Closely Watched DVDs

A guide to Czech cinema on DVD

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Polák, Jindřich — Michael at 9:16 pm on Monday, September 18, 2006

Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem

1977, colour, 95 mins

  • Director: Jindřich Polák
  • Producer: Jan Šuster
  • Screenplay: Jindřich Polák, Miloš Macourek, based on the short story by Josef Nesvadba
  • Photography: Jan Kališ
  • Editor: Zdeněk Stehlík
  • Design: Milan Nejedlý
  • Music: Karel Svoboda

  • Cast:
    Petr Kostka (Jan Bureš / Karel Bureš); Jiří Sovák (Klaus Abard); Vladimír Menšík (Kraus); Vlastimil Brodský (Engineer Bauer); Marie Rosůlková (Mrs Whiteová); Otto Šimánek (White); Valerie Chmelová (Helena); Slávka Budínová (Mrs Kroupová); Josef Větrovec (Kroupa); Zuzana Ondrouchová (Eva); František Vicena (Hitler); Horst Giese (Goebbels); Jan Sedliský (Himmler); Marie Drahokoupilová (Markéta); Josef Bláha (Rousek); František Peterka (Chief Pilot Robert Nol); Ota Sklenčka (Doctor Kryl); Jiří Lábus (Technician); Jan Pohan, Karel Hábl, Miloš Vavruška (SS officers); Jiří Lír; Viktor Maurer; Miroslav Moravec; Jitka Zelenohorská (Universum staff); Petr Nárožný (chauffeur); Josef Šebek (VB member); Jan Přeučil (SS doctor); Ladislav Šimek (doctor); Pavel Spálený, Zdeněk Hodr, Gustav Opočenský, Svatopluk Beneš (old Nazis); Vladimír Hrabánek (car hire officer); Elena Strupková (florist

  • Crew: Adolf Böhm (sound); Theodor Pištěk II (costumes); Jan Vild, Rudolf Mos (associate producers); Zdena Pavlátová, Lada Vacková (second unit directors); Libuše Váňová (dramaturge); Jiří Mrázek, Zbyšek Svoboda (technical advisers); Jiří Kučera (stills photography); Jan Kališ, Milan Nejedlý, Jiří Rumler (special effects); Barrandov Film Studios (production company)

The Film

This is unimaginable today, but on Saturday 16 January 1982, BBC2 showed an ultra-obscure subtitled Czech film in an early enough slot (9.35pm) to garner a decent-sized audience - “decent-sized” equating to “many times larger than BBC4’s wildest dreams”, given that Britain had only three television channels at the time (for the record, it was up against Match of the Day on BBC1, and the small-screen premiere of Capricorn One on ITV, a somewhat sci-fi heavy night). The British cult reputation of Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea stems almost entirely from that screening, since apart from a brief London Film Festival outing in 1978 it was never distributed in Britain either theatrically or on video, and consequently doesn’t appear in any of the standard reference books. This led to such widespread ignorance that I once saw a writer citing it as an example of an impenetrable arthouse film, purely because of its title.

In actual fact, it’s a comedy. And a very funny one, for the most part, albeit not without some of the self-conscious wackiness that seems to pervade a great many mainstream Czech comedies - though it has more than enough inspired moments and genuinely smart ideas to compensate. Chief among them is its time-bending premise, which recalls that of Back to the Future Part II and the recent low-budget US indie effort Primer, though this is merely an accident of viewing order: the Czech film was made many years earlier.

Assuming I’ve got the plot straight, it runs broadly along these lines. A group of elderly Nazis has survived into the 1990s (thanks to anti-ageing pills of unspecified provenance), and is therefore in a position to take advantage of the miraculous invention of the Universum company - which offers time travel to school parties and rich American tourists, on condition that they are passive observers throughout (they’re not even allowed to leave the craft, which lands in the specified era after an initial blast into orbit). The Nazis, led by Klaus Abard (Jiří Sovák), plan to disobey this cardinal rule by landing in Germany on December 8, 1944, with the aim of offering Hitler and his associates a hydrogen bomb that their associates have purloined from the Americans - the idea being that Hitler will shatter his opposition with a single blow, and the Nazis’ dream of a thousand-year Reich will become a reality.

