated for the Academy Award; his later film Kolya (1996) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1997.
His most recent film, shot in coproduction with Great Britain, Dark Blue World (2001) tells the story of Czech pilots who fought in the Second World War as members of RAF (Royal Air Force).
Looking at these films together, we can see that this director established within the context of Czech cinema a new kind of film-one that is irreproachable in its skillful treatment of subject matter and technical perfectionism. His films are shot tastefully and with a degree of visual sophistication. They rely on well-tried humor and moderate sentimentality.
Sverak’s priority is to keep the viewer in his seat; his worldview must not be challenged, and he must not be distracted from the spectacle by anything too demanding or ambitious that would be out of place in the well-calculated framework of the given genre.
This filmmaker does not attempt any deeper reflection or more complex articulations of his themes and does not venture to explore any unplumbed depths.
In the early 1990s, when Sverak’s first feature appeared, young Czech directors were under the spell of European-style cinematic postmodernism. This helped to set his debut apart from the rest. Its clearly articulated conception was surprisingly conservative in form, but it was executed with skill and confidence.
The author of the screenplay, the director’s father Zdenek Sverak, drew on his own experiences growing up in Bohemia in the year immediately after the end of World War II. The story is told through the eyes of a young schoolboy.
The tone is light and humorous; the screenwriter relies on the stereotypical average family and its trivial everyday concerns under the weight of history. The young protagonist admires his manly teacher, an agile patriot, but in the end comes to understand that the real hero is his passive, politically reserved father.
As in Elementary School, Sverak’s later films consciously exploit his well- executed concept. Their chief ingredients are an intelligent humanism, which is both moving and attractive, and a measure of jovial common sense.
Pathos, heroism, and an intellectually challenging or deeper reflection on his theme are alien to Sverak-he avoids them by his very choice or genre. His approach, however, is a continuation of a longer tradition: the Czech director of this school, Jiri Menzel (who directed the famous film Closely Watched Trains), has also created a world of his own, both harmonious and benevolent.
In this world no conflicts are irreconcilable and emphasis lies on the brighter side of life.
Sverak’s most prominent rival in terms of box office success is Jan Hrebejk. His comedies are no less popular than Sverak’s, offering very similar interpretations of the Czech condition-again not in the present but in the past.
His films are successful in Czech cinemas precisely because of their mundane perspective, for their acute and detailed insight into the microcosm of the family. Central to the perspective is the portrayal of the “kitchen” as the backstage of history.
In Cosy Dens (1998) the action takes place in the late 1960s. This period of intense political liberalization, which has become known as the Prague Spring, was brought to a dramatic end in August 1968, when the armies of the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia.
Hrebejk’s latest film Divided We Fall (2000) is set in Bohemia during World War II, in the time of the so-called Protectorate (This film was nominated for an Academy Award in this year.).
Hrebejk’s and Sverak’s films show that Czech filmmakers are irresistibly drawn to the tragicomic or even farcical aspects of life. If one wished to summarize their philosophy in one phrase, one could say their aesthetic program is to ridicule earnestness.
History, although always present in the background, is never reduced to a mere backdrop. Rather, it is always a big player in the banal quotidian existence of one average family.
In Cosy Dens there are in fact two families: one that is loyal to the communist regime and another that is opposed to it.
The omnipotent comic (or tragicomic) principle often degenerates to the subtlety of a television variety show-which only brings about more enthusiastic reception among large audiences.
The tendency of these films to play down and make light of grave historical truth often serves to conceal a certain reliance on alibis. This loss of memory conveniently downplays the nasty facts of collaboration with the fascists or of the opportunistic loyalty to the communist totalitarian regime. The trivialization of national psychological traumas seen in the films of these two directors seems like an alibistic therapy.
Hrebejk’s films evoke the traumatic national past as something familiar and friendly. His amiable tolerance seems to say that even then lives were normal (i.e. the humble lives of “everyday joys and sorrows”), and therefore we need not judge the epoch with severity.
