Czech New Wave Cinema: The Children of Marx and Kafka

When Czechoslovakia’s leader Alexander Dubcek declared the emergence of “socialism with a human face” in April, 1968, it marked the culmination of the cultural and political reforms that the country had undergone since 1962. It was in this environment that Czech New Wave cinema had come of age, enjoying state support of the film industry, a captive domestic and international market, and relative artistic freedom. But by the spring of 1968, the cinematic movement was waning in popularity in Western Europe and the United States, where it had been a surprise phenomenon since 1963. A few months later, in the summer of ’68, the Soviets came rolling into Prague, unseated Dubcek and imposed the most draconian social and political regulations since the Stalin era, which in effect “officially” ended the Czech New Wave. Such was the dramatic finale for the 1960s film generation.

The popularity of a foreign film in the U.S. is typically predicated on its foreignness. Perhaps Czech films were appreciated due to Cold War curiosity about Eastern Europe; or for their understated humanism, perceived as an antidote to Western filmic excess; or even for their exotic cachet in a fickle market (the recent popularity of Iranian film in the West has been remarkably similar). Whatever the case, between 1963 and 1968, Czech cinema garnered two Oscars for Best Foreign Film, in addition to the international eclat of Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blond (Lasky jedne plavovlasky), Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledovane vlaky), and Jan Kadar’s The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze).

Of course, with the popularity of Czech film came the derision of ’60s generation Western Marxists, who perceived the films as reactionary portraits of communism. Additionally, more abstract films associated with the movement were accused by critics and filmmakers of being mystifying, exemplified in Jean-Luc Godard’s censure of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies as apolitical and cartoonish.

Yet, to imply that the films are apolitical, as Godard and others did, is to fail to take into account the context of the Czechoslovak state and socialist realist aesthetics. Socialist realism was predominantly a Stalin-era aesthetic that employed a highly figurative method of realist depiction, and had been adopted as a prevalent aesthetic in Czechoslovakia following World War II. Czechoslovakia had basically been rendered a Soviet satellite state following the war and would remain so until the relinquishing of Soviet control and an impulse toward self-determination in the early ’60s.

The aesthetic of socialist realism contrasted a vision of a state-designed utopia against the realities of daily life in the Eastern bloc. Stalin-era art was intimately engaged with Stalin-era politics; it was instrumental to the reification of state power. In the 1960s, Czech art, film, and literature were working against this tradition, while also necessarily emerging from the same notion that propelled socialist realism: the notion that art was immediate and political. This context meant that art appearing to be devoid of political content (in the West) only appeared so because, unlike in the West, art “itself” was intrinsically politicized in its Eastern European context.

The films of the Czech New Wave formed a movement not because they shared stylistic concerns, but rather because they were a response to the historical and political reality of Czechoslovakia following the 1960s reforms. So, Vera Chytilova’s formally radical and non-narrative film Daisies (Sedmikrasky, 1966) is aligned with the literary lyricism of Jiri Menzel’s Capricious Summer (Rozmarne leto, 1968), and the blunt realism of Frantisek Vlacil’s Adelheid (1969) not because they share style or content but because they carry on a joint dialogue with a post-totalitarian political conscience.

Many of the classics of the Czech New Wave, including Loves of a Blond, Closely Watched Trains, and The Shop on Main Street, as well as such exemplary films as Menzel’s Larks on a String (Skrivanci na nitich), Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night (Demanty noci), and A Report on the Party and Its Guests (O slavnosti a kostech), have already been distributed (with English subtitles) by Facet’s Video. Facet’s next releases will be DVD and VHS versions of Chytilova’s Daisies and Jaromil Jires’s The Joke (Zert), along with VHS copies of Menzel’s Capricious Summer, Frantisek Vlacil’s Adelheid, and Odrich Lipsky’s Lemonade Joe (Limonadovy Joe), available 19 March 2002.

These films adopt different stylistics in form and content. Like many modernist texts, Daisies asks viewers to produce its “meaning,” while The Joke strives for unambiguous cultural and political critique. Some of these films, such as Capricious Summer, flirt with the possibilities of a narrative that is not overtly politicized, which was something different in a Czechoslovakia, where art was inextricably bound with state politics. Historical dramas, such as Adelheid, were also popular with Czech New Wave filmmakers, and introduced complex questions that had not been addressed for years in the decidedly ahistorical socialist realism. Finally, Lemonade Joe is in direct dialogue with American culture, and celebrates film designed strictly for entertainment’s sake.

Daisies, the result of a collaboration between director Vera Chytilova, her husband, cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera, and co-scriptwriter and designer Ester Krumbachova, is one of the most innovative Czech films of the 1960s. Chytilova has stated that the film’s intention was to “direct the spectator’s attention [away] from the psychology of the characters… to restrict his feeling of involvement and lead him to an understanding of the underlying idea or philosophy.” Thus, she adopts a Brechtian approach, emphasized by Kucera’s jarring use of color filters and rapid montage.