To this end, Abard and his associates bribe pilot Karel Bureš (Petr Kostka), who is up to his eyeballs in debt and quite prepared to turn a blind eye to the true purpose of their scheme. However, on the morning of the mission, Karel chokes to death on a bread roll before the horrified eyes of his brother Jan - who, being an identical twin (and, happily, also a trained pilot), ends up impersonating Karel (largely because he fancies his girlfriend) and flying instead. This naturally causes complications for Abard and co., not least after they end up in Nazi Germany in 1941 and find a triumphalist Hitler in no mood to take their offer seriously. So far so straightforward, but once the mission has gone pear-shaped, Jan tries to put things right (in the “thwarting their evil plan” sense as opposed to Karel’s “help them succeed” one) by going backwards and forwards in time, on each occasion landing fractionally in advance of events depicted earlier in the film. He then attempts to influence them in the desired direction - but not always entirely successfully…

It is to director Jindřich Polák and co-writer Miloš Macourek’s great credit that none of this is anything like as confusing on screen as it was to synopsise. They make frequent use of memorable visual cues to aid orientation (not least the tea-scalding motif of the title), assuming that our own sense of history will be stronger than that of the crudely sterotyped rich American tourist Patrick (the name of the equally moronic robot in Polak’s earlier sci-fi effort Icarus XB-1), who professes ignorance of Waterloo and only lights up when he wonders whether he’s misheard ‘Watergate’.

The budget didn’t stretch to time-trips outside Nazi Germany, but we get an impression of what the other tours are like from a series of outlandish costumes sported by stewardesses, ranging from a Cleopatra outfit for ancient Egypt to the Raquel Welch fur bikini treatment for the stone age. Talking of visual wit, the opening credits are superb - they’re set against a backdrop of cruelly manipulated footage of the real Hitler, making him appear to dance rhythmically, smooth his hair repeatedly and obsessively and generally make a tit of himself, often in reverse motion. Not only is this laugh-out-loud funny in itself, it also neatly encapsulates the film’s theme and subject in a single short sequence. Saul Bass it most definitely isn’t, but it follows his principles.

The performances are broad but effective - Petr Kostka particularly impressive as the two Bureš brothers, having to portray not just each (very different) twin but also Jan pretending to be Karel and not quite hitting his marks. And although it’s somewhat jarring to hear Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler et al speaking Czech rather than German, the relevant actors are no slouches in the lookalike department - František Vicena’s Hitler being especially convincing.

For all its cult reputation, I can’t make any great claims for this film being any kind of lost classic, but it’s certainly bonkers enough to justify all the fond memories. And it also joins that select group of time-travel films that addresses the paradox at the heart of its subject head on - most, like The Terminator, prefer to skim over gaping logical holes in the hope that audiences will be too thrilled by the all-stops-out action to notice. If Polák’s earlier Icarus XB-1 has more to offer posterity, Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea is far stronger in terms of intentional laughs - quite apart from possessing one of the cinema’s all-time-great titles. And for this alone it was well worth reviving.


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

Picture: As with the same label’s treatment of Jiri Menzel’s My Sweet Little Village, this transfer is only just acceptable. The print has seen a great many better days, with most frames betraying some spots and scratches, and there are also vertical tramlines and momentary horizontal bars caused by encoding errors (I checked the offending shots out on my laptop as well as my domestic player to make sure it was the disc at fault). The colours, too, are both faded and rather pasty-looking (at times creating the not unpleasing but presumably unintentional impression of a colourised black-and-white film). The framing is 4:3, but this was standard practice in 1970s Czechoslovakia and there is no evidence of pan-and-scan cropping. It’s never unwatchable, and given this film’s rarity one is grateful to have the chance to see it at all, but compared with the deluxe treatment Filmexport Home Video gave to Jindřich Polák’s earlier sci-fi effort Icarus XB-1, this is very disappointing.