His characters, played by popular comedians, immediately win the audience’s hearts, not least because of their solid acting. First among many, let us name Miroslav Donutil, an actor who is today at the peak of his popularity.
As the head of the enemy clan in Cosy Dens, a high-ranking officer in the army, he has the audience in stitches with the moronic stubbornness with which he subjects his own family to military drills.
Amidst all the laughter, one almost forgets that the character must have been a loyal servant of the totalitarian regime with all its inhuman repression and atrocities.
The popular actor Jiri Kodet plays his next-door neighbor and antipode, a sworn enemy of the Communists. However, towards his own family he is as egotistic and tyrannical as his hated neighbor.
Czech audiences riotously applauded Kodet’s performance in several scenes, when, for instance, he beats up a proregime teacher for addressing him as “Comrade”-which he understands as a mortal offence.
In another celebrated scene, the character shouts insults and obscenities from the balcony addressed to the “connected proletarians of all countries.”
Despite its extraordinary success with viewers as well as critics, this film did not rise above the level of mediocre entertainment.
If we set aside the amusement factor (however primary it is in this film), Cosy Dens indirectly indicts the Czech character of possessing a culturally encoded mediocrity, an inferiority complex and a servile adaptability to authoritarian power.
In the light of this sad truth, it is surprising that viewers were not in the least offended by this unflattering portrayal. On the contrary, they were amused and delighted, without feeling any need to identify with this distorted portrait.
II. Art-House Cinema
Apart from those who seek reputation with audiences or in the international arena, there are also filmmakers with intellectual ambitions.
Of course, the golden era of the 1960s, the so-called Czechoslovak New Wave immediately springs to mind, with its protagonists: Milos Forman, Vera Chytilova, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Jiri Menzel, and others-all of whom were capable of penetrating insight.
Their works capture the social and political climate of the Czech society of that epoch. They were able to reveal the national character and collective mentality not through neutral imitation or by plain ridicule (as in the custom among filmmakers today), but they subjected it instead to an in-depth analysis from diverse points of view, thus revealing it through a greater variety of genres.
Though exceptional, the nature of the Czechoslovak New Wave was never cosmopolitan-on the contrary, it was always firmly rooted in a purely national context.
Nevertheless it managed to reach audiences worldwide, as its message was universal. Its lively reception abroad was not due to any Oscar-winning ambitions, although two of the films from that era, The Shop On the Main Street (1965, directed by Jan Kadar-Elmar Klos) and Closely Watched Trains (1966, directed by Jiri Menzel) won Oscars almost unintentionally, and both took their place in the history of world cinema.
Unfortunately, further progress was virtually brought to a standstill for many years by the forcible interruption of the New Wave during the 1970s.
It is only logical and understandable that attempts to continue this tradition or to tap into its sources of inspiration were difficult if not impossible for the upcoming generation of young filmmakers of the 1990s, especially since most of the aspiring directors in fact professed no such ambition and refused to pay the obligatory tribute to their remote and unrivalled competitors.
If certain elements of style in new works alluded to the New Wave, they mostly did not rise above the level of mere imitation.
However, one must admit it is unfair to make such comparisons. Leaving aside the gap between generations, the character of our society and its culture and tastes have changed since the 1960s almost beyond recognition.
The economic circumstances of film production in the two periods are also incomparable.
The actual representatives of intellectual life were not allowed to appear in Czech cinema, and if they did, only in atypical modifications.
Intellectual power, a gift of independent, penetrating insight into the nature of things, is a capacity that by definition undermines uniformity and mass control. As such, it must have appeared undesirable to the ruling political and cultural doctrinaires.
True intellectuals, scholars, and thinkers who were impervious to indoctrination were excluded from society and kept under strict watch.
The directors of the New Wave did not seek out topics featuring intellectuals, and not merely for reasons of circumspection, either. If a character bore features of intellectual capacity, these would be expressed self-consciously, or even as something suspicious.
