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Past for the Eyes

 | 
Oksana Sarkisova
, 
Péter Apor

Subjects of Nostalgia: Selling the Past

“We Have Democracy, Don’t We?”

Czech Society as Reflected in Contemporary Czech Cinema1

Petra Dominková

Texte intégral

  • 1 I would like to thank John Fackenthal for his indispensable help with the first version of this ar (...)

1The “Velvet Revolution” in November 1989 brought about enormous changes in the political and social environment: the communist -regime was abolished and after forty-one years democracy was reestablished in Czechoslovakia. In art, the most important change brought by the Revolution was the end of censorship. Since 1989 artists have been allowed to do as they wish—as long as they can find the funding. Film in socialism was funded exclusively by the state, but since about 1990 the state has not been responsible for what is produced and, not surprisingly, the authorities have cut the subsidies of the costly film industry. Compared to other arts, cinema has faced greater challenges, for even the most independent production needs some money for filming.

  • 2 Boca Abrhámová, “Czech Film in 1992” in Filmová ročenka/Film Yearbook 1992 (Prague: NFA, 1993), 20
  • 3 Details about the impossibility of covering the expenses of Czech films and about their distributi (...)
  • 4 Further information available at http://www.mkcr.cz/statni-fondy/fond-pro-podporu-a-rozvojceske- k (...)
  • 5 For example, in June 2006 70,953,520 CZK were distributed to forty-three projects, and in January (...)
  • 6 For further details on the financing of Czech films, see A. Danielis, “Proč na tom jsme právě takh (...)

2Miloš Forman, the Czech director who has been living in the U.S. since 1968, once perceptively observed that Czech film in the early 1990s was in transition between a greenhouse and a jungle.2 Filmmakers had to get used to the free market, to competition and, above all, to the new situation in financing. The average cost of a Czech film today is about thirty million Czech Korunas (CZK) (approximately USD 1.5 million) and due to the limited possibilities of distribution it is extremely difficult to cover expenses.3 The only state subsidy comes from the State Fund of the Czech Republic for the Support and Development of Czech Cinema4 (Statni fond ČR pro podporu a rozvoj česke kinematografie) which has an annual budget in the tens of millions CZK. This amount is distributed to dozens of projects: feature films, short films, festivals, and support for local cinemas.5 Considering that over the last decade about twenty new features per year have been produced, it is obvious that funding must have come mainly from other sources.6

  • 7 Since 1991 the Audiovisual Producers’ Association (Asociace producentů v audiovizi, or APA) has pu (...)
  • 8 It is interesting that a similar drop in production had already occurred once in the history of Cz (...)
  • 9 According to V. Březina, nine films were produced in 1992 and nineteen films in 1993.

3The situation was particularly critical in the first couple of years after the “Velvet Revolution.” While twenty-nine features were produced in 1989,7 and twenty-eight in 1990 (the majority of which were shot before November 1989), in 1991 only four features were made.8 The next year eight films were completed and in 1992 there were fifteen.9 From that moment on there have been approximately twenty films produced annually in the Czech Republic. Between 1990 and 2006 about 300 fiction features have been produced altogether.

  • 10 Stanislava Přádná, “The Czech Cinema,” available at http://www.artmargins.com/content/ cineview/pa (...)
  • 11 Martin Švoma, “Je umělej!!! aneb Několik nejistých tendencí současného českého filmu” [It is Artif (...)

4Czech critics regularly express doubts about the quality of post-1989 cinema. For instance, Stanislava Přádná complained that she had found it difficult to pick Czech films to write about since she had grown “intensely skeptical because of the blandness and mediocrity of most of the Czech film production in the past decade. Was there anything of universal interest, something that transcended the merely local, if not provincial dimension?”10 The contributors to the November 2003 issue of Cinepur, which was devoted to Czech contemporary cinema, were more specific. For example, one of them argued that the “recipe” of today’s film is the following: “The narration is exclusively restricted to personal relationships. Real society—political, economic, social issues—does not exist in the world of Czech films; if something like that appears, it is just inessential background. Thus, there are no film characters who would take a stance on politics, who would have any problem—either existential or social. (…) As a rule, our protagonists do not work (…), they do not study (…), they do not do business and they have no ’higher aims.’ They are not committed to anything.”11 Although I may have reservations about both assertions— there are certainly some films that transcend the provincial dimension and there are certainly some protagonists who work and care—I have to admit that these claims definitely apply to the majority of Czech contemporary cinema, whether it deals with the past or the present.

  • 12 Czechoslovak New Wave is a term used for the films made in the 1963–1968 period by FAMU students a (...)
  • 13 Peter Hames, “The Ironies of History: The Czech Experience” in Anikó Imre (ed.), East European Cin (...)
  • 14 Ibid., 149.
  • 15 Přádná, “The Czech Cinema.” It seems that similar experiences were shared by many East European co (...)

5Contemporary Czech cinema is sometimes compared to the so-called Czechoslovak New Wave (CNW)12 in an attempt to prove the mediocrity of post-1989 cinema. Peter Hames, discussing a few contemporary examples, claims that in these films “[t]here is none of the critical angle.”13 He believes that the New Wave films better convey the national past: “One cannot help but feel that the 1960s New Wave would have come up with films on the collective experience that were much more critical and analytical.”14 The same point is made in the above-mentioned work by Přádná; nevertheless, she also points out the most significant difference between the 1960s and the post-1989 cinema: financing. State subsidies during the communist period meant that directors were not concerned with the box-office success of their films. Since 1989, “auteur cinema” has been replaced by “producers’ cinema,” and producers need at least to cover their expenses, if not make a profit. The dependence upon the audience may be one reason why contemporary films are less challenging in terms of their portrayal of the past. However, society has changed as well. It is no coincidence that when censored films from the 1960s were released after the “Velvet Revolution” (some of them for the first time, some re-released) they did not receive much attention from the audiences. As Přádná stated, New Wave films “had become out-of-date and obsolete.”15 I will discuss some of the CNW films later in comparison with contemporary Czech films. I will further review and analyze the attitudes towards Czechoslovak Socialism in films in past settings as well as contemporary ones. This article is divided into two parts—in the first I focus on how directors portray the socialist period and in the second I discuss the breakthroughs and continuities in representing contemporary society.

RETRO-FILMS IN CONTEMPORARY CINEMA

6The number of films set in the communist past is quite limited—only about twenty were made after the change of the regime. Five of them, all comedies, were highly successful in the Czech box office: The Tank Battalion (Tankový prapor, 1991), The Black Barons (Černí baroni, 1992), Kolya (Kolja, 1996), Cosy Dens (Pelíšky, 1998), and Pupendo (2003). Although the others referred to below were not commercial hits, some of them were well received by the critics and deserve mention.

  • 16 The Tank Battalion is considered the first Czech private film made since the nationalization of ci (...)
  • 17 České filmy: katalog 1991–2001 [Czech Films: Catalogue 1991–2001] (Prague: APA, 2002), 243.
  • 18 Ibid., 55.

7Box office figures from the years 1991–2001 show that the most successful film released in this period was The Tank Battalion,16 directed by Vit Olmer, which was seen during the first decade after its release in what was then Czechoslovakia by more than 2,000,000 people (that is, almost twice as many as those who watched Titanic in the same period).17 Second on the list is The Black Barons by Zdenek Sirový with 1,471,000 spectators. Both are comedies that depict obligatory military service in the 1950s. Both feature jolly young men who “intelligently resist the stupidity and constant harassment of communist brass-hats, and think only of their life in civvy street, women and hard liquor.”18

8While The Tank Battalion shows “normal” military service, The Black Barons focuses on the so-called Pomocný technický prapor (PTP, or Technical Collateral Battalion). PTPs were the special battalions in the period between 1950 and 1954, designed for young men believed to be dangerous to the communist regime. Altogether about 60,000 men were forced to join this branch of the military. For one reason or another they did not match the official image of a devoted member of communist society: they were the sons of factory or farm owners (seen as “exploiters”), priests, students of theology, or kulaks. The conditions in PTPs were difficult: the men were forced to work hard in mines, forests, or quarries and unlike “normal” service, which lasted two years, were drafted for four years. Casualties were common. Under the communist regime the PTPs hushed up; their existence was not made public until 1989. During the 1960s, there was only one film on the subject: Jaromil Jireš’s The Joke (Žert, 1968), based on Milan Kundera’s novel, was almost immediately banned and not seen by ordinary viewers until 1989.

  • 19 Hames, “The Ironies,” 137.

9The Joke narrates the bitter story of a man who is expelled from the Communist Party and from university because of a harmless joke. He spends some time in a PTP, experiencing ceaseless harassment and bullying by the officers. In contrast to The Joke, The Black Barons shows a PTP as a slightly ridiculous, but not really bad, battalion where the men had a lot of fun and the officers were idiotic, but harmless. Surprising as it may seem—but in fact not at all rare—since the “Velvet Revolution,” Czech directors have preferred comedy to other genres and have chosen to show even the most tragic episodes from Czech history as situations in which nothing discourages people having fun. As Peter Hames points out, “[p]eople continue to live, have relationships, and raise families, often responding to the situations in which they find themselves with irony and humor.”19

  • 20 Zdenek Mihalco, “Komunistická vězení: 4 500 mrtvých” [Communist prisons: 4,500 dead], available at (...)

