Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 2
5 October 1998

K I N O E Y E:
Avant-garde Film and Video in the Czech Republic

Andrew J Horton

The Czech cultural heritage is blessed with a tradition of avant garde film-making that stretches back to the 20s, further than in most other Central European countries. The recent Festival of Central European Culture in London provided audiences a rare opportunity to see the origins of, and the latest developments in the Czechs' innovative approach to cinema.

Whilst the catalyst of Russian avant garde film of the 20s was socialism, many of the Czech innovations grew out of consumerism. In fact, three of the films from the showing of the early period of experimental film (1927-38) are actually advertisements. The first is a promotional film commissioned by a Prague electricity company, Praha v zari svetel (Prague at Night, 1927) by the otherwise undistinguished director Svatopluk Innemann. The film captures the Czech metropolis in both an exuberant state of nocturnal activity and heightened architectural grandeur, all possible thanks to the modern wonder of electricity. Irena and Karel Dodal's Hra bublinek (Fantasie erotique [The Play of Bubbles (Fantasie erotique), 1936] is both a modernist experiment in the new possibilities of animated colour graphic art and an advertisement for turpentine soap. Silnice zpiva (The Highway Sings, 1937) by Elmar Klos amusingly depicts the joyful and fulfilled life of a Bata tyre in its course of duty.

Although not an advertisement, Divotvorne oko (The Magic Eye, 1939), by Jiri Lehovec, is nevertheless a hymn to the glories of Czech manufacturing expertise as a close-up lens is put through its paces. By today's standards the magnification may seem fairly run-of-the-mill, but it takes little to imagine the effect a spider's head or a dissolving sugar cube would have had on viewers of the time when blown up to cinema-screen size.

Endless optimism

Not all the films of this era were made for "pecuniary motives," as the quaint English introduction toMyslenka hledajici svetlo (Ideas in Search of Light, 1938) puts it. This second collaboration here by the Dodals is a sentimental ballet for animated beams of light. Cenek Zahradnicek's Maj (May, 1935) plays similar games with light and shadow, but is wilder and more sexual and expressionistic. It was filmed as a backdrop to part of a theatre performance inspired by the classic Czech poem of the same name by Karel Hynek Macha.

Possibly the most inflential film of this period is Alexander Hackenschmied's Bezucelna prochazka (Aimless Walk) from 1930, which paved the future for Czech independent films. The film, a journey by tram and on foot and back by tram again, explores the cinematic possibilities of representing space, in this case the outskirts of Prague. Ruce v utery (The Hands on Tuesday, 1935), by Zahradnicek, this time working with Lubomir Smejkal, is a witty day-in-the-life of a man, his fantasies, love life and all, shown through his hands. This film won what was, perhaps, the warmest reception of the evening.

The range of these films in terms of both means and ends is very varied. However, if they have one thing in common it is that they are all caught up in the heady atmosphere of the youthful First Republic and radiate a faith in prosperity and security. As the camera drifts across a newspaper in Praha v zari svetel, it momentarily stops on the headline "Peace in Europe will be Secured," a poignant reminder of how tragically misplaced the optimism was.

Master of the grotesque

For the second set of films we jump to the post-communist era. The curator of the showing, Michal Bregant of the Czech National Film Archives, chose the films according to two criteria; their diversity and the way the medium they use, and the exploration of it, is an integral part of the work.

In such a showing it would be hard not to represent the extraordinary Jan Svankmajer, known internationally for the grotesque animation in his features Neco z Alenky (Alice, 1988) and Faust (1994). Tma - svetlo - tma (Darkness - Light - Darkness, 1989), a little-known reworking of the creation of man, shows his inventiveness to the full. Svankmajer fans will be delighted to know he is working on a new feature which is a contemporary setting of a Czech fairy tale about a wooden boy, Otesanek, with an insatiable appetite. Svankmajer is not the only experimentalist here to hold on to the tradition of story-telling. Martina Kudlacek in Posledni hrdinove (The Last Heroes, 1997) creates a non-linear narrative which paints a sensitive portrait of the bohemian life of two theatre groups working in Vienna.

The blurb for Adam Kadmon (Adam Quadmon, 1993-94) by Martin Cihak and Jan Danhel informs us "a cabalistic archetypal individual encompasses in himself all ideas." This translates as being an exploration of the mysteries of the human body through black-and-white close-ups. Strange landscapes are created as the camera slowly pans across the body, accompanied by appropriately eerie music. At the other end of the pace range, Petr Marek's compelling Drive nez... (Before..., 1996) is powered by a rhythmic motor-driven soundtrack while it investigates a romantic encounter and a hen's rear end moving backwards in time. Marek was refused entry to film school twice; first because he was hopelessly lacking in talent and a year later on the grounds that he was already a fully mature director who did not need the film's programme.

These films show that the Czech Republic is still at the cutting edge of new ways of looking at film and what can be done with it. The recent films are more "difficult" and audiences responded to the warmth and playfulness of the earlier films (and Svankmajer) with far greater enthusiasm. Bregant, however, stresses that these challenging directors are not the "heirs" of Czech avant garde film. They remain outside the mainstream of cinema because they are faithful to their own creative individuality, and their ideas, unlike Svankmajer's, lie beyond marketability. As such we should meet them on their own ground to evaluate them, inevitably something only a brave few will be prepared to do.

Andrew J Horton, 5 October 1998

In the same series:

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovenia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovakia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Hungary

Avant-garde Film and Video in Croatia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Poland



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