Prague, Czech Republic – One of the most lasting impacts of the liberalisation of Czechoslovakia‘s society in the 1960’s, commonly known as the “Prague Spring”, can be found on-screen: the “Czech New Wave” describes this highly prolific and influential film-making movement born at that time that created among the best Czechoslovak movies of the century.
Despite its briefness, the legacy of this new generation of filmmakers, which gravitated around Prague’s renowned FAMU cinema school and the Barrandov studios, can still be felt today and its standing can be compared to other independent European movements, such as Italy’s Neo-Realism or the French Nouvelle Vague.
The “Czechoslovak film miracle”, as it is sometimes called, reached world-wide audience of moviegoers, fascinated by its dark humour, masterful treatment of presumably mundane topics, as well as its reliance on improvisation by unprofessional actors and masterpieces of Czech literature alike. In 1968, Soviet tanks came rolling down Wenceslas Square, cutting this experience short and forcing some directors into exile, others to silence.
Kafkadesk compiled a list of our five favourite and best Czechoslovak movies from this era for you to enjoy, without any restraint!
The Outrageous Baron Munchausen (1962)
Directed by special-effect prodigy and animation pioneer Karel Zeman (1910-1989), The Outrageous Baron Munchausen is based on the tales of the eponymous fictional character invented by German writer Erich Raspe in the late 18th century. The combination of live-action footage and animation techniques, one of the trademarks of the “Czech Méliès”, enables Zeman to create a breathtaking creative piece, a space adventure in decors influenced by Gustave Doré’s paintings and engravings.
“Pure visual storytelling”, will later say Terry Gilliam, himself influenced by the Czech director for his own Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). If you happen to be in Prague, be sure to visit the Karel Zeman Museum. Otherwise, you can just enjoy more of his outstanding movies, such as Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958) or A Jester’s Tale (1964).
The Cremator (1969)
We randomly stumbled on this movie, at the crossroads of the dark comedy and psychological horror genres, and immediately thought about adding it to our list.
Directed by Juraj Herz (1934-2018), The Cremator is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, and follows, from a highly-subjective point of view, the dreams of grandeur, delusions and madness of Kopfrkingl, a demented corpse incinerator, in the city of Pardubice in 1939. “The flames, my sweet, will not hurt you”, he says, firmly believing that cremation can relieve humankind from earthly suffering, in a thinly-veiled reference to later events.
Compared to other New Wave directors, Juraj Herz remains relatively unknown; maybe, as he himself suggested, due to the fact he studied the less-prestigious discipline of puppetry at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. However, he went on to direct other important movies afterwards, most notably Oil Lamps (1971), Morgiana (1972), and Beauty and the Beast (1978).
Marketa Lazarova (1967)
Often hailed as one of the best Czech, or Czechoslovak movies ever made, Marketa Lazarova is a rarity, one of these little gems to keep for a rainy Sunday afternoon when you’re in the right state of mind, ready to completely surrender yourself to its contemplative beauty and multi-layered intrigue.
Directed by Frantisek Vlacil (1924-1999) and based on a 1931 novel by Vladislav Vancura, this eponymous historic movie, set in Medieval Bohemia, tells the story of the daughter of a feudal lord kidnapped by a marauder before she is able to enter the convent she was promised to.
For anyone who wishes to know anything about Czechoslovak cinema, there’s no way around this one. The main actress’s performance, Magdalena Vasaryova – who became Slovakia’s ambassador to Austria and Poland after 1989 – is, in itself, worth it.
Closely Watched Trains (1966)
Directed by Jiri Menzel (born in 1938), Closely Watched Trains was the first Czechoslovak movie we ever saw and remains, several years later, engraved in our mind. Based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal – who collaborated on the adaptation – it’s a coming-of-age story of a young boy working in a train station in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, skilfully mixing the provincial, almost trivial narrative with the great events of history.
“In my opinion, the true poetry of this movie, if it has any, lies not in the absurd situation themselves, but in their juxtaposition with obscenity and tragedy”, Jiri Menzel said, quoted in a 1999 Guardian article. It is, without a doubt, one of the most accomplished (and funny) movies of its generation, and should definitely be added to your watch list.
Loves of a Blonde (1965)
And finally, our personal favourite and number 1 in the top 5 best Czechoslovak movies of all time: Loves of a Blonde, Milos Forman’s (1932-2018) second feature film and one of the most influential movies of the Czech New Wave.
This low-key, bitter-sweet, black-and-white movie tells the story of Andula, a young woman working in a shoe factory in a small Bohemian town during the war, her infatuation with a young jazz pianist she met at a ball, and the chaos which ensues her decision to show up at his doorstep in Prague.
Milos Forman’s contribution to the Czech New Wave includes other prominent movies, such as Black Peter (1963) and The Firemen’s Ball (1967).
After the 1968 Soviet invasion and crushing of the Prague Spring, he emigrated to the United States, second chapter of an incredibly prolific career. There, he directed internationally-acclaimed masterpieces, including One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Hair (1979), Amadeus (1984), Valmont (1989) or The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996).