Closely Watched DVDs

A guide to Czech cinema on DVD

Criterion on Czechoslovakia

Filed under: Article Links — Michael at 12:09 am on Sunday, July 30, 2006

Surprisingly, considering the company has released relatively few Czech films, the Criterion website has a huge amount of background information about the Czech New Wave, starting with this introduction, and going on to feature:

Alongside these pieces, the Criterion site also features hefty essays on its four Czech titles:

Fifty Filmmakers

Filed under: General — Michael at 10:57 am on Saturday, July 29, 2006

Over the past few days, I’ve been quietly updating my guide to Czech Cinema on DVD, and while I still haven’t come close to covering everything that’s available, one milestone has just been passed: it now features the work of fifty filmmakers - and 178 individual films.

All of which would be impressive enough in itself (when I first trawled through Prague video shops less than five years ago, the number of Czech features available on DVD barely scraped double figures), but it’s frankly astonishing when you consider that I’ve deliberately limited my coverage to DVDs with English subtitles…

UPDATE: Make that sixty.

The Hand

Filed under: Animation, DVD Reviews, Trnka, Jiří — Michael at 10:59 pm on Thursday, July 27, 2006


1965, colour, 18 mins

  • Director: Jiří Trnka
  • Producer: Puppet Film Collective
  • Screenplay: Jiří Trnka
  • Photography: Jiří Šafář
  • Editor: Hana Walachová
  • Puppeteers: Bohuslav Šrámek, Jan Adam
  • Music: Václav Trojan

The Film

Universally recognised as both the founder and the supreme master of the Czech puppet cinema tradition (an accolade far less trivial within Czech culture than it might seem in the West, where puppetry has long been regarded almost exclusively as a children’s medium), Jiří Trnka (1912-1969) was generally renowned for his exquisite craftsmanship, best demonstrated in the widescreen feature-length adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sen noci svatojánské, 1959). An essentially gentle, sensitive artist, most of his 25-odd films are distinguished by their impeccable taste and almost complete lack of any apparent political message.

The remarkable thing about his last film, The Hand (Ruka, 1965) is that it both maintains the strengths of his earlier work while adding a heartfelt cri-de-coeur. Though it has a clear political purpose in highlighting the plight of the artist under a totalitarian cultural policy, it also comes across as deeply personal, as Trnka himself was all too conscious of the way he had personally benefited from a regime that he secretly despised. As a political parable, it has all the impact of the work of Jan Švankmajer (who had then just begun his film career and the following year would make the first of several films in Trnka’s own studio with technicians who worked on The Hand) but without the younger man’s naked aggression, and this quiet fatalism gives it much of its power.

The central situation in The Hand could hardly be simpler: a humble craftsman devotes his life to making clay flowerpots. Though his existence is basic, living in a one-room flat with minimal furniture and peeling wallpaper, he seems blissfully content with his existence, even to the point of bowing before the flowers growing out of his creations. And then, after being alerted by the sound of feet echoing down a corridor’s bare floor, he hears a knock at the door…

…which portends the first of many visits by a gigantic hand, which suggests (if that isn’t too subtle a word) that the potter divert his skills in the direction of making glorified statues of… well, hands. And this request goes well beyond mere narcissism on the hand’s part, as a virtuoso montage demonstrates the image’s potency as a political tool: hands hold scales of justice, the torch of the Statue of Liberty, Napoleon’s hand tucked into his waistcoat, a mailed fist, a boxing glove, the accusing finger, the clasped handshake, even the silhouetted rabbit trick.

Unmoved, the potter refuses, and reacts increasingly aggressively to further blandishments, even to the extent of disconnecting his phone and attacking the intruder with a sledgehammer to avoid the hand’s wheedling, bribery and “accidental” vandalism of his flowerpots. Eventually, thanks to the cunningly-disguised (and weirdly erotic) spectacle of a heavily dolled-up hand in a fishnet glove, he is lured and locked into an ornate birdcage, strings are tied to his limbs, a hammer and chisel is forced into his hands and he is compelled to comply - and, like Trnka in real life (and death: like the potter, he was given a full state funeral when he died four years later), is handsomely rewarded with medals and laurels for his apparent willingness to compromise.

