So, having decided to spend the next few months surveying Czech film history (see Introduction), the next question is: where to begin?
Of the 200-plus titles currently available on DVD in English-friendly editions, only a tiny minority have ever had commercial distribution in English-speaking countries, and the vast majority of those - understandably - date from the 1963-9 golden era. Most English-language criticism of Czech cinema covers a similarly narrow range: even the definitive text, Peter Hames’ The Czechoslovak New Wave, betrays its focus in its very title, though it does at least cast the net wider than that implies.
So how best to decide which titles are worth exploring? Random selection would probably be an expensive gamble, so instead I decided to adopt a system used in Christopher Tookey’s The Critics’ Film Guide (1994), where he totted up the ratings given by the fifteen highest-profile film guides in order to establish a supposedly definitive “best films of all time” list (Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday was, for the record, the only title with a perfect 10/10 score). Obviously, there are all sorts of objections that could be made about these methods - not least statistical ones - but for my purposes it seemed to offer a reasonable model for what I was after.
So I entered all the relevant titles onto a spreadsheet and looked for sources of scores to tot up. I wasn’t seriously expecting to find fifteen, but I did find four that covered a reasonable spread of Czech cinema history: one book (Václav Březina’s Lexikon českého filmu, the only Czech equivalent of Halliwell’s that I’m aware of), and three online databases (Martin Pomothy’s self-explanatory Česko-Slovenská filmová databáze, the broadly similar České filmové nebe and the rather better-known Internet Movie Database).
All three databases feature scores averaging votes by individual readers, and all helpfully cite the number of votes - so I was able to apply weighting where necessary (for instance, if one source gave a film 6.7 from 131 votes and another 9.8 from just 2, this would average out at 6.75, not 8.25). However, I haven’t applied such weighting to Mr Březina’s scores as I felt this would overcomplicate matters - and it’s not as though this exercise is statistically robust to begin with.
Anyway, this rough-and-ready system generated this top ten:
1. My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková, d. Jiří Menzel, 1986)
2. The Hand (Ruka, d. Jiří Trnka, 1965)
3. The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, d. Juraj Herz, 1969)
4. The Elementary School (Obecná škola, d. Jan Svěrák, 1991)
5. The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, d. Ján Kadár/Elmar Klos, 1965)
6. Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe aneb Konská opera, d. Oldřich Lipský, 1964)
7. Cutting It Short (Postřižiny, d. Jiří Menzel, 1980)
8. Once Upon A Time There Was A King (Byl jednou jeden král, d. Bořivoj Zeman, 1954)
9. The Witches’ Hammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice, d. Otakar Vávra, 1969)
10. Distant Journey (Daleká cesta, d. Alfréd Radok, 1949)
…which was exactly the kind of thing that I was after.
I’d heard of about half the titles on this list, but had only seen two already (The Hand and The Cremator). The Shop on the High Street, My Sweet Little Village and The Elementary School were all Czech nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar (the first-named went on to win). I first heard of - and nearly went to see - Lemonade Joe when it screened in the autumn 2003 Red Westerns seasons at the Leeds Film Festival and London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.
As for the remainder, I’d read Bohumil Hrabal’s novella ‘Cutting It Short’ (published in English translation in the collection The Little Town Where Time Stood Still) but hadn’t heard of the film before, while nos. 8 to 10 were entirely new to me (though Alfréd Radok’s reputation preceded him: he was the presiding genius behind Prague’s multimedia Laterna Magika theatre and a mentor to Miloš Forman, whose own films feature only just outside this top ten).
What I was particularly pleased about was the fact that the list offered a 42-year spread and that only half the titles dated from the 1960s. Obviously, I don’t wish to play down that decade’s significance, not just to Czech cinema but Czech history and culture as a whole, but I’m very conscious of the fact that international distribution and criticism has been so overwhelmingly biased towards it that other eras might as well not exist. I’d also picked up the impression that the period 1969-89 was more or less a write-off in critical terms, yet two titles on the list date from the 1980s.
So I ordered DVDs of all ten, and I’ll post my findings in due course. In the meantime, Andrew James Horton’s overview of Czech cinema for GreenCine provides the best beginner’s guide that I’ve come across online - and I’ll be discussing most of the titles he mentions over the next few months.