10Another taboo subject before 1989 (with the exception of the short period in the 1960s) was the communist-run prison camps. Between 1948 and 1989 there were altogether about 200,000 people in these camps. About 4,500 died for various reasons: 248 were executed, a few hundred committed suicide, others died due to work injuries or illness, some were killed by the guards; most of the casualties occurred during the 1950s.20 One political prisoner who spent seven years in prison was Jiří Stransky (born in 1931). After 1989, he became a freelance writer; three of his novels were turned into films, all of them set in the 1950s. Two take place in prison camps: Boomerang (Bumerang, 1997) by Hynek Bočan and A Little Piece of Heaven (Kousek nebe, 2005) by Petr Nikolaev. Both films treated the topic seriously and both received only moderate audience response. Boomerang shows the story of male prisoners working in a uranium plant, while A Little Piece of Heaven focuses on the relationship between a male and a female prisoner. The latter recalls Larks on a Thread (Skřivánci na niti, 1969) directed by Jiří Menzel, which due to its critical stance was not released until 1990. In both films the romance of a couple inside the prison walls appears rather implausible, considering the harsh conditions that political prisoners were forced to live under. Larks on a Thread focuses on the relationship between Pavel, a cook and political prisoner, who did not want to work on Saturdays for religious reasons, and Jitka, a woman imprisoned for attempting to flee the country. Although male and female camps are strictly divided, Pavel and Jitka always somehow manage to meet. Eventually they even get married thanks to the kindness of a prison guard. The couple in A Little Piece of Heaven—Luboš, who is in prison mainly because he is the son of an executed “enemy of the state,” and Dana, whose crime is not clear—also manage to see each other quite often, raising objections from critics. Finally, they are even allowed to spend a night together when a prison guard is bribed by sex with another female inmate.

11In both films the 1950s period is only the background for a love story that could happen anywhere where restrictions are imposed on people—be it a concentration camp, any prison at any time, any kind of asylum, any single-sex college, and so on. In A Little Piece of Heaven in particular, the “markers” of the 1950s are inserted into the story quite artificially. They include a fight between an inmate who appears in the film only for this purpose, and a former ambassador of Czechoslovakia to the UN, who proudly states that there are no political prisoners in the country. The scene is not connected to the rest of the story and could have been cut completely without affecting the plot. A trustworthy and competent film about 1950s Czechoslovakia is yet to be made.

12One topic that was not exactly taboo in pre-1989 cinema, although its depiction was highly biased, is the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact forces on August 21, 1968. A number of films from the 1960s that attempted to portray the events of 1968 in a complex and critical way were banned shortly after they were made—among them The Seventh Day, the Eighth Night (Den sedmý, osma noc, 1969) by Evald Schorm, not shown until 1990. The mainstream cinematographic interpretations of the 1970–80s tended to give the events of 1968 an “officially approved” reading. These films are sometimes set in small villages with the honest folk threatened by the “rightists” and “capitalists” who are only out for their own profit, sometimes in cities where Prague Spring sympathizers are usually involved in criminal activities. For example, Where the Storks Nest (Tam kde hnízdí čápi, 1975) by Karel Steklý tells the story of the head of a successful cooperative struggling with the “anti-socialistic elements” who attempt to infiltrate the county offices. In the same year Vojtěch Trapl directed The Knell Won’t Be Tolled (Tobě hrana zvonit nebude), about a lady who was attacked in the summer of 1968 by a group of people because of her husband, a devoted member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

13While one might have expected these unlikely stories to be replaced after November 1989 by more plausible narratives attempting an unbiased representation of the events of 1968—the Prague Spring and the invasion—nothing of the sort happened. In fact, there are only two contemporary films set in the 1960s, The Rebels (Rebelové, 2001) by Filip Renč and Cosy Dens by Jan Hřebejk, and a few where the 1960s appear as only one historical episode within a longer time-frame (like, for example, Wonderful Years that Sucked/Báječná léta pod psa, 1997 or Kolya).

14The Rebels is a musical about the relationship between two teenagers, Šimon and Tereza. Šimon deserts during his military service and wants to emigrate to the U.S. When the opportunity to emigrate appears, Šimon finally decides to stay in the Czech Republic because of Tereza. However, she does not know this and, believing that Šimon has left, joins her father who decides to emigrate to Germany as soon as he hears that the Warsaw Pact is invading Czechoslovakia. There is no happy ending: the audience is well aware that the couple may never meet again. Although the summer of 1968 is chosen as a time-frame, the overall mood—apart from the ending—is joyful. The emphasis is on the popular 1960s music, the colorful fashions, and of course the love story.

  • 21 Hames, “The Ironies,” 136.
  • 22 Ibid., 142–3.
  • 23 Přádná, “The Czech Cinema.”

15While Cosy Dens (seventh in the box office between 1991 and 2001 with over one million spectators) is not a musical, it is also richly accompanied by 1960s songs which contribute to the same joyful atmosphere that we met in The Rebels. Cosy Dens tells the story of two neighboring families, one loyal to the communist regime and the other opposed to it. While the film is set in a tumultuous epoch “there is little reference to the changes and debates of the period.”21 Instead, Hřebejk “presents the times much more in terms of the everyday experience of fairly ordinary people.”22 And as Přádná emphasizes, “[a]midst all the laughter, one almost forgets that the character must have been a loyal servant of the totalitarian regime with all its inhuman repression and atrocities.”23

  • 24 “Normalization” is the name commonly given to the period from 1969 to about 1987. It was character (...)
  • 25 “Changing coats” (in Czech převlékání kabátů) is a term for a sudden change of loyalties, usually (...)
  • 26 Anikó Imre, “Introduction: East European Cinemas in New Perspectives” in Imre (ed.), East European (...)

16Interestingly, it is the period of “normalization”24 which is treated increasingly often in contemporary Czech cinema. For example, Vladimir Michálek in The Forgotten Light (Zapomenuté světlo, 1996) focuses on an issue that is very rarely discussed: the struggle between the clergy and the communist state. Among the films appreciated by the broad audience are two others (both seen by over one million viewers) that portray the epoch of normalization—Kolya by Jan Svěrák (which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1997) and Pupendo by Jan Hřebejk. Kolya focuses on a sham marriage between a Russian woman and a Czech man. Soon after the wedding she emigrates to West Germany and leaves her son, the five-year-old Kolya, in the Czech Republic. The plot evolves around the numerous difficulties that Kolya and his stepfather face. Svěrák touches on a few issues connected with contemporary reality: the presence of Soviet soldiers in the Czech Republic, the humiliation of people who were not members of the Communist Party, the “Velvet Revolution,” “changing coats,”25 and so on. However, Kolya as a whole appears to be little more than “an easily digestible formula that employs humor and nostalgia,” as Aniko Imre believes.26

  • 27 Hames, “The Ironies,” 147.

17The story of Pupendo is similar to that of Cosy Dens. Again we see the problems faced by two families, one of them involved with the Communist Party, the other not. Bedřich, once a successful sculptor, is prevented for political reasons from working freely. Instead of making real sculptures, he produces kitsch ceramic pigs and money boxes shaped like buttocks with ears. The whole family is involved in his “business” and none of them have anything to do with politics. Míla and Magda Břečka, the other family, are both members of the Communist Party and hold respectable positions: Míla is a headmaster and Magda, Bedřich’s former student, has an important post in the artists’ union. The two families are brought together when Bedřich is given a chance to create a mosaic and later on a statue of the Soviet World War II military commander Marshal Rybalko. There are some contemporary references, for example to the radio broadcasts of the Voice of America that were widely listened to in reality. However, the portrayal of Communism and Communists, in Hames’s words, “does not extend beyond stereotypes—the featureless, characterless man who heads the union, the ’fellow travelers’ like the Břečkas, who seek to protect the children and do a little good along the way. Significantly, they do not take any major initiatives themselves.”27

  • 28 In 1990 there were still about 92,000 Soviet soldiers and officers in the Czech Republic, and anot (...)

