The early years
Early in the 19th century one experimented with appliances which could awake the illusion of pictures in motion. However, the real start Lumičre camera of cinematography is dated in 1895 when the Lumičre brothers took out a patent for their camera or ‘cinematographe’. Already in 1896 an American film-company shooted a feature film in the South Bohemian town of Horice. They filmed a performance of the famous local Passion Plays. This new kind of entertainment was brought from Paris to Prague at the turn of the century by the architect Jan Krízenecký (1868-1921). With the Lumičre camera he directed numerous comic short films. During the first decade of the 20th century cinematography grew out to public amusement. The American film industry developed very fast and blowed over to Czechoslovakia. Czech film evolved so to Hollywood-like productions.
The twenties
During the twenties there were 20 feature films made each year in Czechoslovakia. It mainly concerned melodramas with social themes. These silent movies were shooted in studios and exceptional on Anny Ondráková location. The end of the silent film was heralded around 1927. Until then it was almost impossible to synchronize image and sound well. Actors and actresses who owed their fame to their looks, now had to prove their verbal talents. Who had an unpleasant voice saw his or her film career perish very fast. For others was the sound picture more an extra impuls, like for the famous Czech actress Anny Ondráková (1902-1987). She played the leading part in Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film and became an international star.
The thirties
The sound film made cinema very popular. No European city counted so many cinemas per capita as Prague. The number of productions increased systematicly each year and gradually the film industry Barrandov Film Studio's needed more film studios. It was Milos Havel (the uncle of President Vaclav Havel) who instructed in 1931 to build a modern film studio in the Prague suburb Barrandov. At the same time they builded luxurious villas for film stars on the hill near the Vltava. From 1933 the Barrandov film studio was put into use. Rapidly there were 80 films shooted each year and also foreign producers came to direct their films.
The thirties were especially the years of 'Czech modernism'. Avant-garde and commercial pictures went very well together and led to renewal in the film. The most important director of this period was undoubtedly Gustav Machaty. He directed Erotikon (1929) and the absolute masterpiece Extasy (1933), which caused sensation in that time because of the two nude scenes starring the young Hedwig Kiesler. Pope Pius XII excommunicated the film and Hitler forbade it. Nevertheless, all those row caused that Kiesler got a contact in Hollywood, where her name was changed in Hedy Lamarr.
Equally important for that period were the films of the comic duo Voskovec&Werich Voskovec and Werich. These famous actors combined faultless theatre and film. They got their inspiration from Dadaism and Surrealism, their examples were Charly Chaplin and Buster Keaton. A few of their best known films are Your money or your life (Penize nebo zivot) from 1932 and The World belongs to us (Svet Patrí Nám) from 1937.
The fourthies
After the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1939), the Germans largely took over the Barrandov Film Studios. Namely, the Nazis knew very well that controlling the media was very important for purposes of propaganda. Joseph Goebbels had the complex expanded to make the Barrandov Studios equal to the big film studios of Berlin and Munich.There were three studios added with a total area of 4000m˛. During the Second World War there were no films made with great artistic value. Most productions shooted in Barrandov were German-speaking with German filmmakers (Leni Riefenstahl made in Barrandov her film Tiefland) and there even the names of the Czech actors got a small adjustment to let them sound more German.
The fifties
A new era was heralded by the communistic Coup of 1947. As well the film studio of Barrandov as the smaller studio facility at Hostivar were nationalised and remained state property until 1990. Barrandov acquired a Special Effects studio and a film laboratory. The Russians introduced their own ideas in Czechoslovakian film and soon strict censorship and 'social realism' ruled. This communist trend in film was graft upon the Marxist principals and was nothing more than a glorification of the strict regime and the proletarian idiom. Films were interlarded with walking-on saboteurs and criminals striving to disrupt the unity of the working class. Also anti-American propaganda films were popular like The Kidnapping from 1952, directed by Ján Kádar and Elmar Klos. An other representative picture was The Silent Barricade from 1949. This production gifs a distorted image of the resistance in Prague during World War II and the liberation by Soviet troops.Director Otakar Vávra became with this picture the most important filmmaker of the strict-communist era.
The sixties
