As this inaugural film festival kicks off, Dean McInerney looks at the genesis of Czech and Slovak film
Bohemian: a person living a sensual, creative, and unorthodox life on the margins of poverty.
Bohemia: a kingdom that once encompassed Czechoslovakia and portions of Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary.
A central player in politics in the late Mediaeval Era, Bohemia was a land rich with stories of religious heresy, political rebellion, mysticism and magic. Bohemia – and specifically its capital, Prague – represented a fertile merging of Western Slavic and Germanic cultures, despite conflict between the two. Prague was also one of the most cosmopolitan and liberal cities in Europe, as well as a notable hub for the arts and sciences in the late 1600s. Even in the early 20th century, when most of Europe was sliding into authoritarian nationalism, Bohemian liberalism and democracy ensured an open and innovative society. After WWII, Bohemia was reconfigured once again, with Czechs and Slovaks (their sibling neighbours) forcibly united as Czechoslovakia.
After 1948 and after a decade under ruthless Stalinism, a gradual liberalisation of Czechoslovakia occurred throughout the 1960s. Regardless of the origins and mechanics of this movement, the flowering of literature and cinema leading up to the famous 'Prague Spring' in 1968 was conspicuous even in comparison to Western countries. The film industry based in Prague, namely the Barrandov Film Studio and those animation studios associated with the National Arts Academy, created a slough of sophisticated and daring productions. However, this era of political and social reform was ruthlessly snuffed by Soviet-led armies in late 1968. A trauma that has left resounding marks on the Czech collective psyche.
The "Czechoslovak New Wave" – the generation of Czech and Slovak filmmakers such as Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec, Juraj Herz, Jaromil Jireš and Štefan Uher – were in many respects at the forefront of the counter-culture of the 1960s. The re-establishment of authoritarian rule after 1968 led to a mass defection of some the countries brightest citizens; artists, intellectuals and scientists defected. Thousands fled to Britain, America (and a substantial amount to Australia) during the crackdown. The resulting decline in artistic output was predictable.
In the period after 1968, cinematic subversion trod a more symbolic path, often via the fantastical and surreal. This was particularly true in the world of Animation. Filmmakers such as Jan Švankmajer made films of "material" revolt, where ordinary objects were continuously mutated and re-imagined. Animation, which was a core discipline in the post-war film scene, was generously funded by the State. In the 1950's, filmmakers such as Karel Zeman and Jiří Trnka created fairy stories and other fantastical works to stimulate the dreams and wonderment of children. Their technical brilliance was well known internationally, and the fairy-story stop-motion puppet films produced by Trnka and others after him became a global television export.
Over the years since the end of the Soviet system, the Czech and Slovak Film industry has been wobbly, with state funding almost completely drying up. This has led to trans-European funding partnerships being forged in the vacuum. The almost miraculous situation in the late 1960s, whereby the State fully funded daring and creative film-art, is unlikely to return. The integration of the local industry into the globalised entertainment economy has turned it into an off-shore Hollywood studio lot to some extent. Still, new films continue to be made that convey truly local sensibilities, an earthy sensuality, humanistic warmth, and an enduringly irreverent and mordant humour.
The inaugural Czech and Slovak Film Festival presents a selection of recent films from these two countries, as well as presenting a smattering of older works. A retrospective of Jiří Trnka 's puppet films, as well a screening of the "The Sun in the Net" a rarely seen 1962 proto-New Wave film by Štefan Uher provides some context for more recent content. The classical narratives of recent Czecho-slovak history are represented in this selection of recent films; namely the expulsion of the German-speaking population after World War II, the 1968 Prague Spring, as well as the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989.