18The transformation of the regime in November 1989 rarely emerges as a subject in Czech cinema. The few films that show archival footage or a reconstruction of the happenings date from the early 1990s. Later on, filmmakers rarely felt the need to return to the “Velvet Revolution” and subsequent events. Some references to 1989 are found in The Little Hotel in the Heart of Europe (Hotýek v srdci Evropy, 1994), Kolya, The Small Town (Městečko, 2003) and The Beginning of a Long Autumn (Začátek dlouhého podzimu, 1990). The most extensive representation of transformation, however, is to be found in It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill (Lepšie byť bohatý a zdravý ako chudý a nemocný, 1992). The story begins before a demonstration on 17 November, 1989. We witness the gatherings, the singing of the anthem, the speeches by all kinds of speakers, including archival footage. The two heroines of the film meet during one of the demonstrations: Nona is a photojournalist and Esther is one of the anonymous figures who have the opportunity to make a speech on stage. Surprisingly, this is the only film where the motif of the “destruction of barriers” appears literally, when the wire fence that used to separate the Czech Republic from its western neighbors, Germany and Austria, is severed. In another episode Soviet officers are trying to sell machine guns to the heroines. Although it was common knowledge that the Soviet soldiers who were forced to leave the Czech Republic in the 1990s tried to sell anything they could at bargain prices, this is the only scene in Czech cinema that deals with the issue.28

19A brief overview of contemporary cinema, then, demonstrates that there are not many references to the Czechoslovak past in Czech films, and that those that do appear are seldom more than superficial hints or background for melodramas or comedies. Can it be that Czech society, together with Czech film directors, is experiencing a sort of amnesia towards its recent history? A discussion of contemporary society as portrayed in recent films may help to answer this question.

CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY: A NOT-SO-BRAVE NEW WORLD

20The post-1989 cinema illustrated the advantages and disadvantages of a new political situation in comparison with the communist regime. This was particularly the case with the films made during the first five years after the “Velvet Revolution,” and sometimes later. When the benefits of the transition are portrayed—the possibility of travel, the chance to run one’s own business, freedom of speech—they are presented as obvious and natural. At the same time the filmmakers are at pains to point out that for each advantage there must always be some disadvantage: true, people travel but do not have enough money and do not know the languages; yes, many run their own business, but they do not know how to do it and are constantly cheated and trapped; indeed, there is freedom of speech, but the fear of the old days when “the walls still had ears” remains deeply embedded in many. In fact, the downsides of the new regime, including increasing unemployment, homelessness, the rising prices, and “coat-changing” are shown constantly.

  • 29 Talking about Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Eastern German cinema, Iordanova stated: “Many (...)
  • 30 All these epithets have been used in APA catalogues, see note 7.

21The films intended to depict contemporary society (about 150 in total) are usually comedies or satires.29 These genres were always prominent in Czech cinema, and as mentioned above, even a topic like the PTP, which is anything but funny, was shown in comedy instead of drama. Although it may seem strange for directors who have overnight been freed from censorship to miss an opportunity to provide a serious portrayal of their society, it is still understandable, considering the strong Czech tradition of treating any topic, even the most tragic, in a comic manner. For instance, in 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Josef Mach directed a comedy set during the German occupation of the Czech lands, called Nobody Knows Anything (Nikdo nic neví), in which two tram drivers who believe that they have killed a Nazi try to hide the body. Finally it turns out that their “victim” was drunk and simply passed out. This comedy is still popular today. When reading about contemporary cinema we rarely find films classified simply as “comedies”—the word is usually accompanied by adjectives like “musical,” “nostalgic,” “period,” “bitter,” “bittersweet,” or given the prefix “tragi-”. If it is not a comedy, it is an “ironic story” or a “grotesque reflection.”30 It sometimes feels as if the Czechs have invented a few sub-genres in order to make the majority of films fit somehow into the broad genre of “comedy.”

  • 31 České filmy, 243.

22Even if some of the comedies did not win praise from the critics, many were great popular hits. For example, by the end of 2001 Sun, Hay and Eroticism (Slunce, seno, erotika, 1991) and The End of Poets in Bohemia… (Konec básníků v Čechách…, 1993) had both been seen in ex-Czechoslovakia by nearly a million spectators, The Inheritance or Fuck-offguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb kurvahošigutntag, 1992) by about 810,000 and She Picked Violets with Dynamite (Trhala fialky dynamitem, 1992) by almost 740,000. In comparison, during the same period, of two American blockbusters shown, Jurassic Park attracted approximately 1,160,000 spectators and Titanic approximately 1,060,000.31

  • 32 Přádná, “The Czech Cinema.”

23These films treated the “Czech common man” in a far from flattering tone. Yet, as Přádná argues, “viewers were not in the least offended by this unflattering portrayal. On the contrary, they were amused and delighted, without feeling any need to identify with this distorted portrait.”32 In most of these films the Czechs are portrayed as incompetent, clumsy, but harmless creatures who have no particular gifts, but who are still able to achieve their goals in whatever way they choose.

24This concept of seemingly idiotic but in fact cunning characters reminds us of “the good soldier Švejk,” the protagonist of Jaroslav Hašek’s novel first published in 1912. He is often believed to represent the “typical Czech”: being smart, he often chooses to play the imbecile, because it makes his life much easier—when he does not want to do something, he just pretends he does not understand what he is supposed to do. However, while in some respects we might find that the characters in the films discussed below resemble Švejk, the ones above unfortunately do not show any sign of cleverness.

25Sun, Hay and Eroticism was directed by Zdeněk Troška, who so far has made exclusively fairy tales and comedies. His films are popular with audiences but less warmly received by the critics. Sun, Hay and Eroticism is the third in a series; the previous two—Sun, Hay and Strawberries (Slunce, seno, jahody) and Sun, Hay and a Couple of Slaps (Slunce, seno a pár facek)—were made in 1984 and 1989 respectively. While the earlier two comedies, set entirely in a small village in south Bohemia, depict the relationships between neighbors and colleagues, the third is about an exchange trip between Italian and Czech cooperatives. In fact, the title itself reveals that this is a post-1989 film: “eroticism” in a title was quite unimaginable for a “socialist” film. Furthermore, this film added a new motif to the trilogy: travel to the “West.”

26At the beginning of Sun, Hay and Eroticism a group of Czechs visit an Italian town to discuss modern work methods. In return they invite the Italians to the Czech Republic. As love affairs develop between Czech women and Italian men, the representations of the “locals” suggest that the Czechs are uncouth people who have no manners. According to the story, the only way the Czechs can entertain the Italian visitors is by putting on an erotic performance, and the only thing that any Czech woman desires is to marry a foreigner.

27She Picked Violets with Dynamite is so similar to Sun, Hay and Eroticism that for many people the two films blend into one indistinct compound. Both comedies depict a simple-minded suburban family challenged by contact with foreigners. The female leads of both films are played by the same actress, Helena Růžičková. Some thirty years ago she played Mrs. Homolka in a trilogy about a suburban family of the 1960s. Behold Homolka (Ecce homo Homolka, 1969), Dandy Homolka (Hogofogo Homolka, 1970) and Homolka and Pouch (Homolka a tobolka, 1972) were all directed by Jiří Papoušek, who often worked with Miloš Forman in the 1960s. His “Homolka” series is still very popular and the Sun, Hay… trilogy and She Picked Violets with Dynamite are attempts to continue this tradition of “ordinary family” stories. The latter centers on a family from a small town who decide to open a travel agency. They organize a trip to France, where they plan to find customers interested in going to the Czech Republic. Even though they succeed, the way in which they behave and handle the business is shameful. For example, when they arrive back in the Czech Republic, they realize that no accommodation has been prepared and they put the French guests up in a stable, pretending that this was the original plan.

28The End of Poets in Bohemia… is a sequel to a very successful series about “poets”—young men who occasionally write verses to attract a girl—from the 1980s. Šafránek, the protagonist, has completed his medical training but cannot find a job. He decides to open his own clinic but the banks refuse to give him a loan. He is well aware of consumerism in the new society, but is nevertheless shocked by the porn magazines in the newsstands, the slot machines in restaurants, and the advertisements everywhere. However, overcoming his initial aversion to advertising, he ends up working in the field of marketing. Over the past decade advertising has penetrated daily life; film protagonists are no longer surprised by its omnipresence (Accumulator I, 1994; Little Otik, 2001; The Trash, 2002), and the hero’s job is sometimes that of an ad man (Traps, 1998; From Subway with Love, 2005).

  • 33 NEI was founded in February 1990. It was characterized by an open approach to eroticism and was al (...)

29Political life and proliferating political parties are also used as a noticeable “marker” of the new times. Some parties appearing in films are non-existent: in The Little Hotel in the Heart of Europe a man played by Jiří Krytinař (a well-known dwarf actor, who has appeared in numerous Czech films) claims that he founded The Party of Lilliputians. In other cases the parties are real, however incredible they may sound: in Small Town a few men join the Independent Erotic Initiative (Nezávislá erotická iniciativa, or NEI)33 and win the country’s first free election. References to the Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana, or ODS), currently the most successful political party in the Czech Republic and the winner of the parliamentary election in July 2006, appeared only twice in films made after 1989. In Still a Bigger Noodle Than We Hoped for (Ještě větši blbec, než jsme doufali, 1994), the speaker addresses the non-party members as: “Ladies and gentlemen, dear ODS,” and in Small Town, the citizens, mostly members of the NEI, make jokes about the ODS poster featuring a blue bird as a symbol of the party. Since “bird” (pták) in Czech is a vulgar expression for a penis, this scene obviously ridicules the ODS. The scene could also be read as a comment on a bizarre situation in recent politics: having won the election in 1998, the ODS made a deal with its biggest rival, The Czech Social Democratic Party (Česká sociální demokracie, or ČSSD), unpleasantly surprising its own voters. The agreement applied to the whole period from 1998 to 2002 and cost the ODS many of its supporters. Consequently, the party lost the 2002 election to the ČSSD.

