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Vol 2, No 17
2 May 2000
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Karel Kachyna's Hanele (1999)
Hanele: festival highlight
Finále Makes a Good Opening Act
Czech film's strong start to cinema's second full century
Peter Hames

Although banned by Czechoslovak authorities in 1964, Evald Schorm's Každý den odvahu (Everyday Courage) resurfaced four years later to win the Golden Kingfisher, the top award at the inaugural Finále, the festival of Czech films at Plzeň.

While Warsaw Pact tanks crushed the Prague Spring that same year, the festival lived on for one more season and again showed its independence with the 1969 Golden Kingfisher being shared by Vojtěch Jasný's Všichni dobří rodáci (All My Good Countrymen) and Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko's Zbehovia a pútníci (The Deserter and the Nomads). Together with Schorm's Každý den odvahu these films were, for the next 20 years, among the most prominent in the cannon of 100-plus banned works, until the Plzeň festival was resurrected in the wake of the Velvet Revolution.

Petr Zelenka's Knoflikari (Buttoners, 1998)
Previous winner
Since 1990, the festival has shown a good deal of prescience with its awards to mainly young directors, recognising Jan Svěrák (Obecná škola / The Elementary School, 1991), Jaroslav Brabec (Krvavý Román / The Bloody Novel, 1993), Saša Gedeon (Indiánské léto / Indian Summer, 1995 and Návrat idiota / Return of the Idiot, 1999), Petr Zelenka (Mňága - Happy End, 1997 and Knoflíkáři / Buttoners, 1998) and, this year, Jan Hřebejk (Musíme si pomáhat , Divided We Fall / We Must Help Each Other).

Bad omen?

The Finále 2000 festival was overshadowed by the news that the country's leading film studios, the Barrandov Studios in Prague, had been "sold to the Canadians" - although, for legal reasons, no one seemed to know the buyers or whether they plan to make films.

Given the fact that most Czech film makers cannot afford to shoot at Barrandov and are more likely to be financially dependent on Česká televize (Czech Television), the possible end to film production there would not mean the end of Czech cinema. On the other hand, the loss of income from the servicing of such international productions as Mission Impossible and Joan of Arc would be bound to have a knock-on effect in its further reduction of resources and technological expertise, analogous to a closure of Pinewood in the UK. But this is speculation.

In the meantime, there were 19 films in the official competition this year, including two co-productions with Slovakia and one with the USA, as well as Nikita Mikhalkov's Lazebnik sibirskii (The Barber of Siberia, 1999), in which Barrandov had a co-production interest. At least 15 films are currently projected for 2000-2001.

Given a total population less than that of Greater London and an audience that has declined by over 75% since the Communist years, this is by no means a negligible output.

Wartime reflections

An unusual aspect of this year's programme was the number of high profile films touching on the Jewish experience in the context of the Second World War. These included Musíme si pomáhat; Všichni moji blízcí (All My Loved Ones, 1999), which won the audience prize; and Pramen života (The Spring of Life, 2000), which was shown at Berlin. To these, one can add Karel Kachyňa's Hanele (1999), adapted from O smutných očích Hany Karadžičové (The Sad Eyes of Hannah Karajich) the thirties novel by Ivan Olbracht, about life in the Hasidic Jewish communities of Ruthenia.

Jan Hrebejk's Musime si pomahat (Divided We Fall / We Must Help Each Other, 2000)
True to life
The most interesting of these was Hřebejk's Musíme si pomáhat which, like his success last year with Pelišky (Cosy Dens, 1999), was scripted by Petr Jarchovský and is based on a dramatic reinterpretation of real stories.

In this year's offering, Václav Čížek (Boleslav Polivka) agrees to hide a Jewish escapee, David, thus putting the lives of his family and neighbours at risk. When David fathers a child by Čížek's wife, this is not only a solution to the couple's problems with fertility, but also a legal protection against taking a Nazi lodger and the certainty of discovery.

Jan Hrebejk's Musime si pomahat (Divided We Fall / We Must Help Each Other, 2000)
The present and the past
Like the film version of Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1966), Musíme si pomáhat is a black comedy with a vein of endless irony. Its apparently humanist title, which translates literally as "We must help each other," is in fact the motto of a friend who sees reality in terms of collaboration with the Nazi invaders.

In order to hide David, Čížek has to accommodate the Nazis and is accused of being a collaborator. David's potential discovery is at first a guarantee of death, but finally a guarantee of life. Similarly, the member of the resistance who denounces Čížek had earlier rejected David's call for help.

While the theme has been dealt with in earlier Czech films such as Jiří Weiss's Romeo, Julie a tma (Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, 1960) and Ján Kadár's and Elmar Klos's Obchod na korze (The Shop on the High Street,1965), Musíme si pomáhat places its emphasis on a complex interplay of characters, in which common cause and humanity can be rapidly dissolved or reversed by political events. In this sense, the film is, as scriptwriter Jarchovsky suggests, as much about the present as the past.

