In the history of the new waves, the Czechoslovakian outburst rates as one of the prime events—excelling at a still-fresh sardonic naturalism and moments of intimate lightning—and the most prodigious exporter of talent to Hollywood. But most of what we saw as “Czech” was just that; as the new Walter Reade series of Slovak films points out, the nation nursed two distinct national voices, and while the Bohemian cadre churned out humanistic festival masterworks, their easterly counterparts tromped along in their own, relatively disreputable fashion. The reckless, felonious bastard brother to the Czech films we know from the post-Stalinist spring of the late ’50s, Slovak cinema does seem to have had its own gutbucket priorities and barrelhouse odor, with the notable exception of Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s The Shop on Main Street (1965), a schematic Holocaust Oscar-winner that could still be remade in Tinseltown. However fuzzy the series’ ethnic subdivisions might seem (Kadár, for instance, was born in Budapest and educated in both Prague and Slovak Bratislava, while Klos was born in Czech Brno and their film is set in a Slovak hamlet), something like a Slovak flavor certainly emerges: unsubtle, rude, and through the roof.
The key figure here is unquestionably Juraj Jakubisko, for whom Fellini had a warm spot, and whose films play today like ramshackle projections from the id of Eastern European war experience. In fact, “Felliniesque” is a common description for them, and that’s not the compliment it was 30 years ago. Jakubisko’s key film, the apocalyptic triptych The Deserter and the Nomads (1968), isn’t on view (nor is his new piece of outlandish folk sci-fi, An Ambiguous Report About the End of the World), but The Crucial Years (1967), Birds, Orphans and Madmen (1969), and The Thousand-Year-Old Bee (1983) are. Whereas the first is a classic rebellious-youth statement (dismissing, ironically enough, the tribal differences between Czechs and Slovaks) and the second a loopy, shot-in-France bit of dropout Escher surrealism, the third is the most lauded. Considered by native critics to be the best Czechoslovakian film of the ’80s, Jakubisko’s graceless but propulsive generational epic evokes a wingding ’60s that never grew up, piled high with incidents (half of them bawdy peasant sex scenes) and inclined toward cheesy magical realism. Jakubisko’s ack-ack style is half exploitation film, half Carpathian grit, running amok with broad strokes, sloppy post-dubbing, overripe filters, and folky subplots.
Hyperbole rules, and virtually all of the films feel decades older than they are. Elo Havetta’s Wild Lilies (1972) follows the lost-generation ramblings of WW I vets-turned-hoboes across an inhospitable landscape but is shot as hurdy-gurdy screwball, even going so far as to tint its black-and-white scenes fluorescent green or red, depending on their thrust. (Another missed opportunity for the traveling series is Viktor Kubal’s 1976 Jurko the Highwayman, a silent odyssey scored exclusively to Slovak folk songs.) The Slovaks’ wave-within-a-wave more or less began with Stefan Uher’s Sun in the Net (1962), an early-Bergman-style bildungsfilm, but Slovakia’s new independence is represented here by only one film, Dusan Hanák’s Paper Heads (1995), a fugue documentary that interpolates risible propaganda footage from the Communist years with full-face testimony from citizens still reeling from the years of oppression and want. Perhaps the most eloquent is the most Czech-like: Martin Holly’s Signum Laudis (1980), an outraged WW I examination of military madness about the plight of a bellicose corporal (Vlado Müller) who, having wasted his young platoon’s lives in a sacrifice battle, gets a medal for his actions and is then compelled to prove his own mercilessness again when shepherding his generals through the wilderness. Raw and programmatic, the film is at least in control of its story.