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Before "Normalization": The Czech New Wave

There are many so-called "new waves" in film history, from the French nouvelle vague (1959 through the middle 1960s), the Australian new wave (mid-to-late 1970s) , the new wave of Taiwanese cinema (beginning in the 1980s), and the current "new wave" blossoming in Danish filmmaking, to mention a few. While such monikers serve many purposes, including facilitating international marketing , they do identify those regions where, for any number of reasons, particularly fertile and original bodies of creative work have emerged.

Begining around 1963 and continuing through the "Prague Spring" of 1968, one of the most vibrant and unusual of these "waves" rolled through Czechoslovakia. Stalin’s death in 1953 and the emerging thaw in east central European politics had led to a steady decline in Socialist Realist filmmaking and the gradual emergence in the 1960s of new and unconventional artistic voices in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Characterized to some degree by a subtle mixing of fiction and documentary, the Czech "school" enjoyed perhaps the most unprecedented degree of freedom, up until the arrival of the Soviet tanks in August 1968.

Our series revisiting the Czech New Wave runs throughout our September/October calendar and includes among its highlights a newly restored print of Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting, classic works by Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, and Jan Kadar, and what we believe may be the first ever Boston screening of the legendary epic masterpiece Marketa Lazarova.

"The seeming mystery of this veritable miracle within the confines of a totalitarian state is easily explainable. The more cultured comrades who became responsible for the film industry in the sixties simply ‘forgot’ that Lenin saw film solely as a propaganda tool, and made the ‘mistake’ of viewing it as an art form. Retaining the organizational structure of the industry which had been designed for the production of propaganda, they used its bottomless financial resources to fund artistic probes into the situation of man on this earth. State ownership of the industry can, indeed, be ideal, as Milos Forman once said, provided that the state, or at least its film agency, is run by philosophers." – Josef Skvorecky


September 20 (Monday) 7 pm
September 22 (Wednesday) 9 pm
September 24 (Friday) 7 pm
Newly Restored 35mm Print!

Intimate Lightning (Intimni Osvetleni)

czech-intimate.jpg (10932 bytes)Directed by Ivan Passer
Czechoslovakia 1965, b/w, 35mm, 72 min.
With Zdenek Bezusek, Vera Kresadlova, Jaroslava Stedra
Czech with English subtitles

Before leaving his homeland for the USA in 1969, Passer made two films, including this gentle masterpiece. A Prague cellist and his beautiful, sophisticated mistress visit old friends in a provincial town, where they eat, drink, play music and reminisce. The film demonstrates Passer’s enchantment with nature and music and his great interest in the psychological observation of character. A tender, well-observed comedy about life’s everyday pleasures and lost opportunites.  

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September 27 (Monday) 6 pm
October 27 (Wednesday) 9:15 pm

Loves of a Blonde (Lasky Jedne Plavovlasky)

czech-loves.jpg (7950 bytes)Directed by Milos Forman
Czechoslovakia 1965, b/w, 35mm, 82 min.
With Hana Brejchova, Vladimir Pucholt, Joseph Sebanek, Milada Jezkova
Czech with English subtitles

When a young factory girl, dissatisfied with the men in her small town, meets a visiting pianist, she falls in love and thinks that she has finally found happiness. However, she is forced to reconsider the situation when she unexpectedly follows him to Prague and meets his parents. Famed director Milos Forman’s second film is by turns romantic and comic. Forman’s careful eye is able to treat with simplicity issues that are anything but clear-cut.

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October 1 (Friday) 7 pm

Adrift (Hrst Pina Vody)

Directed by Jan Kadar
Czechoslovakia 1969, b/w, 35mm, 108 min.
With Jozef Kroner, Rade Markovic Milena Dravic, Paula Pritchett
Czech with English subtitles

After surviving World War II in a Nazi labor camp, director Jan Kadar frequently collaborated with fellow law school dropout Elmar Klos. In the summer of 1968, shortly before Kadar left his homeland, the pair started to shoot an adaptation of Lajos Zilahy’s best seller Something is Adrift in the Water until the arrival of Russian tanks halted the film’s production. A year later, the cast and crew were reassembled to continue work on the project. The film, which tells the story of a happily married fisherman who becomes obsessed with an amnesic girl he rescues from a river, was finally released in 1971.

