Spotlight on the Czechoslovak New Wave: An Introduction


The period of filmmaking known as the “Czechoslovak New Wave” refers to films made in the erstwhile Czechoslovakia from roughly 1963 to 1968, a heated period of liberalisation and calls for reform that culminated in the “Prague Spring” from January to August 1968. One of the significant aspects of Czechoslovak New Wave films is their acclaim domestically and internationally. The Shop on Main Street (1965, Ján Kadár Elmar Klos) was the first ever Czechoslovak film to have won an Oscar, for the category of Best Foreign Language Film, and Closely Observed Trains (1967, Jiří Menzel) followed suit several years later. Though often mentioned as one of the most important and vibrant periods of filmmaking to have occurred in the twentieth century, the Czechoslovak New Wave continues to receive scant attention in the English language. Part of the reason is perhaps the continuing inaccessibility of a number of the films, even today. Part of the reason also is that given the above period of production and despite domestic and international recognition of the resulting films, such output in retrospect has been tremendously overshadowed by the New Waves elsewhere in Europe.

…Czechoslovak New Wave films is their acclaim domestically and internationally. The Shop on Main Street (1965, Ján Kadár Elmar Klos) was the first ever Czechoslovak film to have won an Oscar…

Outside of the two above-mentioned films and the filmmakers who made them, the most well-known name of the Czechoslovak New Wave is undoubtedly filmmaker Miloš Forman. But it can be argued that Forman is known more for his career in Hollywood, with his connection to the Czechoslovak New Wave functioning more like a footnote to his American films. Forman debuted in Hollywood four years after the Prague Spring of 1968 and the invasion and crackdown of the country by the Warsaw Pact forces led by the Soviets in August that same year. The Soviet-led invasion of the country imposed “Normalisation,” which remained in place until the Velvet Revolution in the latter months of 1989, when diverse groups came together to topple the country’s Communist rule. Aside from Forman, another of the more well-known names related to the Czechoslovak New Wave is writer Milan Kundera, whose novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) takes place in Czechoslovakia of the late 1960s and 1970s. A film adaptation of the novel came in 1988, directed by Philip Kaufman (though Kundera apparently did not particularly like it very much). One who should also be as well known as Forman and Kundera is cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček, with whom Forman worked in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and in the U.S. upon Forman’s move to Hollywood. Significantly, British New Wave filmmaker Lindsay Anderson personally requested Ondříček to photograph two of his great films with Malcolm McDowell, If… (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973).

Some Context for the Czechoslovak New Wave

To say that one country’s New Wave is ‘better’ than another is a useless exercise; even more useless is to debate how one New Wave is more or less of a ‘movement’ than another one. Be it German Expressionism, French Poetic Realism, Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, British New Wave, Japanese New Wave, or Brazilian Cinema Novo, one should consider the interrelationality of things, people, ideas, and media within and across borders. But one should also consider a particular New Wave’s specific context—historical, political, economic, aesthetic—and its local impact (which of course simultaneously negotiates with international impact, if any) and development. But sadly compounding the marginalisation of the Czechoslovak New Wave by being overshadowed by France and Italy in terms of scholarship, cinephilia, and distribution/exhibition is another kind of marginalisation in terms of interpretation and analysis precisely in its specific context. In the case of film production in Central and/or Eastern Europe, or Eastern bloc cinemas during the Cold War, as film scholar Jonathan L. Owen rightly puts it, what scholarship exists on such cinemas is more often than not already overdetermined by virtue of their political context, such that aesthetic concerns are irrevocably set aside. Not to say that one should completely ignore the political climate in which the Czechoslovak New Wave occurred. Rather, the point is to approach these films in a way that navigates more interactively and dynamically between politics and aesthetics. For what may be considered reactionary or innocuous in one context may be subversive in another or vice-versa (for instance, French filmmaker-critics Luc Moullet and Jean-Luc Godard accused Diamonds of the Night [1964, Jan Němec] of being reactionary and Věra Chytilová of being the equivalent of Darryl F. Zanuck and Paramount, respectively).