Sound: Two soundtracks are on offer, the original mono and a Dolby 5.1 remix. Frankly, there’s little apparent difference - with the surround mix, I don’t recall hearing anything from the rear speakers or the subwoofer, though the slightly wider front soundstage made me prefer it to the mono track. Sound quality is acceptable, bearing in mind that there’s no evidence that the original recording would have been particularly outstanding.

Subtitles: The English subtitles provide a comprehensive translation, although clearly not one written by a native speaker. That said, lines like “I’ve told you at least a hundred times to stop these doings of yours!” are rather endearingly in sync with the film’s overall eccentricity.

Extras: Aside from the usual sponsors’ messages, there are just three extras, only one of which will be much use to non-Czech speakers. This consists of 23 black and white stills presented in a rather fetching pulsing red circle, and is accompanied by soundtrack music. Czech-language filmographies are provided for Petr Kostka, Jiří Sovák, Vladimír Menšík, Vlastimil Brodský and Jindřich Polák, and there are interviews with lead actor Petr Kostka and costume designer Theodor Pištěk, each running just under five minutes.


Icarus XB-1 / Voyage to the End of the Universe

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Krumbachová, Ester, Liška, Zdeněk, Juráček, Pavel, Polák, Jindřich — Michael at 11:36 am on Sunday, September 17, 2006

Ikarie XB 1

1963, black and white, 87 mins

  • Director: Jindřich Polák
  • Producer: Rudolf Wolf
  • Screenplay: Pavel Juráček, Jindřich Polák
  • Story: Pavel Juráček, Jindřich Polák
  • Photography: Jan Kališ
  • Editor: Josef Dobřichovský
  • Design: Jan Zázvorka
  • Music: Zdeněk Liška

  • Cast: Zdeněk Štěpánek (Vladimír Abajev); František Smolík (Antony Hopkins); Dana Medřická (Nina Kirová); Irena Kačírková (Brigita); Radovan Lukavský (MacDonald); Otto Lackovič (Michal); Miroslav Macháček (Marcel Bernard); Rudolf Deyl (Ervin Herold); Martin Ťapák (Petr Kubeš); Jiří Vršťala (Erik Svenson); Jaroslav Mareš (Milek Wertbowski); Marcela Martínková (Štefa); Jozef Adamovič (Zdeněk Lorenc); Jaroslav Rozsíval (doctor); Svatava Hubeňáková (MacDonald’s wife); Růžena Urbanová; Jan Cmíral; Vjačeslav Irmanov

  • Crew: Saša Rašilov, Jr (second cameraman); Oldřich Hubáček (camera assistant); Václav Pohl (lighting); Jan Kališ, Milan Nejedlý, Jiří Hlupý, Pavel Nečesal, Karel Císařovský, František Žemlička (special photographic effects); Miroslav Pešan (stills photography); Jaromír Svoboda (sound); Bohumír Brunclík, Jaromír Svoboda (sound effects); Film Symphony Orchestra conducted by František Belfín (music performed by); František Halmazna (choreography); Ester Krumbachová, Jan Skalický (costume design); Zdena Šnajdarová (costumes); Rudolf Hammer (make-up); František Klema, Karel Holek, Libuše Švejdová (make-up assistants); Karel Lukáš (set designer); Bohumil Dudař (assistant designer); Hynek Bočan (assistant director); Jiří Růžička (director’s assistant); Eva Mičulková (script supervisor); Helena Lehovcová, Růžena Hejsková (assistant editors); Ludmila Tikovská, František Jaderník (associate producers); Ferdinand Zelenka, Eliška Doubková (assistants to the producer); Milan Ledvina, Rudolf Pešek, Vladimír Guth, Milan Morávek, Jan Hospodář, Milan Kauders (professional advisers); Barrandov Film Studios (production company)

The Film

In many ways the missing link between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Star Trek), Icarus XB-1 is a fascinating sci-fi curio. For decades this was only available to English-speaking viewers in the form of Voyage to the End of the Universe, one of American International Pictures’ notorious hatchet jobs, heavily cut, dubbed (and partially retranslated) into English and with a nonsensical new ending that junks one of the film’s main themes in favour of a crass Planet of the Apes-style shock twist. (The fact that it predated that film by four or five years is the only mitigating factor, but that won’t cut much ice with today’s audiences).

