Occupation 1968 remembered on film

This week sees the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet led Warsaw Pact troops.

Occupation 1968

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.

Watch the Occupation 1968 Trailer

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.

Rare screening of Ester Krumbachová film in Glasgow

This Saturday sees a rare screening of the only film directed by Ester Krumbachová. A key figure in Czech New Wave cinema of the 1960s, Ester is probably best known for her collaborations with Věra Chytilová on Daisies and The Fruits of Paradise, and one-time husband Jan Němec (The Party and the Guests and Diamonds of the Night).
The Murder of Mr Devil

The Glasgow Film Theatre is hosting the screening presented by the Czech Centre London. The screening at 3pm Saturday 11 August, is preceded by an introduction by Petra Hanáková who has been researching recently discovered archives. Originally the screening of the film was planned to tie in with an exhibition celebrating Krumbachová’s work at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts: A Weakness for Raisins, Films & Archive of Ester Krumbachová. This now runs from 8 December – 27 January 2019, following the tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art.

A Weakness for Raisins

Ester, who died in 1996 was a multi-talented contributor to Czech cinema, as screenplay writer, set and costume designer. Like Věra Chytilová, who started studying architecture, her initial training was not in film, Ester studied art and painting. Her grasp of the use and impact of colour is apparent in her work with Věra Chytilová and Jan Kucera.
Věra Chytilová made the film Looking for Ester in 2005 you can see it on DA Films here:
Looking for Ester
You can read more about Ester in these articles:
Kino Kultura
Radio Prague

Upír z Feratu: cult normalisation film

IMG_20180530_080015163 (2)

2018 is a year of anniversaries for Czechs and Slovaks. 1918 heralded the first republic following the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire. It’s also twenty-five years since the Czech and Slovak republics went their separate ways. And then there was 1968. 1968 was a pivotal year for unrest and upheaval across the world. In Czechoslovakia, the arrival of Russian tanks signalled a clampdown on the flourishing cultural activity that had emerged in the first half of the sixties, most famously in the New Wave of Czechoslovak cinema.

A recent retrospective in Brussels showcased the New Wave, showing eighteen films over 6 weeks. Eleven films from ’62-’67 covered the emergence of the new wave. The impact of the Russian invasion was showcased with five films made in ’69-’70, and “banned forever”. Most of these were not screened again until 1990. That leaves the film that brought the season to a close: Upír z Feratu (Ferat Vampire), made by the late director Juraj Herz in 1982.

It was a strange film to choose to finish the season, the other films are earlier Czech New Wave films, or banned after the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. It could have been a tribute to Herz, who died in April, but Ferat doesn’t normally feature in lists of his best films. In fact Herz was the only director with two films in the programme. The other being The Cremator, regarded as his best.

It does serve as an example (a very good one!) of the longer term impact of “normalisation” on the Czech film industry. Normalisation sought to roll back the reforms that the Czech New Wave films had been made under, and preserve a Soviet-friendly status quo.

The film is an emerging classic, already a cult film in Czech. Last October, in time for Halloween, Prague based model car firm Fox Toys released a scale model of the star of the film, the car Ferat.  Made in a limited edition (I got my hands on mine last week), early sales were accompanies by a cardboard sleeved copy of the film.

Ferat is a Škoda Super Sport prototype from 1971 that lives at the Škoda Museum in Mlada Boleslav. It was based on the iconic Škoda Š110R, a coupe that still has a thriving fan base and owners club in Czech and Slovakia, and the countries to which it was exported.

On the surface it’s a straightforward normalisation film: “look, you won’t even miss decadent western capitalist horror films, because, well, we can do our own!”. A simple plot: a new car from the Ferat Corporation appears to drain its drivers of energy, life even. Our investigative hero sets out to find the secret of the car and the corporation…. I won’t spoil the plot here, although one slightly cruel review suggested it needed a transfusion in the middle.

It’s not as simple as that, though. The team that made the film, for instance, looks decidedly dodgy:

Director: Juraj Herz, whose films included The Cremator, banned “forever” by the communist authorities.

Lead actor: Jiri Menzel: director of the banned “forever” film Larks on a String.

Bit part: Played by Vít Olmer, maverick Czechsploitation director, later to make Bony a Klid, banned on release until it’s black market distribution made a mockery of the ban.

Uncredited contributions from surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer, then banned from film making.

Actor Petr Čepek, later to take the lead in several Švankmajer films including Faust.

So, a group of film makers that are not in favour with the regime make one of the few Czechoslovak horror films. It’s tempting to make analogies with the activities of those in Hollywood, USA, during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 50s: the uncredited roles by those banned, and works rich in metaphor and references. Cy Endfield’s Hell Drivers for example.

Švankmajer’s contribution to the film is signalled by the clip of one of his films (ID please!) shown on a TV. In any case, the Faustian nature of the plot sits comfortably within his oeuvre. He is now credited with the creation of the visceral elements of Ferat, including the scene where Menzel’s character approaches the car, slices the throbbing bonnet with a knife, and is drawn to slide his hand into the wound, Cronenberg style (predating the hand through TV screen in Videodrome), only for the car to attempt to pull him inside in the classic Freudian manner. This scene uses Švankmajer’s hallmark use of raw meat as living flesh, and originally included a complete meat engine that was censored.

It’s tempting to credit another animation segment to Švankmajer. The scene is played by Menzel on a home movie projector and includes Juraj Herz hamming it up as a Dracula style vampire.

The title of the film obviously alludes to Nosferatu, it’s also possible to see Ferat as a play on Fiat/Ferrari, pillars of the decadent western car industry (although Fiat had widespread collaboration with the communist car industry, especially in Poland and the Soviet Union).

