Tag Archives: Czech New Wave

CAPSULE: THE CASSANDRA CAT (1963)

Az prijde kocour, AKA When the Cat Comes

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DIRECTED BY: Vojtech Jasný

FEATURING: Jan Werich, Emília Vásáryová, Vlastimil Brodský

PLOT: A magical cat reveals people’s true natures leading to whimsy and chaos.

Still from The Cassandra Cat (1963)

COMMENTS: On the surface, the movies of the (1963-1968) seem vastly different from typical cinema, but they aren’t. Not really. See, starting in 1945, when the film industry in Czechoslovakia was nationalized, the country’s cinema became stultified. Even small children could predict the outcome of every story. But in the early sixties there was a de-Stalinization within the Czech Artistic Council, and that led to an explosion of creativity: the Czech New Wave.

Films as strikingly different from one another as Daisies (1966) and A Report on the Party and Guests (1966) share not only this sociopolitical background but also a similar sense of absurdity and surrealism.

Why this Film Studies 101 intro? Because The Cassandra Cat (1963) (aka When the Cat ComesThe Cat Who Wore Sunglasses, One Day a Cat, and That Cat) makes a lot more sense in context.

A magician and his troupe come to a small town. They bring with them a cat wearing sunglasses. During the magic show, we learn the direct and rather impassive glare of the cat reveals a person’s true colors: literally. People turn entirely yellow if they are guilty of infidelity, purple if they are “social climbers” (we might say “brown nosers”), gray if thieves, and of course red if when they’re in love. Much chaos and hilarity ensues.

The Cassandra Cat is witty and whimsical, never passing up an opportunity to take a jab at authority, which is shown as anti-art and, through hunting and taxidermy, as anti-life itself. Our hero, a third grade teacher, is pro-art, anti-death, and all red when the cat looks at him, as he is smitten with the magician’s assistant.

The cat gets lost and falls into the wrong hands. The children protest by going into hiding. The parents lose their cool each in their own way, and in one delightful scene stand on tree stumps in the forest calling out their children’s names under the direction of a conductor. In the end the teacher does not get to keep true love (which thwarts the predictable Artistic Council code), but he does get a class of happy and creative students.

The Cassandra Cat uses experimental special effects throughout. Some of these, such as the process used to color those who have been seen by the cat, made restoration of the film quite tricky.

The Cassandra Cat‘s story is thin. Many scenes seem to have no purpose except to have fun, which in itself could have been rebellion against previous (and future) restrictions. The Czech New Wave essentially ended when Soviet tanks rolled in and crushed the Prague Spring in 1968.

See, doesn’t a cat wearing sunglasses lest he expose people’s true natures make more sense when you have that Cold War background?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part family fable and part surreal acid trip… Usually surreal, hallucinogenic films are also dark and moody, but Cat is unusual in this regard. It is a bittersweet film that never loses its sense of innocence, despite the wild scenes from the town square.”–Joe Bendel, J.B. Spins

CAPSULE: DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (1964)

Démanty noci 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ladislav Jánsky, Antonín Kumbera

PLOT: Two Jewish boys escape from the Nazis and flee through the German countryside.

Still from Diamonds of the Night (1964)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A minimalist mix of almost-documentary realism with disorienting fantasies and flashbacks, there are rewards to be had in digging up the buried narrative gems in Diamonds of the Night. But despite its impressive pathos, it’s easy to see why this dour, low-budget sleeper wasn’t one of the enduring international breakout titles of the . Nemec would deliver better films.

COMMENTS:We open on two boys running into the woods with a train clacking in the background. They ditch overcoats painted with the letters “KL” (for “konzentrationslager,” indicating they are bound for Nazi concentration camps) as they flee the sound of gunfire and cries of “halt!”

This thrilling opening soon loses steam, however, as the boys continue to run, then slow to a walk, then walk, and walk, and walk, occasionally pausing to lap water from a stream like dogs or take off their boots to check on their spreading blisters. It’s all shot with documentary-style shaky handheld cameras. There is no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes (and little thereafter).

The drudging pace and gray tedium of this opening will lose many viewers. The increasing confusion of the story will lose even more; but it is here is where Diamonds of the Night starts to get interesting. A few mysterious flashbacks—one of the boys climbing through cars in an empty passenger trolley, random scenes of the two trekking through almost deserted cities—are spread throughout the film’s first half. These increase in frequency as the movie progresses, and start to overlap with fantasy scenes, creating layers of memory, dreams and reality that blend together. When one of the boys barges in on a farm wife as she prepares lunch, for a while it’s unclear what really happens. We see alternative scenarios, one in which she silently hands him bread to eat, and one in which he kills her and takes the loaf. It’s immaterial whether he really strikes her down or not; he’s hungry and desperate enough to kill, and it’s only a question of fate whether he raises his hand or not.

In the second half of the film, the fugitives are hunted by a posse of German men too old to serve at the front; it’s grimly amusing to see the aged squad arthritically stalk them through the forest. An extended, chopped-up sequence of flashbacks shows one of the pair strolling through Prague streets that were deserted in previous flashbacks, wearing the coat that destines him for the death camps, running through the trolley once more, thinking of a dark-haired girl, pressing a doorbell and getting no answer; impressions of a life just before the Nazis seized him that conveys a sense of oppression without telling a coherent story. They are caught by their doddering pursuers when one of the boys can no longer run on his injured foot and the other stops to help him; a flashback shows the healthy one trading his boot to the injured one for food on the concentration camp train.

Matching the nonlinear storyline, the film is also out of phase aurally: sometimes the sounds of memories will lap over into the current times, and sometimes the opposite happens, further blurring the boundary between past and present, fantasy and reality.

