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Czech, Please

Czechoslovakia is no more, but its film tradition lives on

Something of the same mood, even more absurd and cartoonish, may be found in Heave Ho! (December 9). Directed by Martin Fric, this 1934 comedy is one of four made by the cabaret team Jirí Voskovec and Jan Werich—unique, unpredictably droll social satirists who drew on both Dada and American slapstick. In this Depression comedy, Voskovec is an unemployed worker, and his partner plays a bankrupt industrialist. Both seem vaguely inebriated as they navigate a mildly surreal landscape of flophouses and breadlines. Despite the paucity of subtitles, the movie will seem wonderfully familiar to anyone with a taste for the anarchic Paramount comedies of the early '30s.

"Czech Modernism" includes only two postwar movies—one, Alfred Radok's 1949 The Distant Journey (December 10), is a masterpiece. Among the first movies to represent the Holocaust, Distant Journey focuses on a Jewish doctor who briefly forestalls her deportation to the "model" concentration camp at Terezin by marrying a Czech colleague. (Their wedding dinner is a remarkable blend of gaiety and terror— the proper bourgeois guests marked for death by their mandatory Jewish stars.)

Like Orson Welles, Radok was a man of the theater and his use of film form has a comparable audacity. Distant Journey is filled with outsize shadows and shimmering reflections; it interpolates newsreels and noir angles, using a spare, mournfully jazzy soundtrack to underscore its expressionist touches. Once the action shifts to Terezin (where Radok's father and grandfather died), the fantastic is a function of the movie's verisimilitude.

Deco: Gustav Machatý's The Kreutzer Sonata
Czech National Film Archive
Deco: Gustav Machatý's The Kreutzer Sonata

This horrifying, emptied-out world seems distinctively Czech—or at least Kafkaesque—with its gnarled old people and vast warehouses filled with confiscated Jewish belongings.

Something similar happened to the movie itself—withdrawn after a brief run and locked in the vaults for the better part of two decades. In his history of Czech cinema, novelist Josef Skvorecky links The Distant Journey to the Czech new wave of the 1960s, remembering it to have been "as much a revelation to all of us as were the films of Véra Chytilová, Milos Forman, or Jan Nemec"—all of whom were profoundly influenced by this "tragically premature and anachronistic work of art."

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