The intellectual figures in film parables have Kafkaesque features, and the very environment in which these characters move is Kafkaesque-and in fact strongly reminiscent of the structure of totalitarianism bureaucratic society (e.g. Jan Nemec’s allegory The Party and the Guests (1966), or Pavel Juracek’s films Josef Kilian (1963) and A Case for the Young Hangman (1969).
It is in connection with these films that we can speak about a purely intellectual reflection capturing the spirit of the epoch, a deep, innermost, in-depth reflection of modern man in the system that called itself “real-existing socialism.”
Female director Drahomira Vihanova continued a broken-off tradition with her 1994 film Fortress, first intended for production in the late 1960s. Vihanova herself is one of those intellectuals whose creative career was interrupted by the regime.
In this film, which tells the story of an excommunicated intellectual surviving on the margins of society, she revived the New Wave style as well as the poetics of Kafkaesque anguish. However,audiences in the 1990s no longer responded to this allegorical form of coded expression; it had become out-of-date and obsolete.
In comparison to the earlier determination of the intellectual as the “black sheep,” or the boat rocker, the intellectuals of the decade after November 1989 enjoy far more freedom, and yet they continue to appear in films only sporadically.
They have, as yet, failed to define their legitimate social position and are therefore neither attractive nor dramatically interesting to filmmakers. They are usually represented stereotypically as an unprepossessing bespectacled figure or an absent-minded professor, each unable to face the practicalities of life.
Worth noticing is the recent work of the New Wave filmmakers-those who survived or those who returned from exile (the most notorious success story of exile is that of Milos Forman in the U.S.).
The work of these filmmakers-Jan Nemec, Juraj Jakubisko, Jiri Menzel, Jaromil Jires, and others-no longer shapes the character of Czech cinema. Only a few of them have stayed in direct contact with the new reality. Two of them are pertinent for a discussion of contemporary Czech cinema: Vera Chytilova and Karel Vachek.
The work of Vera Chytilova, the restless moralist, one of the most prominent directors of the New Wave, continues to excite controversial reactions. Chytilova acutely perceives the evolution of Czech society, as well as its moral decay, and the provocative rendition of these problems is expressed in radical plot solutions that go to the very limits of tolerance.
Her goal is to tear off the confusing glossy surface of things, the image that our immature democracy chooses to represent itself with. She parodies pompous snobbery, a morally deformed elitism whose adherents with their set of pseudovalues ostentatiously show off their newly found social and economic power.
In her 1992 film The Inheritance, or Shit, Boys Guten Tag! she criticizes the excesses of the nouveaux riches, who have received large estates of property in restitution without being able to manage them sensibly.
In another recent film, Traps (1998), Chytilova develops a brutal motive of rape to an even more brutal solution: The rape victim, a young veterinarian, decides to take matters into her own hands and punishes her two rapists-both prominent citizens (an architect and an MP) by skillfully castrating them.
As it soon turns out, this radical gesture is most damaging to her, since the whole case is silenced and obliterated from the public consciousness for reasons of political interest.
In her most recent film, the allegorical Ban From Paradise (2000), Chytilova unmasks a corrupt society. Most of the actors in this film play naked in a “film shooting a film.” An ambitious male director is depicted shooting an apocalyptic vision of hell; the plot offers analogies to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.
However, the contrast of the shocking nudity of old, decrepit bodies set against the glamorous nudity of the young, did not fulfill the director’s intention to provoke the indifference of the “fully clothed” public by the brutal revelation of its boundless amorality. The film succeeded rather as a disgusting, physically repulsive spectacle.
The angry Chytilova openly provokes her audience by ridiculing the self-appointed new aristocracy and its elitism. Her caricature of the panoptical characters that make their way to the top is ruthless.
They are unscrupulous entrepreneurs, greedy moguls lusting for political power, and sexually insatiable, equally ruthless women, who try to buy power with sex.
If we can free ourselves from the controversial nature of her films and consider only their ethical message, we can say that Chytilova is extremely radical in her opposition to a society dominated by corruption and commerce, where morality is no more than an empty word.