Milan Cieslar's Pramen zivota (Spring of Life, 2000)
Mothering for the Reich
Both Pramen života and Všichni moji blízcí are much more traditional in their conception. Dealing with the story of a young woman selected for the Nazi Lebensborn programme, Vladimir Körner's script for Pramen života echoes previous scripts he wrote for films such as František Vláčil's Adelheid (1969) and Antonín Moskalyk's Kukačka v temném lese (Cuckoo in the Dark Forest, 1985).

The central character, Greta, also gives birth to a baby by her Jewish lover, this time covering her "pairing" with a gay SS officer. While professionally written and directed by Milan Cieslar, it doesn't add to what Körner has expressed better elsewhere and the kitsch of Nazi racism combined with lesbian and gay stereotypes is familiar from other films.

Matej Minac's Vsichni moji blizci (All My Loved Ones, 1999)
Ratings chaser
Matej Mináč'sVšichni moji blízcí, a co-production with Slovakia, seems almost desperate to please its audience. An analysis of the impact of Nazism on a Jewish family in the months before the German invasion and linked to the story of Nicholas Winton, an English diplomat who arranged to send 669 children to England, it does less than justice to its subject. The script rises little above a one-dimensional object lesson linked to a maximum number of well-known actors with audience pleasing techniques and ingredients. Having said that, besides pleasing the audience in Plzeň, it was accorded a similar response at the Palm Springs Festival.

Old master returns

Hanele, by 75 year-old Karel Kachyňa is a much more persuasive (and subtle) account of the tensions within a community. Hanele (Lada Jelínková), a member of Hasidic Jewish community in Ruthenia, breaks with tradition through an initial commitment to Zionism and a subsequent desire to marry a Jewish "unbeliever" who rejects both Judaism and Christianity.

Karel Kachyna's Hanele (1999)
Overly Romantic?
The script provides a faithful but somewhat literal adaptation based on narrative highpoints and key exchanges of dialogue and the film is not entirely free of Miroslav Holub's criticism of an earlier Olbracht adaptation - Zeno Dostál's Golet v údolí (Golet in the Valley, 1995) - that it romanticised the Jews rather in the manner of Hollywood. No stranger to the Romantic image, Kachyňa's film nonetheless addresses the contradictions, challenges and social deprivation of his subject. His own brand of cinematic precision and the magnetic presence of Jelínková raise it above the bare bones of its adaptation.

New talent emerges

Alice Nellis's Ene Bene (2000)
True-life mother and daughter
The prize for best new director went to Alice Nellis and her film Ene bene, which was previously shown at Rotterdam. Like many of the new directors (eg Hřebejk, Roman Vávra, Saša Gedeon), Nellis admits a liking for 1960s New Wave directors, particularly Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer - but also for British director Mike Leigh.

Ene bene, in fact, recalls Passer's two Czech films, Intimní osvětlení (Intimate Lighting, 1965) and his adaptation of Hrabal's Fádní odpoledne (A Boring Afternoon, 1965), in its emphasis on a world in which, by conventional film standards, nothing appears to be happening.

Its critical focus lies in its observation of the 1996 elections, an absurdist account of a local polling station only occasionally troubled by voters interested in the exercise of their democratic rights. In the meantime, a wife (Iva Janžurová) tries to persuade her convalescent husband (Leoš Suchařípa) that he is well enough to go to the station and vote. A feminine film full of wit and invention, it depends a great deal on the interplay between director and the acting partnership of Janžurová and her real life daughter, Theodora Remundová

Petr Zelenka's Samotari (Loners, 2000)
Young, free, single
Petr Zelenka, one of the directors to win two Golden Kingfishers, is represented this year by Samotáři (Loners, 2000), which he scripted with Olga Zabrovská and which was directed by David Ondříček. While Zelenka's earlier success, Knoflíkáři, wove together six separate stories, Samotáři links the lives of seven unattached young people in a rolling sequence of episodes.

Much more targeted on the youth market than Knoflíkáři, it mixes Ondříček's youth-friendly style, already apparent in Šeptej (Whisper, 1996), with Zelenka's dry wit to create an extremely entertaining film that was greeted by cheers and whistles and won the prize of the student jury.

Scripted at the same time that he was directing Knoflíkáři, the more recent film is not without thematic links to the former - coincidence, language, a radio programme, the obverse side of the medical profession, the generation gap, a car crash and a Japanese investigation of Czech family life. While Zelenka is likely to wax enthusiastic about the work of American independents, his sceptical eye is precisely focused on the Czech scene.

Darker side

Viktor Taus's Kanarek (The Canary / Very Ordinary Person, 1999)
Harsh reception
A less entertaining view of contemporary youth culture was apparent in Viktor Tauš's Kanárek (The Canary / Very Ordinary Person, 1999), a film based on the director's own experiences with drug addiction. The title is taken from Kurt Vonnegut, who said that the artist serves to detect social danger in the same way that canaries once detected danger in the mines.