  • 34 Přádná, “The Czech Cinema.”

30High-level politics appears in Traps by Věra Chytilová. As Přádná pointed out, in this film Chytilová “acutely perceives the evolution of Czech society, as well as its moral decay.”34 In fact, Chytilová has been doing so throughout her career. She has always portrayed contemporary society and dealt with issues that were overlooked or tabooed, often focusing on gender issues. Traps is no exception. It tells the story of a girl who is raped and in revenge castrates the rapist and his helper. However, instead of being seen as a victim, she is condemned by society, including her friends. This is mainly due to the fact that the rapist, Dohnal, holds considerable power as a deputy to the Minister of Ecology and uses his position to present himself to the media as a victim of assault. The other issue addressed by Chytilová is corruption in high-level politics. Dohnal has close links with the businessman Bach, who persuades him to change the route of a planned highway in order to profit from building a motel and a petrol station next to it. The easily corrupted Dohnal ignores the interests of his office, preferring to cultivate a good relationship with a nouveau riche. Dohnal is also portrayed as a careerist, who moves from one political appointment to another without holding proper qualifications for any. In one scene he complains: “I shouldn’t take this ecology thing. When I was in the Ministry of Industry, we had a much better time.”

31All the films discussed in this section deal with the new issues that were brought by the new regime: private property, enterprise, travel to western countries, the clash with foreign cultures, and so on. All were made by middle-aged directors, most of whom had experience in film or television. They all focused on “simple” Czech people of limited education (with the exception of doctor Šafránek in The End of Poets in Bohemia…) and none of them was particularly surprising in form. The time for young directors to introduce new topics—sexual and racial minorities, the life of young people in the cities, the issue of drug addiction—and (sometimes) original forms, often influenced by their experience in advertising, was yet to come.

FORWARD INTO THE PAST

32How is the past referred to in contemporary settings? Surprisingly enough, instead of criticism we often find praise for different aspects of the former regime. The comparison between the past and the present makes the praise seem genuine, for example, in It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill, which portrays the lives of two heroines in the years following the 1989 “Velvet Revolution.” In one scene one of the protagonists is asked by a customer in a bar: “Did you really have such a bad time during Communism? Isn’t it true that you had meat every day? Isn’t it true that you had a job?” This seemingly insignificant remark in fact encapsulates the worries shared by many people at the beginning of the 1990s. Work was no longer guaranteed and prices were rising faster than salaries, making many long for the predictable past.

33At other times the praise is meant ironically (by the directors, not necessarily by the characters): the villagers in Sun, Hay and Eroticism, expecting the Italian delegation, try to tidy up their village. Everyone begins painting his or her house, and at one point one of the elderly ladies comments: “The Communists were great, they never expected anything.” From the point of view of this “simple” woman, involved neither with Communists nor with dissidents, the past in retrospect appears as a reasonably happy time.

34In post-1989 Eastern Europe the communist censorship contributed to the creation of a peculiar production style. Even the filmmakers sometimes voiced their disappointment with the present in comparison with the clear “rules of the game” of the past. For example, Kazimierz Kutz, a well-known Polish director, once pointed out that “there were some positive aspects to political censorship, which motivated the best artists to work harder and to speak in purely visual terms.”35 In the Czech context similar sentiments about censorship were expressed by folk singer Jiří Dědeček in his 1989 song Give me Back My Enemy (Vraťte mi nepřítele) with the refrain: “Give me back my enemy and go to hell.” The Hungarian director Márta Mészáros also pointed out the difficulties of transformation of the film industry: “When Communism collapsed and the system changed, it wasn’t easy because essentially the administration didn’t have any idea of what it should change into. They believed the old system wasn’t good, and so they destroyed the entire studio infrastructure. But the old system was good—for a small country like Hungary— in the sense that we didn’t have private producers or private distributors.”36

35The issue of censorship and artistic freedom was not only talked about, but films were also made in which the protagonists were artists challenged by various restrictions. For instance, Tomáš Vorel’s The Stone Bridge (Kamenný most, 1996) conveys doubts about the position of the artist in today’s society. To some extent, it is the autobiographical story of a film director in his “Christ years” who suffers an existential crisis. His mother produces and sells kitsch dwarf dolls on Charles Bridge (one of the most prominent sights in Prague). His father, once a successful sculptor, complains: “During Communism life was wonderful. No tourists, cops everywhere, people hidden at home. (…) Everything was falling apart and we were in our heyday.”

  • 37 Hames, “The Ironies,” 144.

36In comparison, however, retro films show an even less optimistic picture of the artist’s life in communist society. As was already mentioned, the figure of an artist forbidden to work during the period of so-called “normalization” is crucial in two films: Pupendo by Jan Hřebejk and Kolya by Jan Svěrák: “in Kolya, a professional musician (…) has been expelled from the Czech Philharmonic; in Pupendo, a monumental sculptor (…) has refused his obligatory obeisance to the regime.”37 The same topic is shown in the less well-known That Czech Song of Ours 2 (Ta naše písnička česká 2, 1990) by Vít Olmer. A gifted violinist loses his job after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 and from that moment he struggles with the monopoly agency for the employment of artists, which refuses to provide him with any work suited to his virtuosity. To do what he knows best, playing the violin, he is willing to accept the most humiliating jobs: performing for drunks in night clubs or providing the musical background for a communist official’s night-time swim. This film shows the compromises that were all too common under the previous regime.

37The anonymous agency in the film bears a clear resemblance to Pragokoncert—the monopolistic agency under the control of the Ministry of Culture that had the power to distribute positions without regard to professional qualifications. Pragokoncert was founded in 1958 to control and organize, particularly but not exclusively, performances by Czech and Slovak musicians, bands, and orchestras in foreign countries.38 The similarities between the fictional agency and the real one were noticed by the censors, and the preparations for the film, which had begun before November 1989, were “stopped provisionally.” Shooting could restart only after the change of the regime. Considering both the reality and the fictional world of films, it seems that the artists who were successful under the previous regime and able to work, although by no means without encountering obstacles, now take a rather balanced stance in evaluating pre- 1989 society, to the extent of even seeing certain advantages in working within a system that was not geared to the market. On the other hand, those who were banned from working, or faced harsh censorship and humiliation, would hardly admit that there were any advantages to creating art at the time of the communist regime. But does it really matter what regime we live under? In contemporary Czech cinema we find a few movies which show that after November 1989 nothing actually changed. Nudity for Sale (Nahota na prodej, 1993), an attempt at a thriller, focuses on human trafficking: a gang forces a couple of girls into prostitution and a journalist tries to uncover their activities. When a corrupt magazine editor refuses to publish his article, one of the characters comments: “So it will be the same as it was during Communism: a few untouchables and the rest of us.” When Šafránek in The End of Poets in Bohemia… learns that someone has informed on him he says: “I see that denouncers still exist.” In the epilogue of Corpus delicti (1991), which takes place shortly after the “Velvet Revolution,” an unsuccessful scriptwriter complains: “A new totalitarian regime has just begun.”

  • 39 Čest is an abbreviation of čest práci, meaning “homage to work.” It was a common greeting among me (...)

38Communist characters rarely appear in films, being relegated to the periphery of the filmmakers’ interest. At the beginning of the 1990s, Communists were mostly portrayed as comical figures, but since 1995 they have been largely absent. The common “clues” helping to identify a Communist are the greeting čest39 and the address soudruhu (comrade). In The Inheritance, one of the first films to reflect the new situation, the manager of a brickyard momentarily forgets about the change of regime and greets Bohouš: “Čest… I mean good afternoon.” In Sun, Hay and Eroticism a committee from a cooperative visits a family and the daughter says to her mother: “Don’t worry, the comrades are not here because of you,” to which the leader of the committee replies: “C’mon, there are no comrades any more…”

39Communists are often ironically referred to as “Comanches,” a common nickname for the members of Communist Party, as in The Inheritance, The New Breed (Sametoví vrazi, 2005), and The Little Hotel in the Heart of Europe. The story of the last film begins in the U.S., where Otík Kocián, a Czech emigrant, is watching the news on television and sees footage of the November 17th 1989 demonstration. With the fall of Communism the hotel that his family used to own is returned to him and he decides to go back to the Czech Republic to manage it. Otik happens to be an ethnographer who is doing research on the Native Americans. Advising him to return home, his mother adds: “They don’t have Comanches, though…” Her words obviously bear a double meaning.

  • 40 Juraj Jakubisko, a native Slovak, is an important figure of the Slovak New Wave of the 1960s. His (...)
  • 41 The director Jiří Krejčík in his documentary Graduation in November (Maturita v listopadu, 2000) p (...)