The filmmaker Karel Vachek is as different as he is original in his “monitoring” of the social and political state of the Czech Republic in the last decade. In 1968, Vachek captured the atmosphere of the political backstage of so-called Prague Spring in his feature-length documentary, Elective Affinities.
Then, after over twenty years of silence, he made a comeback with his philosophical reflection on cinema. Though his approach may be controversial, it cannot be overlooked; it is original, intellectual activity.
The very titles of Vachek’s films, paraphrasing literary allusions, are surprising and suggest the depth and variety of his themes: The New Hyperion, or Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1992); What To Do? (The Journey From Prague to Cesky Krumlov, or How I Formed a New Government) (1996); Bohemia Docta, or The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (Divine Comedy) (2000).
Vachek stages his films as a kind of “public performance” that performs itself while he merely directs from the side.
At the same time, he steps into his films as a player, immediately “animating” the participants, intervening in the spontaneously emerging situations as if helping them come to life. He converses with chosen individuals he presents as the unsuspecting participants in an immense theatrum mundi.
The situations are seen with seeming neutrality by an “innocent eye”; thus Vachek, in the role of the observer, penetrates into scenes of both private and public life. He relishes observing a variety of social and political rituals.
Without restraint, he unravels the political scene in its underwear, ruthlessly catching the politicians out of their depth (as in the scene at Prague Castle during the presidential election).
He reaches a broad social spectrum, addressing anonymous citizens, various luminaries, celebrities, and crackpot outsiders. Staging situations and then leaving his “subjects” to act spontaneously in front of the camera, he in no way interrupts, modifies, or corrects their way of speaking, which is often quite peculiar or absurd.
It is beyond doubt Vachek subtly manipulates everyone; by giving all his participants an excess of freedom and space he gathers unique material that he can then shape in the editing room in accordance with his own intentions.
He uses almost all his footage to include his “spoils” in an “intentional” context of montage, thus expressing indirectly his original worldwide viewpoint as an author.
The documentaries of this original and controversial director are often several hours long. Their structure resembles that of collage or mosaic. For the average viewer they are perhaps rather difficult to watch. However, all of them have excited passionate debate among film specialists.
Vachek is uncritically admired, even imitated, and also severely criticized. One thing is certain: his creative approach is so unique and original that it cannot be ignored. His vision is unusually penetrating, but on the other hand, it is also willful.
Only time will show whether his films are a legitimate artistic interpretation of our time. Perhaps his is, in fact, the most appropriate style for reflecting the inner chaos and instability of a society that is not yet fully formed.
The “post-Velvet” intelligentsia enjoys certain favorable conditions for the development of scholarship and the free exchange of ideas, something unparalleled in the previous generation.
However, it appears that they are as yet unprepared for such a level of independence and that the intelligentsia is unable to use the newly acquired freedom meaningfully. Intellectuals, as characters, are absent from contemporary film plots.
Freedom of expression degenerates into a celebration of delinquency, drug addiction, and intellectual disorientation-a fatuous confusion of values. Young directors tend to simplify problems; their heroes are losers and outsiders, but they are unable to draw any deeper reflection of the state of society as whole from the failure of these aimless characters.
To reveal with a provocative eccentricity the exploits of drug addicts, tramps, criminals, and social parasites can hardly be interpreted as a meaningful way of addressing burning social or existential issues, unless the authors attempt to strive for the causes of these phenomena and their specific relationship to the national character.
III. New Beginnings: Debuts
In the course of the 1990s, a number of young filmmakers produced debut films in which their artistic worldview reached no further than the standard reflection on the usual themes of the upcoming generation, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, homosexuality, prostitution, and the like.
Such themes are typical for young artists on a universal level, and they are serious social issues. However, most of these debuts cannot qualify as creative, intellectually challenging, or original authentic works.
Instead of in-depth analysis we encounter an aggressive, flashy, music-video visual style, which consistently skims the surface and never goes any deeper.
None of these would-be “confessions of our generation” are worth naming. In striking contrast, however, stand Sasha Gedeon’s Indian Summer (1995) and Return of the Idiot (1999). Gedeon’s style in these films is subtle and understated. He refrains from any kind of exhibitionism or bravado.
