Prague, Czech Republic – One of the most talented Czech filmmakers of her generation, the works of Věra Chytilová still struggle to reach a broader international audience beyond her native country’s borders.
Who was Věra Chytilová?
Born in Ostrava in then Czechoslovakia in 1929, Věra Chytilová had a brief stint as a philosophy student and then took on a string of short-term jobs, including working as a fashion model and performing small tasks at the Barrandov film studios in Prague.
She was later accepted in Prague’s FAMU cinema school and graduated from the renowned institution in 1962 alongside the likes of Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel. In only a few years, she became one of the most emblematic filmmakers of the Czech New Wave, an avant-garde cinematic movement that spread across Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s, including through her first feature film Something Different (O něčem jiném, 1963) and the surreally nutty Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966).
The invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968, putting an end to the period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring, dealt a heavy blow to her creative experiments. Unlike many of her compatriots, she decided to stay in Czechoslovakia and mostly focused on directing commercials under the name of her husband, cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera.
Chytilová still managed to direct and release feature films during the 1970’s and 1980’s, including The Apple Game (Hra o jablko, 1976), although the watchful eye of communist censors was never far away.
“She has always been a prominent driving force in the Czech film business,” film critic Věra Zaoralová commented on her 80th birthday in 2009. “Her style was an inspiration to others and helped mould the Czech New Wave of the 1960’s. You can say she was its leading representative.”
From The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag, 1992) to her last movie Pleasant Moments (Hezké chvilky bez záruky, 2006), Věra Chytilová pursued her prolific career after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism. She also taught at FAMU and received numerous Czech and international awards. She died in Prague in 2014 at the age of 85.
“I have no favourite film. In fact, I can’t even remember everything I did,” she told Radio Prague a few years before her death. So, in order to refresh our – and also apparently, her – memory, here’s Kafkadesk’s selection of Věra Chytilová’s five best movies.
Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966)
Widely considered as Chytilová’s masterpiece and an absolute milestone in Czechoslovak cinema, Daisies is the deconstructed story of two girls, a blonde and a brunette both called Marie played by amateur actresses, set within a psychedelic frenzy and existential-crisis-driven debauchery.
Exuberantly chaotic, uncompromisingly destructive in its structure and characters, Daisies left an enduring mark on Czechoslovak and international avant-garde cinema. “The monstrosity of the main characters [is] depicted elegantly, poetically, dreamlike and beautifully,” Milan Kundera wrote about the film, which she herself would describe as a philosophical film in the form of a farce. Intrigued?
Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromů rajských jíme, 1969)
A surreal and experimental re-imagining of the story of Adam and Eve, Fruit of Paradise was co-written with long-time collaborator Ester Krumbachová (who also worked on Daisies) and entered at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival in France. It is Chytilová’s last film before invading Soviet tanks put an end to the “socialism with a human face” experiment and banned her work for several years.
Often praised for its stunning visuals and aesthetics, the movie won the experimental film award at Chicago. “Even as the film’s allegorical scaffolding was shaped explicitly by the historical events taking place during the shoot” – the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – “it is clear that it has much more to offer than a simple transposition of the Genesis urtext,” critics write.
“Just as freedom of choice was baked into the creation of Paradise, so too are Chytilová’s viewers encouraged to follow their own interpretations away from any directorial commentary.“
The Apple Game (Hra o jablko, 1976)
Starring fellow avant-garde filmmaker Jiří Menzel in the lead role, The Apple Game is one of Chytilová’s most striking films released in the 1970’s, and follows the romantic entanglements of a Prague gynaecologist and the love triangle that forms with two of his lovers.
Chytilová was able to release the movie thanks to international pressure and after sending a personal letter to Czechoslovakia’s President expressing her trust and belief in socialism. The movie was screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in western Bohemia.
“They said it was too simple, too banal,” she said describing the reaction of Barrandov Studio producers to the straightforward storyline. “But when a topic is very banal, very simple, a triangle, children coming into the world, we all experience that, and we can all feel a certain euphoria. Now, people who see it tell me they can identify with this, and they’re glad someone expressed it.”
Wolf’s Hole (Vlčí bouda, 1986)
A mix of science-fiction and horror movie supported by a harrowing musical score by Michal Kocáb, Wolf’s Hole was nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 37th Berlin International Film Festival, and is one of half a dozen feature films directed by Chytilová in the 1980’s.
Widely perceived as an allegory of Czechoslovak society during the normalization period, the movie tells the story of a group of eleven teenagers during a bizarre rite-of-passage skiing trip in the mountains in a chalet cut off from the outside world. Except there were only supposed to be ten of them. Who is the intruder? And more importantly: who are the three mysterious instructors?
The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag, 1992)
Powered by a memorable performance by Czech star actor Bolek Polívka (who also co-wrote the screenplay), The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday was released in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of communism, and just before the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia.
It follows the story of Bohuš, a loud and slivovice-fuelled hillbilly who learns an unexpected inheritance has made him a millionaire, and his subsequent attempts to claim what he believes is rightfully his in Moravia and the changes he brings to his life as a result of the change of fortune. Described as too crude and self-indulging by some critics, the movie nevertheless provides a colourful snapshot of life in post-communist Czechoslovakia, looking at the hopes (and related fears) of a nation stepping into new and uncertain times.