40A deeper and more tragic portrayal of Communists is found in Juraj Jakubisko’s40 It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill. Ester, one of the heroines, meets a member of the StB, the Czech secret police, shortly before November 1989 and falls in love with him. During one of the demonstrations following November 17th she takes the stage and tries to defend some Communists: “They are not all the same. Some of them are exactly like you and me.” Shortly afterwards a newspaper publishes an obituary with the information that her lover has committed suicide. Although it is never made clear whether it really was a suicide, this is a highly dramatic moment. The audience is invited to sympathize with Ester and her lover, even if he was obviously a wrongdoer.41

41Reflecting on the post-socialist changes, the motif of “changing coats” often appears, usually in stories about those timeserving members of the Communist Party who left after November 1989. Occasionally films were made about “dissidents” who in fact were secret agents of the Czechoslovak Secret Police (StB). The portrayal of this kind of character is identical across the genres: the motif is presented in the same way in the thriller Nudity for Sale and in the comedy The Inheritance. One of the characters in Nudity for Sale says: “The biggest bastards changed their opinion just after November 1989.” In The Inheritance a couple of lumberjacks are talking about who was and who was not a Communist. One of them claims that he was, is and will always be a Communist. Another admits that he left the Communist Party after November 1989. The devoted communist observes: “As a Communist, I wouldn’t mind if you hadn’t joined, but I do mind that you left.”

42The “invisible” continuity is exposed in another comedy with similar characters, entitled Wild Beer (Divoké pivo, 1995). The film centers on the privatization of a brewery which produces a magic beer that makes its drinkers tell the truth. The characters who drink the beer confess all their sins because they are no longer able to lie. For example, the mayor of a town reverts in his speech to familiar clichés, such as “Long live the Communist Party of the Czech Republic!” The viewers, who are likewise under the influence of the magic beer, applaud him.

  • 42 Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was president of Czechoslovakia from the beginning of its existence until 1 (...)

43We might also see the “changing coats” motif in the first film to portray the post-1989 situation, The Beginning of a Long Autumn. The story centers on an event in a small village: a statue of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garique Masaryk,42 which was removed from the main square in the late 1960s as a consequence of the 1968 invasion, is to be reinstalled. One of strongest supporters of the re-installation is the chairman of the county council, a Communist who twenty years earlier had favored its removal.

44In It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill, it becomes obvious that a man who was believed to be a dissident in fact cooperated with the StB. He denies the accusation, claiming that it is merely an attempt to discredit him. Similarly, one of the characters in Corpus delicti, who informs on his friends and causes the death of his own wife who was an active dissident, gains an influential position after November 1989 when, instead of admitting his own faults, he accuses his dead wife of cooperating with the StB. Although many similar cases were discussed in the Czech media, it seems that these two films are the last to deal with the “false dissidents.”

45In this context it is interesting to recall the malevolent portrayal of dissidents, “kulaks,” priests and other “enemies of the state” in pre-1989 cinema. They were mostly presented as people who cared only about their own wellbeing in the pursuit of money and power. This kind of hateful characterization is absent from post-1989 cinema. Those people who might have been the immediate targets—the Communists—are instead presented as comical, harmless characters. Contemporary Czech cinema prefers to make the audience laugh at the Communists and their regime rather than induce hatred or fear.

THE SINS OF THE PAST AND HOMO ECONOMICUS TODAY

  • 43 Irena Reifová, “Kryty moci a úkryty před mocí: Normalizační a postkomunistický televizní seriál” [ (...)
  • 44 The authors of an article about contemporary Czech Cinema in Cinepur coined the term “businessman’ (...)

46Correcting the “sins” of the communist regime for the population in the Czech Republic implied first and foremost the restitution of property. Some films chose to concentrate on restitution or inheritance, often featuring a fairy-tale pattern in which a lazy boy suddenly obtains a fortune. However, unlike fairy tales, they usually have a problematic ending. A happy hero is a fool who is totally incompetent; by chance he acquires great wealth or property but has no idea what to do with it. The same pattern is often used by the creators of Czech contemporary television series. The most famous of these—Life at the château (Život na zámku), Sleeping Beauty (Šípková Růženka), Seven of Spades Ranch (Ranč u zelené sedmy) and Hotel Herbich—share the same basic plot, which turns on some surprising information about a fortune. “The protagonists usually did nothing to get it,” says Irena Reifova, author of a comprehensive essay on Czech TV series.43 Comparing films with TV series, we can, however, find an important difference: while the TV series usually focus on whole families, the films concentrate exclusively on individuals. In Czech cinema the nouveau riche character is most often a lonely middle-aged man who does not find a girlfriend until he has become rich, as for instance the heroes of The Inheritance and Still a Bigger Noodle Than We Hoped for.44

  • 45 A well known song sung by Richard Müller at the beginning of the 1990s implies that happiness has (...)

47The Inheritance focuses on the story of Bohouš, a middle-aged man from a small village, who spends most of the day lying in bed. When he inherits a couple of houses, a brickyard, some land, and a large sum of money he is unable to manage his possessions wisely and does not know how to communicate either with the authorities or with the buyers. He spends most of his money treating his friends to drinks and dinners, building a luxury swimming pool behind his house, and going to the brothel. After buying a merry-go-round, he discovers that he is broke. Life in post-1989 Czechoslovakia is depicted here as chaos ruled by money and consumerism. In the last scene Bohouš learns that he inherited even more money from his father than he originally believed. He looks straight into the camera and challenges the audience: “And now I will buy all of you.” This Chytilová film stands as a harsh criticism of “early capitalism” in the Czech Republic. It ends with a feeling common in the Czech Republic at the beginning of the 1990s: if you have money you can buy anything you want.45

48At the beginning of Still a Bigger Noodle Than We Hoped for, Vít has lost both his job and his apartment. When his grandfather dies, Vít inherits a luxury hotel in Karlovy Vary, a spa with an extensive clientele. At first, the simple-minded Vít has no idea what to do, but soon develops enough savvy even to defeat some conmen who try to trick him out of his property. But this success ultimately comes to naught when he marries a gambling addict who spends all his money in the casinos.

  • 46 We can find a similar western motif in the film Once There Was a Cop 2 (Byl jednou jeden polda 2, (...)

49She Picked Violets with Dynamite, one of the first Czech films to reflect the post-1989 social environment, also focuses on business, this time on a travel agency. It begins with a melody that parodies the famous theme of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), implying that the Czechs have entered the (Wild) West of capitalism.46 The Karafiats, the protagonists of the movie, share the same feeling. They decide that “the free market has been established,” and that they should be a part of it. They manage to procure an old bus, paint cheerful motifs on it, and borrow folk costumes. Having installed a gramophone which plays Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, they set off to Paris to charm the French.

  • 47 The situation is identical in the Czech TV series: “An average family gains a huge possession as a (...)

50In the first half of the 1990s protagonists of Czech films are seen trying to start their own businesses, but their naive attempts usually fail. Sometimes they are unable to raise the necessary funds: Šafránek in The End of Poets in Bohemia… cannot even get a bank loan to establish his own office. In another instance the protagonist’s business is soon destroyed: Švanda’s farm in Which Side Eden (Návrat ztraceného ráje, 1999) burns down even before being insured. In some films the real estate that the protagonists receive becomes more of a burden than a blessing, as in case of a dilapidated hotel (The Little Hotel in the Heart of Europe), a disused factory (The End of Poets in Bohemia…), or a neglected farm (Small Town).47

51In the last decade, however, Czech cinema has tended to portray much more sophisticated and successful private enterprises. After 1995 we can finally find prospering businessmen in Czech films (Bringing up Girls in Bohemia, 1997; Traps). However, their activities often remain dubious. For example, in The New Breed all the businessmen are connected to the underworld; sometimes they are involved in downright criminal activities. One of the characters considers opening a brothel for a “foreign clientele”; another runs a sadomasochist salon. In One Hand Can’t Clap (Jedna ruka netleská, 2003), the character Zdeněk opens a vegetarian restaurant with a basement in which he organizes macabre parties serving eagle, bear meat, and even human flesh, while he makes passionate speeches a-la Hitler.

  • 48 For a short period in the late 1960s private enterprises were possible.
  • 49 Kinematografie bojující: 65 let bojů a vítězství KSČ ve filmu [Embattled cinema: 65 years of strug (...)

52Positive portrayals of businessmen are almost absent from Czech films. The current cinema thus continues in the tradition that was established before 1989: businessman, kulak, factory owner, in short anyone who runs his own business, no matter what it is, is never a positive figure. Before the Velvet Revolution the entrepreneur was usually shown as the biggest villain who needed to be expelled from society. For example, in Rough Wine (Bouřlivé víno, 1976), which depicts a small village in southern Moravia in 1968–69, we find a couple of traders who want to establish their own wholesale wine business.48 A 1986 publication gave them a surprisingly familiar “contemporary” evaluation: “As soon as they have the chance to exercise their greed, to get rich easily, to live off society, they eagerly pursue profits. Anything that brings in money is ethical for them, and devoted to this unethical ’ethic’ they will send their own daughters to the conman’s bed if they believe he has the dollars, and they keep counting how much they can earn.”49

53Although attitudes towards businessmen are often similarly critical in pre-1989 and post-1989 cinema, today it is virtually impossible to find an equally hateful description of private initiative. The businessmen in contemporary cinema are not exactly heroes, indeed they are often criminals, but hardly any of them are presented as such despicable “enemies of the state” as the heroes of Rough Wine. Contemporary businessmen appear problematic because of the way they handle business, and not simply because they run a business, as was the case in the majority of mainstream socialist production.

