Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – The Czechoslovak New Wave

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, with a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. A few months ago I devoted a column to cinematic ‘New Waves’: the national film movements that tore apart cinema’s rulebook and revolutionised the way stories could be told. My personal favourite of these New Waves is the one that originated in Communist Czechoslovakia during in the 1960’s. Out of these, perhaps surprising, origins came an absolutely dizzying burst of creativity and imagination, which burnt brightly for nearly a decade before being stamped out by the authorities. For years now Second Run have been the UK’s caretaker of this movement, releasing nearly all of its classic titles on DVD. This month continues that tradition, with their release of All My Good Countrymen. First though, I’ll be taking a look at The Firemen’s Ball and Closely Observed Trains, the first Czechoslovak New Wave classics to be released on Blu-Ray in the UK, both of which have been recently released by Arrow.

The Fireman’s Ball (Blu-Ray & DVD, Arrow)
Before he departed for America and made his name with films such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, director Milos Forman was developing his craft producing realist comedies in his native Czechoslovakia. Films of his such as the wonderful A Blonde In Love stood out for their interest in the lives of everyday people, which Forman was able to depict with a sharply observed yet tender humour. The last of these films, The Firemen’s Ball, was one of his best, but also managed to displease the authorities so much that it was officially ‘banned forever’. On initial glance it might seem difficult to understand why the film provoked such a severe response. The film itself is a gentle comedy about elderly firemen attempting to organise a small town ball, but being continually undermined by their own ineptitude and ridiculousness. The men fancy themselves as important figures of respectability, yet everything they turn their hand to over the course of the evening descends into anarchy. The raffle prizes go missing one by one, the beauty contest devolves into a lecherous shambles, and the commemorative firemen’s union banner they raise promptly bursts into flames.

The Firemen’s Ball is a film about things falling apart then, but more importantly it’s a fantastic comedy about people. Absolutely key to the film is the naturalistic performances at its heart, which Forman encouraged by working exclusively with non-professional actors, and often by including only the most awkward, uncertain takes in the final film. Furthermore, Forman and his crew shot many scenes at a distance, meaning the actors were forced to remain in character as they couldn’t be sure if they were on camera or not (a technique famously later used by Robert Altman in Hollywood). The result is a film without an ounce of sheen on it. Everything feels clumsy, bumbling, and dishevelled. In other words, everything feels completely normal and believable, and the comedy works because of it. What’s really remarkable though is just how well it all works. Non-professionals the actors may be, but there’s a great assortment of genuinely funny performances here, and it’s a pleasure just meandering through the village hall and taking in the gradually unfolding chaos.

Given the fairly straightforward nature of its narrative, The Firemen’s Ball leaves itself wide open to interpretation. At its heart this is a film about the futility of idiotic men trying to assert their authority, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that many interpreted the film as being a critique of the Communist authorities. Forman himself avoided confirming such a reading, but once seen it’s hard to un-see, and it certainly lends the film a rewarding extra dimension. Even without this however, The Firemen’s Ball is a film from which nobody emerges looking especially positive, and it soon earned the wrath of the censors. Filmmakers around the world have always struggled with censorship, but in 1960’s Czechoslovakia a wrong move could be ruinous. It’s a sad fact that the only reason Forman went onto become a prominent director, or even that he got to continue making quality films in the first place, was because he fled his home country to work in Hollywood instead. Many of his colleagues weren’t so lucky, and the Czechoslovak New Wave is littered with wonderful directors with disappointingly short, but brilliant, careers.

There’ve been very few Czechoslovak New Wave films released anywhere in the world on Blu-Ray, and as such we’ve rarely seen many special features dedicated to the movement before. This disc does a great job of leading the way, with a bunch of features that not only introduce the film, but also the movement itself. An appreciation by Czech film expert David Sorfa grounds the film in its historical context, as well as offering detailed analysis of the film’s key scenes, with an appropriately thorough focus on the acting. Meanwhile, the feature ‘New Wave Faces’ knowledgeably discusses the many non-professionals who appear in this film, and along the way acts as an entertaining primer to the Czechoslovak New Wave in general.

Closely Observed Trains (Blu-Ray & DVD, Arrow)
Set in wartime Czechoslovakia, Closely Observed Trains concerns the employees of a local train station living under the shadow of Nazi occupation. The Nazis have already begun to lose the conflict by now, though they take great pains to explain to the train station staff how in reality it’s all part of a much more ingenious tactical retreat. A small handful of the station workers though, eager to play their part in further speeding up this retreat, decide to resist their occupiers, and initiate a plan to blow up an incoming Nazi ammunition train. Except…Closely Observed Trains isn’t really about any of this at all. Life and death conflicts may be unfolding around them, but the characters of Closely Observed Trains remain primarily fixated on petty squabbles, status, and sex. Primarily sex.

