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Who was Otakar Vávra, the controversial “father of Czech cinema”?

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Prague, Czech Republic – One of the most prolific Czech directors and screenwriters of all time, Otakar Vávra’s incredible career spanned more than 50 years for about as many movies.

In addition to his filmmaking career, his role in the foundation of Prague’s renowned FAMU cinema school and mentoring of some of the greatest Czech cinematic talents of the past century have earned him the nickname “the father of Czech cinema” – a title tainted, for some, by opportunistic political and ideological loyalties.

Vávra and the rise of Czech cinema

Born in 1911 in the city of Hradec Králové, then part of Austria-Hungary, Vávra initially studied architecture in Brno and Prague. His passion however soon turned to cinema as he started writing scripts and working on documentaries throughout his student years.

A few years after the foundation of the Barrandov film studios in Prague, he released his directorial debut History of Philosophy (Filosofská historie), followed by a series of shorts and features like The Merry Wives (Cech panen Kutnohorských, 1938) which quickly established him as a leading figure of interwar Czechoslovak cinema. Contrary to most, he continued working during the seven-year occupation of Nazi Germany, directing a dozen movies throughout the Second World War.

Following the end of the war, the Prague coup of 1948 brought Communists to power, paving the way for over four decades of undisguised communist rule in Czechoslovakia. But Vávra quickly adapted to the new political climate and ruling ideology in a turn-around that would become a trademark of his surprisingly enduring career.

A member of the Communist party, he wrote and directed movies in line with the political goals and artistic tastes of the communist regime, including with the Silent Barricade (Němá barikáda, 1949) which celebrated the liberation of Prague by the Soviet army in 1945.

Tiptoeing on the waves of history

In the 1950’s, his Hussite Trilogy – Jan Hus (1954), The Hussites (Jan Žižka, 1955) and Against All Odds (Proti všem, 1957) – based on 19th century novels by Alois Jirásek was praised for its cinematic quality, albeit tainted by its dubious reinterpretation of Czech history through the lens of the communist regime’s narrative.

Widely seen as the golden age of Czechoslovak cinema, the 1960’s is also considered as one of Vávra’s most creative periods, bringing forth masterpieces like Golden Queen (Zlatá reneta, 1965), Romance for Bugle (Romance pro křídlovku, 1966) and Witches’ Hammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice, 1969) released during or right after the Prague Spring.

“His best era is the early 1930’s when he was very much influenced by foreign films and wanted to enhance Czech cinema. Another good period came in the 1960’s when he taught at Prague’s FAMU film school,” movie critic Emil Fiala told Radio Prague.

The reformist euphoria of the 1960’s would come to a tragic end with the 1968 Soviet-led invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia, which Vávra publicly supported, thus allowing him to continue working throughout the grim “normalization” of the 1970’s and the 1980’s.

The next two decades would mainly be focused on directing war movies and historical documentaries, including his “War Trilogy” of the 1970’s comprising Days of Betrayal (Dny zrady, 1973), Sokolov (1974) and The Liberation of Prague (Osvobození Prahy, 1976) – all obediently in line with the official narrative of the communist regime.

From the Velvet Revolution in 1989 to his death over twenty years later, Vávra would release only one short film My Prague (Moje Praha) in 2003. He received the Czech Lion award for his lifelong contribution to Czech culture in 2001, and the presidential Medal of Merit from the hands of Czech President Václav Klaus three years later. His memoirs The Strange Life of a Film Director were published in 2011, several months before his death at the age of 100.

Otakar Vávra’s complex legacy

From the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the First Czechoslovak Republic, from the Nazi-ruled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to communist Czechoslovakia all the way to independent post-1993 Czech Republic: Vávra lived and worked through all the regimes changes the country has seen in the past century, an ability that remains a source of controversy today.

Throughout his life and including after his death, Vávra has been criticized and reviled by many of his compatriots who see his constantly changing sides and cozying up to Czechoslovakia’s successive oppressors as shameless opportunism disguised as professional steadfastness.

Others however prefer to highlight his incredibly prolific career and invaluable contribution to Czechoslovak and Czech cinema – an impact which might not have been possible had he chosen (like many of his contemporaries and own students) the path of dissent, revolt, or exile.

For Otakar Vávra’s reputation as “the father of Czech cinema” is intimately linked, not only to his career as a filmmaker and screenwriter, but above all to his pedagogical legacy.

From the start of the 1950’s, Vávra – himself largely autodidact – taught film direction at the renowned FAMU cinema school of Prague, which he helped establish during the second half of the 1940’s. For more than fifty years, he taught, helped, advised, and groomed several generations of Czech directors, defining for decades to come the way filmmaking can be taught.

Among his students were Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Ivan Passer and Věra Chytilová – four of the most prominent representatives of the Czech New Wave – or more recently Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, all of whom recognized the debt they owe to their former mentor.

“Otakar Vávra is a living memory of Czech cinema”, film critic Emil Fiala told Radio Prague. “He went through nearly all of its stages, from silent black-and-white films to colour, wide-screen, stereoscopic and stereophonic movies. He was a specialist in historic movie, particularly in crowd scenes that at the time were aimed at supporting the national identity.”

Otakar Vávra’s legacy is bound to endure. As is the difficulty to judge the man, the filmmaker, and the teacher all at once.