54Apart from inheriting or going into business, there is one more way to get rich, mainly available to women: to have an affair with a wealthy foreigner. Czech girls in contemporary cinema marry Germans (Lovers and Murderers, 2004), or have affairs with French (She Picked Violets with Dynamite) or Italians (Sun, Hay and Eroticism). Sometimes it is enough to have a relationship with a rich Czech emigrant living in Canada (It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill) or in Italy (Beauty in Trouble, 2006).

55Otherwise, women usually do not have access to fortunes and serve merely as entertainment for successful men. In post-1989 cinema, sex is treated openly. In addition to erotic scenes, Czech contemporary films are replete with brothels and prostitutes. The brothels are portrayed either as a form of enterprise (The Fountain for Susan 2, 1993; Nudity for Sale; The End of Poets…; The Little Hotel in the Heart of Europe; Seizing the Day, 1996; Bad Joke, 2002; Lovers and Murderers; The New Breed; and Playgirls, 1995) or as places where the hero finds relaxation (The Inheritance; Still a Bigger Noodle Than We Hoped for; Small Town; Post Coitum, 2004).

  • 50 The First Republic existed in Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1938, until 1935 under the presidency of (...)

56In It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill, the two heroines are not prostitutes, but pretend to be, in order to rob their “customers.” And if there is no brothel in the movie there is at least a nudist beach (Sun, Hay and Eroticism) or a sex shop (Traps). Sometimes filmmakers go as far as to imply that the new social order actually requires this kind of business. For example, in It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill, one of the characters says: “Just look around: advertisements, sex… So this is freedom…” In Nudity for Sale somebody claims that the girls who are forced into prostitution are a “democracy tax.” Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the brothel as such is by no means a new arrival in Czech cinema. Brothels were often part of the setting in earlier films that featured the First Republic.50 Of course, a hidden parallel lurked in the background of the socialist films: the First Republic, so highly appreciated by the opposition as a democratic state, was actually “rotten.” As an example we may mention The Angel or the Devil (Anděl s ďablem v těle, 1983), set entirely in the Rivière brothel where a prostitute becomes a madame.

57While many of the issues discussed in this section are not new to Czech cinema, contemporary Czech films discovered new facets of them. The businessmen, although not exactly moral heroes, are no longer rare examples, as in pre-1989 cinema. Furthermore, private enterprise per se is no longer the morally unacceptable activity it used to be before the “Velvet Revolution.” Interestingly, however, even in today’s cinema we do not find an independent businesswoman; whenever portrayed in connection with some enterprise, women feature almost exclusively as the object of “business,” often involved with the sex industry. In the rare cases in which women run their own business we often find the same pattern repeated: for example, in Playgirls the ladies run their own brothel.

US AND OTHERS: FOREIGNERS IN CZECH CINEMA

58Another topic we find quite often in post-1989 cinema is that of foreign (usually western) tourists in the Czech Republic. The frequent visits by foreign tourists to the Czech Republic (mainly to Prague) was something that the citizens were not used to under Socialism. That is not to say that there was no tourism before 1989; however, its scale was incomparably smaller than after the “Velvet Revolution.” This new situation found its reflection in the cinema. Despite being a significant economic resource, tourists are depicted almost exclusively in a negative light. Bublina in The Stone Bridge puts her disgust with tourists into the words “When I see Charles Bridge it makes me puke. The noisy tourists, the psychos. They think they can do whatever they want when they have money.” Nine years later, a similar disgust is conveyed by Laura in From Subway with Love. In an English lesson one of the students gives a clue for the word “seal”: “I am fat and spend all day lying on the beach,” at which she immediately exclaims: “German tourist.”

  • 51 In his review Jaromír Blažejovský mentions an incongruity between the language of diplomacy and th (...)

59German tourists particularly often appear in contemporary Czech cinema, frequently associated with World War II. For example, Bohouš in The Inheritance comments on a group of horse-riding Germans: “It’s two years since the Velvet Revolution and the Germans are everywhere just like during the war.” In She Picked Violets with Dynamite, one of the characters refuses to go to Germany because he was forced to work there during the War. Germans are also often connected with the sex industry. In Mandragora (1997), homosexual prostitutes are hired mainly by Germans and a blue movie that is being shot towards the end of the film is also intended for a German clientele. In Seizing the Day, the majority of clients for the female prostitutes are again Germans, which is why the heroine, Valentyna, learns their language.51

  • 52 “A typical character in Czech comedy is the covetous and ruthless businessman, often German or Jap (...)

60Despite all the negative feelings the Czechs display towards tourists, they also profit from their presence. The mother of Tomáš in The Stone Bridge sells gnome dolls on Charles Bridge and in one shot we see an English-speaking customer, implying that most of the people who are interested in these kitsch products are tourists. In Small Town, one of the heroes wishes to run a hotel because he believes that “The Germans are everywhere,” and he sees an excellent opportunity for profit. Foreigners who come to the Czech Republic on business are also often portrayed negatively in films.52 Bohouš (The Inheritance) uses a vulgar expression for the Japanese who wish to buy his brickyard while in the recent City of the Sun (Slunečni stát, 2005) Italian entrepreneurs appear as ruthless sharks, dismissing the local workers as soon as they have purchased a factory in Ostrava.

  • 53 Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe, 39.

61The topic of migration is also often discussed in Czech contemporary cinema. Unlike in other Eastern European countries, this issue was not really dealt with under the communist regime. Dina Iordanova insists that this topic “has claimed a constant presence in East Central European filmmaking, even though at times it was suppressed by censorship as a subject matter better left untouched.”53 She mentions Polish and Hungarian films as examples. In pre-1989 Czechoslovakia the situation was different and the emigration issue was usually restricted to stories of brave border guards who did not hesitate to kill “enemies of the state” who were illegally trying to cross into Austria or Germany. The Czech emigrants who return to their homeland after the change of the regime thus provide a new topic. They come back for various reasons: sometimes for a short while just to see their friends (Robert from Canada in It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill); sometimes for longer periods to manage their suddenly acquired property (Otík Kocián from the U.S. in The Little Hotel in the Heart of Europe), to try to sell an inherited house (Evžen Beneš from Italy in Beauty in Trouble), or to gain some work experience (Nancy from the U.S. in Nudity for Sale).

62In Vojtěch Jasný’s Which Side Eden (1999), the topic of emigration is central. Jan Poutnik, a film director who left Czechoslovakia after the 1968 invasion, returns to his home village to meet his friends, mostly also returning emigrants. One of them, who decides to stay in the Czech Republic after twenty-one years spent abroad, says: “America is America, but home is home.” The protagonist’s wife makes another point: “Exile is sometimes even worse than prison.” Although the returning emigrants are seldom disappointed by the new order and are often happy to be back, they generally do not return to the Czech Republic for good, preferring to stay in the countries that provided them with asylum. Poutnik’s friend is one of the rare exceptions. However, it is important to note that while Which Side Eden focuses on emigrants in their late fifties or early sixties who return to the country to “die at home,” other films mentioned above portray people in their forties who are often shown as having successful careers and decent incomes and not feeling any need to return to the Czech Republic.

63Earlier we discussed the topic of the artist in Czech cinema. Which Side Eden, where Jan Poutnik is obviously an alter ego of the director Vojtěch Jasný, sheds light on another aspect of this issue. Jasný was one of the New Wave directors, whose films were very successful both with broad audiences and with the critics. Among them was All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci, 1968), which tells the story of seven friends in a Moravian village after the Communist coup in February 1948. Believed by many to be the best Czech film ever made, it was banned “for ever” immediately after the August 1968 invasion. Jasný emigrated to Austria in the early 1970s and later to the United States, and like the protagonist of his latest film he has not been able to create any significant films since. Instead, he has focused on teaching. The majority of the directors who emigrated from Czechoslovakia after 1968 faced similar problems, including world-famous filmmakers such as Jan Němec and Jiří Weiss.

64The issues of tourism and migration are very complex and cannot be covered completely in this restricted space. We would have to consider other topics: the differences between the portrayal of “western” and “eastern” tourists and between their portrayal in contemporary and pre-1989 cinema; the motif of people who came to the Czech Republic as tourists, but decided to stay and the motif of Czech emigrants who fell in love with their “host” countries and decided not to return to their homeland; the portrayal of minorities and the difference between their portrayal today and before the Velvet Revolution. However, all this would require much more space than we can offer.