Made on a shoestring, Czech critics seem to have rejected it as little more than an exercise in rehabilitation. While I found myself resistant to its opening scenes, it progressively settled into a powerful account of the downside of contemporary youth culture. Made initially on a day-to-day basis, it is a film of which we may well hear more.

Jaroslav Brabec's <I>Kure melancholik </I>(The Melancholic Chicken , 1999)
Stylistic tour de force
A new feature that conformed to no obvious category was Jaroslav Brabec's Kuře melancholik (The Melancholic Chicken , 1999). A former cinematographer, Brabec has attempted some of most offbeat subjects of the 1990s, including his adaptation of Josef Vachal's Krvavý Román, and is currently working on an adaptation of K J Erben's poetic cycle, Kytice (The Garland). With Kuře melancholik, he has adapted Josef Šlejhar's turn-of-the-century novel, usually described as situated somewhere on the borders of Naturalism and Expressionism.

Jaroslav Brabec's Kure melancholik (The Melancholic Chicken , 1999)
Not to be pigeon-holed
Brabec tells the story of a boy whose mother is killed in a thunderstorm and identifies with a young chick, whose fellow chicks and mother are killed by a hawk. His father's subsequent encounters with women are all destructive, particularly with Róza, the lustful tavern owner who eventually moves in with them. A powerful but pessimistic (and surely uncommercial) film, its stylistic "exaggerations" are rooted in a genuine account of loss and some powerful performances, particularly by Karel Roden, based on a strong script by Vladimir Körner. It's a clever film in which style and imagery grow from the subject.

New Wave veterans

And what of the older directors of the 1960s New Wave? Drahomira Vihanová's The Voyage of Peter and Paul is due out in the summer and Jan Švankmajer, not New Wave but of the same generation, has a new film, Otesánek (The Wooden Boy / Greedy Guts), due in autumn. Jiří Menzel seems to have retreated to theatre after his plans to film Hrabal's novel Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England) fell through.

Věra Chytilová, however, was present with her two-part documentary, Vzlety a pády (Flights and Falls, 2000), an investigation of the lives and work of three Czech photographers, Václav Chochola, Karel Ludwig and Zdeněk Tmeje, told through their work, newsreel footage, interviews and environment. The film traces their lives from the 1930s through the Stalinist period and, in the case of the two surviving, to the present.

In her years as a model, Chytilová was married to Karel Ludwig, one of the most talented of the three, who specialised in his own brand of Hollywood-style portraits of female actors in the 1930s and 1940s. It's a fascinating journey through a hidden culture in which Chytilová herself was a participant. It is interesting, too, to see the original café where Hrabal set his Automat Svet (At the World Cafeteria) and Hrabal himself appearing in Chytilová's 1965 film version.

While Czech cinema undoubtedly has its problems with finance and access to world distribution, the variety of films at this year's festival revealed not only increased substance at the level of scripts but a level of maturity and creative self-confidence that augurs well for the future. Something is happening in Czech cinema, many of the increasing numbers of foreign guests noted, that isn't happening anywhere else in Central Europe. It may be happening despite the politicians who, Karel Kachyňa noted glumly, were not interested in cultural values, but one hopes that its momentum may be enough to generate change.

Peter Hames, 1 May 2000

Also of interest:

  • Get Your Kitsch Off!:
    Labina Mitevska - star of Samotáři - in an
    exclusive interview for CER

  • Making History:
    Comforting visions of the past in
    Czech Oscar-winners

  • Summer of Discontent:
    Jan Hřebejk's Pelišky

  • That Discreet Charm of the Czech Bourgeoisie:
    Petr Zelenka's Knoflíkáři

  • The Straight and Narrow Path:
    David Ondříček's Šeptej

  • Hitch-hiking: The perils and the romance:
    Věra Chytilová's Pasti, pasti, pastičky

  • Misty Melancholy with a Bovine Sisyphus:
    Karel Kachyňa's Kráva

    Books by the author:

  • Dark Alchemy: The films of Jan Švankmajer
    (from Amazon.com), (from Amazon.co.uk)

  • The Czechoslovak New Wave
    (from Amazon.com), (from Amazon.co.uk)

    Moving on:


    Jan Čulík
    New Czech TV News Chief

    Catherine Lovatt
    Romanian Local Elections

    Sam Vaknin
    Yugoslav Myths

    Mel Huang
    Estonia's Military

    Gusztáv Kosztolányi
    Hungarian Censorship

    Oliver Craske
    UK Media Look East

    Brian J Požun
    Slovene Skinheads

    Peter Hames
    Finále Film Festival in Plzeň

    Elke de Wit
    Anne Høegh Krohn's Debut

    Elke de Wit
    Goethe's Misogyny

    Wojtek Kość
    Polish Cultural Review

    Culture Calendar:
    UK | USA

    Extremism and Coalitions

    Czech Republic