Posts Tagged ‘Czech film festival’

Shadow Country | Made in Prague Czech Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Bohdan Slama; Cast: Magdalena Borova, Stanislav Majer, Csongor Kassai, Denisa Bresova, Robert Miklus, Petra Spalkova, Marie Ludvikova, Jiri Cerny; Czech Republic 2020, 135′.

In this stark but illuminating drama Bohdan Slama chronicles the longterm social consequences of “ethnic cleansing” in a Czechoslovakian village near the Austrian border from the 1930s until the late 1950s.

German”Sudetenland’, as it was known at the time, consisted of about three million people who lived under German occupation during 1938/9. German became the official language – although Czech remained the lingua franca. Seventy five percent of the Jewish population (around 590,000) was exterminated by the occupying forces and their Czech collaborators, property was confiscated, along with that of the Czech inhabitants. As one villager puts it, in his lifetime, he lived in 3 different countries without moving house

In 1943, the Allies made plans for several million Germans to leave the country, a process that took nearly three years. But as the War came to an end in 1945, over 60,000 were Germans were forcibly evicted by Czechs, some even killed with the silent consent of the government and political parties across the board. .

The famous Singer Sewing machine becomes the symbol for these tortured events from the late 1930s onwards. Given to a couple at the christening of their new-born child, it will change hands often before being discarded the the rubbish in the end. Ivan Arsenyev’s script follows a married couple: Marie Veberova (Borova) is Czech and her German husband, Veber, is a trader. In order not to attract attention to themselves many Czech citizens ‘forget’ their language. Jews are required to leave, their property is ‘shared’  with the remaining, often well-off, Czechs. Resistance is sparse, only Joseph Pachl (Kassai) and a few others try to arm themselves against their enemies. Pachl is soon arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Life in the village changes completely: an previously innocuous woman discovers her love of Fascism, forcing her school kids to sing the Nazi youth hymn “Unsere Fahne flattert uns voran”. Veber and others look after Joseph’s daughter, Zdena Pachlova, but take her property in payment.

Essentially an account of how ordinary people respond to these changing circumstances with all the contingent ideological and racial implications involved this is a deeply affecting film that avoids melodrama or a sentimental approach, drawing comparisons with recent outings on a similar themes such as The Painted Bird and Charlatan.

Several years in the making, the Slama works with a cast of actors and non-pros drawing on real incidents without creating a drama documentary; the film focuses on a collection of characters showing how divisions are rife. Petty thieving becomes the order of the day, everyone stealing from their neighbours. Symbolically, one old woman steals three cups from her recently departed neighbours. When they return after the end of the war, she shamelessly returns them with the comment “I wanted to have something to remember you by”.

The end of the Nazi occupation has dire consequences for those who have collaborated. The woman who led the singing is raped, and Pachl, who has returned more dead than alive from the camps, is put in charge of the community. Later, soldiers make him responsible for a ‘show trial’ against a group of collaborators, amongst them is Veber. The victims are forced to dig their own graves. Pachl is later appalled by what he has done, and is accused of making the trial into a shambolic farce by the authorities.

With his use of 35 mm real film stock, DoP Divis Marek ensures  unmitigated bleakness throughout. Early scenes are shot on the widescreen in a bid to create a collective feeling of community – capturing thirty or so people in one panoramic take. But this sense of unity soon breaks down into violence and greed. Needless to say, there are no heroes, just victims of various kinds. The male-centric narrative has no room for sympathy, although a few women rise about the parapet in their attempts to shine light on the darkness and depravity of this devastating episode in history.

Slama’s outlook for humankind is as depressing as his film. History tends to repeat itself, and the Czech director shares his thoughts in a recent interview where he talks about the burgeoning sense of Nationalism sweeping through Europe as populations feel increasingly swamped by the social pressures of mass migration. AS




Ecstasy | Estasi (1932) Made in Prague Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Gustav Machaty; Cast: Hedy Kiesler-Lamarr, Aribert Moog, Zvonimir Rogoz, Leopold Kramer; Czechoslovakia 1932, 90 min.

Czech director/co-writer Gustav Machaty (1901-1963) paints a portrait of passionate love and jealousy, set in and around Prague in the early 1930s and based on the novel by Robert Horky.

A mixture of sound and silent film, Ecstasy would be remembered for its nude scenes rather than its cinematographic value or its bold feminist stance. Hedy Kiesler was the star turn – she would soar to the Hollywood firmament as Hedy Lamarr.

The drama opens as newly-wed couple Ewa (Kiesler) and the much older Emile (Rogoz) arrive home.  Emile fumbles with his keys, desperate for a night-cup. Pricking his finger while trying to help Ewa take off her necklace, his mood worsens and he reaches for the newspaper, ignoring his beautiful bride. Ewa leaves him and returns to the estate of her father (Kramer) where she skinny-dips in the lake, her horse running off with her clothes. Meanwhile Adam (Moog), a young engineer, working on the railway-line, catches the horse and returns her clothes in an encounter that leads to a torrid night of sex and the first female orgasm on screen: Ewa’s eyes are closed, her lips parted, whilst another shot shows her limp wrist, symbolically dropping the necklace with its pearls rattling to the floor. 

