Pearls of the Czech New Wave

In the 1960s, cinematic “new waves” blossomed across the globe as rapidly as celluloid frames charging through a film projector. Following the epochal nouvelle vague breakthrough in France — led by such young and ambitious directors as Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol — adventurous, independent-minded filmmakers began to appear elsewhere in Europe, as well as in Asia, Africa, and the United States, itching to produce personal work that would reflect the immediate social and political upheavals of the era while simultaneously attempting to dismantle the artifice of mainstream cinema. It was a heady time, and the smart, fresh-faced directors of Czechoslovakia were just as high on the fumes of escalating change as anyone else.
The smattering of Czech films from that intensely creative period that are familiar to most American cinephiles include the now-established classics of pre-Hollywood Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde, Fireman’s Ball), Jiri Menzel (the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains), and Věra Chytilová (Daisies). Criterion’s four-disc set, Pearls of the Czech New Wave, attempts to fill in a gap by presenting four little-seen features, an omnibus collection, and a good-looking transfer of Daisies, providing a closer look at a cinematic culture that was being directly affected by a stimulating but uncertain national political climate.
To the Czech people, the brief idyll of 1963 to 1968 must have felt like a delicious variation on the fable of the sword of Damocles. For a moment, oppressive Soviet interference in Czechoslovakia lightened, and, as with many things, from international exchange to sexual expressiveness, the arts flourished. A new openness about society entered filmmaking; directors took to both celebrating personal freedom and bravely mocking the bureaucratic madness of the Communist regime. Yet, when we observe the melancholy and frustration, along with the disconcerting buzz of the irrational, that pervade so many of these films — intermingling with the temperate humanism that endeared Czech cinema to the international community — it becomes obvious that few felt the Party would allow the party to last forever.
Director Evold Schorm’s Return of the Prodigal Son and Jeromil Jires’s The Joke, an adaptation of the Milan Kundera novel, examine the difficulties of seemingly normalized citizens adjusting to a society that, on the surface, offers each a place in the sun — fat chance. Gentle satire has no part here, Schorm and Jires aim to cut to the bone, and the results in both cases are effectively chilling. (An overly mild entertainment, and the only disappointment of the set, Menzel’s Capricious Summer cloaks whatever deeper points it’s trying to make in unfortunate bluster.)
A Report on the Party and Guests, by Jan Nemec, and Chytilová’s Daisies take different routes from the dour realism of the Schorm and Jires films. Nemec’s disturbing allegory on the symbiotic connection between the powerful and the powerless is reminiscent of a Buñuelian nightmare: an al fresco banquet turns nastier and nastier; absurdity and menace are the main courses. Daisies, a nutsy-kooky archetype of ’60s cinema, explodes with intermittent color (in marked contrast to the gorgeous but expressively bleak black-and-white cinematography of the other titles), hyperactive editing, slam-bang juxtapositions of image and music, and general surrealist/anarchic mayhem of the type that arises when we conjure up European art films in the wake of Godard. Released in December 1966, Daisies gloried in the dreamlike freedom the Czechs could almost convince themselves was now theirs. A little over a year later, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague: the dream was officially over.