Certainly the Czechoslovak New Wave represents a dialogue with what was happening elsewhere in Europe, such as the New Waves of France and England, cinéma vérité, and the Theatre of the Absurd, as well as what was happening politically in the country. At the same time, to limit an examination, however cursory, of the Czechoslovak New Wave to the politics of the 1960s would be to ignore the native artistic and industrial histories and developments with which it was also engaging at an aesthetic level. While this spotlight on Czechoslovak New Wave films is in no way exhaustive, especially in terms of discussing the film industry and productions of pre-World War II Czechoslovakia or during the interwar period—let alone claiming in absolute terms the roots for the Czechoslovak New Wave to occur—a few details are worth mentioning. For instance, the unbridled emergence of young filmmakers and films that broke from the Socialist Realism model of representation would not have happened so solidly without the infrastructure of a nationalised film industry. The nationalisation of the film industry occurred in August 1945. In 1946 came the establishment of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (Filmová a televizní fakulta Akademie múzických umění v Praze), or FAMU, from which a great number of directors, writers, and cinematographers who came to constitute the Czechoslovak New Wave graduated in the 1950s and early 1960s (e.g. Forman, Chytilová, Němec, Juraj Jakubisko, Vojtěch Jasný, Jiří Menzel, Ivan Passer, Pavel Juráček, Antonín Máša). FAMU also hosted and cultivated the intimate cross-pollination of cinema and literature that partly characterises Czechoslovak New Wave films, most famously by having novelist Milan Kundera teach literature to its students. In fact, as Peter Hames writes in his book The Czechoslovak New Wave (2005), Kundera “even went so far as to describe the leading films [of the New Wave] as part of the history of Czechoslovak literature” (25). The link between cinema and literature for the Czechoslovak New Wave at times stretches back even further into the 1930s, with some films based on the works of Vladislav Vančura, who was one of the major figures of the avant-garde movement Devětsil. Significantly enough, Vančura was one of the key figures to call for the nationalisation of the film industry in the 1930s (he did not live to see it happen for he was executed by the Nazis in 1942). Especially crucial to Czechoslovak New Wave films whose roots are also in the 1930s were the Barrandov Studios and laboratories in Prague, built in 1933 by the A-B Company and expanded by the Nazis during the occupation.

Following the end of World War II in 1945, Czechoslovakia had only three years of reprieve between the Nazi occupation and the Communist dictatorship. In 1948, the country became a part of the Eastern bloc following the Yalta Conference. The period that separates the beginning of Communist rule and the Czechoslovak New Wave is often referred to as the “Khrushchev Thaw,” specifically the 1950s, which saw the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the monumental “Secret Speech” by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. In this speech, Khrushchev called for the de-stalinisation of policies in the Soviet Union and, by extension, in Soviet satellite states like Czechoslovakia. That same year in Czechoslovakia, the journal Nová mysl (New Idea) published an attack on the film industry for being nothing more than a vehicle of regurgitation of Soviet styles as well as one of oppression of anything that deviated from them. What followed during the rest of the decade and into the early 1960s were debates at conferences and film festivals about the state of Czechoslovak cinema, resulting in more accusations, examinations, and bans. Coinciding with these debates is what Peter Hames terms the “First Wave,” understood as “that group of directors who prepared the way for the developments of the 1960s through thematic or formal breaks with the conventions of Socialist Realism” (29) and continued to make films alongside the younger ones to emerge in 1963. Among these filmmakers were the team of Slovak Ján Kadár and Czech Elmar Klos, Vojtěch Jasný, Karel Kachyňa, and František Vláčil.

…Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), whose title was changed to Who’s Afraid of Kafka? in Czech. Dialogues between the different arts were obviously an important detail and reference for the Czechoslovak New Wave

These debates on Czechoslovak cinema dovetailed with those in literature and theatre, from which developed the rehabilitation of Franz Kafka’s place in Czech literature in particular and stage productions of the plays of Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, among other things. Unwittingly uniting these two realms of art was the 1964 production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), whose title was changed to Who’s Afraid of Kafka? in Czech. Dialogues between the different arts were obviously an important detail and reference for the Czechoslovak New Wave, further building upon communities of collaborations that would mirror the small production group system of filmmaking at the Barrandov Studios.

Some Films of the Czechoslovak New Wave

The use of the term “Czechoslovak New Wave” as opposed to the more frequently used “Czech New Wave” for this spotlight is deliberate. Though the majority of films to be looked at will be by Czech filmmakers, the contributions by Slovak filmmakers need to be recognised as well, such as Juraj Jakubisko and Juraj Herz. For if the Czechoslovak New Wave is marginalised in terms of scholarship, the Slovak aspect of it is doubly so. On this note, this spotlight will focus more on lesser known productions. While great films, Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen’s Ball (1967) have received considerable attention and scholarship, alongside The Shop on Main Street and Closely Observed Trains. Incidentally, these four films are readily available via the Criterion Collection. And admittedly, the impetus for this spotlight on the Czechoslovak New Wave is the Criterion Collection’s upcoming release of the Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave, a four-DVD box set that presents a much-needed deeper look at this period of filmmaking.

This spotlight will forgo outlining aesthetic, formal, thematic, and/or narrative concerns by which to measure the ‘unity’ of these films, filmmakers, and/or the movement. However, over the course of reviews, hopefully some shared, contradictory, and altogether interesting concerns will emerge for further contemplation.

Rowena Santos Aquino

Senior Film Critic. Recently obtained my doctoral degree in Cinema and Media studies at UCLA. Linguaphile and cinephile, and therefore multingual in my cinephilia. Asian cinemas, Spanish language filmmaking, Middle Eastern cinemas, and documentary film.