You’ve realised that the Glasgow “summer” lasts for about an hour and it’s now pouring down outside. Or you’ve got a dismal summer job while your pals are Inter-railing around Europe. Maybe you’re just disappointed with the soulless, CGI-enhanced crap that gets churned out of Hollywood every few weeks. Whatever your reasons, Central and East European cinema offers a stylish and engaging alternative to film fans and culture vultures, and the cream of the crop can often be found in films originating in the Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic?!
Aye. Unfortunately the Czechs usually get stereotyped as merely being a country of beer, ice hockey and stag nights in Prague, but if you look closer there’s a rich and interesting history that many forget about. Film in the Czech Republic and the former Czechoslovakia has always been a strong art form, from communist times right up until EU membership, and domestic films routinely beat their North American counterparts at the Box Offices. You can find everything from Arthouse movies to period drama, and even wince-inducing American style comedies, which is pretty diverse for a country of ten million people slap-bang in the middle of Europe.
But where can I get a hold of these films?!
Thankfully, out-culturing your friends this summer doesn’t mean shelling out on expensive flights to C.R, or even spending money at all. The uni’s Language Centre library is tucked away in the Hetherington Building, and is usually overlooked by students who don’t study languages or have lectures there. However, the selection of DVDs on offer is excellent, and it’s open all throughout summer (for opening times see here). You’ll be able to find Polish and Russian DVDs too, the vast majority of which will come with subtitles.
If you fancy delving in, here are five you can find in the library:
1. Jízda (The Ride, dir. Jan Svěrák, 1994)
Svěrák is one of the most well-known Czech directors after his film Kolja (1996) won an Oscar for best foreign language film, but I think this is a more well-rounded film. A classic ‘road movie’, Jízda tells the story of two twenty-somethings driving around the Czech Republic in an unlicensed car, and their struggle to fit into the changing environment of a democratic, capitalist country. Skirting around the edges of drama and comedy, and accompanied by a preeetty cheesy soundtrack, this has become a cult movie around young people; and a must-watch if you want to understand the changes to everyday life of Czechs after the dismantling of communism.
If you liked this, try: Knoflíkáři (Buttoners, dir. Petr Zelenka, 1997)
2. Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, dir. Jiří Menzel, 1966)
Talking about Oscars, Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains scooped an award for Czechoslovakia in the mid-sixties, and is by far the most famous film of that time in the nation’s cinematic history. Set in the times of Nazi occupation, it is a coming-of-age tale about a young man’s self-discovery and attempted sexual liberation, with a backdrop of resistance to fascism having a strong part to play. On the surface this is merely a sweet, funny movie about the protagonist Miloš trying to lose his virginity, but what makes it particularly interesting is the technique and subversion employed by the director – although the sixties were a liberalising time in Czechoslovakia, it was difficult to openly criticise the regime, so look out for attempts to compare the Nazis with the communists throughout. If for some reason you’re wondering who the man playing Dr. Brabec is, that’s also Menzel.
If you liked this, try: Černý Petr (Black Peter, dir. Miloš Forman, 1964)
3. Kouř (Smoke, dir. Tomáš Vorel, 1990)
Another cult film from the 1990s, Kouř is a musical set in the final years of communism, and based in a factory. Take from that what you will, but this is excellent – stylistic, entertaining and exceptionally exposing of the time it’s set in. Much of the humour can be derived from the absurdity of communist bureaucracy, the fact that no work ever seems to take place and (especially to the outsider) how drab and inoffensive popular culture is (look out for the stereotypical ‘Soviet bloc’ disco!); yet throughout Vorel underpins the hypocrisy of the system and the grim everyday life of the ordinary person. Compared with the modern state we see today, it is at times remarkable how bleak and drab the setting is. For those with an interest in politics and history, you’ll also see underlying tensions between those who favour liberalisation and the hard-line faithful. The fact that Kouř is still popular today should be an indicator as to how well many Czechs can relate to the situation, and just how good the delivery is.
If you liked this, try: another cult film, Rok Ďábla (Year of the Devil, dir. Petr Zelenka, 2002)
4. Český sen (The Czech Dream, dir. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, 2004)
This is definitely worth a watch, if only because it’s the most controversial Czech film in years. This is documentary feature film, done at the time of accession to the European Union, and a project by two film students from Prague. The idea was to set up a new hypermarket, with dirt cheap prices, a real consumerist paradise…except, of course, the ‘Czech Dream’ hypermarket never existed. In perhaps the largest practical joke of all time, the directors started a month long advertising campaign, promoted on TV and radio, and even build a fake façade out of scaffolding – then gave it an official opening. Then pretty much had to run for their lives. Very effective in highlighting the increasing capitalistic nature of the Czech Republic, and a criticism of unquestioning support towards the EU, Český sen has a notorious place in modern Czech film history and popular culture.
If you like this, try: another documentary: Zdroj (The Source, dir. Martin Mareček, 2005)
5. The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, dir. Juraj Herz, 1966)
Finishing off on a high note, this is deeply disturbing and a classic example of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Although not the most accessible to beginners of film, the New Wave was a critical step in the development of modern European cinema. Drawing from Italian and French influences, this movement of the 1960s created highly polished, artistic films employing shedloads of black humour and more often than not deliberately set out to subvert and attack the regime. Spalovač mrtvol is often considered one of the best Czech productions of all time, and upon viewing it is easy to see why. Against a backdrop of an impending World War and a widening Nazi sphere of influence, the director of a crematorium, Karl, becomes not only radicalised by the ideas of fascism, but obsesses over the dead, to the point of absurdities which become chillingly real as the plot unfolds. Special mention has to be made to lead actor Rudolf Hrušínský, who is absolutely brilliant in convincing the viewer of the chilling thoughts that Karl has.
If you liked this, try: Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball, dir. Miloš Forman, 1967)
Of course, when it comes to cinema, everyone is different – some films you like, some you despise – but if you’re after something a little different from Avengers and multi-million dollar productions, and something a little bit authentic, give Czech cinema a go. I guarantee you’ll be surprised!