8 films which changed my perception of Czechoslovakian Cinema: Part One
You’ve probably heard all the jokes there is about watching Czechoslovakian films. Three hour depressing epics in black and white, the action taking place in a windswept house on a hill, the characters all sitting in tortured silence with a few subtitles thrown in.
Since moving here I have been introduced to Czechoslovakian films that I (and the rest of the world) never knew existed.
Czechoslovakia had a rich film industry during the communist years. State censorship saw many great artists silenced, but many flourished, in particular those making comedies. So here is part one of my personal top eight, as of now. There may be more in the future but these wonderful films have already had a huge impact on me.
1. Slunce, Seno, Jahody. (Sun, Hay & Strawberries)
A rich vein of comedy in Czechoslovakia, and still is, is the concept of the villager and the village.
Slunce, Seno, Jahody is set in Hoštice, a village where the main source of income is its farm. A young man from Prague arrives with a revolutionary idea; put earphones on the cows playing pop music to increase the milk yield. He manages to convince the skeptical villagers of his mad idea – and it works. Whilst in Hoštice, he stays with a slobbish family headed by matriarch Mrs. Škopkova, (played by the wonderful comic actress Helena Ružickova) her lazy fat husband, slutty daughter, naughty son and mad grandmother, who spends her days bedridden outside in a bed on wheels.
Ongoing village gags include a woman who sings a weather forecast from her window every morning, a camp Priest who is idolised and manipulated by the gossipy old women and a local train staffed by a bored young girl, where the service is always running late. The passengers are told they have to jump off as it goes through Hoštice, including a wedding party with all their fragile gifts and an old woman who needs to see the doctor for a broken leg.
The stunning countryside of Czechoslovakia is captured beautifully on film, a place where the balmy summers seem endless and worries few and far between.
2. Vrchí, Prchni! (Waiter! Run!)
Josef works in a book shop in Prague. He is happily married with a young son, but has financial troubles and dissatisfied with life. He spends his days at the book shop daydreaming and seducing attractive female customers into the store cupboard. In the evenings he plays the Violin in restaurants. One night after playing in a restaurant, dressed in his black suit, he is mistaken for a Waiter and a customer asks for the bill. (During communism before credit cards everyone paid cash and a Waiter would carry a wallet and give change.)
On a whim Josef pretends he is the Waiter, takes the money and leaves. Shocked at how easy this was, Josef begins to travel around restaurants dressed as a waiter, with his Violin as a cover, asking diners to pay their bills. Soon he is making a fortune. His wife, none the wiser seems to think he is making an amazing living just playing the Violin.
Within weeks its hits the newspapers that a Phantom Waiter is striking in Prague, Josef continued to evade the authorities and begins to use various disguises.
The climax of the film is an amazing scene where Josef is finally discovered and pursued through the streets of Prague by hundreds of identically dressed Waiters.
3. Ucho (The Ear)
Ludvik a Senior Ministry Official for the communist party in Prague attends a party function with his alcoholic wife Anna. The night passes like any other. When they arrive home to their house in a quiet neighbourhood they find the power has been cut along with the phone lines.
Ludvik becomes paranoid and begins to analyse the conversations had in the evening (seen through a series of eerie flashbacks) Ann,a now drunk, mocks him for his paranoia which escalates to Ludvik burning paperwork and flushing it down the toilet.
At two in the morning a group of senior party comrades show up out of the blue. Ludvik struggles to overcome his paranoia and entertains them for a tense few hours where they become incredibly drunk. They finally leave in the early hours as if their bizarre visit were normal. The power comes back on and Anna discovers a listening device in the bathroom – The Ear. Paranoia makes way for fear as Anna and Ludvik wait for the sun to rise almost certain they are to be arrested. A messenger arrives in the morning and unexpectedly tells Ludvik he is to be promoted.
4. S tebou mě bavi svet ( With you I enjoy life, honey.)
Every winter a group of male friends go off to a cabin in the woods to escape their wives and ski. One year the wives decide to revolt and insist that the dads take the small children with them so they get some time off.
The dads struggle with a group of tiny children, losing them in the snow and generally being clueless. A wonderful warm comedy. Both sides realise they miss each other and the mothers pay a surprise visit to the cabin.
The film was a huge hit and is still shown every Christmas, and was voted by audiences as the best comedy film of the twentieth century. In the film one of the mothers is a singer, and she performs a song called Sladke Mameni. The actress didn’t sing the song herself, it was recorded by Helena Vondráčková, a huge singer still to this day in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In the years since the film was released Sladke Mameni has become a cult hit and spawned a dance craze.
Below is a clip of the movie with the song Sladke Mameni. Even now if the song is played at a club or wedding everyone with no exceptions will get up and do the dance.