The Czech New Wave was a an unlikely flowering that yielded a colorful and variegated bloom despite having its roots in seemingly infertile soil. Of course, Communist state-run film programs have produced some of the greatest films of all-time, but what made the Czech New Wave so peculiar was its decidedly obstinate nature. Though most of the New Wave directors were trained at FAMU, the state film school, the films they produced from about 1963 until the abrupt end of the Prague Spring in 1968 were anything but party propaganda.
Indeed the students, who benefited from the ability to see films from around the world that were secreted from the Czechoslovakian public, set out intentionally to address the abuses of totalitarianism, and often rejected the realist strategies favored by Soviet-inspired education. To grossly oversimplify, the films in this new set from Eclipse (which focus on movies from the end of the Wave, 1966-1968) take power as their main theme, and demonstrate the ways in which individuals either resist or comply with it.
“Daisies,” (1966) by Vera Chytilova, the only woman represented in the set (also the only woman in her class at FAMU), opts for the path of greatest resistance. Her two teenage protagonists, both named Marie (Jitka Cerhova and Ivana Karbanova), realize that the world is “spoiled” and decide they aren't going to play by its rules anymore. I will probably help nobody by describing it as “Celine and Julie Go Boating” meets “Fight Club,” so I won't. Instead, let's just say that the Maries blaze their own trail through a patriarchal society, spending most of their time leading on horny and foolish older men, and eating. Oh, do they eat, in scene after scene, and with increasingly poor manners (the men paying for the meals are hoping desperately to get laid, and forgive lapses in etiquette). The film culminates in a sequence in which the Maries sneak in early to a massive feast and decide to sample bits and pieces of every food item laid out on the sprawling table, and once they're full they fling the food at each other.
It's difficult to describe the rest of the plot of “Daisies” because there isn't a coherent one. Chytilova strikes a surrealist chord from the opening scene and never changes her tune; in one scene, the women snip off their heads and other body parts before putting them back together. Forget about “Fight Club,” let's say “Un Chien Andalou” but, no, not that either.
Surrealism is also the operant term to describe Jan Nemec's “A Report on the Party and Guests” (1966). Though working a similar vibe as Chytilova, Nemec shows the other end of the power struggle, or rather the lack thereof. A group of picnickers is accosted by a passing party of unidentifiable eccentrics who won't grant them a moment's peace. They grab hold of them, coax them to walk into the woods, and order them to stand in a line or other seemingly random tasks: face this way, don't cross that line. Though no overt threat is made, the picnickers fall into order with shocking pliancy and are eager to laugh it all off when it's revealed to be “just a joke” on the part of a nearby patrician who is celebrating his birthday. At his party, of course, everyone assigned seating, and they go to great lengths to make sure they comply with the plan, apologizing profusely for any inconveniences their bumbling might cause.
An air of menace overhangs the proceedings, always dangling the possibility that we could be retiring to the “Salo” estate at any time, but the threats remain largely unstated, which is Nemec's point. We're all conformists at heart, or at least most of us are (one character decides to leave the party thus causing... a problem), and all it takes is the appearance of power (that sexy, sexy power) to get the majority to fall into line. I didn't cotton to this film until I had time to think about it afterward – now I think it's some kind of masterpiece.
Unsurprisingly, both films wound up being censored. Though a significant liberalization of media enabled the Czech New Wave filmmakers to get their rabble-rousing films made in the first place, threats to the social order were still not going to make it to the big screen. At least not in Czechoslovakia. The government was content to export their films for the international festival circuit to show off the artistic freedoms in the country.
Though the New Wave filmmakers stirred the pot by focusing on stories of individuals rather than the collective, it was a collective effort that served as an unofficial manifesto for the movement, and which also kicks off this Eclipse collection. In “Pearls of the Deep” (1966), five directors each adapated separate short stories by the celebrated Czech author Bohumil Hrabal whose absurdist tales about everyday life in Czechoslovakia were perfect material for the aesthetic and ideological sensibilities of the budding New Wavers.
