Like Dreams, Riveted in the Dark: ‘Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave’

“Pearls of the Czech New Wave” is one of the more ingenuously conceived sets in Criterion’s Eclipse series. Normally, Eclipse is the repository for lesser-known works by known directors or career surveys of lesser-known directors. This set gives an overview of a movement. But instead of simply packaging a bunch of films of the Czechoslovak New Wave, this set uses the omnibus film Pearls of the Deep as a starting point from which to explore its topic. The subsequent disks then offer a feature film from each of the directors included in Pearls of the Deep — Evald Schorm, Jan Němec, Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová – along with short but dense and informative essays about their careers.

In his personal history of Czech film, All the Bright Young Men and Women, Josef Škvorecký writes that “Pearls in the Abyss [different translation for title] (1965) was in a certain sense the Manifesto of the New Wave. With the exception of Milos Forman, who was at the time working on Loves of a Blond, all the major representatives of the movement took part in the film.” It could certainly be argued that not all of the major directors were represented. Ivan Passer, for example, is notably absent. (Škvorecký’s book includes a tantalizing note about a short that he shot that was cut out of Pearls of the Deep.) But the directors included are undoubtedly crucial and together demonstrate the breadth of the movement and the commonalities that tied them together.

The Czech New Wave was comprised of a group of filmmakers who came of age at the national film school FAMU in Prague in the early ‘60s. They were a generation whose talent and drive were primed to take advantage of the political reform movements of that decade, which crested and collapsed with the Prague Spring of 1968. They were working within the machinery of the nationalistic film industry under the Communists, where filmmakers were trained at FAMU and funded by the state-run Filmové Studio Barrandov to make socialist realist propaganda. Once the government’s ideological restrictions started to be less severely imposed, the New Wave directors found themselves with a source of financial and artistic support lacking in the west. (Though, once made, some of their films were censored or banned.)

However, the realities of living in Czechoslovakia gave the films a bite, seriousness, and urgency that could be lacking in the Western waves. Their bitter political criticisms are still striking today. The Czech New Wave was brief and its collapse mirrored that of the Prague Spring. Thereafter its major filmmakers fled the nation or effectively ceased to work until the ‘80s.

The first features by New Wave directors were released in 1963: Miloš Forman’s The Audition, Chytilová’s Something Different, and Jireš’ The Cry. But it took them a couple of years for their skills to fully develop. In his essay included with this Eclipse set, Michael Koresky identifies Pearls of the Deep, which was made in 1965, as the “turning point for the young New Wave” for the way that “all of the film’s directors would immediately go on to make major, internationally recognized works.”

The shorts that make up Pearls of the Deep are based on short stories from a book by the writer Bohumil Hrabal. Hrabal’s darkly comic, allegorical stories made him an inspiration to the New Wave directors (Koresky goes into detail on the background of the book and this film.) In his writing, one can find elements that they all used in their films, notably his dry absurdist sense of humor mixed with moments of surrealism and his satiric jabs at the Communist government disguised as a critique of corrupt and inept power in general.

Hrabal’s books formed the basis of two additional key films of the movement, both directed by Jiří Menzel: Closely Watched Trains and Skylarks on a String. Menzel was probably the most successful and widely known of the New Wave after Forman. Trains won an Academy Award for foreign-language film and was an international art-house hit. Menzel’s entry in Pearls of the Deep, “Mr. Balthazar’s Death,” was his directorial debut and made while he was still at student at FAMU. It plays complicated games with time and point of view, taking place at a motorcycle race where the viewers seem to be disturbingly interested in the possibility of crash. The short is also notable for its captivating visuals. The race is composed as a ballet that is a “union of man and machine.” After a deadly crash, a coroner’s sheet is pulled over the motorcycle.

Menzel subsequently made Closely Watched Trains. Its follow-up, Capricious Summer, is included as his feature in this set. It revealed him to be something of the Francois Truffaut or Paul McCartney of the group, with a talent for broad humanism that some of his more radical colleagues could find cloying. Now that the politics of the period have subsided, it reveals itself as an expertly made, lightly comic and melancholic reflection on aging, where three middle-aged men pursue the assistant of a magician who travels through their small town.

Jaromil Jireš was much more vocal and strident in his political views. His Pearls of the Deep short, “Romance,” is tonally closer to the affectionate observational style of Menzel. But its story, about a screwball fling between a Czech teenager and a Gypsy girl, contains deeper resonances on race and the shabby treatment of the Roma in Czech society.

Jireš only made one other feature in the ‘60s, The Joke, after his debut. It’s included in the set and it’s a doozy. Based on Milan Kundera’s novel, the movie is notable for its content as well as its complicated approach to storytelling. Its main story concerns the efforts of middle-aged Ludvik to seduce and then trash the wife of a friend as a form of revenge. That friend, as revealed through a series of ingenuously framed flashbacks, betrayed Ludvik, got him kicked out of the Communist Party and sent to a harsh work camp.

