This week sees the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet led Warsaw Pact troops.
The Czech Centre London marked the anniversary with a screening of Occupation 1968 at the Czech Embassy in London on Thursday, 23 August. It’s part of the Projecting Czech History: 1918 – 2018 season. Consisting of five short films made by directors from the five countries that took part, Occupation 68 explores the sometimes contradictory and confusing story of an event that continues to resonates in the Czech and Slovak Republics and beyond.
The occupation marked the beginning of the end of the Prague Spring, the period of political and cultural liberalisation that had started earlier in 1968, leading to the Soviet dominated period of “Normalisation” that lasted until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Occupation 1968 had it’s Czech premiere earlier in the summer at The Karlovy Vary International film Festival at an event under the Kinedok banner, organised by IDF, the Czech Institute of Documentary Film. The film was show in Prague on 20 August to mark the start of the occupation, and again on 24 and 26 August with a discussion. The screening was at Karlínská kasárna, Karlin Barracks, now an arts venue. During the occupation of the Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, the temporary anti-communist broadcast of the independent Czechoslovak Radio was stationed here for a short time.
The film is a co-production from the Czech and Slovak Republics, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. The five directors come from the occupying countries, Russia, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. Slovak Peter Kerekes produced the film. The Czech co-producers were Czech Television/Hypermarket Film co-production. Hypermarket themselves are showing a retrospective in Moscow including the classic Czech Dream, Český sen.
You can read more about the film and the background in this article from Radio Prague
Film is intertwined into the story of the occupation, and of the wider political and cultural context and consequences. The Czech New Wave cinema of the mid 1960s can be seen as part of a cultural thawing and shift leading up to the Prague Spring. Czechoslovak film suffered from the occupation and subsequent normalisation. Film makers such as Miloš Forman, Evald Schorm, Vojtěch Jasný and Jan Němec left the country. With an enforced change in the leadership of Barrandov Studios in 1969, many new wave films were banned, new films were stopped and many film-makers were unable to work, including Jan Švankmajer, Věra Chytilová, Drahomíra Vihanová amongst many others.
The occupation was itself filmed: Film director Jan Němec, who died last year, famously smuggled the first footage out of the country, and used it in the film Oratorio for Prague in 1968, reusing it in the later film The Ferrari Dino Girl (2009). This film is widely used as stock footage of the occupation. Němec was not the only one filming.
Director Evald Schorm worked with producer Jaromír Kallista and cameraman Stanislav Milota to film the occupation in Prague, this was hidden in the National Film Archive to re-emerge after 1989. This film is known as Confusion 68, as the box was labelled “confusion” in the archive. In an low key, possibly secret, screening at Karlovy Vary Film Festival this year, Jaromír Kallista introduced the film, before going on to present, as producer, the new Jan Švankmajer film, Insects in a different venue. Whilst not footage of the occupation itself, documentary film maker Karel Vachek somehow filmed Jan Palach in hospital before he died following his self-immolation. This footage was shown at Karlovy Vary in 2015, and is used in Vachek’s film-in-the-making: Communism. Vachek’s film Elective Affinities (1968) captured the events of the fourteen days that preceded the election of the Czechoslovak president in the spring of 1968.
In a bizzare coincidence singer Shirley Bassey was filmed in Prague in spring/summer 1968 by a German TV crew. The programme was due to be screened on the day of the occupation. Shirley can be seen singing in from of the under-construction Government building that would be the HQ for Normalisation.