As opposed to the fifties which was characterised by a reign of terror, the government in the next decennium was more open-minded. The crimes of the past were admitted and socio-political criticism was tolerated. This gave a new generation of filmmakers the opportunity to criticize political and social aspects in their productions and to Jirí Menzel strive to personal expression. In agreement with their French colleagues this new trend was called ‘Nouvelle Vague’ or Czech New Wave. Most of the directors finished their studies at FAMU in Prague which was one of the best film academies in the world. As most famous representatives of Czech New Wave people can be mentioned like Milos Forman, Jirí Menzel, Vera Chytilová, Jan Nemec, Ivan Passer and Vojtech Jasny. Elmar Klos en Ján Kádar belonged to and older generation of filmmakers, but were equally representative for this wave of newcomers. Because this style produced a whole lot of splendid films, the attention of the international press for Czech film was quickly caught. Critiques were very favourable and as well The Shop on the Main Street (Obchod na korze) by Ján Kádar and Elmar Klos (1965) as Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) by Jirí Menzel (1967) received an American Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film. Two other The Firemen's Ball films, both directed by Milos Forman, achieved 'Oscar' nominations: Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky) from 1966 and The Firemen's Ball (Hori, má panenko) from 1968. Vojtech Jasny won at the Festival of Cannes the Speciale Jury Prize for All My Good Countrymen (1968). An other famous Czech filmmaker is Vera Chytilová, especially because of her surrealistic fantasies such as The Daisies (Sedmikrásky) from 1966. The end of the Golden Years of Czech film was heralded by the Soviet invasion of August 1968.
The seventies & eighties
The end of Prague Spring was for several directors also the end of their film carreer. Along with Dubcek’s normalization policy came again strict censorship and a limitation on freedom of speech. Many filmmakers like Forman, Passer, Kádar en Jasny emigrated to foreign countries and kept on making films.Milos Forman for example became a respected filmmmaker in Hollywood and shooted some Milos Forman sentational films like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Hair and The People Vs. Larry Flint.Those who stayed in Czechoslovakia were forbidden to shoot films for several years. About all films of the 'New Wave' were proscribed and mostly after the Velvet Revolution they could be shown again. From the 2th part of the seventies directors like Vera Chytilová and Jirí Menzel got the chance to shoot in studios again, but they couldn't reach the qualitiy of their earlier films.
From 1980 also the foreign filmmakers returned to the Barrandov Studios and to the country that offered them a wide range of good film locations. Both Barbara Streisand and Milos Forman chose Czechoslovakia to shoot some films.
The nineties
After the Velvet Revolution of november 1989 Czech film was going through a fundamental change. The state monopoly which guaranteed for a continuous flow of film productions, was raised and the big studios like Barrandov were privatized. Foreign productions overran the cinemas which had dramatic consequences for the number of Czech motion pictures. In 1992 only 8 films were shooted compared with 25 each year in the golden sixties. Besides, the shooting costs increased with a big step. The older generation of directors (like Menzel and Chytilová) who liked to accuse political and social affairs, saw their artistic creativity curtailed by the new freedom and socio-political atmosphere. So there came a whole generation of filmmakers to the front whom made especially commercial productions without social themes. The personal message made room for the story, film returned to entertainment. The new generation brought Czech film back to the international scene and from 1993 the amount of productions increased gradually.
Kolya The most famous filmmaker of the 1990s is without doubt Jan Sverak, graduated at FAMU on the subject 'documentary film'. His first motion picture Elementary School (Obecna skola) from 1991 was instantly nominated for a US Academy Award. Jan Sverak also received a Student Oscar (1988) for his film Ropaci, a mystification with ecological theme. In 1994 he made the sci-fi parody Accumulator I and Ride (Jizda), a Czech version of the cultfilm Easy Rider. 1996 became an excellent year for Sverak; he received an Academy Award in the category Best Foreign Language Film for his masterpiece Kolya. An other great talent is Sasa Gedeon, famous for his modest way of directing. In contrast with Sverak who loves action and motion, Gedeon is fascinated by human behaviour and the relations between people. Gedeon's movie Indian Summer (Indianske Leto, 1995) was rewarded at several filmfestivals. Sasa Gedeon is also very good in short-films like Closed due to Family Mourning (Zavreno pro rodinny smutek, 1991). Other remarkable directors of the 1990s are Vladimir Michalek, Zdenek Tyc and Petr Vaclav. Also the Slovaks made a few good pictures which is testified by The Garden (Zahrada) by Martin Sulik (1994). Sulik received before international prizes for his masterpiece Everything I like from 1992.
A few inportant films in the spotlights
'Extasy' by Gustav Machaty
'Closely Observed Trains' by Jirí Menzel
'The Shop on the Main Street' by Ján Kádar and Elmar Klos
'The Firemen's Ball' by Milos Forman
'The Daisies' by Vera Chytilova
'Kolya' by Jan Sverak  
EXTASY (Extase)
Czechoslovakia 1933. Direction: Gustav Machaty
A young bride whose husband is impotent, has a relation with an engineer. She becomes a divorce, but when here ex-husband commits suicide she refuses to come along with her lover. This movie starring Hedy Kiesler caused a sensation for that time because of the risky erotic scenes with pictures of frontal female nude. Puritanical America censored the production like almost everywhere else. The later husband of Kiesler, a German businessman, spended millions to buy the several versions. This film helped Hedy Kiesler to a contract in Hollywood where her name was changed into Lamarr. Extasy, shooted at location between wonderful landscapes, is a movie full of lyric beauty and conventionalized erotism.


