Posts Tagged ‘Czech cinema’

Havel (2019) *** Czech Film Week

Dir.: Slavek Horak; Cast: Jan Dvorak, Anna Geislorova, Pavel Landdovsky, Anna Kohoutova, Stanislav Majer; Czech Republic 2020, 104 min.

Slavek Horak fails to do his subject justice in this ‘buddy movie’ about Czechoslovakia’s final president and human rights activist Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) framing him as a lecherous womaniser and coward while playing down a prodigious literary talent and author of 245 plays, nine books of non-fiction and six volumes of poetry.

The film focuses on Havel’s adult life leading up to his election as first president of the Czech Republic in 1993, several years after the nation’s “Velvet Revolution” in 1989. There are two time scales: the first one covers his Havel’s life at the theatre in the 1960s the second his imprisonment and dealings in the aftermath to the invasion in 1968. Clearly Horak is not a big fan of the Czech statesman; his treatment plays fast and losse with history, paraphrasing and over-simplifying as it goes along, And this approach is born out in the dialogue. When Havel (played by a game Jan Dvorak) confesses to his wife Olga (Geislorava) “I haven’t been as morally strong as you deserved. But you have always been my First Lady”; Olga replies: “I’d rather be your only lady”. When Havel tries to be philosophical, the result is not much better: “The most interesting thing about the conscience is, that we carry it with us always”.

Havel does not fare any better with his temperamental co-conspirator, the actor Pavel Landovsky (Hofmann), during their illegal battle against the regime after 1968: “You can’t push people to join!…They join us when there are more of us, but there won’t be more of us, if they don’t join us”. Logic prevails. Most complaints come from Olga, who also had to listen to Havel’s ‘confessions’ of his adultery: “for once, would you just NOT tell me”. Further critique follows: “act like a man for once” and “you still think you can have it all?” This plays out during illegality and subversion, after Havel was expelled from the theatre and had to work at a brewery.

But pride of place goes to the exchange between Havel and his mistress Anna Kohoutova (Seidlova), the wife of fellow playwright and conspirator Pavel Kohout (Majer): “My husband is a great fan of yours.” meanwhile “My wife is my biggest critic”. Finally, having declared: “I don’t want to protest, I want to do Theatre”, Havel becomes one of the founder Members of Charter 77, which is smuggled to the West. Again Horak tackles this with platitudes, and not just verbal ones. During interrogation Havel is accused of being a martyr “You are playing the martyr, but when they pressed, you sh.t yourself”. And afterwards, he tells Olga that he only told the authorities what they already knew. “What you don’t know, you can’t tell”. Olga then counters with “Not even to yourself?”

Despite its rather lamentable content this is an elegantly crafted piece of filmmaking. DoP Petr Malasek creates an attractively muted aesthetic all in hued of gunmetal grey and dark blue. Vladimir Hruska’s set design reflects the era but still feels fresh and imaginative. But Horak’s choice of music, scored by Petr Malasek, gives into sensationalism, creating an overwhelming emotional pull that would do any Hollywood blockbuster proud. Surely Vaclav Havel deserves better than this. AS

1 – 4 Nov 2020 Czech Centre Vimeo on Demand / PRE-ORDER NOW

A Certain Kind of Silence (2019) **** Raindance Film Festival 2019

Dir.: Michal Hogenauer; Cast: Eliska Krenkova, Jacob Jutte, Monic Hendrickx, Roeland Fernhout, Jiri Rendl, Matthis Ijgosse; Czecj Republic/The Netherlands/Latvia 2019, 95 min.

This stylish Czech thriller centres on a secretive religious sect known as the Twelve Tribes. It is the impressive feature debut of Czech filmmaker Michal Hogenauer who offers up a cleverly crafted piece of evil in the guise of a domestic drama filmed in the forested stillness of suburban Riga, beside the Daugava river.