Emile realises the error of his ways and tries to make amends – but Ewa rejects him  – he then comes across Adam and gives him a lift in his car unaware to the tryst. But when he sees the necklace in Adam’s hands, Emile is distraught and commits suicide the same evening in a hotel where the couple are dancing. Ewa is shocked and abandons Adam. The finale pictures her happily cuddling a new-born baby.

Ewa’s search for passion is seen as a rightful pursuit, a stance against her selfish  husband. But Adam is neither her saviour nor her downfall. Ewa’s reputation survives intact, Adam comes across as a naïve country boy, fulfilled by his work on the land more than his affair with a woman, and merely the catalyst for Ewa’s emancipation. Ewa is not punished like Madame Bovary. She is a self-determining woman who has chosen pleasure above pain.

Produced for the German market, Ecstasy is certainly still very central European in tone, Vienna, Austria, and the old Habsburg Empire are still alive. The lack of dialogue is surprising: Ewa’s scenes with Emile and Adam are silent. At a time when men had the last word, Ewa proves that actions speak louder than words. But when she does speak – in the scene with her father – Ewa is in charge, telling him to lie to her ex-husband when the he phones. Her father asks: “Why do I have to lie?”, Ewa answering “So I have my peace”. 

The film premiered in Prague in January 1933, with Kiesler storming out of the theatre, feeling betrayed by the director and producer, who had promised that the nude scenes would be shot from far away, so that nobody would recognise her. In Germany, the feature was cut from the original length of 95 minutes to a mere 82. In the USA, Ecstasy was forbidden until 1940, when it was show in an even more edited version than in Germany. France was the only place where the original version is still shown even today.

Later, Kiesler’s husband, the arms dealer Fritz Mandle, would try to buy up all the copies of the film but without the negative, his efforts would be in vain – as were his attempts to hold on to his wife.

Shot by DoP Jan Stallich in intimate close-ups, the wider screen scenes at the railway, are edited by Antonin Zelenka in the way of the Russian montage features. Ecstasy would be Machaty’s last film in his homeland. He went to work in Germany and Italy, before returning to Hollywood, where he had learned his trade from Griffith and Von Sternberg in the 1920s. His film noir Jealousy (1945) is one of the gems of the genre. Machaty moved to Germany in 1951, teaching at the Munich Film School and directing his last feature Suchkind 312 in 1955. AS

Ecstasy with live overture by Anna Vöröšová / Sun 7 Nov, 3 pm



Diamonds of the Night | Demanti Noci (1964) | Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Jan Nemec; Cast: Ladislav Jansky, Antonin Kumbera, Ilse Bischofova; Czechoslovakia 1964, 63 min. 

This debut feature of director/co-writer Jan Nemec (1936-2016) is based on a short story by Arnost Lustig, to whom Nemec also turned for his graduation film at the famous FAMU filmschool in Prague. Shot in black-and-white with a mostly handheld camera by DoP Laroslav Kucera (Death of a Fly), Diamonds is one of the first examples of Czech feature films heralding the ‘New Wave’, which would be snuffed out by the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Set in 1944, two Jewish teenagers (Jansky/Kumbera) escape from a train destined to deliver them to Dachau KZ, and into the wooded hills. They are soon chased by a group of ‘Volkssturm’ or elderly soldiers (a bit like our own Home Guard) who had been called up for service by the desperate German Fascists. The boys’ flight is shown in parallel montages with their rather mundane past and fractured memories, not always in chronicle order, which not only adds heart-pumping suspense but also considerable poignance, as we feel for the boys in the plight. When they encounter a farmer’s wife, Jansky contemplates killing or seducing her in a dream sequence. But instead he steals a loaf of bread, and they make off again. Finally, the boys are rounded up by the cackling Germans, and are about to be shot, but not before the old gaffers enjoy their ‘hunting’ feast. Nemec ends the feature on a very ambiguous note: with the boys being spared their fate, or as walking away as ghosts.

Nemec got into trouble with the Stalinist censors because of his use of surreal Bunüel-like sequences, with  ants eating up everything around them. The director was accused of ‘Formalism’ by the authorities. His next feature, A Report on the Party and their Guests (1966), was seen as an affront to the ruling Party, and would have got him into more trouble, had The Prague Spring not intervened.

Oratio for Prague(1968) was Nemec’s answer to the invasion, and he was unable to direct any more films before he was exiled in 1974. He tried to establish himself in the USA and France, among other countries, but not as a filmmaker, he became a pioneer of video films. After 1989, he got back to his homeland and directed Code Name Ruby (1997), which won the Golden Leopard in Locarno. Later in life, whilst still working, he was critical of the current president Milos Zeman, whose anti-liberal laws Nemec opposed, sending his medals, received from President Havel, to Zeman –  completing the sad story of a truly liberal filmmaker, caught up in different form of authoritarian regimes. AS







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