Prague is quite a city—ancient and spire-filled, cobblestones and beer gardens, bridges and marionette theatres. But probably one of the best ways to get in touch with the fabric of the Czech people, and as preparation for your trip to the Czech Republic, is to watch a few films by some of the greatest filmmakers of this nation.
Czech filmmakers, just like Czech musicians, writers and painters, have come to be known for bringing a dark and ironic quality to their works of art. This comes, of course, as no surprise, due to the long and oppressive, consecutive occupations of Czechoslovakia during the 20th century – first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet Russia. Czech filmmakers were forced to do their work on the sly, and much of their work was banned in the 1960s and 70s, only to be released once the Czech Republic had been freed from the grips of Communism after the peaceful Velvet Revolution in 1989. If you speak to any Czech when you travel to the Czech Republic, the most common phrase you will hear is, “Basically, after 1989….”. The modern history of the Czech Republic is hinged upon this crucial date.
Jan Svankmajer is probably one of the quirkiest and most fascinating surrealist filmmakers from the Czech Republic, and he still lives and creates in Prague today, with his wife, a surrealist painter and sculptor. Some of his short films, like “Meat Love” or “Etcetera” can be found on You Tube. They are a good warm up for his similarly dark feature films, like his excellent remake of “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Conspirators of Pleasure”, or his more recent “Lunacy”, which takes place in an asylum during the 1800s. Comparisons have been made to American filmmaker Tim Burton, but in fact, it is the younger Burton who has admitted that he is a huge Svankmajer fan and has been largely influenced by the Czech director’s style.
Another Czech filmmaker whose movies will give you a hearty glimpse of Czech humor and sarcasm is Milos Forman. Although you may have already seen many of his films and not even known it: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Amadeus“, “Man on the Moon“, and “Goya’s Ghosts“, to name a few of the more popular ones. His lesser known and earlier films, like “Taking Off” (though filmed in the US) or the Academy Award nominated “Loves of a Blonde”, however, are also excellent expressions of the Czech perspective on inter-generational culture.
And you can’t discuss the Czech film industry without mentioning Jiri Menzel, who won an Academy Award for his 1967 film “Closely Observed Trains”, based on a novel of the same name by another famous Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal. Jiri Menzel also created another film based on a Hrabal novel of the same title, “I Served the King of England”.