Eliska Krenkova plays Mia a young au pair who has emigrated from Prague to work in the pristine household of a formal professional couple (Hendrickx and Fernhout) who have one precocious little son, Sebastian (Jutte). Their house is immaculate, sterile even and Mia is not encouraged to become familiar with the parents or the boy. And although she stands her ground and refuses to be intimidated by their frigid demeanour, she soon becomes more and more worn down. Hogenauer employs a clever plot device that adds suspense and intrigue as the story plays out, by intercutting the action with scenes of Mia being interrogated by a faceless authority, presumably the police. It’s as if a crime has already been committed.

Sebastian is being trained to become a professional tennis player, and his parents take his progress very seriously. Their controlling behaviour also extends to Mia – who is actually called Mishka until they force her to accept a new nickname, just to add to her discombobulation. Mia’s presence is also required at unsettling social get-togethers (which turn out to be cult meetings) where she meets and becomes involved with a new boyfriend (Ijgosse). Soon the plucky and confident Mia finds herself drawn into a strange and sinister set-up where the gaslighting couple coerce her into doing things against her will, as they manipulate her mind. They force her into beating Sebastian, who eventually stabs Mia in retaliation. The flesh-wound is not life-threatening, but Sebastian is suddenly replaced by Daniel (Rendl), who wears a five-digit number on his back – we have already witnessed that Sebastian’s school is Number 23, and the school bus, which takes the children ‘off piste’ to school in a mystery destination. DoP Gregg Telussa captures the clinical atmosphere in the house with slickness doing justice to Laura Dislere’s immaculate set design, a paradise for those with OCD. All this is amplified by Filip Misek’s minimalist sound design which echoes something Philip Glass might compose. Hogenauer directs with great sensibility, never going over the top, by showing this ghastly utopian reality with restraint and admirable rigour. AS

The Twelve Tribes is a new religious movement founded by Gene Spriggs and was originally founded in Tennessee with the aim of raising 144,000 pure boys, so that Jesus can return to Earth. The children are corporally punished when showing emotion, playing or committing a disobedience. A raid in September liberated over 40 children from the organisation, who also run youth hostels, farms and restaurants. 

RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL | LONDON | 18 – 29 September 2019 


Jan Palach (2018) ****

Dir.: Robert Sedlacek; Cast: Victor Zavadi, Denisa Baresova, Zuzana Bydzovska, Kristina Kanatova; Czech Republic 2018, 124 min.

Robert Sedlacek (Rule of Lies) transforms Eva Kanturkova’s concise script into a complex psychological study of the Czech hero and political activist Jan Palach who killed himself in January 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion of his country in August of the previous year. Palach’s death was a particularly horrific one but director and writer steer away from hagiography, sensationalism or dry political drama to tell the human story exploring the complex personality and motives of the 20-year old student of history and philosophy.

1968 saw students all over the world on the barricades: in Paris, Berlin, Berkeley and Mexico City, where hundreds were shot just before the start of the Olympic Games. In Prague, students were the backbone of the resistance movement against the Soviet tanks, which rolled into Prague ending the Prague Spring of Prime Minister Dubcek, and dragging the country back into soulless, authoritarian Stalinism. The Prague students shared with their counterparts abroad, a love of spontaneous action and a lack of long-term strategy. They also fatally underestimated the powers they opposed. But theirs was not only an uprising against the state, but also against the values of their parent generation. In the case of Jan Palach, the target was his mother Libuse (Bydzovska), who lived in the small town of Vsetaty. She was hardly a staunch supporter of the communist regime, but having seen her husband, an entrepreneur, being punished by the authorities, she towed the line in order to make her son’s life easier. Since Jan’s father was classified as a bourgeois, only his mother’s ‘class-conscious’ behaviour made it possible for him to study at the Charles University of Prague. Whilst Jan was extremely obedient for his age – when he visited with his girl friend Helenka (Baresova), he slept in a separate bed, before Helenka asked him to join her – but deep down he blamed Libuse for her appeasement of the regime; and even the early death of his father, who lost his business and his drive. This did not prevent him from downing a puppy born to his beloved childhood dog Lassie. They could only find homes for the rest of the litter, so he obeyed his mother’s orders. 

