Czech, Please


Some of the best movies you’ve never heard of—produced in a nation that no longer exists—screen in Brooklyn this weekend and next. BAM’s “Czech Modernism”
isn’t so much a full-scale survey as a selection of films produced in Czechoslovakia between the wars, but these 12 archival prints give ample evidence of a surprisingly worldly world-class cinema.

The Czech New Wave was one of the glories of ’60s cinema; “Czech Modernism” demonstrates that it was the continuation of a pre-existing tradition. The series opens sophisticated with Gustav Machatý’s 1926 adaptation of The Kreutzer Sonata (November 30). Machatý, who spent the early ’20s in Hollywood working with Eric von Stroheim among others, brought a measure of Stroheim’s “European” cynical realism back home; updating Leo Tolstoy’s once scandalous account of sexual jealousy with deco sets and expressionist lighting, he similarly uses crime and confession to critique the institution of middle-class marriage.

Sex was Machatý’s major theme. The lone Czech director of the period with an international reputation (mainly for Hedy Lamarr’s bare-all debut in 1933’s Ecstasy), Machatý is also represented in the BAM series by his 1931 partial talkie From Saturday to Sunday (December 3). Mildly racy and pleasantly experimental, the movie follows a pair of plump dumplings for a night on the town. Scored by avant-pop composer Jaroslav Ježek, their jaunty trajectory through cabarets and pubs anticipates Martin Scorsese’s After Hours complete with romantic switch: Taken out by a rich man, the heroine winds up going home with a poor one.

Sandwiched between Germany and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia produced filmmakers who embraced German and Soviet styles, often simultaneously. Karl Junghans’s 1929 Such Is Life (December 7) delivers Neue Sachlichkeit realism with montage-based punch. A middle-aged Prague washerwoman (Vera Baranovskaya, star of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother) perseveres, suffers, and dies—leaving a drunken husband and unmarried, pregnant daughter. A silent without intertitles, shot entirely on location, the movie is part semi-doc character study, part tenement symphony—making bravura use of fast cutting and parallel action.

That Czech filmmakers were making montage-driven melodramas as late as 1937 is evidenced by the glossier but not dissimilar Virginity (December 9). Shot in Prague’s capacious Barrandov studio by Otakar Vávra, who, still active at age 95, is the great survivor of Czech cinema, this urban romance concerns an impoverished girl, blamed for her stepfather’s unwelcome advances and thrown into the street by her mother. She finds work as a cashier and even love but ultimately has no choice other than to sell herself to her boss.

A more startling evocation of female martyrdom, Karel Anton’s 1930 Tonka of the Gallows (December 3) is an expressionist ballad in which a kindhearted country girl turned big-city prostitute volunteers to keep a condemned man company on his last night. No good deed goes unpunished: Tonka is expelled from the brothel where she works and, like Hans Christian Andersen’s match girl, winds up dying—amid visions of happiness—on the pavement.

The idyllic sequence in which Tonka revisits her native village anticipates the strain of pastoral lyricism that characterized mid-’30s Czech cinema. Josef Rovenský’s The River (December 8) split the director’s prize at the 1934 Venice Film Festival with three other Czech films, including Ecstasy; all were celebrations of the countryside. Opening with a pantheist montage and an incantatory voiceover, The River concerns—what else?—a pair of gently star-crossed young lovers. The dialogue is sparse, and the music near constant. Guy Maddin’s remake would be uproarious.

More fascinating from an ethnographic point of view, Faithless Marijka (December 10) was made the same year as The River by novelist-filmmaker Vadislav Vancura in the mountains of the Subcarpathian Rus, using a mixed cast of Czech actors and local nonprofessionals speaking a variety of languages, including Ruthenian and Yiddish. The movie is a tale of backward development and backwoods passion but, despite a few awkwardly interpolated studio shots, its stark premise is secondary to an evocation of the wild Carpathian landscape.

A commercial failure evidently too raw in subject matter and stylized in montage to appeal to Czech audiences, the movie was released in the United States a few years later as Forgotten Land. (A colorful poster for this “Mountain Folk Drama . . . interesting to the entire Slavonic race, especially to Ukrainians, Russians, Czechoslovakians, and also Jews” has hung for decades in NYU’s Department of Cinema Studies; for the hundreds of students, faculty members, and guests who may have wondered what it was all about, this is your chance.)

The leading literary exponent of Czech expressionism as well as a pioneer of Czech independent cinema, Vancura (executed by the gestapo during World War II in reprisal for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich) made an even more experimental film in his 1933
On the Sunny Side (December 1). Most simply put, On the Sunny Side uses a Prague orphanage as a metaphor for a just society in a class-ridden world. On one hand, the movie’s sly jokes and eccentric musical numbers suggest the Popular Front fantasies made by contemporary French filmmakers. On the other, it’s strikingly detached and analytical in its film language—with an abundance of high-angle shots and a highly contrapuntal use of sound.

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.

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.”