It’s a bleak, despairing tale, rendered still more heart-rending by the fact that it’s so clearly a Trnka film: the little potter could have come straight out of one of his earlier, airier fantasies. As ever, Trnka’s use of lighting to convey the tiniest emotional nuances on an otherwise static face is little short of miraculous, as is his attention to detail: look at the potter’s boyish glee, conveyed purely through the way that he spins his wheel with his legs, as compared with the heavier, trudging body language as he’s forced to glorify the hand under pressure. Made to take advantage of the post-1964 political thaw, The Hand was banned in the wake of the 1968 Soviet invasion, and no wonder: no amount of spin can dilute the moral force of Trnka’s message - or his sly satire of mass popular culture: is it a coincidence that one of the hand’s vehicles of totalitarian control is a television set?


Distribution: Included in the Image Entertainment compilation The Puppet Films of Jiří Trnka (US), NTSC, no region code. The other films on the DVD are the feature-length The Emperor’s Nightingale (Císařův slavík, 1948) and the shorts Story of the Bass Cello (Román s Basou, 1949), The Song of the Prairie (Arie Prerie, 1949), The Merry Circus (Veselý cirkus, 1951) and Břetislav Pojar’s A Drop Too Much (O skleničku víc, 1954).

Picture: Although it clearly hasn’t been restored and appears to be sourced from an analogue tape master, the source print is in reasonable condition, a few spots and scratches notwithstanding. The colours of the original were presumably more vivid, but the slightly faded look is not at all unpleasing, and the slightly soft picture also suits the material. It’s in the original 4:3, and appears to be framed correctly, though the NTSC transfer means that step-by-step examination of Trnka’s animation is hampered by additional blurred frames (though this isn’t apparent during normal viewing).

Sound: This is the original mono, which is fine, but the quality is dreadful, which isn’t. Alongside tape hiss, which may well be characteristic of the original materials, there’s also pronounced flutter on several occasions, which sounds as though it was introduced at some stage in the transfer. Fortunately, The Hand is not overly reliant on its soundtrack (there’s no dialogue, and both music and sound effects are relatively sparse), so this is less of an issue than it would be in most cases, but there’s still ample scope for improvement.

Subtitles: The onscreen title is given in five different languages (Czech, English, German, Spanish, French), and there is no spoken dialogue - hence no subtitles.

Extras: In addition to the five other films mentioned above (which will be reviewed separately in due course), the DVD offers a 12-minute documentary, Jiří Trnka: Puppet Animation Master. Narrated in English, but presumably sourced from a Czech original , it includes much fascinating footage of Trnka at work both at his desk and in his studio, as well as examples of his work outside the cinema, particularly his renowned children’s illustrations. In addition to extracts from the films elsewhere on the DVD, it also includes clips from his early work in 2-D cel animation, his puppet debut The Czech Year (Špalíček, 1947), Prince Bajaja (Bajaja, 1950), Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české, 1952) and The Good Soldier Svejk (Dobrý voják Švejk, 1955), before concluding with a brief account of the origins of The Hand.


Intimate Lighting

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Vostrčil, Jan, Passer, Ivan, Papoušek, Jaroslav — Michael at 9:57 am on Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Intimní osvětlení

1965, black and white, 72 mins

  • Director: Ivan Passer
  • Screenplay: Jaroslav Papoušek, Ivan Passer, Václav Šašek
  • Story: Václav Šašek (’Something Else’)
  • Photography: Miroslav Ondříček, Josef Střecha
  • Editor: Jiřina Lukešová
  • Design: Karel Černý
  • Music: Oldřich Korte, Josef Hart

  • Cast: Karel Blažek (Bambas); Zdeněk Bezušek (Petr); Věra Křesadlová (Štěpa); Jan Vostrčil (grandfather); Jaroslava Štědrá (Maruš); Vlastimila Vlková (grandmother); Karel Uhlík (chemist); Miroslav Cvrk (Kája); Dagmar Ředinová (young Maruš)

  • Crew: Adolf Böhm (sound); František Sandr (production manager); Ludmila Tikovská, Věra Winkelhöferová (production representatives); Jiří Růžička (assistant director); Jiří Stach (stills); Barrandov Studios plus location shooting in Tábor and Mirotice

The Film

Although less famous than the Oscar-winning diptych of The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, 1965) and Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966) or the early work of Miloš Forman (which Ivan Passer co-scripted and worked on as assistant director), Intimate Lighting may well be the quintessential Czech New Wave film. Lasting an admirably tight 72 minutes, it invites us to share a weekend in the countryside with six couples and two small children, and in the course of a series of outwardly unexceptional events and conversations it unveils a great many truths that are no less profound for being slipped past so subtly that they might well be missed on a first viewing.