Palach, like many of his believers, was more interested in the concept of equality than in a personal relationship with others. Whilst he supported a Russian comrade in a ‘Youth Camp’ in Kazakhstan, who rebelled against the sub-standard food, he felt much safer in groups, uncomfortable with one-to-one relationships. When he went to France to work for a few weeks picking grapes, he cut himself off from his co-workers. Jan always kept a slight distance from Helenka, who suffered from polio; he was more her helper than her lover. And when tempted, he fell easily for the advances of her attractive room mate Eva (Kanatova). Palach neither drunk nor smoked, his attitude was always to adopt the passive-aggressiveness of a martyr. Sedlacek plays this out in a scene where Palach has just been beaten up severely by a security officer in civilian clothes, and is examined by a medical student: Jan seems to revel in his injuries. In his farewell letter he suggests that there are many like him, willing to die by self-immolation, a boast which is untrue. It is much more reasonable to assume that Palach was inspired by Thich Quang Due, the first Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Saigon, and the Polish activist Ryszard Siwiee, who did the same as a protest against the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1968. Jan Palach left behind his mother, girl-friends and his studies. He also left a stain on his relatives, friends and fellow students: they felt guilty for not having prevented his suicide, but decided to “wait” for a change, something Jan was not able to countenance. Finally, every suicide is half a murder – in this case a very violent one: proof of the enormous latent anger the young man was concealing behind his unexceptional facade. He was not only the victim of an authoritarian regime, but also of his own, unsolved contradictions. We feel his humanity poignantly, but never is this over-stated in Sedlacek’s treatment.

Victor Zavadi is convincing in the title role, and so is Bydzovska as his mother Libuse. They are likeable characters and decent people. Baresova’s Helenka is very much aware that Jan’s feels pity for her, rather than love or even lust. DoP Jan Suster evokes a bland but classically-styled Prague, the university halls seem uninhabited by the ghost from the past. Vsetaty looks like a bucolic pre-war village, the food supply behind the overriding concern of the day. Overall, this traditionally-styled feature has very much the feel of a Chekhov drama: an intransigent hero, full of great words, but finding no real human contact, until there is only one way out. AS

SCREENED AT THE CZECH EMBASSY | LONDON W11 | January 17th 2019.    


Made in Prague | Czech Cinema 100th Anniversary

This October marks the 100th year anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. The celebrations begin with an opening night gala screening of Jan S. Kolár’s silent epic St Wenceslas from 1929; accompanied by a musical ensemble specialising in medieval polyphony.

The 22nd MADE IN PRAGUE Festival showcases the best of contemporary Czech cinema cherry picked from international film festivals’ circuit. It features Barefoot by the Oscar-winning director Jan “Kolya” Sverak; Insects, the legendary filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s swansong; the UK premiere of Martin Sulik’s drama The Interpreter starring the Oscar-winning director of Closely Observed Trains Jiri Menzel and German star of Toni Erdmann Peter Simonischek, fresh from the 2018 Berlinale. Also screening will be Olmo Omerzu’s Winter Flies, winner of the 2018 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Director’s Prize. Complemented by Vit Klusak’s The White World According to Daliborek, a hilarious stylised documentary portrait of a Czech neo-nazi, and Cervena, Olga Sommerova’s portrait of a vivacious 92-year-old world famous opera singer, the mixture of fiction and documentaries with accompanying debates and Q&A showcases the best of Czech cinema mapping the country’s past and current achievements.

MADE IN PRAGUE | Czech Centre London and other venues across the city, including the Barbican, Design Museum, Regent Street Cinema, Tate Modern, UCL, plus others.


Karlovy Vary Retrospective 2018 | Poetic Documentaries from the Baltic

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the independence of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, this year’s Karlovy Vary festival has put together an extensive retrospective of poetic documentary films from the Baltic region. This collection of important works of the “Baltic New Wave” dating back to the early 1960s features the world premiere of Bridges of Time, a new documentary by renowned Lithuanian filmmaker Audrius Stonys and his Latvian colleague Kristine Briede.