The car itself is real: a prototype built as the Škoda Super Sport, based on the S110R coupe, as are the Škoda rally cars seen in the film. The car, in common with the S110R, had its engine at the rear, the front bonnet covering the luggage area. Bony a Klid, Vit Olmer’s film about gangsterism at the end of the communist era, has a long opening scene filmed at the Škoda Factory in Mlada Boleslav.

Theodor Pištěk, who gave the car it’s makeover, drove on the racetrack competitively for Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. The Super Sport also made an appearance in the film Tomorrow I’ll wake up and scald myself with tea (1977). Both films are based on short stories written by Czech science fiction author Josef Nesvadba.

The car as star may well explain the cult status of the film, it predates the similar role of John Carpenter’s Christine released the following year, but we should to the role of the film in Czech normalisation to explain it’s conclusive role in the Brussels retrospective. It shows the extraordinary lengths film makers went to help and support each other in the worst of times. It also shows the subversive possibilities of a genre film. American horror films of the 70s and 80s are now seen to engage with cold war and other political issues such as race, gender and economy in a way that it was impossible to do directly at the time. Perhaps Ferat took on the same challenge in 1980s Czechoslovakia.

Chytilová: end of an era


As the dust settles on the obituaries and the funeral flowers fade, the tribute screenings of Věra Chytilová‘s films begin.

The Czech Centre London is screening Daisies at the Hackney Picturehouse on Sunday 13 April, along with the portrait of Věra  from the Czech made Golden Sixties series, directed by Martin Šulik. The screening has now moved to a larger screen at the Picturehose having sold out last week. A few tickets remain, but be quick! Great to see so  many people in the UK take part in the tribute.

April sees A l’Est du Nouveau Film Festival screening Daisies (Les petites marguerites in French) in Rouen, France. Let me know about other tribute screenings you find out about!

Daisies (Sedmikrasky, 1966) looks set to be the lead film in the tributes, it’s  one of the few Chytilova film released with English subtitles, and the only one with a UK release, through Second Run

Read The Guardian obituary.




Burning Bush looks to set Czech Lions on fire

Burning Bush (Hořící keř), the film about the self-immolation of Jan Palach in 1969, is on course to pick up an armful of awards at the Czech “Oscars”, the Český lev (Czech Lion) awards in February. The film was disqualified from entering the foreign film category in the Oscars as it was edited from a three part tv series, and was nominated in every eligible category for the Lions, a total of 14. In contrast, Jiří Menzel’s The Don Juans (Donšajni), which replaced Burning Bush as the Oscar nomination received only one, for best sound. See the full list of nominations in Czech. See also this article in Prague Post.

The Czech Lions themselves have been touch and go this year, the nomination and voting process has changed, as has the venue for the ceremony on Saturday 22 February. It’s now at the Rudofinium in Prague, previously it had taken place in the Lucerna complex of Wenceslas Square.

Burning Bush also dominates the nominations for the Czech Film Critics Awards, taking place this Sunday, 25 January, and showing on Czech TV.

We’ve found the trailers for the nominations for best film:

Hořící keř

Jako nikdy




UK première for new film from Jiří Menzel

upir-z-feratu-1981Jiří Menzel takes part in a Q&A as his latest film The Don Juans (Donšajni 2013) premières on Saturday 9 November at the Riverside Studios, London. It’s being show as part of the Made In Prague Czech-O-Slovak film festival presented by the Czech Centre London. Showing before The Don Juans is Menzel’s Oscar wining Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky 1966).

Our photo is taken from the cult horror film Ferat the Vampire (Upir z feratu 1982) recently revived by the Czech National Film Archive. Jiří Menzel played the character Marek in the film. Read more about it here.

See this recent interview with Jiří filmed by Film New Europe before the Prague
première of The Don Juans:

Made in Prague, showing in London

mp-2013-film-seriesThe Czech Centre in London is working overtime this year to bring us the regular Made in Prague film season in London, while also co-presenting the Jan Švankmajer retrospective in Brighton.

 This years Made in Prague season celebrates the twin and linked film cultures of the Czech and Slovak Republics. This year is also the 20th anniversary of the split of Czechoslovakia into two separate countries.

The programme features new  and classic Czech and Slovak films. New films include Burning Bush and My Dog Killer as previously reported.

Two highlights of the weekend 9-11 November include films and personal appearances by two legends of Czech and Slovak cinema. Jiří Menzel is here for the UK premiere of his most recent film, The Don Juans.  Also screening is his Oscar winning Closely Observed Trains ( Ostře sledované vlaky 1966). Jiří is 75 this year. Here’s a recent interview by Film New Europe.

Also celebrating his 75th birthday is Juraj Jakubisko, the Prague based Slovak director. He is here for the screening of the film  Birds, Orphans and Fools (Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni 1969), a film that bears comparison with those of Truffaut and Goddard, and one that was banned for some years under the communist regime.

Here’s a clip from the film:

His best known film in the UK is probably Báthory (2008), starring Anna Friel.

Find out more about the season on the facebook page.


Double treat for Švankmajer fans


The Inner life of Objects opens at the University of Brighton Gallery today. It’s a major celebration of the work of the legendary Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer running from 11 October to 2 December 2013.

The exhibition is presented by CINECITY Brighton Film Festival in partnership with the the Czech Centre, London. CINECITY is holding a complete retrospective of Švankmajer’s films during the festival that starts on 14 November. You can find out more on the dates, times and venues for the films on the Czech Centre’s website.

The exhibition is free. There are a limited number of special passes available for the whole season of screenings and events for just £25. Tickets go on sale on Monday 25 Ocober.