Ludvik is extraordinarily jaded. This cynicism gives him the air of being above and beyond the Communist bullshit, but it has also poisoned his soul. Production on The Joke started in 1968 and finished after the Prague Spring. It was almost immediately pulled from theaters and banned. In retrospect, it seems like a harbinger of the pessimism and aura of total corruption that would define Czech life and culture in the ‘70s, as seen in the writings of Ivan Klima.

Compared to Jireš, Evald Schorm stands out as the sensitive artist of the group. Schorm was mainly a restrained stylist, favoring psychological portraits over the more outrageous absurdism of his compatriots. He is the least widely known director in the set (outside of the Czech Republic) and his inclusion in it is something of a revelation. His feature, Return of the Prodigal Son, about a suicidal architect who struggles to leave a mental hospital and connect with his wife and daughter, is more concerned with the relationships between its main characters than societal politics.

Its opening title card belies his realistic approach to filmmaking, reading “ATTENTION: The film you are about to see – in its plot, characters, and setting – bears no resemblance to reality. It is only a play in which everything is distorted and exaggerated. Life isn’t like this.” This is the cheekiest moment in an otherwise sober movie. Schorm subsequently focuses on subtle, naturalistic acting. There is little to no humor or satire in this very tender and tragic portrait of mental fragility. Although character-based, some social commentary does seep through in the tensions felt between the individuals and the demands made by a collective society.

Schorm’s Pearls of the Deep short, “The House of Joy”, is the only section of Pearls of the Deep in color. There are elements of it, about two insurance salesmen visiting the house of an eccentric folk artist and his wife, which smacks too broadly as a joke on institutional hypocrisy. But it keeps getting weirder in its imagery of religious paintings, skinned goats, car crashes, sped-up action, and trippy editing.

At times this short comes close to the dizzying heights of Věra Chytilová. Her feature Daisies has been released several times before on DVD, but never in a definitive quality version. Its cult fame has grown with the passage of time: its irreverence, gleeful experimentation, and forward thinking politics has given it a perpetual, appealing modernity. So the bigger revelation ends up being her short “The Restaurant The World”, in my opinion the best short in Pearls of the Deep.

The narrative is never totally clear. There is a restaurant; it is night. A wedding party is being held. A girl hangs herself. There is a crowd clamoring to see into the restaurant. The bride and an artist who is drinking at the restaurant bar flee into the rain. Some of the action is related through observation of the characters. There are riveting disjointed images that achieve a bizarre effect of flowing smoothly together. The film becomes a portrait of a frightening state of mind, of repression and murderous unhappiness.

Škvorecký calls Jan Němec “the enfant terrible of the New Wave.” His short “The Imposters” is a simple and slight joke about hypocrisy that is the weakest of the set. But A Report on the Party and the Guests is another key and still influential film of the Czech New Wave. Its quietly sadistic menace can be seen in Michael Haneke’s movies today.

A Report on the Party and Guests opens at a serene country picnic with a group of contented middle class couples. They are bizarrely accosted by a group of men and led to a kangaroo court by a childlike simpleton. The court is broken up and they are then marched to a dinner party held in a field by a smooth talking, obsessive-compulsive tyrant. The movie is a blatant political allegory about people following a dictatorial regime if it’s convenient enough and if it means protecting themselves. Though this allegory could apply equally to the Czech experience with Nazism as much as Communism, A Report on the Party and Guests is as provocative in its way as The Joke and was subsequently banned as well.

Škvorecký says of A Report on the Party and Guests that, “The final effect was of a nightmare, a strange combination of an unreal framework with realistic details of speech and action.” The movie is also a nightmare in that, for the main characters and thus the audience, an innocent dream is corrupted by the inkling of a horrific thought, and because this thought is had, the dream follows it, however unwilling the conscious mind.

There’s something of the dream state in all of these New Wave movies that binds them together. They move dreamily, with a surreal logic, and there is something removed and “off” about them. Rarely do they aim for a strict realism. This may have been a reaction against the socialist realism imposed upon the directors and their forbears. Perhaps this was also a way of trying to get away with something behind the Communist government’s back. A dream is not real, cannot be satirizing or criticizing the real, and thus could be argued as innocent to the powers that be. This is also another characteristic of Hrabal’s writing.

All the Bright Young Men and Women quotes Němec as saying, “There exists one everlasting conflict, the hopeless struggle between intelligence and stupidity, between the individual and the totality, and one eternal problem: the fundamental unwillingness of people, or of humanity as a whole, to deal with problems which concern them.” It’s the furious assault on this eternal problem that makes these movies still resonate today and their dreamlike quality can be seen as part of this assault. If people are unwilling to address the problems that concern them, infiltrate their dreams. A movie, like a dream, has a person riveted in the dark.

RATING 9 / 10
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