The opening sequence initially feels like a re-run of Forman’s If There Were No Music (Kdyby ty muziky nebyly, 1963), which Passer co-wrote. In it, a conductor attempts to wring a recognizable version of the Dvorak Cello Concerto out of a decidedly elderly provincial orchestra whose members prefer whispered asides and subversive muttering to musical concentration. Musical coaxing of various kinds will become one of the film’s recurring motifs, whether it’s a brief glimpse of a child’s violin lesson, an attempt to render the rhythm of the phrase “I love you” with a car horn or to make musical sense of Grandpa’s sonorous snoring, the mournful brass band accompanying the funeral procession, or the string quartet rehearsal that for the first time establishes common ground between the three leading men.

They are Petr (Zdeněk Bezušek), Bambas (Karel Blažek) and the latter’s unnamed father (Forman regular Jan Vostrčil), reuniting in their native village. Petr and his girlfriend Štěpa (Věra Křesadlová, Forman’s wife at the time) live in Prague, having moved there when Petr’s musical career took off, and Bambas (who was left behind to work as a school administrator) rarely lets us forget it, peppering his conversation with jealous, point-scoring asides that can usually be read in more than one way. For a non-professional actor, Blažek does an extraordinary job of conveying Bambas’ inner melancholy, though it turned out that part of the reason was that he was dying of leukaemia, succumbing just six weeks after shooting finished and never seeing the finished film.

Passer delicately counterpoints their low-level squabbling (which, as so often in real life, is never really resolved) with the altogether more down-to-earth attitudes of their womenfolk: in addition to Štěpa, there’s no-nonsense housewife and mother Maruš (Jaroslava Štědrá), and Bambas’ unnamed mother (Vlastimila Vlková), who turns out to have had the least predictable life of all, assuming her story of being abducted by a travelling circus is true. But much of the time is spent with Štěpa - I’m far from the only person to note her resemblance to Julie Christie, specifically Liz in Billy Liar (1963), and Štěpa has a similarly free-spirited, self-consciously Sixties attitude to life, instinctively favouring the children over the adults, and even innocently flirting with the local village idiot (according to Passer, this was the only improvised scene in an otherwise tightly-scripted production).

The lightness of Passer’s touch recalls Jean Renoir at his peak, and comparisons with the latter’s Partie de Campagne (1936) are by no means misplaced. Forman’s regular cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček (whose work was completed by Josef Střecha after Ondříček was poached by Lindsay Anderson mid-production) manages to make the lighting look both meticulous and deceptively casual, the slightly off-centre compositions giving an off-the-cuff feel that chimes perfectly with the film as a whole. The scenes with Bambas’ children are small miracles of choreography and cutting, especially Štěpa and little Kaja’s peek-a-boo game interweaving itself into an early conversation, or the dinner-table scene in which a chicken leg changes plate three times before being accidentally drenched.

In tandem with this, Passer has a wonderful eye for absurd but strangely congruous juxtaposition, with first a white then a black kitten held up outside the open window for the string quartet’s reluctant delectation, or the incident with the chickens and the car, its bloody conclusion rendered oddly poetic by a perfectly-formed egg rolling up to the corpse. The film’s final shot is too delicious to spoil, but Pauline Kael’s description of it as “a freeze-frame closing gag that’s so funny and so completely dotty that you’re not likely to forget it” is right on the money.

