Despite being a nation with an illustrious cinema heritage, Czech Republic is not a country that is especially well served by modern distributors in the UK. Their rich history is continually mined for brilliant home entertainment releases by the likes of Second Run and Arrow – bringing the venerated likes of Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova, Jan Nemec, Frantisek Vlacil, and Karel Zeman to British audiences – but contemporary Czech cinema remains criminally neglected.
Fortunately, the gap is at least partially filled by Made in Prague, an annual celebration of Czech culture programmed by the Czech Centre London which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary from 5 November – 2 December. In their selections for the festival, the programmers have astutely noticed the prevalence of female-centric films released by Czech filmmakers over the past twelve months. Stong female performances lead a lot of the stand-out films, from the FIPRESCI Award Winner Eva Nova and the acclaimed Berlinale Panorama opener, I, Olga Hepnarova, to this year’s Czech nomination to the Oscars, Home Care, and the psychological horror The Noonday Witch.
Helena Trestikova returns to the festival with the tragic documentary tale of movie star Lida Baarova, while the infamous avant-garde masterpiece, Erotikon – renowned for including the first portrayal of female orgasm – plays in the classics strand. To help guide you through your festival experience, we’ve pulled out our five favourites of the line-up.
Helena Trestikova is best known for her ‘time collection’ documentaries in which she stitches together years of her subjects’ lives – think Michael Apted’s Up series, or a non-fiction Boyhood. In this instance, she delves back through time rather than observing it first hand, using an interview inter-cut with archival film and newsreel footage to tell the story of Czech actress Lida Baarova who shot to fame in pre-war Europe before becoming notorious as the mistress of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
It’s a sweeping tale, worthy of luxe Hollywood treatment and Trestikova uses clips from Baarova’s own 1930s films in conjunction with her voiceover as she shoots to stardom in Prague and subsequently Berlin where she met, and fell in love with, Goebbels. Cannily, the archive – the acting – is used more sporadically as the drama heightens, instead focusing on Baarova’s open recollections which waver with the threat of tears as she speaks of her treatment upon her return to Czechoslovakia and love and happiness later in life.
There are natural connections to be found between Trestikova’s documentary and Marko Skop’s intimate and subtle drama, Eva Nová
. Once again revolving around an actress, in this case it’s the eponymous Eva, played exceptionally by Emilia Vasaryova. Unlike Lida Baarova, Eva’s decline has not been at the mercy of the winds of fate, but more the inexorable march of time and her penchant for drowning her sorrows at the bottom of a bottle. She is confronted by the spectre of her own failings in her also alcoholic son as she extends an olive branch that he furiously snaps.
Vasaryova’s performance is an elusive one as Eva slips between layers of performance and authenticity as she tries to face down a world that has personally and professionally rejected her without relapsing back to lean on her glass bottle crutch. It’s a bravura turn deserving of the praise it’s received on the festival circuit – it’s just a regret that it’s been overlooked for more mainstream recognition. Read our full review >>
didn’t play at Cannes, but if it had, it would almost certainly have nabbed a joint Palm Dog for its canine breakout stars, Flek and Perth, who portray beleaguered collie Otto in Olmo Omerzu’s sophomore feature. He’s the empathetic, emotional core to a wonderfully sardonic and blackly comic melodrama that subverts expectations at every turn. The connotations of the title are immediately circumvented when well-to-do middle-class parents (Karel Roden and Vanda Hybnerova) jet off for a sailing trip in the Caribbean – along with their faithful pooch – leaving their teenagers to fend for themselves.
It’s a cutting critique of indulgent liberal parenting and privilege, particularly when the parents defend their position via Skype while semi-naked on their yacht, after the revelation that their son has been skipping school for weeks. As the narrative contorts, Otto is shipwrecked on a desert island and the family’s own future seems linked to his gripping survival, aided in no small part by Flek and Perth’s uncannily expressive performance. Read our full review >>
I, Olga Hepnarová
In 1975, Olga Hepnarova was the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia after she mowed down several people with a truck on a Prague street. Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb’s austere monochrome character study, I, Olga Hepnarová
, is an ambitious and ambiguous attempt both to get beneath her skin and meditate on the impossibility of truly knowing or understanding her motives. Much of its success lies in the inscrutable and magnetic lead performance of Machalina Olszanska.
Hers is a bleak worldview that chimes with the movie’s slow march towards the noose. She’s told, after an attempt to take her own life in the film’s opening moments, that to do such a thing take a strong will – hers proves to be ironclad. The destination is the only thing that’s certain in Olszanska’s turn; she’s gangly and taciturn, a victim and purveyor of hostility, a lover and loather in equal measure. The enigma is what makes her so riveting and if there’s a flaw, it’s that the screenplay feels the need to backfill motivation with a concluding explanatory monologue. Read our full review >>
The Shop on the High Street
Taking a step back from the contemporary, the classic films screening at any Czech-inflected festival are worth special attention. The previously mentioned Erotikon
– complete with a live theremin accompaniment by Lydia Kavina – may be the hot ticket, but Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ exceptional wartime drama The Shop on the High Street
is our pick. Set in Slovakia just as the Nazi race laws were adopted, it’s a chilling portrayal of simmering anti-semitism and the collusion of acquiescence.
There are a few moments of visual invention when the protagonist Tono (Josef Kroner) tries to drink away the guilt he feels over being made Aryan Controller of the haberdashery of Jewish widow, Mrs. Lautmannova (Ida Kaminska). However, this is more of a precursor to the Czech New Wave rather than an example of it. Kadar and Klos instead craft a devastating drama that works as an accumulation of quiet moments of surrender and inaction. Read our full review >>
Made in Prague 2016 runs from 5 November – 2 December – for further programme and booking information visit the Czech Centre website here.
Ben Nicholson| @BRNicholson