Thankfully, the original is now back in circulation, and reveals itself to be an unusually thoughtful and intelligent genre entry - badly dated in parts (and further unintentional amusement comes via a leading character called Anthony Hopkins and a deadly gas trademarked as ‘Tigger Fun’), but that’s true of virtually everything else from its era. And it’s especially easy to make allowances when the film’s strengths are so clear.

Set in the 22nd century, it depicts various events that happens to the spaceship of the title as its occupants attempt to find life in the Alpha Centauri solar system. The early part of the film concentrates on life on board, initially letting us get to know the forty-strong crew during a birthday celebration, during which they dance, socialise and occasionally conspire. We are shown glimpses of their day-to-day lives as they eat, exercise and even shower together, alongside imaginative touches such as packets of cigarette-style tubes which, when sniffed, appear to evoke memories of life on Earth. A shipboard romance even leads to a pregnancy-and-birth subplot, highly unusual for the time (so much so that it was apparently excised from the US version in its entirety).

The dramatic action moves up a notch when they discover an apparently deserted UFO-style manned satellite cryptically named Tornado. Successfully breaking in, astronauts Peter and Ervin (Martin Ťapák and Rudolf Deyl) discover a room full of dead bodies, perfectly preserved and seemingly killed instantly without any warning, as they’re frozen in mid-action. They find evidence that it’s a 1987 (!) expedition and also of what happened, though I won’t post any spoilers here. The second major set-piece involves an encounter with what is presumably a black hole (called a “dark star” in the subtitles here), which has an adverse affect on the Icarus’ crew in terms of provoking both fatigue and radiation sickness - in one case, Michael (Otto Lackovič) goes mad and tries to return to Earth, threatening the other crew members and jeopardising the future of their mission.

The set-up is so similar to that of Star Trek that one can’t help wondering whether Gene Roddenberry saw it beforehand. Stanley Kubrick certainly did when researching special-effects technology prior to making 2001, and some of Icarus XB-1’s design and conceptual ideas found their way into his film - the spacesuits are very similar, as is the interior lighting, hexagonal corridors, videophone calls to loved ones, and the overarching theme of searching for unspecified (and never directly depicted) alien intelligence beyond the further reaches of our solar system.

Also familiar from Kubrick’s film (and Star Trek) is the notion of international collaboration - the various characters have Czech, Russian, British/American, Scandinavian and French names. True, they’re also resoundingly monoracial, something that Star Trek would correct (though not 2001), but this is understandable, as early 1960s Czechoslovakia wouldn’t have been anybody’s idea of a rainbow nation. Lest this make Icarus XB-1 sound like a wholly innocent victim of others’ borrowings, it should be noted that it also rips off Forbidden Planet via a blatantly Robby-styled robot cutely named Patrick which has a faintly disturbing habit of assuming that if a crew member isn’t moving, he must be dead, and repeating this allegation mechanically until told to shut up.

Director Jindřich Polák (who would go on to helm the cult favourite Nazi time-travel comedy Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea in 1977) does a fine job of blending incidental wit with overarching seriousness. The sequence exploring the shadowy interior of the Tornado is genuinely creepy (especially when its dead pilot is disturbed and a chunk of his long-decomposed flesh floats away from his exposed skull), and Polák also makes a brave if not entirely convincing stab at a Spielbergian sense of wonder at the end (albeit when Spielberg was still in short trousers).

The special effects are somewhat creaky now, but would have looked close to state-of-the-art back in 1963, taking full advantage of the Barrandov Studios’ renowned facilities. Already imaginative sets (the black-and-white cinematography is particularly alive to their various textures) are enhanced by an inventive use of rear projection screens that must have taken no small effort to assemble and synchronise. The music is by the great Zdeněk Liška (Czechoslovakia’s Bernard Herrmann, best known in the West for his many collaborations with Jan Švankmajer), which alternates lush orchestral colourings with chirruping electronics and bizarre dance rhythms with more than a hint of Juan Garcia Esquivel’s then-contemporaneous space-age bachelor pad soundtracks.