Czechoslovakia 1965. Direction: Jan Kadár and Elmar Klos
Tono, a carpenter in a Slovak town, becomes appointed to be an 'Aryan supervisor' of a button-shop which belongs to an older Jewish woman. Because the woman is allmost deaf, Tono can't explain his position to her and pretends to be her shop-assistant. In the beginning everything goes well but gradually Tono fells pitty for the woman and he realizes the gravity and the potential danger of his situation. But when the Jews in town become deported to the concentration camps he stands before a ferocious choice; saving the old woman or his own skin.
By using the fate of the Jews as a metaphor for the many tragedies of modern Europe, Klos and Kadár pointed out to the collective responsibility of all Europeans for the remaining political oppression. Jan Kadár and Elmar Klos shooted 8 films together of which 'The Shop on the Main Street' is the most famous. It was the first Czech film that received an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.


CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS (Ostre sledované vlaky)
Czechoslovakia 1966. Direction: Jirí Menzel
Milos, a clumsy railway employee, is sended to a distant little station to be trained during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. The boy has only one obsession; losing his virginity in which he attemps shy but vainly efforts. Meanwhile he gets only more frustrated when he sees how station-master Hubicka - an obsessed ladies'man - is scoring success after success. After his first sexual meeting fails hopeless, Milos commits a dramatic suicide attempt. Eventually he succeeds in having sex with a beautiful female member of the resistance. During a tragical demonstration of his virility he blows up the ammunition-train of the enemy, but he meets one's death in the machine-gun fire of the Germans. Closely observed trains is brilliant in it's affable and accute vision on human weaknesses and knows to bring recognizable characters together in a story that's alternately hilarious and affecting. It was the most successfull of all Czech films during 'Prague Spring'. The fact that it won an Oscar for Best Foreigner Language Film wasn't strange with it.


THE FIREMEN'S BALL (Hori, má panenko)
Czechoslovakia 1967. Direction: Milos Forman
The Firemen's Ball is situated in a little town where the local volunteer fire-brigade is celebrating her anual ball. At the same time a beauty contest is being held, and the winner may present a farewell gift to the chief who's retiring. The (usually ugly) competitors are being ogled by the predominantly elder men, while the competition threatens to end in a complete chaos. In the mean time the lottery-prizes are being stolen during a short blackout and a house burns down because the fun-making firemen arrived too late.
The movie - an acute satire on bureaucracy - is full of references to a political scandal that was covered up, drawed a storm of official protest. President Novotny felt personally attacked and 40.000 firemen threatned with a general strike. Forman & Co had to travel around the country to explain the hosemen that the film wasn't meant to be a political allegory. At the time the film appeared in the West the Russian tanks had allready captured Prague so the film got a very bitter undertone.


THE DAISIES (Sedmikrásny)
Czechoslovakia 1966. Direction: Vera Chytilová
The daisies in the title are two girls of 17, both named Marie. They sit in their bikinis at the pool and because the world is rotten and senseless they decide that they can act similar. During some time they amuse themselves with stimulating and then disappointing the sexual expectations of elder men. When this little game starts to bore them they go to a nightclub where they get drunk and throw everything upside down until they get tossed out. But these two are unstoppable in their hate against the consumer society and it all ends in an orgy of destruction in pure slapstick style.
This surrealistic fantasy turned out to be the most adventurous and anarchistic of all Czech films of the sixties. Its pop-art style was fit to the materialism an consumerism of the Czech society and its covered attack against civil conformism. The picture was forbidden for a while because food was spoiled and for other, more ideological reasons.


KOLYA (Kolja)
Czech Republic 1996. Direction: Jan Sverak
A Russian boy sees his mother leave to West Germany after she contracted a sham-marriage with a hardended Czech bachelor. After his promising first wedding-night he remains a bachelor, but he keeps a son.
This film excels in a sense for detail, artlessly and humour. Bureaucracy in general and certainly the Czech one from before the Velvet Revolution is being criticized in a light anarchistic way. All of this is profiled to a background of Russian and Czech contradictions, formed on a sublime way by the counter-play between Louka and his young companion Kolya. This movie was awarded with the Oscar of Best Foreign Production.




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