Aside from A Boring Afternoon (Fádní odpoledne), a short made for but cut from the 1965 anthology of Bohumil Hrabal adaptations Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně), Intimate Lighting was Ivan Passer’s only Czech film. He continued to collaborate with Forman, co-writing The Fireman’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko!) in 1967, and like him left the country for good in the late 1960s, though Passer struggled to fit his out-of-kilter sensibility into the far more commercialised American film industry. Cutter’s Way (1981) showed that this wasn’t always a losing battle, but it’s appropriate that the dominant mood of Intimate Lighting is one of regret for lost opportunities - on this evidence, Passer is at least as original as (and possibly even superior to) his younger compatriot Jiří Menzel when it comes to affectionately wistful observation of human folly, and it’s a shame that external circumstances meant he was never able to develop his gifts in his native culture.


Distribution: Second Run DVD (UK), PAL, no region code

Picture: No complaints about the picture - a few white dust spots and the occasional faint scratch aside, the print is in surprisingly good condition for its age, and the transfer does full justice to Miroslav Ondříček ’s high-contrast black-and-white lighting. The framing is 4:3, which is what I’d have expected for a Czech film of this period - certainly, there’s no indication of any cropping or excessive headroom.

Sound: This is the original mono, and has all the faults that one would expect from a mid-1960s track from a relatively low-budget Czech film - the music in particular could have done with something fuller-bodied. None of which is remotely Second Run’s fault, and I have no difficulty believing that the DVD reproduces exactly what’s on the original prints.

Subtitles: Up to Second Run’s usual high standards, the optional English subtitles were clearly written and proofread by native speakers and while I can’t judge the accuracy of the translation, I never felt I was being short-changed.

Extras: The major extra is a recent (December 2005) interview with Ivan Passer, conducted in English. Running 19 minutes, he covers the film’s entire history from inception to release, focusing on such topics as working with non-professional actors (when casting, Passer considered musical ability to be more important), discovering Karel Blažek (who was reluctant to appear in the film until he read the script and realized that it could have been describing his own life story), political difficulties involving the choice of Ondříček as cinematographer (not least when Lindsay Anderson poached him mid-shoot), and the disadvantages - and advantages - of shooting in a communist country (it was subsequently banned for twenty years not for being critical but for completely ignoring the regime). An accompanying booklet includes an essay on the film by Phillip Bergson.


Aaaargh! My eyes!

Filed under: General, Article Links — Michael at 10:50 am on Friday, July 21, 2006

Sorry about that - just getting over the truly eye-wateringly hideous colour scheme of this website. I suspect the reason it hasn’t been updated since 1999 is because its creator went blind shortly afterwards (or was driven mad by the accompanying pop-ups - if your browser offers that option, I recommend switching them off).

Presentation issues aside, though, there’s an almost book-length amount of information here about Czech cinema in general and the Sixties New Wave in particular, with articles and quotations from many leading historians and filmmakers.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu

Filed under: Article Links — Michael at 10:14 am on Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nothing to do with Czech cinema, I’m afraid, but those interested in Eastern European cinema in general might enjoy my Sight & Sound review of Cristi Puiu’s appallingly vivid journey through the hellish circles of the Romanian healthcare system, The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lăzărescu).

It’s easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year, though I think the various posters (US, Romanian) are slightly overstressing the comedy - it’s there, but the film as a whole isn’t exactly what you might call a laugh riot.

My Sweet Little Village

Filed under: Menzel, Jiří, Svěrák, Zdeněk, DVD Reviews, Hrušínský, Rudolf, Čepek, Petr, Directors, Actors — Michael at 11:13 am on Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Vesničko má středisková

1985, colour, 100 mins

  • Director: Jiří Menzel
  • Producer: Jan Šuster
  • Screenplay: Zdeněk Svěrák
  • Photography: Jaromír Šofr
  • Editor: Jiří Brožek
  • Design: Zbynek Hloch
  • Music: Jiří Šust