Daisies‘ two 17-year-old heroines, Marie I and Marie II (Jitka Cerhova and Ivana Karbanova), suffer from an anomie so intense that it has obliterated all sense of self and place, rendering them invisible by the end of the film. Repeatedly in the film, which is structured around their dialogue (and which references the absurdism of another theatrical modernist, Samuel Beckett), Marie I asks Marie II, “Does it matter?” Marie II always replies, “It does not matter.” It’s as if the first Marie must repeatedly verify that the world they inhabit is still free of any meta-narrative. Through the dialogue, it is implied that the Maries’ hysterical excess is a calculated response to inadequate roles in their society for individuals of their age and gender.

The film incorporates found footage of mushroom clouds, emphasizing chronic and mediated threats of mass destruction deep in the Cold War. The images appear at the opening and ending of Daisies, suggesting the omnipresent threat of nuclear (and ideological) warfare that drives the Maries’ aggressive boredom and exaggerated decadence. Against the dogmatic and conservative values of the 1950s, which are exposed here as a sham, the film presents the restless play-acting of the juvenile delinquent as an alternative social truth, a truth that is self-conscious of its ephemeral superficiality. Although Chytilova defended the film as a warning against a society of idle youth in her letter to the conservative President Husak in the 1970s (included on the DVD), her film is obviously empathetic with the Maries’ “spoiled” response to ideological conflict. After Daisies and her 1969 film Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajskych jime), Chytilova wasn’t able to find work in Czechoslovakia until 1976 (and she continues to live and direct films in the Czech Republic to this day).

If Chytilova was considered suspect by the Czech government due to the ambiguity of her films, Jaromil Jires was distrusted due to the overt critique of the Czech state and socialist realism in his film, The Joke. Made in 1968, The Joke was released in 1969 and banned immediately. The film was even stricken from Jires’s official filmography, an unusual occurrence, as even censored films generally appeared on the director’s filmography issued by Barrandov Studios, the nationalized film studios in Prague.

The Joke is based on disillusioned Party member Milan Kundera’s 1965 novel of the same name and is unabashed in its criticism of 1950s’ socialist politics. The film contrasts large gatherings of sign-wielding youth who believe in love, happiness, and a Cominform-defined historical materialism (a visual allusion to the large gatherings of the Prague Spring) with the story of Ludvik Jahn (Josef Somr), a professor who is expelled from the Communist Party as a student and spends six years in a labor camp. His older self watches as the earlier events unfold; flashback shots are countered with present images of Ludvik looking on with an expression of fatigue. This structure suggests the collapsing of time and the immediacy of Ludvik’s past experience, even within his comfortable present.

These memories return after an interview with sycophantic journalist Helena (Jana Ditetova). By chance, Ludvik finds out that Helena is married to Pavel Zemank (Ludek Munzar), the nemesis who flushed him out of the Party. Ludvik, an inveterate ladies’ man, develops a plot to cuckold Pavel by seducing Helena. His plan falls flat, however, when he and an enamored Helena run into Pavel with his 20-year-old girlfriend. Ludvik discovers that Helena and Pavel have been separated for some time, rendering his machinations impotent. Helena then becomes Ludvik’s surrogate for revenge, as the dandified Pavel remains unscathed and self-satisfied.

Throughout, it is obvious that Ludvik has been ruined, and is as impotent as his attempt at revenge. His mean-spirited prank with Helena appears the last refuge of a man whose anger is deeply ingrained, impossible to direct, and ultimately indefinable. After beating Helena’s assistant, a teenager who is in love with her and has come to defend her honor, Ludvik says, “I’m sorry. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t you.” Nor does it even seem to be Pavel. Rather, like the teenage girls in Daisies, Ludvik has been pushed into a corner by social circumstance. Due to its depiction of the Party as a repressive force and its sarcastic derision of the Party members, The Joke, unsurprisingly, did not sit well with Czechoslovakia’s newly formed government in 1969.

That same year, Jiri Menzel, director of Closely Watched Trains, released Capricious Summer. Like Daisies and The Joke, Capricious Summer takes place in a setting that is geographically remote and detached from direct allusion to Czech terrain. In this case, the film opens with the image of a small town’s single church spire, and proceeds to the remote resort on the edge of town, where locals gather to swim.

The resort is run by the middle-aged businessman Antonin (Rudolf Hrusinsky). He pointedly ignores his frustrated wife Katerina (Mila Myslikova), who talks absently of all of the men she could have had while she was younger, implicitly regretting her choice of Antonin. Antonin’s two friends, a retired army major (Vlastimil Brodsky) and the local Abbe (Frantisek Rehak), spend their days at the resort engaged in philosophical conversation about aging and ogling young female sun bathers. The allegorical implications of these three community staples — the businessman, the major, and the Abbe — are obvious from the beginning of the film. The men are identified as bourgeois types from turn-of-the-century Bohemia, and together, express a provincial and triadic worldview centered on capitalism (Antonin), the arts (the Abbe), and the military (the major).

