GoCritic! Opinion: Czech cinema - dead in the water?
by Daniel Mohr
- A small reminder that Czech cinema is not only what you see at Karlovy Vary or in your local arthouses. Unfortunately.
There can be no doubt that the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) is the Czech Republic’s film event of the year. One of the most prestigious such showcases in the wider region, KVIFF annually celebrates filmmaking from all over the world with different sections and three competitions. At the same time, however, the event provides a handy update on the state of the domestic film industry—and currently serves as a reminder of how poorly it has been doing for quite some time now. I am writing this article as someone who applied to the top Prague film-school FAMU in the past and who still dreams of becoming a part of a cultural heritage I have grown to love. What I offer here is my personal view on the current state of decay in which this once great industry finds itself.
There are several indicators that Czech film has fallen out of favour abroad in the recent years. For example, it has been fifteen years since the last foreign language Oscar nomination and twenty-two since the last win. Not a single domestic film has won a Palme d’Or or Golden Lion for over seventy years—during the Czechoslovakian period—while the 1990 Golden Bear was awarded for Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String (1969) after the film was shelved for twenty-one years for political reasons.
One might conclude there’s something about this small country that everyone somehow despises. But I have a different explanation. The majority of recent Czech films are quite simply borderline unwatchable; it might therefore actually be a good thing that no else ever sees them. But why is this the case?
As it is with most of our problems in life, Nazis and Communists are to blame. It is widely known that the former Czechoslovakia had quite a history with these two political phenomena, and traumas from the past have been haunting our society ever since. Czech filmmakers like to remind us of this by constantly and exhaustingly setting their films in these particularly dramatic time-periods. Their plots are often based on true events and full of repetitive clichés and messages about freedom and the importance of history.
It is true that these stories are crucial and should not be forgotten, and that some of the more successful and acclaimed recent films deal exactly with the same themes and topics—such as Burning Bush [+see also:
film profile] (2013), A Prominent Patient [+see also:
film profile] (2016) or Dukla 61 (2018). Part of the reason for these films’ success is support from the national film fund and the fact they are often directed by more seasoned filmmakers who have more or less managed to follow up on the success of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s in the post-revolution period.
But as the scene is increasingly dominated by directors who did not live through these events and who thus lack personal experience, their films are subsequently not as convincing—examples of this are Filip Renč’s The Devil's Mistress [+see also:
film profile] (2016) and Radim Špaček’s The Golden Sting [+see also:
film profile] (2018). These films rank among the most expensive in the country’s history, offering stunning visuals and production values comparable with those in the West. At the same time, however, they unfortunately suffer from terrible screenplays and an unimaginative attitude towards their chosen subject matter, which usually feels as it has been executed in superior ways countless times before. For a local audience member, they serve as yet another reason to think that Czech cinema is stuck in an endless cycle of fixation upon the past.
Not all films have the budgets of period biopics, however, which is why current majority of directors make social comedies and dramas. And this is where the real problem arises. These genres were, of course, also hugely popular in the last century and introduced Czech humour to the whole world. Back then, during social and cultural oppression from above, films like Loves of a Blonde (1965), Capricious Summer (1968) and My Sweet Little Village (1985) offered a realistic and human insight into the society of the time. At the same time, courageous projects like All My Compatriots (1969) or The Ear (1970) openly criticised the communist regime and functioned as a beacon of hope in the midst of state propaganda. Despite censorship and their restricted releases, these films became legendary; with their honesty and humanity gained acclaim throughout the world.
It’s ironic, then, that now, in an age of artistic freedom and democracy, today’s films have reduced such genres to infantile jokes, often featuring blatant sexism and embarrassingly unrealistic romantic plots. Strangely enough, however, as the box office numbers from recent years confirm, it is exactly this kind of film that attracts and connects with current Czech viewers the most, in spite of hostile critical reactions. As a result, these productions have nothing to offer international audiences; the industry thus encloses itself in an impenetrable bubble isolated from the outside world. Chasing Fifty (2015), Stuck with a Perfect Woman (2016), Špindl (2017), What Men Long For (2018) and LOVEhunt (2019) are all cases in point: If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Obviously, not all new films are necessarily bad. The winner of Karlovy Vary’s main competition in 2017, Little Crusader [+see also:
interview: Václav Kadrnka
film profile] was well-received by critics — but this did not translate to box office sucess. Away from fictional features, domestic filmmakers have managed to establish themselves as capable documentarists — such as Helena Třeštíková and Olga Sommerová — while the animation scene also had its successes. Possibly even more importantly, the industry has been recently teaming up with international film and TV producers: Anthropoid [+see also:
film profile] (2016), Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit [+see also:
film profile] (2019), plus TV shows Knightfall (2017-2019) and Carnival Row (2019). It is clear that the potential and skills are there. But the standards and quality have fallen so low that Czech film has been crippled beyond repair. As a result, this will unfortunately discourage a lot of potential filmmakers, who could be the next "wave" and who could put us back on the map. Indeed, it has nearly scared me off too. I can offer no miracle solution about how to fix the situation, nor can I honestly aver this is just a temporary phase that will simply blow over, because it won’t—at least not as long as the trend of cheap TV-quality comedies continues to making money (and it will). But I have stories to tell and enough passion to truly believe that I can make a difference if given the opportunity. Fans of quality films are still out there; they are hungry for engaging stories and cinema at its boldest, just like it used to be. And it's about time that their appetites were satisfied.
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