CONCLUSION

65This overview of contemporary Czech cinema has highlighted the most common themes in the films that portray the last sixty years of Czech history. Each of these would deserve a study on its own. Our aim was to introduce the recurrent motifs rather than to offer a comprehensive analysis. We saw that the majority of contemporary films focus on present-day issues, while the representation of historical periods—such as the 1950s— remains weak, especially in comparison with the films of the Czech New Wave. It is important to point out the scarcity of portrayals of the 1960s and the fact that that decade has not yet been the subject of deep reflection. Tellingly, it is the period of “normalization” that is emerging more frequently than other periods in contemporary films; however, most films concentrate on “universal” everyday life, usually eschewing general statements about political or economic realities. The representation of the contemporary social environment in Czech cinema also remains centered on anti-political everyday life, most often reduced to private dilemmas and choices. Both historical and current events are shown mainly through the lives of “ordinary people.” Czech contemporary films have a tendency to overlook grave historical truths, and national psychological traumas are often trivialized. Film directors frequently downplay the theme of opportunistic loyalty to the communist regime. We are still waiting for a drama that will portray the past regime truthfully; at the moment, laughter seems to be the only “weapon” that Czech cinema has to offer for dealing with the past.

FILMOGRAPHY

66A Little Piece of Heaven (Kousek nebe, Petr Nikolaev, Czech Republic, 2005)

67Accumulator I (Akumulátor I, Jan Svěrák, Czech Republic, 1994)

68All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci, Vojtěch Jasný, Czechoslovakia, 1968)

69Bad Joke (Kameňák, Zdeněk Troška, Czech Republic, 2003)

70Beauty in Trouble (Kráska v nesnázích, Jan Hřebejk, Czech Republic, 2006)

71Behold Homolka (Ecce homo Homolka, Jiří Papoušek, Czechoslovakia, 1969)

72Boomerang (Bumerang, Hynek Bočan, Czech Republic, 1997)

73Bringing up Girls in Bohemia (Výchova dívek v Čechách, Petr Koliha, Czech Republic, 1997)

74Corpus delicti (Irena Pavlásková, Czechoslovakia, 1991)

75Cosy Dens (Pelíšky, Jan Hřebejk, Czech Republic, 1998)

76Dandy Homolka (Hogo-fogo Homolka, Jiří Papoušek, Czechoslovakia, 1970)

77From Subway with Love (Román pro ženy, Filip Renč, Czech Republic, 2005)

78Graduation in November (Maturita v listopadu, Jiří Krejčík, Czech Republic, 2000)

79Homolka and Pouch (Homolka a tobolka, Jiří Papoušek, Czechoslovakia, 1972)

80It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy than Poor and Ill (Lepšie byť bohatý a zdravý ako chudý a nemocný, Juraj Jakubisko, Czechoslovakia, 1992)

81Joke (Žert, Jaromil Jireš, Czechoslovakia, 1968)

82Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1993)

83Kolya (Kolja, Jan Svěrák, Czech Republic, 1996)

84Larks on a Thread (Skřivánci na niti, Jiří Menzel, Czechoslovakia, 1969)

85Little Otík (Otesánek, Jan Švankmajer, Czechoslovakia, 2001)

86Lovers and Murderers (Milenci a vrazi, Viktor Polesný, Czech Republic, 2004)

87Mandragora (Wiktor Grodecki, Czech Republic, 1997)

88Nobody Knows Anything (Nikdo nic neví, Josef Mach, Czechoslovakia, 1947)

89Nudity for Sale (Nahota na prodej, Vít Olmer, Czech Republic, 1993)

90Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, Italy, USA, 1968)

91One Hand Can’t Clap (Jedna ruka netleská, David Ondříček, Czech Republic, 2003)

92Playgirls (Vít Olmer, Czech Republic, 1995)

93Post coitum (Juraj Jakubisko, Czech Republic, 2004)

94Pupendo (Jan Hřebejk, Czech Republic, 2003)

95Rough Wine (Bouřlivé víno, Václav Vorlíček, Czechoslovakia, 1976)

96Seizing the Day (, Zdeněk Tyc, Czech Republic, 1996)

97She Picked Violets with Dynamite (Trhala fialky dynamitem, Milan Růžička, Czechoslovakia, 1992)

98Small Town (Městečko, Jan Kraus, Czech Republic, 2003)

99Still a Bigger Noodle Than We Hoped for (Ještě větší blbec než jsme doufali, Vít Olmer, Czech Republic, 1994)

100Sun, Hay and a Couple of Slaps (Slunce, seno a pár facek, Zdeněk Troška, Czechoslovakia, 1989)

101Sun, Hay and Eroticism (Slunce, seno, erotika, Zdeněk Troška, Czechoslovakia, 1991)

102Sun, Hay and Strawberries (Slunce, seno, jahody, Zdeněk Troška, Czechoslovakia, 1984)

103That Czech Song of Ours 2 (Ta naše písnička česká 2, Vít Olmer, Czechoslovakia, 1990)

104The Angel or the Devil (Anděl s ďáblem v těle, Václav Matějka, Czechoslovakia, 1983)

105The Beginning of a Long Autumn (Začátek dlouhého podzimu, Peter Hledík, Czechoslovakia, 1990)

106The Black Barons (Černí baroni, Zdenek Sirový, Czechoslovakia, 1992)

107The City of the Sun (Sluneční stát, Martin Šulík, Czech Republic, Slovakia, 2005)

108The End of Poets in Bohemia… (Konec básníků v Čechách…, Dušan Klein, Czech Republic, 1993)

109The Forgotten Light (Zapomenuté světlo, Vladimír Michálek, Czech Republic, 1996)

110The Fountain for Susan 2 (Fontána pre Zuzanu II, Dušan Rapoš, Czech Republic, 1993)

111The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutentag, Věra Chytilová, Czechoslovakia, 1992)

112The Knell Won’t Be Tolled (Tobě hrana zvonit nebude, Vojtěch Trapl, Czechoslovakia, 1975)

113The Little Hotel in the Heart of Europe (Hotýlek v srdci Evropy, Milan Růžička, Czech Republic, 1994)

114The New Breed (Sametoví vrazi, Jiří Svoboda, Czech Republic, 2005)

115The Rebels (Rebelové, Filip Renč, Czech Republic, 2001)

116The Seventh Day, the Eighth Night (Den sedmý, osmá noc, Evald Schorm, Czechoslovakia, 1969)

117The Stone Bridge (Kamenný most, Tomáš Vorel, Czech Republic, 1996)

118The Tank Battalion (Tankový prapor, Vít Olmer, Czechoslovakia, 1991)

119The Trash (Brak, Karel Spěváček, Czech Republic, 2002)

120There Once Was a Cop 2 (Byl jednou jeden polda 2, Jaroslav Soukup, Czech Republic, 1997)

121Titanic (James Cameron, USA, 1997)

122Traps (Pasti, pasti, pastičky, Věra Chytilová, Czech Republic, 1998)

123The Trash (Brak, Karel Spěváček, Czech Republic, 2002)

124Where the Storks Nest (Tam kde hnízdí čápi, Karel Steklý, Czechoslovakia, 1975)

125Which Side Eden (Návrat ztraceného ráje, Vojtěch Jasný, Czech Republic, 1999)

126Wild Beer (Divoké pivo, Milan Muchna, Czech Republic, 1995)

127Wonderful Years that Sucked (Báječná léta pod psa, Petr Nikolaev, Czech Republic, 1997)

Notes

1 I would like to thank John Fackenthal for his indispensable help with the first version of this article, his many useful suggestions and his infinite patience.

2 Boca Abrhámová, “Czech Film in 1992” in Filmová ročenka/Film Yearbook 1992 (Prague: NFA, 1993), 20.

3 Details about the impossibility of covering the expenses of Czech films and about their distribution in the Czech Republic can be found in T. Dvořáková, “Rozhovor s Janem Bradáčem” [Interview with Jan Bradáč], Cinepur 12 (November 2003): 37–8.

4 Further information available at http://www.mkcr.cz/statni-fondy/fond-pro-podporu-a-rozvojceske- kinematografie/default.htm (accessed 19 January, 2006).

5 For example, in June 2006 70,953,520 CZK were distributed to forty-three projects, and in January 2006 41,160,000 CZK to forty-six projects. See http://www.mkcr.cz/scripts/ detail.php?id=225 (accessed 19 December, 2006).

6 For further details on the financing of Czech films, see A. Danielis, “Proč na tom jsme právě takhle” [Why we are in this situation], Film a doba 44 (Spring-Summer 1998): 4–6.

7 Since 1991 the Audiovisual Producers’ Association (Asociace producentů v audiovizi, or APA) has published a yearly catalog of Czech films. Information about film production from the year 1991 and forward is taken from these catalogs. The older data are taken from V. Březina, Lexikon českého filmu [The encyclopedia of Czech cinema] (Prague: Cinema, 1996). Information on how many films have been produced each year varies according to which source one uses. For example, Václav Březina claims that in 1991 ten films were produced. APA, however, listed some of them among the films made in 1992.

8 It is interesting that a similar drop in production had already occurred once in the history of Czech cinema—after World War II. While nine films were produced in 1944, only three were completed in 1945. The following year the number rose to twelve. V. Březina, Lexikon.