Jiri Menzel (who hit Oscar gold later in the year with his debut feature “Closely Watched Trains”) starts the omnibus with a story that cuts from a real-life motorcycle race to a group of onlookers who recount fondly all the various accidents and injuries experienced by their favorite racers, proving that in all cultures that one and only reason to watch men sitting in or on vehicles is the hope that they will crash. Evald Schorm, perhaps the least known of the filmmakers in this set, styles a beautiful, hilarious and occasional dark story of an outsider artist who is approached in his home by a pair of insurance salesmen. Unprepared for the mad(dening) designs inside the artist's looking-glass home, they are overwhelmed and disoriented - as is the viewer in a most delightful manner. I found this segment to be the highlight of the film, and I was reminded a bit of the more anarchic elements of Brian De Palma's early films such as “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” Jaromil Jires, also a contender for least-known director here, finishes off with a more conventional and overtly political story about a young Czech man who has a fling with a teenage Gypsy girl that ends in an indeterminate state, and with a final shot that isn't exactly poster material. Nemec and Chytilova also contribute segments which are, respectively, bittersweet and utterly baffling.
“Capricious Summer” (1968) was Menzel's follow-up to his smash hit “Closely Watched Trains” and it doesn't have much on the surface to do with the other films I've already discussed. It's a fairly straightforward portrait of three middle-aged men lazing about by a pond in the summer. A sudden rainstorm ushers in a change in their tranquilly dull existence in the form of a cut-rate magician (played by Menzel, whose magic tricks provide the only slightly surrealist touches in this otherwise realist film) and his gorgeous assistant Anna (Jana Drchalova). Anna catches the fancy of the men, each of whom deludes himself that the young beauty must be irresistibly drawn to their rugged charms. Menzel doesn't appear to have any political agenda in this mostly light-hearted story, and I have to admit that much of the humor, at least for me, gets lost in translation.
The set also includes two films I haven't had a chance to see yet. “The Joke” (1969) by Jires is an adaptation of Milan Kundera's first novel, and tells the story of a politician who is expelled from the Party and “re-educated” as the result of a joking reference made to Trotsky. “Return of the Prodigal Son” (1967) by Schorm is described as a “raw psychological drama about an engineer unable to adjust to the world around him following his suicide attempt.” Which sounds like the polar opposite of Schorm's whimsical and surreal segment in “Pearls from the Deep,” but I can't really judge that.
I have a soft spot in my heart for films which hit the “happy zone” of a 70-80 minute running time, and “Prodigal Son” is the only single feature that doesn't fit the mold (“Pearls” is longer, but consists of five segments). No frippery or padding here – just hit it and quit, as James Brown used to say. So even though there are six films on the four discs in this set, you don't have to feel too intimidated by the scope of it all, and the variety of these experimental but still-accessible features is impressive.
The films are all presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Eclipse releases aren't digital restorations like the main Criterion line. From the set, the weakest looking film by far is the interlaced transfer of “Capricious Summer” which has a lot of tiny specks and other signs of damage in the print, and generally looks a bit faded throughout – the colors across the spectrum are a bit wan and the image is soft in several scenes. I suppose the source print wasn't in great shape. “Pearls from the Deep” also has a few weak patches intermittently but is still better than “Summer.” The other films (I haven't checked “Prodigal Son”) are generally in pretty good shape, though none are flawless. “Daisies” is particularly difficult to assess since it shifts from color to B&W as well as other arbitrary visual changes, but it's a fairly strong presentation with good image resolution.
All of the films are presented with Dolby Digital Mono tracks. I'm not exactly capable of assessing how clear the Czech dialogue is, but there was no noticeable damage or warping in any of the sound as far as I could tell. Optional English subtitles support the Czech audio.
Eclipse titles don't have extras. However, each of the discs comes with excellent liner notes by Michael Koresky.
There are four discs in the set, each housed in a separate keep case. The four cases are tucked into a cardboard sleeve which fits nicely onto a bookshelf. Disc One includes “Pearls of the Deep.” Disc Two has “Daisies” and “A Report on the Party and Guests.” Disc Three stores “Capricious Summer” and “The Joke.” “Return of the Prodigal Son” stands alone on Disc Four.
Six of the most influential Czech New Wave films in a single reasonably priced set certainly fit in with Eclipse's mission to provide “simple, affordable editions” of “lost or overlooked” classic films. The set combines better-known works like “Daisies” with harder-to-find material such as “Capricious Summer” and “Return of the Prodigal Son.” The transfers aren't pristine, but they're all solid enough, and the liner notes provide an excellent guide through this crucial and absorbing selection of movies. This is definitely a mini-film education in a box.