November 30, 2006

Czechs and Balances

A dozen rare classics evoke the spectrum of Czech Modernism at BAM

By Peter Hames

A scene from Karel Anton's Tonka of the Gallows, one of 12 films screening in BAM's Czech Modernism series (Photos: BAM)

Sixteen years have passed since Anthology Film Archives programmed its groundbreaking season on Czech Modernist film -- more than enough time for a number of its selections to be due their reappearance in a new program opening today at BAM. Presented in conjunction with the Czech Center New York, the series features 12 titles, including two silents and the first narrative film made about the Holocaust.

“Modernism” has been subject to various definitions over the years; let’s just say that here it refers to a sequence of feature films strongly influenced by avant garde tendencies in the arts and extending from the The Kreutzer Sonata (1926) through to Alfred Radok’s classic Distant Journey (1949) -- the period mirrored in BAM's program. In the 1920s and 1930s, Czech film found itself under the influence of its own home-grown avant garde movement, the Devětsil (Nine Strengths), as well as drawing on wider pan-European movements such as Expressionism and Surrealism. Most of the writers and directors featured among the selections had either direct or indirect links to these developments.

Vladislav Vančura, co-founder and first chairman of the Devětsil and one of the leading experimental novelists of the interwar period, made a number of forays into directing in the mid-1930s, and his Faithless Marijka (1934), filmed in sub-Carpathian Ruthenia (then part of Czechoslovakia) is, in every sense, a unique document. Using non-actors and local dialect, he drew on members of the local Ruthenian and Jewish populations. Exhibiting a virtuosic use of montage unusual for its time, Vančura’s “free film” also features some stunning scenery and influential composer Bohuslav Martinů’s only film score.

Perhaps the best of the Left-inspired films of the 1930s is the comedy Heave-Ho! (1934), featuring the comic duo of Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich. Much influenced by slapstick comedy, Voskovec and Werich had become a theatrical institution in the 1930s and became imprinted on the Czech mind as symbols of democracy and liberty; the story here is of the alliance between an unemployed worker and an out-of-work industrialist who decide to create a workers cooperative. Made at the time of economic depression, the comedy has obvious parallels to Chaplin’s City Lights and René Clair’s A Nous la liberté. (Voskovec and Werich later spent the war years in the United States, where Voskovec eventually became a successful Broadway actor under the name of George Voskovec; they were careful to point out that they were never Communists and that the parade of milk floats in the film is actually a pastiche of the tractors in Eisenstein’s The General Line).

On the Sunny Side, directed by Vladislav Vančura

The most talented of this interwar generation was undoubtedly Gustav Machatý, best known for his Erotikon (1929) and Ecstasy (1933), the latter of which introduced screen siren Hedy Lamarr (then Kiesler) to international audiences. Alas, neither are programmed in Brooklyn, but Machatý's lesser known The Kreutzer Sonata and From Saturday to Sunday (1931) are. Adapted from Tolstoy’s story, The Kreutzer Sonata is very much made in an Expressionist style, using striking sets, impressive camera techniques and non-psychological acting. While its lighting and deliberately slow pace provide a marker for its artistic ambition, the later From Saturday to Sunday is much more of a low-key melodrama. Scripted by the poet and co-founder of the Surrealist group, Vítězslav Nezval, its story of the love life of a young typist moved it away from the more dramatic extremes of Erotikon and Ecstasy, treating its subject with a delicate and lyrical romanticism and humour. The other key features from the 1930s included here comprise the first Czech sound film, Karel Anton’s Tonka of the Gallows (1930), a powerful melodrama about a country girl forced into prostitution; Josef Rovenský’s lyrical and pastoral The River (1933), which attracted attention at the 1934 Venice Film Festival; Otakar Vávra’s Virginity (1937), featuring the iconic actress Lida Baarová; German director Carl Junghans’s moving social drama, Such is Life (1929-30); and Vančura’s bizarrely experimental On the Sunny Side (1933)

Meanwhile, Alexander Hackenschmied -- who, as Alexander Hammid, worked in American independent film as co-director of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon -- played a central role in the Czech avant garde and also worked with Machatý on Erotikon and From Saturday to Sunday. Here, he is represented by Crisis (1938; co-directed with US filmmaker Herbert Kline), a disturbing and timely portrait of life in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Nazi invasion.

The program's two selections of the post-war era both reveal the influence of the pre-war avant garde. In The Strike (aka The Siren, 1947), a powerful work of Communist agit prop, director Karel Steklý headed a group that included the theater director and composer E.F. Burian. In Alfred Radok's trailblazing Holocaust study Distant Journey (1949), which looks at the application of Hitler’s anti-semitic Nuremburg Laws leading to a portrait of the Theresienstadt transit camp, the filmmaker adopted a highly stylized, almost Expressionist approach -- quite likely also influenced by his viewing of Gregg Toland’s work on Welles’s Citizen Kane. Radok’s film was banned for 40 years (reputedly because of its style).

Distant Journey was completed the year after the Communist accession to power, when cultural policies adopted the model of Socialist Realism, and simplified narratives emphasised the actual or potential triumph of Soviet-style socialism. In the 1960s, during the period of the Czech New Wave, an artistic thaw began again and the traditions of the avant garde re-emerged in films like Věra Chytilová’s Dadaist-style Daisies (1966) and Jan Němec’s absurdist Report on the Party and the Guests (1966). Of course, the shutters came down for 20 years after the Soviet invasion of 1968 suppressed the reformist ambitions of the Prague Spring. Even these years of so-called “normalization” saw some remarkable Surrealist short films from the animator Jan Švankmajer, though they were largely unexhibited. Švankmajer's audience has since grown enough to make international successes of contemporary releases like Little Otik (2000) and Lunacy (2005), but given the dominance of the market, most other avant garde traditions remain in the margins. Even Jan Němec’s latest film Toyen (2005), an imaginative evocation of the life of the Surrealist painter, has been confined to distribution via the Association of Cine Clubs.

Meanwhile, via the BAM retrospective, we can look back at some powerful examples of what was once achieved -- an era that produced some remarkable films that, while they remained commercial products, would have been impossible without the radical traditions and ambitions of their makers.

Peter Hames is the author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and editor of The Cinema of Central Europe. He recently edited a collection on Czech Cinema post-1989 for the online journal KinoKultura.

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