Kinoashkharh. am had an exclusive interview with Pavel Bednarik, Czech film historian, critic, consultant, lecturer, journalist, Chairman of the Board of Association for film/audiovisual Education (ASFAV), member of Film Literacy Advisory Group (British Film Institute). What are the characteristics of Czech cinema, what are the most significant events in its history, who are the most influential Czech directors, and what are the trends in the modern Czech film industry? The leading Czech film critic helped us with the answers to these questions. We are pleased to provide our readers with the details of the interview.
-There is a well-known stage in the history of world cinema called the “New Wave”. Who are the most important figures in the Czech New Wave, often referred to as the golden age of Czech cinema history?
-We prefer to call it Czechoslovak New Wave, as we have decades of Czechoslovak state and Slovak filmmakers and film industry is an important part of this movement. Czechoslovak New Wave was a reflection of similar movements in Europe, mostly the French New Wave, but also rose from the political milieu in former communist countries and so-called Khrushchev thaw in the late 50s. It is difficult to mention just a few personalities – Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek to name a few. There are two main difficulties if we want to avoid simplification. First, we have to realize, this movement involved hundreds of people from different professions who committed to give birth to the Wave. Second, there were many figures out of the mainstream of the Wave – grandfather of the Wave Otakar Vávra, Jaromil Jireš, František Vláčil, Ladislav Helge and many others who helped their colleagues to create masterpieces by creating their own and stimulating the artistic dialogue.
-Czech cinema is known all over the world by the names of directors like Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel. Who are the lesser-known but most specific Czech directors?
-Miloš Forman became famous during his Hollywood career and Jiří Menzel was awarded Academy Award (Oscar), obvious reasons to become the most famous. But Forman would not be able to do it without Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek, who helped him with his early scripts (“Black Peter”, “Loves of a Blonde”). I assume that Věra Chytilová stands as a solemn figure of the Wave, always bold and ambitious in her artistic, feministic and political stands. In contrary to Jiří Menzel, she did not make any compromises even after the Soviet invasion in 1968. There is a strong artistic vision in František Vlačil`s films with their medieval poetics and black and white cinematography (“Marketa Lazarová”, “Valley of the Bees”). But it is difficult to describe the specificity of the filmmakers in 1960`s Czechoslovak Cinema. I recommend reading some of the books by Peter Hames or watch selected films.
– It is known that it is more difficult for women directors to succeed and be accepted in the world of cinema. Who were the female pioneers of Czech cinema and have they influenced history?
-Women’s cinema has a strong and vibrant tradition in the Czech film industry nowadays. This history goes back to the 1930s when liberal society and the avant-garde movement opened many doors for women, including cinematography. The Czech poetic movement close to avant-garde and experimental cinema provided a platform for several women, unfortunately almost forgotten these days. One of them was a close cooperator of the famous poet, scriptwriter, and later communist minister Vitězslav Nezval. Her nickname was Zet Molas or Zdena Smolová. But the most important women filmmakers came in 1960s, Věra Chytilová, Drahomíra Vihanová or Ester Krumbachová (costume designer) to name a few. They definitely influenced Czech cinematography with their subtle feminine perspective and close-ups on men and woman relations.
– Which films from the Czech era of Miloš Forman would you highlight?
-I love all the Czech films of Milos Forman, but obviously, it is interesting to focus on the lesser-known, early pieces. Short film “Competition” (“Konkurz”) tackles the vibrant cultural scene in “Semafor” theatre but also brings several features which made Forman famous (see the competition scene in “Taking Off”, first US movie). Specially “Fireman`s Ball” (“Hoří má panenko”) is a film, which I am closely related to. It is Forman`s farewell to Czechoslovakia, but it is also extremely bitter, dark, and referring to the very nature of our country and characters.
-The Czech Republic is often associated with the names of Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera. Are there any movies based on their literature?
-Surprisingly not. There are few attempts to adapt Kundera`s novels, but not too successful. Kafka and Kundera belong to global or European culture, Kafka to Austria, Kundera to France. Czech filmmakers preferred other writers to adapt to screen – Bohumil Hrabal, Vladislav Vančura (also successful filmmaker!) or Vladimír Körner had several great adaptations of their books. Relation of Hrabal and Menzel became famous due to close cooperation on Hrabal`s adaptations to screen.
-What are the main issues of modern Czech cinema?
-It is not easy to describe in several sketches contemporary Czech cinema. There is a stable and prosperous film industry and financial support from Czech Film Fund in action therefore I assume we are proud to have ambitious films again being produced. A great example is The Painted Bird (dir. Vaclav Marhoul), Oscar candidate, and the most expansive Czech film so far, with Harvey Keitel or Stellan Skarsgard in its cast. Black and white epic historic drama based on Jerzy Kosinski’s book reminds us of great the days of Czech cinema with “Marketa Lazarova” as the iconic piece. We have conventional popular comedies (who make an impact in cinema box office), there is vast popularity of documentary films and also animation shorts. I would not say there are dominant issues, but there are several tendencies, which appear constantly – self-irony, black humor, need to reflect and confront with our past, Munich “betrayal” in WWII, deportation of Jews, and 40 years of communism. But we also have genre movies or films linked to the recent situations – “Modelář” (“Droneman”) about cyber-terrorism or “Vlastnici” (“Owners”) about specific house owners meetings which are Czech post-communist folklore.
– Are you familiar with Armenian cinematography and if so, what films/directors would you highlight?
-I must disappoint you, I only have lexicological knowledge about Armenian cinema, and I saw only several films during my university film studies. Sergey Parajanov, Artavazd Peleshyan or Atom Egoyan. I really liked “The Color of Pomegranates” and “Ararat” (and some of Egoyan’s Canadian films too).
-Which directors have inspired and influenced you the most?
-There is a huge stream of constant inspiration, which comes from cinematography, but also TV production in past years. But there are a few which inspired me the most – Stanley Kubrick, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Martin Scorsese, Lars von Trier, and Julio Medem. In Czech cinema Gustav Machaty, Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová or recent directors such as Petr Zelenka, Marek Najbrt or Agnieszka Holland.
-How actual is cinema criticism in a world where almost every type of art is accepted?
-Film criticism is losing its position constantly not only in the Czech Republic but globally. There are many reasons in our rapidly changing world and cultural environment – the decline of printed media, constant accessibility of films everywhere, self-positioned critics with no background and style, film databases who control mainstream quality, etc. As for me, film critic still is and must be a highlight for the audience, with its knowledge, writing style, and communication skills. Even though it is still more difficult.
– And finally, the traditional question: do you remember your first visit to the cinema? What movie did you watch?
-My first experience comes from TV, where I mainly watched animated series and films for children. The most striking experience was “Never-Ending Story” and “Clash of Titans” for sure (the Medusa was terrifying!). I went to the cinema secretly and watching the first films without a ticket through a keyhole. I think it was “The Golden Child” with Eddie Murphy. My film taste got better as I grew older:)