There was an expectation in 1960s Czechoslovakian cinema that figures of the anti-Nazi resistance would be depicted as noble heroes. Closely Observed Trains is a film that defiantly does not do this, and instead elects to show them as just regular human beings. Awkward teenager Milos (Vaclav Neckar) eventually gets sucked up in the resistance fight, but his primary objective throughout remains losing his virginity. Milos is the very opposite of your typical protagonist, a character who spends the bulk of the film reacting to events rather than initiating them, all the while retaining an expression akin to a disorientated puppy dog. He’s also extremely likeable, which can be said about pretty much all of the characters of Closely Observed Trains. They may be flawed, but there’s a warmth and generosity in the way the film depicts them that’s genuinely sweet and refreshing.

Closely Observed Train’s other finest feature is just how funny it is. None of the staff at the station ever seem especially busy, allowing the plot plenty of time to meander into their various humorous squabbles and schemes. The result is a wartime film that focuses on the events most other wartime films would leave out. Many of the film’s most powerful moments though come when the film’s sleepy narrative is intruded upon by the chaos of the outside world. There’s something really powerful and surprising about a train filled with corpses suddenly arriving in the midst of what is primarily a light-hearted sex comedy, and Closely Observed Trains knows how to play effectively with such contrasts.

The Blu-Ray release features a new 4k restoration of the film, recently carried out by the Czech National Film archive. I’d always been aware that Closely Observed Trains was a nice looking film, but until seeing this restoration hadn’t realised quite how much. This is an absolutely beautifully photographed film, that’s well worth seeing in HD. In terms of features, this disc features a much welcome discussion from Peter Hames, who is widely considered the English language’s greatest expert on Czech cinema. A key part of the Czechoslovak New Wave was also its close links with literature, which is nicely explored here in a short feature focusing on novelist Bohumil Hrabal. Closely Observed Trains is one of world cinema’s sweetest and most big-hearted films, and it’s been a very long time since it’s looked this good.

All My Good Countrymen (DVD, Second Run)
If you’ve ever encountered a Czech or Slovak film on DVD, it’s a safe bet that the film was released by Second Run. With most of the acknowledged classics of Czech and Slovak cinema already in their catalogue, the company have now moved onto releasing some of the lesser known gems from these two nations. This has often led to some absolute treasures, such as Pictures of the Old World, which we reviewed back in February. All My Good Countrymen also fits into this category, as well as being another of those titles that I’d heard about but assumed I’d never, ever get to actually see.

Sometimes you can only really appreciate something enormous by looking at it through the lens of something tiny. This is a lesson All My Good Countrymen understands well, as it tackles sweeping historical and political changes from the perspective of a single village. When the village shakes off the Nazi occupation its inhabitants are initially jubilant, but it soon becomes apparent that the new Communist powers won’t be allowing things to return to the status quo. Several of the villagers sign up with the party, sensing an opportunity to quickly gain power and influence. Meanwhile, the majority of the villagers, led by the quietly heroic Frantisek, reject the new authority’s attempts to impose controls on their way of life. There’s never any doubt where the film’s sympathies lie in this conflict, and as such it’s no surprise at all that the film ended up as yet another addition to the New Wave’s list of banned films.

Outside of the film’s politics though, All My Good Countrymen also paints a wonderfully sweeping portrait of everyday life. We follow the ensemble cast in a story that flies through 15 years of gradually unfolding drama. The film’s setting may be small, but it paints it in big broad strokes, dropping in and out of the character’s lives as they go through the turmoil of a country going through great change. The story’s expansive time-frame of course also allows us to see a huge number of events too, from hopeful weddings to inevitable funerals. Throughout all of this what leaps out is the honesty with which the film depicts the ebb and flow of life. To make the film, director Vojtech Jasny reportedly drew on his personal experiences, including his mother’s memories of village life. This shows in the vision of existence we see here, which is one defined by frequent sorrows, but also by laughter. We see plenty of death and misery in the film yes, but it’s constantly held in contrast with the film’s sense of humour. It’s this intriguing mix of light and dark that gives All My Good Countrymen much of the character that makes it so memorable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film about village film, All My Good Countrymen is also a film that feels remarkably in touch with the seasons. Stark wintery fields give way to vibrant summers, which the film’s lyrical cinematography thankfully finds plenty of time to linger on. Nature itself becomes a key character in All My Good Countrymen, and crucially, the only one of the film’s characters that remains indifferent to the vast political changes occurring around it. This is critical to the film’s vision of life – people dream, people die, seasons come go and on, everything moves ever forwards. Distant authorities, whether they be Nazi or Communist, may appear from beyond the fields and attempt to impose their order, but nature and the rich customs of the village remain largely the same. All My Good Countrymen is a moving and ambitious depiction of life, and another excellent addition to Second Run’s catalogue.