I was expecting more overt political content, though it’s easy to see why the Czechoslovak Communist administration of the time had no problems with the implication of a glorious multinational socialist future (explicitly contrasted with the fate of the Tornado, brought down by its excessive reliance on nuclear weaponry), a notion carried through to the end with its theme of spontaneous intergalactic co-operation. Truth be told, this aspect of the film is weaker than the individual set-pieces, and the film as a whole is a definite notch below Forbidden Planet and 2001 in terms of overall achievement - but Icarus XB-1 is still a very welcome rediscovery.


Distribution: Filmexport Home Video (Czech Republic), PAL, no region code.

Picture: Thankfully, the DVD preserves the original 2.35:1 Scope aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced. The print is in good rather than great condition - there are quite a few spots and scratches (especially towards the end), but nothing seriously distracting. The texture is somewhat grainy, but this may well have been characteristic of the original. Contrast is strong without being excessive, which particularly benefits the set design and exterior special-effects shots. A full-scale restoration would doubtless improve matters, but this will certainly do to be going on with. DVDFreak offers screengrabs here.

Sound: The sound is the original mono, and has been well preserved - there are a few minor audio glitches, but I have no difficulty believing that these are inherent in the original materials, which otherwise sound exactly as you’d expect an early-1960s film to sound.

Subtitles: In common with every other release I’ve seen on this label, the English subtitles are white, easy to read, and generally flawless aside from one or two idiomatic slip-ups. Onscreen text (such as credits) is also translated.

Extras: Although the disc comes with a really impressive set of extras (especially considering the film’s age), most will be useless to non-Czech speakers. So instead of listing them in menu order, I’ll highlight the English-friendly ones first, starting with three short clips (totalling five minutes) from the American International Pictures version of the film (Voyage to the End of the Universe) illustrating how much it deviated from the Czech original. Firstly, there’s the hilarious title sequence, retaining all the names in the credits but Anglicising the vast majority - so it’s now directed by ‘Jack Pollack’, was written in collaboration with ‘Paul Jurist’ and has music by ‘Danny List’, though my favourite was the way costume designer (and key New Wave figure) Ester Krumbachová became plain ‘Esther Smith’, as though off for a dirty weekend. The second clip shows the confrontation between Michael and MacDonald about three-quarters of the way through, but is most interesting for the way it shows how the US version uses voiceover to add additional plot points or smooth over the cuts. And finally there’s the alternate ending, where the “white planet” turns out to be the Earth (illustrated via aerial stock footage of New York). The clips are all in English, with no subtitle option (not even Czech).

Non-Czech speakers can also appreciate the wittily-designed stills gallery, which involves 42 images (mostly from the film, though there are a couple of behind-the-scenes shots towards the end) in an appropriately retro brushed aluminium frame with sliding metal panels revealing each successive image. This runs just under three-and-a-half minutes, and there’s also a smaller gallery of publicity materials, animated as if floating through space. Each is accompanied by extracts from Zdeněk Liška’s score: electronic for the first, orchestral for the second.

As for the Czech-only extras, these include: a half-hour lecture on the film by historian Pavel Taussig; a 35-minute documentary interspersing copious clips with interviews with Hynek Bočan (assistant director), Radovan Lukavský (Macdonald), Zuzana Poláková (presumably the director’s wife or daughter: he died in 2003) and the sci-fi writer Ondřej Neff (former editor-in-chief of Ikarie magazine, named after this film); text biographies/filmographies of leading cast and crew members; a bibliography of references to the film; the usual raft of sponsors and media partner ads and trailers common to Filmexport releases.

There’s also a DVD-ROM section, which is worth exploring as although most of it consists of Czech and German magazine articles, there’s also a reproduction of the original English press notes, including a full (and detailed) synopsis and biographies of the major players.