The spellbinding dullness of their summer afternoons is interrupted by a caravan, a glitch in the well-oiled machine of daily life, which carries the tightrope walker Arnostek (Jiri Menzel, the film’s director) and his lovely assistant, Anna (Jana Drchalova). Anna brings sexual intrigue into these older men’s lives, although ultimately, none of them are able to consummate their desires, despite the fact that Anna isn’t shy about her willingness to sleep with each of them.


Capricious Summer‘s subtle comedy and lyricism isn’t so much the fall-out of Stalin-era values as depicted in Daisies, but rather a comment on the provincial, middle-class Czech lifestyle, which lacks the anomie and voracity that characterizes and drives the Maries. The character’s anomie in Capricious Summer comes from a lack of any reason to either strive or to resist, and the men settle in to a middle-aged complacency. In the end, the desires and disappointments of the men are subsumed into incessant chatter.

While the characters in Capricious Summer are positioned outside of recent history, in some pastoral ideal of the early 1900s, Adelheid‘s characters find themselves right in the thick of it. Protagonist Viktor Chodovicky (Petr Cepek) has returned to Czechoslovakia after serving as an opposition solider in Britain during World War II. He has been assigned to manage a confiscated German mansion in northern Moravia, along the Czech and German border, a location that allows the film to ruminate on recent history and ethnic strife.

Viktor awakens after his first morning at the mansion to look down on a woman scrubbing the floor. She apparently can’t speak a word of Czech and he can’t speak German. He finds out that the maid Adelheid (Emma Cerna) is the daughter of the former owner of the house, Haldemann. The local police chief explains that Haldemann was one of the vilest fascists in the region and is about to be executed for his war crimes. The mansion had been stolen from a Jewish family, according to the local official, and the dog kennels in back were reserved for Polish prisoners of war when Haldemann lived there.

After surreptitiously spying on her from behind blinds and curtains as she chops wood and scrubs the floors, Viktor becomes determined to break through Adelheid’s stoic armor, and to communicate with her. Viktor and Adelheid develop a mute, uneasy romantic and sexual understanding. Beyond Viktor’s enamored power play and Adelheid’s inscrutable complacence, their affair is fleshed out by their mutual loneliness and shared loss. Viktor is shocked to uncover a Czech poem inscribed in Adelheid’s childhood diary when he finds it in her family’s library. The poem is tucked between drawings of swastikas, suggesting that their relationship might have been very different, if they had met before the inextricable tangles of culpability and history predicted in the childish scrawls of her swastikas.

Rarely placed in the Czech New Wave canon, Lemonade Joe is a Czech western that spoofs American cinema with obvious affection and demonstrates how Czech New Wave wasn’t limited to rumination on the history, politics and art of Eastern Europe. Lemonade Joe (Karel Fiala) is the good-natured lemonade salesman who teams up with a temperance leader, the sweet blond Winnifred (Olga Schoberova), to defeat a local saloon and den of prostitution. With his capitalistic know-how and her ideological piety, they believe that they’ll soon have all of Arizona trading whisky for lemonade.

The film is subtitled a “horse opera,” and is rife with musical numbers. In addition to the breeziness of the songs, the dialogue itself is spoken in a singsong cadence that frequently depends on rhyme (which the English subtitles can’t even come close to replicating). The dialogue and tunes arise from a uniquely Czech interpretation of the American Western, but the generic influence is translated in varied “American” images, of cowboys singing alone on the range and a lavish blue-lit New Orleans funeral march.

Lemonade Joe was a domestic hit upon its release, most likely because of its direct lampooning of Hollywood westerns. However, this film isn’t exactly a Czech Blazing Saddles. The film is a brave attempt to make a homegrown comedy/Western hybrid out of the bric-a-brac arriving from overseas. It poses the question as to whether one culture can ever spoof a genre that isn’t endemic to its own traditions without forming something new. The synthesis of these two impulses of satire and innovation implies that American culture can’t simply conquer the world through cultural imperialism, but that it is always changed in local reading and re-imagined in indigenous productions like Lemonade Joe.

To watch and appreciate these films from a historical and cultural distance is to succumb to a kind of “anthropological” positioning that leaves the viewer on the outside. I have suggested that Western interest in the films was largely an exoticizing, Cold War era impulse. On the other hand, and as attested to by Lemonade Joe, Czech New Wave film was also able to hold up a mirror to the other side of the Iron Curtain, and to demystify the influence of the West in general, and the U.S. in particular.