The section Reflections of Time: Baltic Poetic Documentary, which will consist of six blocks of short- and medium-length films and two feature-length documentaries, represents a rare opportunity to see key works of documentary film from the Baltic countries within the context of films made in neighbouring countries. “Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia share with the former Czechoslovakia not just the year in which they declared their independence, but also an exceptionally artistic outpouring of cinematic production in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, Baltic documentary film underwent a narrative and aesthetic transformation. The works of the new generation of filmmakers contrasted with the earlier approach to documentary films, and this Renaissance in Baltic documentary film reflected worldwide changes in how documentaries were made. The newly created films were characterized by a sensitivity towards the story and the chosen subjects. They were based more on the image as such, and explored the possibilities of the wide-screen format, editing, unusual combinations of sound and image, working with time and space, and sometimes also staged re-enactments. These filmmakers were inspired by the legends of documentary film such as Dziga Vertov, but also by the latest trends of cinéma-vérité or direct cinema.

Among the documentaries in the retrospective are films by Latvian directors Ivars Kraulītis (his canonical 1961 short film White Bells), Aivars Freimanis and Herz Frank (the legendary 1978 film Ten Minutes Older, an intimate portrait of a boy watching a puppet theatre consisting of a single ten-minute shot). One of the early pioneers of the new cinematic style, Uldis Brauns, will be represented by his grand feature film 235,000,000(1967), which shows the life of people and important events in the Soviet Union.

Lithuania is represented by two award-wining documentaries by Robertas Verba, the founding father of Lithuanian poetic documentary film and the country’s most distinctive documentary filmmaker. The Old Man and the Land (1965) and The Dreams of the Centenarians (1969) both immortalize the ancient inhabitants of the Lithuanian countryside. Other Lithuanian films include Henrikas Šablevičius’s A Trip Across Misty Meadows (1973), which takes the viewer on a journey across the traditional Lithuanian landscape, and Apolinaras (1973), a film about an eccentric guardian of the law who, like Verba’s old men, is far removed from Soviet reality.

Estonia’s stylistically diverse documentary cinema, whose main focus was not only on village life, but to a large extent also on the city, is represented by films by Andres Sööt (The 511 Best Photographs of Mars, 1968, which combines real and imaginary states and experiments with a hidden camera), Ülo Tambek (Peasants, 1969, which spent 20 years locked in the vaults for its critical view of the Soviet system) and Mark Soosaar (The Woman of Kihnu, 1974, an anthropological observational documentary).

The section also presents the newest generation of filmmakers who began to work during the collapse of the Soviet Union and whose poetic style was significantly influenced by the New Wave of Baltic documentary film. Lithuanian documentarian Audrius Stonys will presents his film The Land of the Blind (1992), which earned him the European Film Academy’s Phoenix Award for Best Documentary Film, and also his later Anti-Gravitation (1995). We will also be showing renowned Latvian director Laila Pakalniņa’s trilogy The Linen, The Ferry and The Mail (1991–95), which launched her international film career (The Ferry and The Mail were screened as part of the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival).

The retrospective’s highlight is Bridges of Time, a remarkable metaphysical essay by renowned Lithuanian filmmaker Audrius Stonys and his Latvian colleague Kristine Briede – an untraditional look at the generation of filmmakers of the “Baltic New Wave” and a meditation on the ontology of documentary film. “Baltic poetic documentary cinema created an independent world, free from soviet ideology, lie and propaganda. It was a declaration of inner freedom. The black and white world of poetic documentary films was full of colours. Sadness was full of joy. And joy was touched by deep existential sadness. These films reminded us about the very core of cinema—to film and to enjoy the beauty of the leaves, moving in the wind.” adds Audrius Stonys. The film’s presentation at Karlovy Vary will be its world premiere.

KARLOVY VARY FILM FESTIVAL | Czech Republic | 29 JUNE – 7 JULY 2018

Oddsockeaters (2017) **** DVD release

Wri/Dir: Galina Miklinova | Animation | Czech Rep | 83′

This Czech animation cleverly makes a strangely endearing storyline out of the sock that routinely go missing in the wash, while the other sits forlornly at the back of the airing cupboard waiting to be reunited with its other half.

