Prague, Czech Republic – South Korean film Parasite made history in 2020 by becoming the first non-English language film to be named best picture at the Oscars. Kafkadesk looks back at all the previous Central European nominations for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, previously known as Best Foreign Language Film.
Before 1992, Czechoslovakia received six Oscar nominations, winning twice: in 1966, with The Shop on Main Street, in Slovak, directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, and two years later in 1968, with Closely Watched Trains, in Czech, directed by Jiri Menzel.
After the 1993 breakup, the Czech Republic and Slovakia both began submitting films separately, with the Czech Republic getting three more Oscar nominations and winning once, with Kolya, directed by Jan Sverak, in 1997.
Milos Forman had two of his films selected to represent Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s, both of them receiving a nomination, but only won his Oscars after emigrating to the United States, with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), which are thus not included on this list.
1966: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze), directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos
Set during World War II, The Shop on Main Street is a movie about the Aryanization programme in the Slovak State. It tells the story of a Slovak carpenter in Nazi-occupied Slovakia, played by Jozef Kroner, who is appointed “Aryan controller” of the store of a near-deaf Jewish widow, played by Polish actress Ida Kamisska.
Although originally based on Ladislav Grosman’s short story in Czech, “The Trap”, the story was subsequently reworked by Grosman himself into a shooting script with Slovak dialogues. Funded by Czechoslovakia‘s central authorities, as were all films under the Communist regime and produced at Prague’s Barrandov Film Studio, the film was shot with a Slovak cast almost exclusively on location in the small town of Sabinov in north-eastern Slovakia. According to Variety, “Kroner’s performance is pitched perfectly between cheerful laziness and moral outrage, while Odessa-born Polish stage actress Kaminska brings a heartbreaking dignity to Rozalia’s plight”.
Following the release of the movie in the United States the following year, Ida Kaminska was also nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1966, losing to Elizabeth Taylor who won her second Oscar for her role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
1968: Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky), directed by Jiri Menzel
Based on a 1965 novel by Bohumil Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains is a a coming-of-age story about a young man working at a train station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Jiri Menzel’s first nomination, the film is one of the best-known products of what came to be known as the Czech New Wave.
The New York Times wrote that “what it appears Mr. Menzel is aiming at all through his film is just a wonderfully sly, sardonic picture of the embarrassments of a youth coming of age in a peculiarly innocent yet worldly provincial environment. The charm of his film is in the quietness and slyness of his earthy comedy, the wonderful finesse of understatements, the wise and humorous understanding of primal sex”. For The Guardian, “few European films are so affectionately remembered as Closely Observed Trains, one of the pinnacles of the Czech New Wave of the 60s, brutally cut short by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia”.
The train station depicted in the movie still stands, and in 2017, a museum was opened there to commemorate this film.
1997: Kolya (Kolja), directed by Jan Sverak
Set in 1988 as the Soviet bloc is beginning to disintegrate, Kolya tells the story of Frantisek Louka, a middle-aged concert cellist dedicated to bachelorhood and the pursuit of women who has been bounced out of the Philharmonic and now makes ends meet by playing at funerals, and repairing tombstones.
The film gained positive reviews and earned critical acclaim, winning six Czech Lions and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in addition to its Academy Award. Written by its star, Zdenek Sverak, and directed by his son, Jan, the movie is “a work of love”, according to movie critic Robert Ebert, who adds that “missing a film like Kolya would not be a price I would be willing to pay”.
Fun fact: the DVD version was the first officially published movie DVD in Region 2.
1967: Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky), directed by Milos Forman
Loves of a Blonde follows a young working-class woman named Andula, played by Hana Brejchova, who works in a shoe factory in provincial town of Czechoslovakia where, due to an oversight in central state planning, women outnumber men 16 to one. Milos Forman focused much of his attention on trying to create a real-life look and feel by filming on location in a small Czech town with a shoe factory of its own, utilizing a largely non-professional cast, relying on a considerable amount of dialogue improvisation, and employing documentary-style cinematographic techniques.
Upon its release, Loves of a Blonde was a popular success in its home country and was shown at some major film festivals, where it was well-received, garnering a number of nominations and awards. International critics also praised the movie. Jean Collet, writing in Cahiers du cinéma wrote that, “by capturing the momentary indiscretions of his characters on the screen, Forman forces the audience into a voyeuristic situation that induces embarrassment and laughter”.
