Les États généraux du film documentaire 2011 Doc History: Czechoslovakia

Doc History: Czechoslovakia


In 2008, the "Doc Route" programme presented recent documentaries from Czech Republic and Slovakia. In spite of differences of style and approach, all the films drew from a particular documentary tradition. Drawing from films made between 1918 and 1992, "Doc History" proposes this year to analyse how this film tradition was forged.

Like in other European countries, Czechoslovakian documentary grew up under the double influence of avant-garde films and newsreels. In the twenties, newsreels occupied an important place in the cinema programme and, specially in Prague, artistic and cultural circles were catalysts of creativity in all arts, including film. At the end of the twenties and during the thirties — a period of political and economic turbulence but social and cultural stability —, a certain number of films were produced, not in great quantity, but of undeniable quality. In Prague Illuminated by Millions of Lights by Svatopluk Innemann (1928) and We Live in Prague by Otakar Vávra (1934), we find examples of the "city symphonies" which attracted other filmmakers of the time. Aimless Walk by Alexander Hackenschmied (1930) seems directly inspired by the impressionism of Joris Ivens in his film Rain. Light Penetrates the Dark by Otakar Vávra and František Pilát (1930) as well as The Magic Eye by Jiří Lehovec (1939) follow the lines of experimental film developed by Man Ray or Walter Ruttmann. During this period, we can nonetheless observe an evolution towards more poetic, more lyrical films and the emergence of films showing more social interest. The Land Is Singing by Karel Plicka (1933), a poetic and musical homage to Slovakian landscapes, recovers from this tradition. At the same period, filmmakers like Jiří Weiss in 1938, are forced into exile and express greater commitment in their view of the country.
In 1938, after the Munich Agreement, the Czechoslovakian Republic lost Sudetenland to the Third Reich, and the country was split during the Second World War. Film production did not entirely cease but was limited essentially to newsreels and reports as well as officially acceptable portraits and scientific films. Otakar Vávra managed to compile a montage film devoted to Nazi occupation and Czech resistance. With The Way to Barricades (1946), he made an exceptional document on life under occupation, the country's liberation and the return of the exiled President, Edvard Bene. While the enthusiasm and patriotism may seem today a little excessive, the power of the film resides in the quality of its editing and in the events it reveals.

The Communist takeover in February 1948 marked the beginning of the era of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia. Film production was then in the service of State ideology, which limited neither the growth nor the quality of production. War and reconstruction were recurrent themes in the documentaries of the forties and fifties. Some films are powerful testimonies to Nazi barbarity. Karel Kachyňa and Vojtěch Jasný's There Are Not Clouds All the Time (1949) is a typical film on the reconstruction of, in this case, rural Moldavia, adopting a highly original approach mixing professional and non-professional actors. In spite of the propagandistic tone of the film, the two directors display their talent through the editing and mastery of film language.

Miro Bernat used the drawings of Jewish children to recount the horrors of life in the camps of Theresienstadt. Butterflies Don't Live Here (1958) is at once poetic and poignant. Pavel Háša's Lidice (1965) is a testimonial to unlimited barbarity. This indispensable film recounts the tragic fate of a Czech village, Lidice, totally razed in June 1942 by the Germans who shot all the men and many of the women.
During this period, other films demonstrated the quality and creativity of some directors. Reworking the principle of crossing a town borrowed from some avant-garde films, People and Hot Dogs by Pavel Blumenfeld (1948), communicates a tender and ironic viewpoint on the inhabitants of Prague. Other films respond more overtly to their mission as propaganda (Štefan Uher et Štefan Köszeghy's Očami kamery, 1959) or turn to scientific subjects (Bohumil Vošahlík's What We Know About Light, 1954) displaying perfect cinematic mastery. The poetic and metaphoric film, The Story of the Old River by Jiří Lehovec (1957), relating history and life around the Vlata River, is attached to this tradition.

The sixties were marked by political relaxation and censorship became less strict. This led to an explosion of creativity giving birth to the Czech New Wave; the reputation of Czech cinema spread far beyond the country's borders. The excellent Czech film school, FAMU, played a key role training filmmakers such as Věra Chytilová and Miloš Forman. Mostly known for their fiction films, they also directed a few documentaries. Věra Chytilová immediately displayed her originality with A Bag of Fleas (1962) in which she affirmed the free style of Daisies (1966). Miloš Forman's film Talent Competition (1963) is in the same tone whereas the talented Radúz Činčera made the astonishing film It's My Bucket (1963) which can be read either as an apology of state ideology or a ferocious yet implicit critique. With Fog (1966), built with excerpts from the theatre of the absurd, Radúz Činčera proposed an impressionistic but no less critical film. An other surprising film, Citizens with Coats of Arms, Vít Olmer's first film (1966), analysed the place of the old aristocracy in Czech society of the sixties. Many of these films were shelved in 1968 only to reappear after 1989.

The repressive violence which put an end to the Czech Spring as witnessed by films such as Evald Schorm's Confusion (1968) or Jan Němec's Oratorio for Prague (1968), snuffed out this freedom of tone without completely restraining the creativity of filmmakers. The subject matter became distinctly less polemical, but artistic quality was still there. Some scientific films (Lux arte facta, Václav Hapl, 1977), some portraits of artists (Dialog, Pavel Koutecký, 1981), or films on social subjects (S tebou, táto, Olga Sommerová, 1981, or Time Is Merciless, Věra Chytilová, 1978 ), not to forget Dušan Hanák's masterpiece, Pictures of the Old World (1972), all show the continuity in the cinematic quality of production, as much from the point of view of cinematography and montage as in the way the subjects were approached.

The filmmaker who probably made the greatest mark on the last decades of Czechoslovakian documentary was Jan Špáta. First, cameraman for Evald Schorm, he then adopted an observational style in Railway Men (1963), a poetic film on rail workers, and he also tried his hand at "cinéma vérité" with Why? (1964). Jan Špáta moves easily from one register to another. In 1964, he directed an essay in "cinéma vérité", The Greatest Wish, which he took up again and finished twenty-five years later (The Greatest Wish II, 1990): two eloquent films on the desires of young people and their evolution over twenty-five years. Jan Špáta's films are marked by extremely carefully crafted cinematography together with a humanist sensibility: Respice finem (1967) is about the solitude of old women and not exempt from a touch of irony. Thus Easter in Mexico (1971) could be a simple travelogue but unrolls as a completely unique cinematic work thanks to the surprising creativity of its director.

We cannot close this "Doc History" programme without a film by Karel Vachek, of whom we screened two films in 2008. The first is part of the four-film series Little Capitalist. New Hyperion or Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood (1992) is a cinematic unidentified object: a collage of apparently insignificant details with the great moments of recent Czechoslovakian social, political and cultural history. Displaying little fear of contradiction, Karel Vachek appears as an inimitable narrator of modern times, in particular that of the end of the communist era and the advent of democracy.

Kees Bakker

For the first time this year, the CNC Heritage department is collaborating with the États généraux du film documentaire to organise the projection of a film from the French Film Archives: Jan Špáta's Easter in Mexico. This first contribution to "Doc History" testifies to the collaboration established between the documentary services at Bois d'Arcy and the Lussas Festival programmers, a partnership destined to become stronger in the coming years.

Presentation and debates by Kees Bakker (Jean Vigo Institute), in the presence of Olga Sommerová (under reserve).


Thanks to Vladimir Opela, Karel Zima and their colleagues at the Czech Republic's National Archives (NFA) and the Slovakian Film Institute (SFÚ) as well as to the CNC Heritage Department.