9 According to V. Březina, nine films were produced in 1992 and nineteen films in 1993.

10 Stanislava Přádná, “The Czech Cinema,” available at http://www.artmargins.com/content/ cineview/padna20020130.html (accessed 20 February, 2007).

11 Martin Švoma, “Je umělej!!! aneb Několik nejistých tendencí současného českého filmu” [It is Artificial!!! or Some Uncertain Tendencies in Contemporary Czech Cinema], Cinepur 12 (November 2003): 23.

12 Czechoslovak New Wave is a term used for the films made in the 1963–1968 period by FAMU students and graduates such as Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová, Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer, Pavel Juráček, Drahomíra Vihanová, Evald Schorm, Antonín Máša, and others. The literature about CNW is quite extensive; the basic works are Peter Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave (London: Wallflower Press, 2005); J. Žalman, Films and Filmmakers (Prague: Orbis, 1968); J. Škvorecký, Všichni ti bystří mladí muži a ženy: Osobní historie českého filmu [All the bright young men and women: A personal history of Czech cinema] (Prague: Horizont, 1991); S. Přádná, Z. Škápová, J. Cieslar, Démanty všednosti: Český a slovenský film 60. let: Kapitoly o nové vlně [Diamonds of common life: Czech and Slovak film in the 1960s: Chapters about New Wave] (Prague: Pražská scéna, 2002).

13 Peter Hames, “The Ironies of History: The Czech Experience” in Anikó Imre (ed.), East European Cinemas (London: Routledge, 2005), 148.

14 Ibid., 149.

15 Přádná, “The Czech Cinema.” It seems that similar experiences were shared by many East European countries. See for example Dina Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film (London, NY.: Wallflower Press, 2003), 36.

16 The Tank Battalion is considered the first Czech private film made since the nationalization of cinema in August 1945.

17 České filmy: katalog 1991–2001 [Czech Films: Catalogue 1991–2001] (Prague: APA, 2002), 243.

18 Ibid., 55.

19 Hames, “The Ironies,” 137.

20 Zdenek Mihalco, “Komunistická vězení: 4 500 mrtvých” [Communist prisons: 4,500 dead], available at http://aktualne.centrum.cz/domaci/zdravi-skola-spolecnost/clanek.phtml?id=276127 (accessed 20 February, 2007).

21 Hames, “The Ironies,” 136.

22 Ibid., 142–3.

23 Přádná, “The Czech Cinema.”

24 “Normalization” is the name commonly given to the period from 1969 to about 1987. It was characterized by initial restoration of the conditions prevailing before the reform period led by Alexander Dubček (1963–1968) and subsequent preservation of this new status quo.

25 “Changing coats” (in Czech převlékání kabátů) is a term for a sudden change of loyalties, usually with the aim of self-preservation, for example leaving the Communist Party (KSČ) after November 1989 to avoid the troubles that might have resulted from membership.

26 Anikó Imre, “Introduction: East European Cinemas in New Perspectives” in Imre (ed.), East European Cinemas, xvii.

27 Hames, “The Ironies,” 147.

28 In 1990 there were still about 92,000 Soviet soldiers and officers in the Czech Republic, and another 45,000 of their relatives. After 1989 it was decided that they would have to leave Czechoslovakia. However, it was not until June 21, 1991 that the last Soviet soldier left the country.

29 Talking about Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Eastern German cinema, Iordanova stated: “Many of these films [that dealt with new social problems] were satires, as it seemed that satire was the most appropriate tone which would reflect the situation.” Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe, 151–2.

30 All these epithets have been used in APA catalogues, see note 7.

31 České filmy, 243.

32 Přádná, “The Czech Cinema.”

33 NEI was founded in February 1990. It was characterized by an open approach to eroticism and was also involved in the sex industry. In a European Parliamentary Election in 2004 it was represented by porn-star Dolly Buster and won 0,71 %: one of its best results ever.

34 Přádná, “The Czech Cinema.”

35 Marek Haltof, “A Fistful of Dollars: Polish Cinema after the 1989 Freedom Shock,” Film Quarterly 48 (Spring 1995): 16.

36 Horton, “Ordinary Lives,” at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/22/meszaros.html (accessed 20 February, 2007).

37 Hames, “The Ironies,” 144.

38 For more information about the history of Pragokoncert, see http://www.graddo.com/index.php?id=132 (accessed 25 January 2007).

39 Čest is an abbreviation of čest práci, meaning “homage to work.” It was a common greeting among members of the Communist Party.

40 Juraj Jakubisko, a native Slovak, is an important figure of the Slovak New Wave of the 1960s. His film It’s Better to Be… was produced during the existence of Czechoslovakia, which is why it is discussed here. Since the 1990s Jakubisko has been living in Prague. His most recent films have been made in the Czech language and produced by the Czech Republic, and are thus considered here as part of the Czech cinema.

41 The director Jiří Krejčík in his documentary Graduation in November (Maturita v listopadu, 2000) portrays a similar case. In November 1989 he filmed a debate in a local high school in which students discussed political events and expressed their feelings about them. The school principal—a Communist—could not handle the confrontation with the students and committed suicide shortly after the filming. It is only speculation, but we may suppose that Juraj Jakubisko was aware of this particular case and found inspiration in it.

42 Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was president of Czechoslovakia from the beginning of its existence until 1935 (he died in 1937). He was extremely popular, and often addressed as “daddy.” In November 1989 T. G. Masaryk became one of the symbols of the “Velvet revolution.” The re-erection of his statues symbolized to many people the reinstallation of freedom in the Czech Republic.

43 Irena Reifová, “Kryty moci a úkryty před mocí: Normalizační a postkomunistický televizní seriál” [Shelters of power and hiding from power: TV series during the “Normalization” period and in post-communist times] in Jakub Končelík, Barbara Köpplová, Irena Prázová (eds.), Konsolidace vládnutí a podnikání v České republice a v Evropské uni (Příspěvky z konference konané ve dnech 31.10–2.11. 2002). II, Sociologie, prognostika a správa médií [Consolidation of governance and business in the Czech Republic and European Union: (Contributions to a conference 31.10.–2.11.2002). II. Sociology, Prognosis and Regulation of the Media] (Prague: UK FSV, Matfyzpress, 2002), 370.

44 The authors of an article about contemporary Czech Cinema in Cinepur coined the term “businessman’s comedy” for a “genre” in which they include these two titles and The Little Hotel in the Heart of Europe. According to them, “businessman’s comedies” “contain two common traits—nationalism and the distrust of business.” See Jan Křipáč, Rudolf Schimera, “Pokus o zločin: Český žánrový film 90. let” [Attempt at a Crime: Czech Genre Cinema in the 1990s], Cinepur 12 (November 2003): 24–6.

45 A well known song sung by Richard Müller at the beginning of the 1990s implies that happiness has no value: “Happiness is such a beautiful and fancy thing but you cannot exchange it for dough…” The song comes from the album Pension svět [Pension World], released in 1988.

46 We can find a similar western motif in the film Once There Was a Cop 2 (Byl jednou jeden polda 2, 1997). At the beginning of the film a policeman named Meisner returns to Prague from New York dressed in a western outfit (ten-gallon hat, cowboy jacket, leather boots). Repeatedly we hear a “western” musical motif, and to make it quite clear, one of Meisner’s admirers says, “You look exactly like a cowboy.”

47 The situation is identical in the Czech TV series: “An average family gains a huge possession as a result of a sudden miracle. It is never money, but always a valuable but rundown property or firm.” See Reifová, “Kryty moci,” 369.

48 For a short period in the late 1960s private enterprises were possible.

49 Kinematografie bojující: 65 let bojů a vítězství KSČ ve filmu [Embattled cinema: 65 years of struggle and victories of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in film] (Prague: ČSFÚ, 1986).

50 The First Republic existed in Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1938, until 1935 under the presidency of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

51 In his review Jaromír Blažejovský mentions an incongruity between the language of diplomacy and the portrayal of Germans in this film, “While the diplomats meet in palaces to declare an optimal version of an agreement between the Czechs and the Germans, Zdeněk Tyc [the director] flippantly brings into this film the odious character of a perverse German (Otto Ševčík), who represents and says the worst that ever these two nations might think about each other. In drastic, offensive humor we get a genuine look at the Czech-German animosity (amplified by the context of ’selling love’) that was brushed under the diplomatic carpet.” See Jaromír Blažejovský, “Tycova (ne)nahota na prodej (O jedné diskontinuitě)” [Tyc’s (un)nudity for sale (About one discontinuity)], Film a doba 42 (1996): 78–9.

52 “A typical character in Czech comedy is the covetous and ruthless businessman, often German or Japanese. This is particularly the case with the foreign investor who wants to buy as much Czech property as he can.” Křipáč, “Pokus,” 25.

53 Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe, 39.

Auteur

Petra Dominková (b. 1972) is a lecturer at the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and teaches at the East and Central European Studies (ECES) program at Charles University, Prague. She is currently enrolled in postgraduate studies at FAMU. Her research interests include Czech and Eastern European cinema, feminist film theory, and film noir.

© Central European University Press, 2008

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