Evidently influenced by Milos Forman’s films of the 1960s, Gedeon’s insight into the lives of his young small-town heroes is acute and precise. His humor is inspired by Forman’s use of the poetics of embarrassment.
Although Gedeon does not lack insight, a certain formal novelty or the capacity to convey intimate human experience, his dramaturgy seems rather strained. His story lines are often one-dimensional, and the dialogue laconic and superficial.
In The Return of the Idiot, the vague setting in time is especially regrettable. The film’s other major shortcoming is the main character, the “idiot,” who is waterlogged with all the mysticism and pathos of a modern-day messiah, inspired by Dostojevskij’s hero Myshkin.
In contrast to Gedeon’s sensitive minimalist style, Petr Vaclav’s film Marian (1996) deserves to be mentioned as a work that is also exceptional.
It tells the harrowing story of a young gypsy, morally crippled by growing up in a socialist children’s home and various juvenile reformatories. The hero cannot withstand confrontation with the roughness of reality, and when he is imprisoned, he finds the only solution to his situation in suicide.
Although the film touches on the painful subject of ethnic intolerance and xenophobia in contemporary Czech society, its message cannot be limited simply to a statement of the Roma question.
Marian’s fate is the fate of everyone who is unjustly persecuted and ostracized, regardless of race. However, the seriousness of the subject matter is hampered by a certain superficiality of style in its overdone camera work, and by an oversimplified psychological portrayal of the main character.
One promising debut is that of the young female director Alice Nellis. Her treatment of the topic of the intelligentsia in the middle-aged generation is both interesting and honest. In her film Eeny Meeny (2000), Nellis draws on recent local-government elections in a small Bohemian town.
She aims for a comedic effect, portraying an average Czech family with a kind, sympathetic eye. The mood of the film shifts from that of farce to subtle irony, with an ending that is compassionate and serious.
The excellent comedic actress Iva Janzurova, who portrays the aging high school teacher Mrs. Zachová, dominates the film. The story shows an elderly couple, both teachers, on the day of a municipal election. The town is pretty much a provincial backwater.
Although the election is supposed to be free and democratic, it takes place in a stagnant and old-fashioned atmosphere.
The local voters are bored and indifferent. Mrs. Zachová is an unexceptional, aging woman who appears to be the stereotypical provincial schoolteacher. She irritates everyone around her with her civic zealousness.
While this zeal is exaggerated and annoying, she is, in her own way, sincere and seriously committed, unlike the lackluster people who surround her.
Without slipping into sentimentality or cheap caricature, the actress brilliantly portrays a role in a moral drama in which the narrow-minded private world of her heroine clashes with her serious responsibility as a voter.
In an environment where any political involvement at all is discredited, Zachová sees her role as a voter as truly a higher task, even though her orientation in party politics is instinctive rather than rational, and her naive good faith often blinds her to phony political rhetoric.
We may laugh at Zachová for taking herself so seriously and for her refusal to understand her husband’s humor as he ridicules her blind faith in the candidate. At the same time, though, we sympathize with her earnestness.
The film’s climax comes in a scene where she finds the corpus delicti of her husband’s electoral fraud in his pocket.
She steps out of her role of the devoted nurse of a sick husband and launches into an indignant monologue, an embittered lament.
Her voice, originally hushed and anguished, breaks out into an outcry of pain. The essential triviality of a domestic harangue transcends itself to show the tragedy of the couple’s marriage.
As she summons the courage to finally speak out about her frustration, Zachová does not suspect the price she will pay for her sincerity: at that very moment her husband is quietly dying.
The final scene of the film features a subtle catharsis, a wordless reconciliation of the widowed heroine with her husband’s departure as well as with her young daughter.
This text is based on a paper presented at a conference in Lund (Sweden) on “New Identities in Film: Contemporary Cinema from the Other Europe,” organized by Fiona Bjorling (November 2001).