  • Cast: János Bán (Otík); Marian Labuda (Pávek); Rudolf Hrušínský (Dr. Skružný); Petr Čepek (Turek); Libuše Šafránková (Jana); Jan Hartl (Kašpar); Miloslav Štibich (Kalina); Oldřich Vlach (Kunc); Stanislav Aubrecht (Járda); Zdeněk Svěrák (Evžen Ryba, the painter); Marie Šebestová (Věra Kousalová, the teacher); Július Satinský (Pilot Štefan); Josef Somr (Kovodřeva, the editor); František Vláčil (Adolf Ticháček); Milena Dvorská (Pávková); Milada Ježková (Hrabětová); Ladislav Županič (Rumlena); Jitka Asterová (Rumlenová); Jiří Lír (Rambousek, the landlord); Blanka Lormanová (Půlpánová); Rudolf Hrušínský Jr. (Drápalík); Evžen Jegorov (Brož, the sexton); Jiří Schmitzer (okrskář Tlamicha); Rudolf Hrušínský IV (Kalina ml.)Věra Vlková (nanny Pávková); Anna Vaňková (Kalinová); Petr Brukner (co-worker Duda); Míla Myslíková (Fialková); Jan Hraběta (combine harvester operator Žežulka); Jana “Paprika” Hanáková (saleswoman Echtnerová); Milan Šteindler (závozník Šesták); Vladimír Hrabánek (caretaker Pavlíček); Zuzana Burianová (Bohunka); Klára Pollertová (Majka Pávková); Vida Skalská (cook); Jan Kašpar (Ferda); Vlasta Jelínková (Ticháčková); D.Hajná (Hrušková); A.Fišerová.

  • Crew: Eva Horázná (assistant editor); Antonín Vaněk (boom operator); Jiří Kučera (stills photographer); Emil Sirotek, Gabriela Kerekešová (assistant producers); Pavel Nový, Jan Peterka (production supervisors); Antonín Mařík (camera assistant); Karel Hejsek (assistant cameraman); Hana Suchá (script supervisor); Petr Slabý, Jan Hraběta, Věra Pištěková (assistant directors); Josef Hrabušický (assistant architect); Bedřich Černák, Rudolf Beneš, Jaroslav Lehman, Stanislav Rovný (sets); Běla Suchá (costume design); Ludmila Ondráčková, Iva Bártová, Dana Chaloupková, Jana Soudná (costumes), Tomáš Kuchta, Šárka Šimůnková, Simona Marešová (make-up); Filmový symfonický orchestr (music performed by); Dr. Štěpán Koníček (conductor); František Černý, ing. Karel Jaroš (sound recording); Miloslav Vydra (5. dramaturgicko-výrobní skupina vedoucí skupiny); Filmové studio Barrandov (production company)

The Film

A gigantic box-office hit on its original release (5 million tickets sold in a country whose population wasn’t much more than double that), Jiří Menzel’s gently subversive comedy My Sweet Little Village is clearly regarded with immense and continuing affection in the Czech Republic, if online popularity polls are anything to go by.

As with many domestic comedy successes, though, it’s not immediately obvious to outsiders just why this particular film should have struck such a chord. Although it achieved some international exposure on the back of its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (it was the first Czech film to reach the last five in nearly twenty years), its Western critical reception was generally more muted, most writers noting that the film’s blend of gentle humour and broad slapstick might be less appealing outside its native country.

Certainly, on the surface, the film could hardly be more straightforward. Most of it is set in the village of the title (one of the characters is an amateur aviator, giving Menzel a perfect excuse for some lyrical aerial shots), and its economy seems to revolve around a large collective farm. All the characters are instantly recognisable: the bull-headed Turek (Petr Čepek), suspects that his wife Jana (Libuše Šafránková) is having an affair but unable, despite many angry accusations, to spot that the culprit is Václav Kašpar (Jan Hartl); mullet-haired teenager Járda (Stanislav Aubrecht), hopelessly in lust with his sister’s teacher Věra (Marie Šebestová), who prefers the older-man charms of itinerant painter Evžen Ryba (Zdeněk Svěrák); Doctor Skružný (Rudolf Hrušínský), whose medical skill is offset by his appalling driving; above all the self-consciously Laurel-and-Hardy duo of Járda’s father Karel Pávek (Marian Labuda), plump partner of the gangling near-imbecile Otík Rakosnik (János Bán).

There’s a plot of sorts - the Machiavellian machinations of a man much higher up the bureaucratic ladder to take over Otík’s house as a summer retreat, shipping him off to a crummy Prague flat and dead-end office job as a decidedly slanted exchange - and the development of this (and the associated bribery, corruption and, ultimately, victory on the part of the innocents at the bottom) is what gives the film its reputation for subversion. On the face of it, it’s hard to see how a Communist government could disapprove of a film whose ultimate message that life is only truly sweet if people look out for each other - were it not for the fact that it’s precisely those government officials who are depicted as the major obstructions to the achievement of this paradise on earth.

