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This article is by Lawrence Toppman, originally written for The Independent Picture House’s bi-monthly newsletter exclusively for members! Be the first to see in-depth reflections on film and know about upcoming events by becoming a member today

For one shining moment, roughly the length of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the United States, the Czech film industry was the most vital in the non-English-speaking world. You’ll find out why if you stick with the IPH’s Celebration of Czech-Slovak Cinema.

That will require unusual patience. The first film, Closely Watched Trains, gets a screening January 27. Daisies follows April 27; The Shop on Main Street screens August 17; The Cassandra Cat caps the series October 5.

When Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ comedy-drama The Shop on Main Street won the 1965 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, it broke a stranglehold: For the previous 17 years, ever since the category was created, every winner had come from France, Italy, Japan or Sweden. Suddenly Czechoslovakia (as it was known then) became a world-class player.

Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde got a nomination the next year. Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains won the year after that; Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball earned a nomination the following year. Then Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing free expression and ending the halcyon period known as the Prague Spring.

Not for 18 years would another Czech film get worldwide acclaim, Menzel’s gently satiric My Sweet Little Village. By then, Mikhail Gorbachev had begun to let countries controlled by the Soviet Union return to freedoms they’d enjoyed before the tyranny of Stalin and his successors. But the Czech flame was flickering, and only five films from that country have been nominated over the last 55 years.

So what was the Czech New Wave of the 1960s? Was it political, like Italian neorealism? Obsessed with history and social responsibilities, like mid-century Japanese film? Concerned mainly with romantic and family dynamics, like the French New Wave? Philosophic about the cruelty and emptiness of mundane life, like the works of the great Scandinavians?

It touched on all those topics. But the only thing that always connected these filmmakers was geography. Consider the quirky quartet of offerings in the IPH series.

Closely Watched Trains takes place during the Nazi occupation of the country in the early 1940s. A tired bureaucrat, who sympathizes ineffectually with the occupiers, tries to keep the workers at a rural train station in line, though they would rather tend to pigeons, illicit sexual affairs and, in the case of a 17-year-old novice dispatcher, the loss of virginity.

Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) follows two young women who want – well, I couldn’t say. I think they want to indulge themselves in a world that seems to be going down the drain: If everyone is selfish and corrupt, and life has become absurd, why not follow along? The constant jumps in time, space and narrative play like a brightly colored acid trip.

The Shop on Main Street also takes place during the Nazi occupation. Fascist officials appoint a carpenter to be the Aryan “controller” of a Jewish store, but its dotty old owner (Oscar-nominated Ida Kaminska) thinks he’s come to help restore the business. Her friends pay him to keep her afloat, and he becomes fond of her. Then trains arrive to transport all Jews to concentration camps….

Vojtěch Jasný’s 1963 The Cassandra Cat belongs to the magic realism genre. An ineffectual official (Czech movies have a lot of those) suppresses creativity at a school, but an idealistic teacher encourages young imaginations. The teacher falls for the singer in an itinerant magic troupe, which owns a cat with an amazing power: When it stares at you, it reveals to everybody the sort of person you really are.

You can certainly find similarities. All these films have a bittersweet quality, usually due to a blend of tragedy and triumph. Protagonists muddle through lives in repressive societies where even the oppressors seem to get little pleasure from authority.

Yet what comes through clearest in this four-year burst of creativity is a feeling of patient endurance. Fools run the world; we must answer to them, but we must never become them. Sanity and satisfaction lie in going our own ways, often unobtrusively but honorably, and refusing internally to give in. That’s not a bad motto for any of us to embrace.



Lawrence Toppman reviewed movies at The Charlotte Observer from 1987 through 2017. He’s a lifetime member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association.
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