1963 was the breakthrough year for the Czech new wave: Milos Forman, Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jires, and Pavel Jurácek all made their feature debuts in that annus mirabilis. All of them had graduated from FAMU, the superb Prague school where, in spite of the regime’s repressiveness, filmmakers had been able to keep in touch with cinema’s evolution in foreign countries. The movement produced a group of pictures that did not reflect a single theoretical position, although their makers were united in a resentment of the status quo and avoided the heroic themes of socialist realism. The arrival of Russian tanks in August 1968 brought an abrupt end to this extraordinary renaissance. BAM’s 23-film series—preceded by three Gustav Machatý classics from the early sound era—covers nearly all the bases nicely.
If not its major talent, Forman is the new wave star director. His films made money, won prizes at festivals, and brought the movement international recognition. He was one of the first of the group to leave the studios and shoot in the streets, usually with stories based on small everyday incidents. Black Peter (1963) is a touching comedy about a clueless adolescent’s fumbling efforts to adjust to the pitfalls of life; in Forman’s most agile film, Loves of a Blonde (1965), he casts an ironic eye on Czech society with the tale of a factory girl who loses her heart to a womanizing musician.
All of Forman’s Czech films were coscripted by Ivan Passer, who became a director in his own right with Intimate Lighting (1965). Its simple city mouse-country mouse story involves the meeting of two former schoolmates as they prepare for a small-town concert. Enlivened by Passer’s flair for grotesquerie, this unassuming masterpiece maintains a delicate balance between hilarity and despair.
Karel Kachyna has made more than 50 features and is still working today. He didn’t hit his stride until he began a 10-year collaboration with Jan Procházka; this writer-director team embarked on a remarkable group of lyrical, psychologically astute films about children and adolescents. The finest, Long Live the Republic! (1965)—made as part of the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Czechoslovakian republic’s emancipation by the Red Army—is no servile propaganda piece; in demythologizing the heroics of victory (the title is bitterly ironic), it tested the limits of official censorship. Combining past, present, and fantasy to form a vast visionary fresco, the film recounts the liberation of Moravia during the last days of the Second World War through the eyes of an abused 12-year-old boy. Kachyna’s last film with Procházka, The Ear (1969), a ferocious black comedy, deals with a high-ranking bureaucrat and his wife, who return home from a reception to learn that his boss has been purged and their home bugged. This nightmarish chamber piece was banned and went unseen until 1990.
Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) was also banned for a spell, then won critical acclaim at home and abroad when released. There’s no real plot in her madcap feminist farce, a display of fragmented free-form montage and color experiments. In a frontal attack on consumerism and conformity in Czech society, its teenage hedonist heroines go on a spree of anarchic games, behaving like pigs, trampling food with their high heels as they destroy a huge banquet. Chytilová’s sprightly flick seems to have been a major influence on Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating.
The revelation of the series is Frantisek Vlácil’s Marketa Lazarova (1967), set in 13th-century Bohemia, in which Christianity and paganism duke it out for more than three hours. It was the near unanimous choice for best Czech movie of all time in a 1998 poll of Czech critics and film industry leaders. If not quite that, Vlácil’s stunning, savage epic—which hasn’t screened in these parts for over 20 years—is the only film I’ve ever seen in which the medieval world looks truly inhabited.