Admittedly, this is hardly biting satire, and doesn’t even have the edge of Menzel’s 1960s work, but under the circumstances this is understandable. Czech cultural policy in the 1970s and 1980s did not, to put it mildly, encourage anything that could be interpreted as a full-on attack on the status quo, and Menzel had already spent six years out of work in the 1970s as “punishment” for overstepping the line. As a result, My Sweet Little Village is a classic example of what Miloš Forman called “writing between the lines”, if only to allow Menzel to continue his career.

However, the film’s real strengths require no such historical context. While its numerous wry observations are never quite as quirky as that found in the films Menzel adapted from the work of the novelist Bohumil Hrabal (Closely Watched Trains/Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966; Larks on a String/Skřivánci na niti, 1969; Cutting It Short/Postřižiny, 1980; Snowdrop Festival/Slavnosti sněženek, 1983), there are plenty of delicious moments.

Chief amongst these are those that betray Menzel and writer Zdeněk Svěrák’s entirely genuine love of the countryside and its traditions, something they’d already demonstrated with their earlier collaboration Seclusion Near a Forest/Na samotě u lesa (1976). Dr Skružný’s appalling driving is exacerbated by his tendency to go into Stendhal Syndrome-like raptures when confronted with the beauty of the surrounding environment, while the painter Evžen Ryba (Svěrák himself) refuses to paint anything that doesn’t directly evoke his romanticised view of Czech country life. All this is counterpointed throughout by János Bán’s gentle-giant performance as Otík - a Hungarian actor (recently seen in Lajos Koltai’s Holocaust drama Fateless, 2006), Bán reputedly understood very little Czech, which adds extra weight to his general air of amiable befuddlement.

Typically for a popular Czech comedy, all of this is interspersed with rather earthier humour involving misplaced food (and beer), men distracted by women’s bottoms, cartoonish car accidents, and so on. Much of this could have been transplanted from the slapstick era, and Menzel is himself a fan of silent comedy, having paid direct tribute to it in his 1978 film Those Wonderful Movie Cranks/Báječní muži s klikou, and peppering his other films with obscure references (one of the characters in Cutting It Short keeps comparing his own disasters with Lupino Lane comedies) - but a little of this can generally go a pretty long way.

But, on the whole, it lives up to the promise of its title: it’s a sweet little village and a sweet little film. Expect no more, and you’ll get no less.


Distribution: Centrum českého videa (Czech Republic), PAL, no region code

Picture: For all the film’s stature, this DVD only just passes muster. The source print has seen better days, which quite a few white dust spots on the image (though the timing of a nasty tramline suggests it was present on the original shot in question), and the encoding is somewhat basic, with particularly glaring digital artefacting present at the fog-shrouded start, and regular glitches thereafter, momentary picture freezes being typical - I double-checked on my laptop to make sure it wasn’t my player at fault.

None of which renders the film unwatchable by any means, and most of it is perfectly adequate, but it does seem odd that a Czech label (and one of the majors at that) should do such a sloppy job with such an iconic Czech title. The framing is 4:3, and there’s no indication from the picture compositions that it should be anything else (the Soviet Union and its satellite states carried on using 4:3 long after it went out of fashion in the US).

Sound: Bafflingly, three soundtracks (all Czech) are on offer - Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1, and DTS 5.0. I say “bafflingly” because there’s no particular sign that much has been done to differentiate them - I listened to the DTS track, and it might as well have been mono for 99% of the time: aside from a few brief moments such as the arrival of a plane, my centre speaker seemed to be doing all the work. That said, since the film would have been mono to begin with, this isn’t a problem at all. While I’d guess that the Dolby 2.0 track is closer to the original, I found that the DTS track offered markedly better quality, so that’s what I’d recommend. There were no other issues worth noting - it’s hardly going to give your system a workout, but you wouldn’t expect that from a twenty-year-old Czech film in the first place.