Clearly this is an annoying scenario, and one that has worried Galina Miklinova enough for her to make a feature length musical Noir set in a dystopian corner of modern Prague, where its invisible sock inhabitants have been successful dubbed into English – with Brooklyn accents – and its central character little Hugo (Christian Vandepass) is a cute and curious stripy blue sock who has stolen not one, but an entire pair of socks to give to his grandpa Lamor on his deathbed: “baby socks give you the best nutrition” says Hugo as his grandpa’s life slips away, telling him to seek out his uncle, a gang leader, Big Boss (Gregg Weiner), the only family he has left.

The street recreations are absolutely terrific as the film deftly mixes 3D computer animated adventure with themes of alienation and homesickness, not unlike a sort urban-based and more nefarious version of The Clangers. What follows is a fascinating survival story where Hugo and his twin cousins, Ramses and Tulamor have to compete with their arch rival Professor René Kaderábek, who also shares their attic abode by the river in Prague, while drawing courage from the rules his grandpa has told him. It turns out however, that their biggest enemy is a gangster named Sid who head another gang of Oddsockeaters. The two rival gangs sock in out an this inventive and enjoyable urban adventure that never outstays its welcome during its modest running time. MT

In The Shadow (2012) UK Jewish Film Festival 2013

Dir.: David Ondricek; Cast: Ivan Trojan, Sebastian Koch, Sona Norisova, Jeri Stepnicka;

Czech Republic 2012, 106 min.

This Czech Republic Oscar entry 2013 is a film noir that takes us back to Prague 1953: Detective Hakl (Ivan Trojan) is working on a case of robbery where jewellery has been stolen, and a safe cracked open in a very unprofessional way.  Kirsch, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, living in the Jewish Centre of Prague, seems to be the main suspect, but Hakl soon finds out, that he is only the fall guy in a conspiracy which leads to the top of the Prague Police.  Hakl’s boss, soon to be promoted, has ‘arranged’ not only this crime, but also a robbery on a post office, where a huge amount is stolen, and witnesses, including a police officer, are killed.

All this is set up to prosecute members of the Jewish community as ‘Zionist agents, who rob the state to buy weapons for the Zionist state as part of a worldwide American conspiracy’.  Hakl meets Zenke (Sebastian Koch), an Ex-SS man, who has returned from a Siberian prison, to help the Czech police with this case. Zenke, who can’t speak the native language, is shown as a piano-playing, cultured man, who flirts with Hakl’s wife Jilka and plays football with his son Thomas.  Hakl confronts Zenke, but he can’t stop the show trial of the  ‘Zionist conspirators’, and Zenke returns to Germany in a swap for a German spy.

This film has two sides: the brilliant aesthetics of the camera work; the sets (the film was shot in Lodz, Poland);  the haunting music that echoes the sinister mood and the restrained but subtly-convincing acting.  The bleak city; the grey buildings with the bullet marks of the Second World War; the lack of food and the dreariness of everyday life is wonderfully re-created.  The camera follows Hakl, from hunter to being hunted though the labyrinths of a decaying city, where it is never really light. This is a true film noir, which catches the joyless atmosphere of Stalinism perfectly.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers have, in their justified grievance against the Stalinist state, made the plot rather unbelievable, by introducing a SS man, fresh out of a Siberian prison as the main helper of the Czech police.  What help can the man give, when he can’t even speak the language of the country?  Where did he get the information, since he came straight from Siberia?  Why would the German’s swap him for a spy, since he has no value for them.  There a no excuses for the excesses of Stalinist policies, their crimes against humanity are well documented. But the filmmakers don’t help their cause in making them looking worse, by introducing a SS man as their willing tool.  Because we should not forget either, that the war criminals of the SS were sheltered by the West German state, helping them to avoid prosecution.  And Anti-Semitism was as rife in Germany as well as in the rest of Europe, which is proven by the help of the police in all the countries occupied by Germany, helping the occupiers to organise the journeys of Jews to the extermination camps.  A shame that such a visual feast depicting an important part of Czech and Jewish history is spoiled by an absurd plot. AS


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