Diamonds of the Night

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Němec, Jan, Krumbachová, Ester — Michael at 8:33 am on Saturday, August 26, 2006

Démanty noci

1964, black and white, 64 mins

  • Director: Jan Němec
  • Producer: Miloš Bergl
  • Screenplay: Arnošt Lustig, Jan Němec, adapted from Lustig’s novella Darkness Casts No Shadow (Tma nemá stín)
  • Photography: Jaroslav Kučera (and Miroslav Ondříček)
  • Editor: Miroslav Hájek, Jitka Šulcová
  • Design: Oldřich Bosák
  • Music: none

  • Cast: Ladislav Janský (first young man), Antonín Kumbera (second young man), Ilse Bischofová (woman), Jan Říha, Ivan Asič, August Bischof, Josef Koggel, Oskar Miller, Anton Schich, Rudolf Stolle, Josef Koblížek, Rudolf Lukášek, Bohumil Moudrý, Karel Navrátil, Evžen Pichl, František Procházka, František Vrána, Josef Kubát (old men)

  • Crew: František Černý (sound); Josef Mára, Zdena Černá (associate producers); Hynek Bočan (assistant director); Petr Čech (camera assistant); Bohumil Nový (design assistant); Filmové studio Barrandov (production company)

The Film

One of the earliest Czech New Wave films, Jan Němec’s debut feature Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) is also one of the most startling, and remains a thrillingly original piece of cinema even today. Shot largely hand-held and virtually dialogue-free, it follows the desperate journey of two teenage boys who successfully escape a train (presumably) bound for a Nazi concentration camp, only to find themselves hunted down by a band of old men whose physical decrepitude doesn’t make them any less lethal.

It was based on the novella Darkness Casts No Shadow (Tma nemá stín) by Arnošt Lustig, an Auschwitz survivor who became one of the main Czech chroniclers of the Holocaust, and who himself managed to escape from a Dachau-bound train after it was bombed by the Americans. Although Lustig co-wrote the screenplay and would later cite the film as his personal favourite of all the adaptations of his work, it’s clear that he’s not the kind of author who values excessive fidelity to the text, as it’s impossible to detect from what ended up on screen that it had a literary source. In Němec’s treatment, it’s almost irrelevant that this is set during World War II - it could be any situation involving teenage outsiders on the run from some kind of authority.

So given that Němec has not only stripped the situation down to its barest essentials and that the plot (such as it is) could be written on the back of a postcard with more than enough space left over to add the credits, what are the film’s virtues? His approach is to emphasise the overwhelming physicality of the situation his two protagonists find themselves in. The impression of feverish delirium is enhanced by the extensive use of a hand-held camera (operated by Miroslav Ondříček, later Miloš Forman’s favourite cinematographer) and Jaroslav Kučera’s grainy, sometimes slightly overexposed photography adds a texture to what are already strongly tactile images.

Half-dead with exhaustion and hunger, almost crippled by ill-fitting boots and repeatedly drenched by sudden downpours, the boys’ tortuous progress through the woods is intercut with short, initially inexplicable images, some of which appear to be flashbacks (a tram ride, an assignation with a girl in a cemetery, the journey on the Nazi train), others which seem to be conveying their disintegrating mental state (a rapid montage of tall trees falling towards the camera, a shock-cut to a face crawling with ants - or, more explicably, generalised memories of comfort and pleasure), while later on they seem to be trying to predict the future, or several alternative variants. This last element is most overt in the sequence in the farm, where one of the boys imagines committing at least three different violent acts on the woman he meets there (the last of which hints at rape), and also at the end - or rather ends, as Němec offers two alternatives.