The film is now considered one of the most significant examples of the Czech New Wave.
1969: The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko), directed by Milos Forman
The first color film directed by Milos Forman, The Firemen’s Ball is a comedy that tells the story of a volunteer fire department’s party for their former boss, with the whole town invited, as nothing goes as planned. The film uses only a few professional actors – some firemen portrayed are played by the firemen of the small town where it was filmed.
After the success of Loves of a Blonde (1965), Forman went to the small north Bohemian town of Vrchlabí to concentrate on writing his new film. “One evening, to amuse ourselves, we went to a real firemen’s ball,” Forman recalls. “What we saw was such a nightmare that we couldn’t stop talking about it. So we abandoned what we were writing on to start this script”.
In its portrayal of the prevailing corruption of the local community, and the collapse even of well-intentioned plans, the film has been interpreted as a satire on the communist system by foreign film critics. The film generated considerable controversy on its release. Among other things, fire companies across Czechoslovakia protested that the film was an attack on their integrity, to the extent that Forman and his team felt obliged to tour the country dispelling this literal reading. Czech and Slovak oscar
1987: My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková), directed by Jiri Menzel
My Sweet Little Village follows the life of Otik, played by Janos Ban, a mentally backward young man in a tight-knit village community who works as an assistant truck driver.
The movie gained favorable reviews from movie critics, with Roger Ebert awarding the movie 3 and a half stars out of 4. “In My Sweet Little Village, Menzel discovers some of the same gentle, ironic humor that Forman found in The Fireman’s Ball. He uses everyday life as an instrument for a subtle attack on bureaucracy and a cheerful assertion of human nature. This movie is joyful from beginning to end – a small treasure, but a real one”.
1992: The Elementary School (Obecná škola), directed by Jan Sverak
Directed by Jan Sverak and written by his father Zdenek Sverak, The Elementary School is set in the suburbs of Prague. It tells the story of an authoritative teacher, played by Jan Triska, who arrives in a boys’ elementary school after the previous teacher was driven to a mental breakdown by the students’ complete lack of discipline.
The first non-documentary film by Jan Sverak, the film was the first of the films created by the successful father-son duo, which later included Akumulátor I. (1993), Kolja (1996), Tmavomodrý svět (2000) and Vratné lahve (2007). It is widely considered to be among the best Czechoslovak films ever.
Zdenek Sverak used his own experiences both as a pupil of a similar school and as a former teacher as the idea for the movie. Czech and Slovak oscar
2001: Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat), directed by Jan Hrebejk
Divided We Fall tells the story of childless couple Josef and Marie, played by Bolek Polivka and Anna Siskova, who agree to hide a Jewish friend in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.
The New York Times wrote that “unlike the meretricious Life Is Beautiful, Divided We Fall is pervaded with humor that serves not to sentimentalize or sugarcoat the monstrosity of Nazism, but to explain it”. It adds that “the filmmakers explore not only the banality of evil, but also the banality of goodness, and the ridiculousness, as well as the tragedy, of their collision”.
While about the Nazi occupation and its aftermath, the film carries a similar message of reconciliation for the contemporary Czech Republic in the aftermath of Soviet occupation and domination. The imagery of the film is pretty obvious: Josef and Marie have a child whose father is not Josef and whose birth is even attended by three “wise men” – a Czech, a German, and a Russian…
2004: Zelary, directed by Ondrej Trojan
Adapted from the works of Czech novelist Kveta Legatova, Zelary follows Eliska, a nurse played by Anna Geislerova, who is part of the underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and who has to flee to Zelary, a remote mountain hamlet populated by colorful characters as well as some dangerous ones.
According A. O. Scott in the New York Times, the film “has a familiar, lived-in feel, and if its observations of rural life at a time of political turmoil don’t feel terribly original, they are nonetheless absorbing and sometimes powerful”. A. O. Scott adds that “I found myself reminded, curiously enough, of Cold Mountain, another story of feminine resiliency in wartime, also shot in the mountains of Eastern Europe”.
In fact, the film was mostly shot on location in the Mala Fatra mountains in the northwest region of Slovakia. Czech and Slovak oscar