Diamonds was adapted from Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novel; Nemec’s student graduation thesis film (1960’s “A Loaf of Bread,” included on the Criterion disc) was also a Lustig adaptation. As a first narrative feature, Diamonds of the Night plays like a very advanced student film; even it’s padded-yet-barely-over-an-hour runtime fits the bill. There are fascinating moments, but probably only a half and hour of truly interesting material here, interspersed with long stretches of the boys trudging joylessly through the woods. The 2019 Criterion release supplements the film’s short running time with two short documentaries featuring Nemec, a visual essay, Czech New Wave expert Irena Kovaroa, the aforementioned student short, and of course a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a realistic Czechoslovak film about two escapees from a German concentration camp; it makes one realize just how valid and necessary absurdism, particularly the austere absurdism of great dramatists like Beckett or even Pinter, is.”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1968, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

228. LEMONADE JOE (1964)

Limonádový Joe aneb Konská Opera [Lemonade Joe, or the Horse Opera]

“What was before my eyes was both familiar and eerily strange.”–Danilo H. Figueredo, in Revolvers and Pistolas, Vaqueros and Caballeros: Debunking the Old West, on the experience of seeing Lemonade Joe in Cuba

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oldrich Lipský

FEATURING: Karel Fiala, Olga Schoberová, Rudolf Deyl, Miloš Kopecký, Kveta Fialová

PLOT: A lemonade-drinking cowboy rescues a beautiful temperance worker from rowdies in a tavern. Impressed with his heroism and trick shooting, the town opens an all-lemonade saloon, which upsets the local whiskey barons. With the help of a prostitute Joe has scorned, they scheme to kill the teetotalling hero and make Stetson City safe for intoxicating spirits once more.

Still from Lemonade Joe (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The word “limonádový” actually translates to “soft drink,” not “lemonade,” but there can be no doubt Lemonade Joe has a better ring to it than Soft Drink Joe.
  • The Lemonade Joe character began his life in a series of stories by satirist Jiří Brdečka. The stories were then adapted into a 1946 play, a short series of animated shorts, and finally into this hit movie.
  • Co-screenwriter/director Oldrich Lipský was the artistic director of Prague’s Satirical Theater. He went on to direct several popular and critically successful films, including Happy End (a 1966 experimental film that plays backwards) and Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981).
  • Although the Western had been a popular genre in Czechoslovakia in the early part of the 20th Century, largely due to the writings of German pulp author Karl May, Western films had been banned through the German and Soviet occupations. They only began to be screened again (and then rarely) in the 1960s.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted Lemonade Joe to the Academy Awards, but it was not selected for the Best Foreign Language Film competition.
  • This movie was a huge hit in its home country—the biggest-drawing film of the 1960s—and remains a cult movie there to this day.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lemonade Joe and his nemesis—who is outfitted in blackface because he has been posing as Louis Armstrong for a duet with Joe at the piano—square off in a shootout. The gunfire’s path appears onscreen as dotted lines so that we can see that the bullets are striking each other in midair, leading the duel to end in a draw.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fiddle eating; Czech blackface; dotted bullets

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Communist propaganda, surreal Czech sensibilities, and an honest appreciation for the entertainment value of early Hollywood films collide to create a homegrown retro-Western musical spoof that could almost have come from the mind of Guy Maddin.


Clip from Lemonade Joe

COMMENTS: You hear the names Milos Forman, , Continue reading 228. LEMONADE JOE (1964)

136. VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)

Valerie a Týden Divu

“…one of those haunting, dream-like films that once seen is difficult to forget.”–Tanya Krzywinska

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jaroslava Schallerova, Petr Kopriva, Helena Anyzova, Jiri Prymek, 

PLOT: Young Valerie lives in a farmhouse on the edge of a small town with her Granny. She flirts with “Eagle,” a boy about her age who is either a neighbor or her brother, and they both fear a pale-faced bogeyman they call “the Weasel.” On the day she becomes a woman (symbolized by blood drops appearing on a daisy), Valerie’s life suddenly becomes a strange dream involving family betrayals, lusty priests, constantly shifting identities, and a vampire infestation.

Still from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval, which was written in 1935 but not published until 1945. Nezval was a co-founder of the Czech Surrealist group (one of the first Surrealist groups organized outside of France).
  • This is considered one of the last works in what was known as the , although that term more commonly refers to Czech movies made or released just before or during the Prague spring of 1968. In contrast to most of the New Wave canon, Valerie was released after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the installation of a hardline government who redoubled censorship efforts. Despite the fact that it’s a Surrealist work, equally offensive to the official aesthetic of Socialist Realism as a banned New Wave movie like 1967’s Daisies, Valerie appears to have evoked little objection from the censors. This may be because the film’s heavily anticlerical tone meshed with the Communist Party’s official stance on the Church.
  • A Philadelphia “freak folk” supergroup dubbed “The Valerie Project” wrote an alternate soundtrack to the film, and toured across the U.S. from 2006-2008 performing the score while the film screened as a silent movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Drops of blood on white daisy petals.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is often, and accurately, described as a Freudian version of Alice in Wonderland, with the confusion of new hormones surging through the young heroine’s body coloring her encounters with a dark and fearful tinge: Valerie faces vampires and rapist priests instead of Alice’s White Rabbits and Cheshire Cats. The plot makes no literal sense, because characters keep changing into different characters, the way they might in a dream; but overall Valerie’s welter of wonders hangs together as a mosaic of a girl’s anxieties about impending adulthood and the enticing but scary world of sex.

Clip from Peter Hames Criterion Collection commentary Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

COMMENTS: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders opens with images of pretty young Valerie drinking from a waterspout, petting a dove, sniffing Continue reading 136. VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)