Subtitles: The English subtitles are riddled with typos, and on two occasions the language switches momentarily to Czech (though only for one line apiece, and it’s obvious from the context what’s being said). The translation was also clearly not written by a native English speaker, though it’s more charming than jarring, and chimes surprisingly well with the feel of the film itself. The disc also offers Czech hard-of-hearing subtitles.

Extras: The strongest extras are the least useful for non-Czech speakers, consisting as they do of unsubtitled interviews with director Jiří Menzel, co-star Marian Labuda and writer/supporting actor Zdeněk Svěrák. The original theatrical trailer is also unsubtitled, and in exceptionally poor condition (the menu even apologises for this!), and the filmographies for the director and leading actors are naturally in Czech only. Slightly handier is a stills gallery, which is accompanied by Jiří Šust’s evocative music from the film, though purists might be annoyed at the way the images have been presented as though they’re projected onto a screen in the village cinema, with the back of Otík’s head protruding well into the frame.


Plzeň Finále

Filed under: General, Festivals — Michael at 10:28 am on Monday, July 17, 2006

One of the brightest initiatives that I’ve come across in terms of championing a single country’s film heritage is represented every spring by the Plzeň Finále Festival of Czech Films. Less renowned than the venerable, more internationally-focused Karlovy Vary festival, it’s arguably more important, as its aim is to screen every Czech feature film made the previous year, together with the best documentaries.  It therefore serves as a handy one-stop shop for anyone trying to keep up with Czech cinema, and my understanding is that the vast majority (if not all) the screenings have English subtitles.

Here’s an interview with festival director Ivan Jachim, and a report on the 2003 festival by Peter Hames.

Against the Grain

Filed under: Article Links — Michael at 8:27 am on Sunday, July 16, 2006

My DVD review of Jiří Menzel’s My Sweet Little Village should be up later today, but in the meantime here’s an article from MovieMaker magazine (no.43, Summer 2001) in which Radovan Holub explores the dilemma faced by Czech filmmakers who want to connect with the domestic box office, and also offers a convincing explanation as to why so few achieve international distribution even if they’re popular at home:

Czech feature films remain introverted, slow-moving and unpretentious. The situation is akin to that of traditional European cinema: Czech moviemakers want to offer viewers enough time and space for contemplation of their own problems. Domestic audiences like films with well-worn themes. For Czech audiences, the most exciting kind of hero is the one who could easily be living right next door to them: everyday people in everyday situations tempt the Czech moviegoing public.

Czech films can be said to go against the grain of the mainstream Western cinema, which attempts to dazzle audiences with spectacular effects at almost any cost and as soon as possible. Instead, these films choose to involve the viewer on an emotional level. Yet, in creating such films - ones that will make the Czech audience nod in agreement and familiarity - Czech directors have alienated the global audience. Financing for Czech films is difficult to come by, and Czech moviemakers who find distribution at the international level are few.

Czech Films at the Oscars

Filed under: Trivia, Menzel, Jiří — Michael at 3:44 pm on Saturday, July 15, 2006

Since 1966, nine Czech films have been nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, with three going on to win.

  • 1966 - The Shop on Main Street/The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, d. Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos) - winner
  • 1967 - Loves of a Blonde/A Blonde In Love (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, d. Miloš Forman)
  • 1968 - Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, d. Jiří Menzel) - winner
  • 1969 - The Fireman’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, d. Miloš Forman)
  • 1987 - My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková, d. Jiří Menzel)
  • 1992 - The Elementary School (Obecná škola, d. Jan Svěrák)
  • 1996 - Kolya (Kolja, d. Jan Svěrák) - winner
  • 2001 - Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat, d. Jan Hřebejk)
  • 2004 - Zelary (Želary, d. Ondřej Trojan)

(NB: The year refers to the date of the ceremony rather than the original production date, which could be up to two years earlier, a testament to how long such films usually take to cross the Atlantic)

Although both of Miloš Forman’s Oscar-nominated Czech films came away empty-handed, he went on to become the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ most popular Czech film-maker by far, albeit for his American work. He personally won Best Director twice, for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984) - both films also won Best Picture and in several more categories. He also notched up a third Best Director nomination for The People vs. Larry Flynt (1997).

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