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Five From Czech 'New Wave'

Video* A brief breath of freedom in the late '60s produced some rich and remarkable films. A Chicago firm is now releasing a series of them.

April 03, 2002|DONALD LIEBENSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When film buffs talk "New Wave," they are most likely referring to the French film critics-turned-directors who invigorated world cinema in the early 1960s, or Germany's cinematic renaissance in the 1970s. But a revelatory new video collection unearths remarkable films from 1960s Czechoslovakia, where a new generation of precocious directors blossomed during the fleeting Prague Spring.

"Daisies," "The Joke," "Adelheid," "Lemonade Joe" and "The Capricious Summer" are the first five releases in Chicago-based Facet Video's "Czech New Wave" collection just released on videocassette. ("Daisies" and "The Joke" are also available on DVD.) They represent a cross-section of the stylistically diverse films of this rich and prolific period.

"Some people called this the Czech film miracle," notes Facets co-founder Milos Stehlik, "because it just came out of nowhere so quickly after this era of harsh communism. Because it came to an end with the Russian invasion in 1968, most people have not had a chance to see how many wonderful films were made."

Some directors did achieve international success. Jan Kadar's "The Shop on Main Street" and Jiri Menzel's "Closely Watched Trains" won Academy Awards for best foreign-language film, and "Love of a Blonde" put Milos Forman on the map.

But, Stehlik said, "there is so much more to discover. The range and breadth and degree of talent that existed there is really astronomical."

These fledgling directors emerged from film school in the early 1960s just as there was a relaxation in the hard-line censorship and control of the film industry. They were inspired, Stehlik said, "by new ideas. They had grown up on American films and films of the French New Wave. These were the forces that inspired them. And they were able to push the envelope."

Vera Chytilova's "Daisies" (1966) didn't push the envelope. It shredded it like an Enron document. "Nobody understands us," moan the two Maries, two madcap women who know that the world is going bad. "We're going bad as well," they cheerfully resolve. This amounts to freeloading meals, being ejected from a nightclub and laying waste to a banquet. Mere synopsis does not do justice to the free-associative surreal dreamscape that anticipates David Lynch.

This legendary anarchic comedy was denounced by no fewer than 21 government authorities, who protested that it represented "a road of our cultural life on which no honest worker, farmer or intellectual would like to embark." (You can read this document for yourself on the DVD.)

"It's a testing of limits," Stehlik observes, "a testing of rules and conventions. These two girls are testing freedom."

Another rediscovered treasure of the Czech New Wave is "The Joke" (1968), Jaromil Jares' devastating film based on Milan Kundera's novel.

Josef Somr stars as a man whose hedonistic life is upended after he sends an irreverent postcard--"Optimism is the opium of the people"--to a woman he is trying to seduce. A Stalinist true believer, she turns the postcard in to the authorities, who expel the man from the Communist party and sentence him to hard labor. After 15 years, he returns to his village to exact his revenge.

This courageous indictment of totalitarianism has lost little of its wounding impact, as conveyed by the innovative use of subjective flashbacks.

"Adelheid" (1969) is another haunting film. Directed by Frantisek Vlacil, whom Stehlik praised as "the unknown hero of Czech cinema," it is a love story set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. A former soldier returns home to take charge of a manor formerly owned by a German family. He falls in love with the daughter, who now serves as a maid.

Vlacil is little known outside the Czech Republic. A retrospective of his films will be shown in Los Angeles at the American Cinematheque later this year.

The most accessible film of Facets' collection is Oldrich Lipsky's "Lemonade Joe" (1964), arguably the most offbeat western since "Terror of Tiny Town."

This affectionate musical spoof owes as much to silent comedy as it does to the classic Hollywood horse opera. Welcome to the Trigger-Whiskey Saloon, where brutes menace the beautiful local temperance crusader, and singer Tornado Lou holds court. Enter Lemonade Joe, "defender of the law, avenger of wrongs," and purveyor of the magic elixir Kolaloka. Making the case for whiskey is black-clad gunslinger Hogofogo, outlaw and long-lost brother to saloon owner Duke Badman.

"Capricious Summer" (1967), Menzel's follow-up to "Closely Watched Trains," is a gentle, pastoral comedy in the Jean Renoir tradition. Three middle-aged friends while away the hours in a sleepy resort. Menzel himself appears as a magician, whose beautiful assistant shatters their idyllic respite.

Nearly 40 years later, these films "ring fresh and true," Stehlik says. "The filmmakers were excited about making these films. It was a way of discovering themselves and presenting to the world their hopes, aspirations and their sense of humor after a long period of repression. That's one reason they have not dated."

Another is that they are not widely known. Several were exhibited only briefly before the Soviet invasion, after which the films were pulled, to languish in the vaults.

Today, the odd Czech film, such as Jan Hrebejk's "Divided We Fall" and Jan Sverak's "Kolya," receives commercial distribution in the West. But lack of financial support hamstrings a new generation of talented filmmakers.

*

Each title in the "Czech New Wave" collection retails for $30. Order by calling (800) 331-6197.

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