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October 2 (Saturday) 8 pm
The Harvard Film Archive would like to thank George Gund iii for his generosity in loaning this rare print for our screening as well as the Pacific Film Archive for all their assistance.

Marketa Lazarova

czech-marketa.jpg (13565 bytes)Directed by Frantisek Vlacil
Czechoslovakia 1966, color, 35mm, 180 min.
Rare Archival Print!
With Magda Vasaryova, Frantisek Velecky, Pavla Polaskova, Josef Kemr
Czech with English subtitles

Upon its release in 1966, Variety declared Marketa Lazarova, with its three-hour length, elliptical dream-like narrative, and totally foreign flavor –"a stunning work...unsuitable for general commercial release." Now recognized as an epic Gothic tale, this monumental Czech masterpiece is a film whose audience has finally caught up with it. Set in the remote forests of Bohemia in the 13th century, the complex plot is woven around the abduction and brutal rape of Marketa Lazarova, a clan leader’s angelic, convent-bound daughter, by a fierce pagan warrior. Foregoing the temptation to reduce the story to a simple highwayman adventure, filmmaker Frantisek Vlacil—known for his poetic lyricism—revives the age in all its stark details, penetrating into the hearts and minds of his ancestors. Haunting photography and searing religious imagery render the story an atavistic nightmare, a cinematic poem difficult to categorize in terms of genre or form. As a metaphor for the clash between the old and the new, the declining pagan world as it succumbed to the rise of Christianity, the film also presages the changes that would sweep modern-day Czechoslovakia at the dusk of socialism. This rarely seen work – six years in the making – evokes Kurosawa or Mizoguchi: intense, poetic and devastatingly cinematic. - San Francisco Film Festival Guide 1997

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October 4 (Monday) 9 pm

And the Fifth Horseman is Fear (A Paty Jezdec Je Strach)

Directed by Zbynek Brynych
Czechoslovakia 1965, b/w, 35mm, 100 min.
With Miroslav Machacek, Olga Scheinpflugova, Ilja Prachar, Josef Vinklar
HFA Archival Print
Czech with English subtitles

"When things are too quiet, I tell myself that nothing good can come of it. Where there isn’t anything to fight for, cinematography can be written off, because film is the art of opposition." Director Zbynek Brynych’s words from this interview in 1968 most certainly apply to this film in which the understated acting contrasts sharply with the acute camera angles, harsh lighting and shock editing. Set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, a Jewish doctor removes a bullet from a wounded Resistance fighter and begins a nightmarish search for morphine through the streets of Prague. Although the film begins as a fairly realistic portrayal of the life of a Czech Jew under Nazi control, it begins to shift into an expressionist Orwellian fable that is not easily forgotten.

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January 9 (Tuesday) 8:45 pm

Closely Watched Trains (Ostre Sledované Vlaky)

czech-closely.jpg (12245 bytes)Directed by Jiri Menzel
Czechoslovakia 1966, b/w, 35mm, 92 min.
With Václav Neckár, Jitka Bendová, Libuse Havelková
Czech with English subtitles

Possibly the best known and most commercially successful film of the Czech New Wave, this first feature from then 28-year-old Jiri Menzel, is a comic, humanistic look at a pubescent railway trainee caught in the midst of World War II. Focusing primarily on the naïve protagonist’s efforts to lose his virginity, this is an offbeat, ironic and tender work, perfectly balanced between comedy and tragedy. In critic Tom Milne’s words Menzel’s film "celebrates a whole universe of frustration, eroticism, adventure and romance." 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. 

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October 6 (Wednesday) 9 pm

The Shop on Main Street (Obchod Od na Korze)

Directed by Jan Kadar 
Czechoslovakia 1965, b/w, 35mm, 128 min.
HFA Archival Print
With Jozef Kroner, Ida Kaminska, Hana Slivkova, Frantisek Zvarik
Czech with English dubbing

This film stands not only as one of the most accomplished films that Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos would create, but also as one of the most highly regarded Eastern European films of the 1960s. When a carpenter becomes the ’Aryan comptroller‘ of a button shop owned by an elderly Jewish woman in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, his allegiances are tested. The film’s tragic subject is carefully combined with a comic tone, and the result is this oft-praised winner of the 1965 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. 

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