When the boys are finally captured (were they betrayed by the woman at the farm? Němec doesn’t say), the film shifts gear, maintaining the nightmarish tone while adding an element of satire. Their pursuers, far from being lithe Gestapo officers, are a motley gaggle of old men, some of whom appear to be borderline senile, laughing and joking amongst themselves as they hunt them down. This sequence has a universality that goes far beyond the specific World War II period and even beyond Diamonds of the Night’s own production, as much of Czech twentieth-century history (very much including the 1968-89 period) involves a gerontocracy imposing its views on the younger members of the population, often backed up by force. Němec would explore a similar theme in his follow-up feature The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech), another film where the appearance of deceptively jovial authority figures presages disaster.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Němec’s major acknowledged influence was Robert Bresson: although the visual style of Diamonds of the Night is more freewheeling than the Frenchman’s slow-moving austerity, Němec’s essentialist approach to the content of both his images and his soundtrack run very much along the same lines (there is no music, and sometimes he even strips out foreground sounds). Another clear influence is that of Luis Buñuel - this would become particularly overt with Němec’s next feature, the Exterminating Angel-like The Party and the Guests, but the shots of ants crawling over hands, feet and faces are an unmistakable homage to the creator of Un Chien andalou, while Peter Hames’ account of the film (in The Czechoslovak New Wave) also finds parallels with L’Age d’or (the bandits on the run) and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (assorted rape/murder fantasies that remain just that).

For a feature debut by a director still in his twenties, Diamonds of the Night is an extraordinarily confident piece of work, and it still looms large in Němec’s output as a whole - though the brilliant career that this seemed to foreshadow ended up moving in fits and starts, with huge and unintended gaps in his filmography. Although Němec was never as much of a victim as, say, Sergo Paradjanov in the USSR (he did at least avoid prison, though by all accounts only just), his patchy post-1960s career is a testament to the difficulty of maintaining a genuinely uncompromising creative stance in systems - whether communist or capitalist - that have very different priorities.


Distribution: Filmexport Home Video (Czech Republic), PAL, no region code, on a double-bill DVD that also includes Miloš Forman’s Talent Competition (Konkurs)

Picture: I saw this film on the big screen nearly twenty years ago, and the DVD seems to match my memories pretty well, in that I believe the obtrusive grain and overexposed, almost bleached-out flashback shots are intentional elements of the overall texture. The print is in good condition for its age, with relatively few spots and scratches, and occasional faint tramlines generally come and go with cuts to successive shots, suggesting the original film stock or negative cutting copy was scratched prior to editing. The aspect ratio is the original 4:3. Although the image quality as a whole is only fair to middling, and there’s evidence that the original source was an analogue tape, none of this is especially distracting - the film has clearly been designed to look rough and ready, and virtually every shot is hand-held. So while there’s room for improvement, this will certainly do for now.

Sound: The sound is the original mono, and consists almost entirely of background noise - there is little dialogue and no music other than what’s sung onscreen by the old men towards the end. As with the picture, while it’s far from flawless, I never got the impression that I was being short-changed: it’s what I’d have expected from an early 1960s Eastern European film.

Subtitles: There is so little dialogue in this film that the total number of subtitles must only be in the low double figures - but they appeared whenever necessary (including the opening credits), and did a good, clear, typo-free job. Interestingly, while the English subtitles translate everything, the Czech subtitles merely transcribe what’s uttered on screen - in other words, the German dialogue remains in German, presumably to reflect the boys’ own bafflement and incomprehension.

Extras: There are plenty of extras (covering both this film and the accompanying Talent Competition), many of which look fascinating - but almost everything will be useless to those who don’t understand Czech. But here’s a rundown: a 23-minute introduction by film historian Pavel Taussig (delivered straight to camera and intercut with film clips); a well-stocked stills gallery (36 images, mostly from the film though with a couple of production shots) accompanied, in the absence of any music, by a section of the film’s soundtrack; biographies and filmographies for Jan Němec, Arnošt Lustig, Jaroslav Kučera, Ladislav Janský and Antonín Kumbera; a twelve-title bibliography; a short publicity montage (three images); interviews with second cameraman Miroslav Ondříček (5:44) and assistant director Hynek Bočan (10:33); a list of festivals the film played at; and a DVD-ROM section containing high-resolution scans of contemporary reviews (all from Czech publications). Note that these are just the extras for the Diamonds of the Night section of the disc - Talent Competition has a similar collection of its own.


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.


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.


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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