Jan Hřebejk's 1999 hit "Pelíšky"(Cosy Den's) comically portrays inter-generational family conflict (and ideologically incompatible neighbours) in Prague’s suburbia, as a microcosm of the surrounding 1968 events. Remaining maddeningly detached from external realities, until the Warsaw Pact armies chillingly roll in. Authoritarian fathers are mercilessly portrayed, browbeating their children and dominating their wives, only to be humbled by the powers of the state. Such a reflection of the national experience is also at play in "Private Universe" (dir. Helena Třeštíková: 2011) a documentary built from the personal archives of a non-conformist family. 37 years are documented in home movies and photos in which freedom-loving parents and their consciously liberal child rearing gives birth to a cannabis loving punk-anarchist son. Against the background of the Velvet Revolution, and using an equally liberal smattering of State television broadcasts; an allusion is made to the difficulties that freedom poses, in comparison to the seemingly comfortable path of collective conformity.
"Obcanský prukaz" (Identity Card) by Slovak filmmaker Ondrej Trojan, like "Pelíšky" is based on the writings of Petr Sabach and details the ordeals of a group of late adolescents during the oppressive 1970's. The little strategies that the young protagonists make to obtain little grabs of freedom, like their adult counterparts, place them at risk, and in this film have tragic consequences in the long run. Whilst youth rebellion is a recurring theme throughout a number of films in the festival, it isn’t just confined to teenagers. The live-action and animation hybrid "The Blue Tiger" (dir. Petr Oukropec: 2011) is a magical-realist children's film in which a young girl Johanka and her brother Matyáš take on school bullies, dragon-like teachers and corrupt officials alike. Instead of classical communist monsters, it’s the market economy, political sleaze and real estate developers that are the prevailing menace here. Johanka's blue tiger fantasy becomes a stalking reality, embodying her angry will. Though it is difficult to imagine this films target audience fully grasping this kind of political concept, the result is an uncompromisingly feisty kids film.
The current state of Czech animation is long way from the lovingly fashioned stop-motion output of the pre-digital era. The post-communist film industry resoundingly moved away from the old animation arts as if they were a quaint and expensive habit. However news is, that more traditional animation works are back in the pipeline as of late 2012 and should emerge over the next couple of years.
The ponderous and lyrically animated feature Alois Nebel (dir. Tomáš Luňák: 2011) manages to maintain a strongly local sensibility within a contemporary global style. A lonely and haunted train station attendant is dogged by memories of the brutal expulsion of Bohemian Germans in the wake of the fall of the Nazi regime. Bureaucratic neglect, barbaric psychiatry and the corruption fostered by Soviet occupation never quite overpower the warmth of its protagonists. Based on a trio of popular graphic novels by indie-rockers Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99, Luňák employs the live action rotorscoping technique as used by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but with a hard-edged monochromatic Film Noir aesthetic. The mood of the landscape, the rain, the snow, and the subtle ripples of human emotion are highly sensitised. Alois Nebel proves that attention to texture and detail can be more enthralling than glossy hyper-kinetic movement.
Best described as a Stalinist Noir, David Ondrícek's 2012 political thriller In the Shadow is a fictionalised and somewhat skewed treatment of the Slánský trials; in which Jewish moderates in the Communist party were purged under orders from Stalin. A police investigation into a burglary leads a detective to discover a high level conspiracy geared to justify anti-Semitic persecution. Innocent people are framed for murder and a creeping web descends on the police inspector, who refuses to allow this injustice to occur. However one feels about "adaptations" of historical fact, the film is gripping and the performances are solid. Visually well-honed and elegant, In the Shadow is a striking recreation of 1950s Prague, shot by Jerzy Skolimowski's most recent cinematographer Adam Sikora.
Overall the first Czech and Slovak Film Festival is a solid first effort and a much appreciated new edition to Melbourne's festival itinerary. Whilst old fans of the Czech new wave and animated film will be pleased, it also means that Czecho-Slovak cinema may receive wider interest and recognition in Australia. Hopefully the festival is here to stay, and to expose the public to a lot more historical gems from the region, as well as providing a platform for more challenging fare.