The Czech New Wave is perhaps the most overlooked national movement in the history of cinema. This paper gives the historical background and context of the Czech New Wave. During this time, in the late 1960s, Czechoslovakia was under stifling Communist control, and the New Wave filmmakers rebelled against this oppression by creating expressive works with a social conscience. The government banned many of their films and even forced some of the filmmakers out of the country. This was a distinctly Czech movement, but it also reflected trends in other national cinemas of the time. The Czech New Wave films are not easily categorized or definable. There are not really any common characteristics that are shared by all, except that they focused on diversity, emotions, personal expression, and social commentary.
One of the most important and popular films of the period is Jiri Menzel’s Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains, released in 1966. The film is so successful because it combines aspects of many genres, such as comedy, coming of age, and suspense, while still maintaining a traditional Hollywood linearity. The characters are interesting and three-dimensional, especially train dispatcher Milos, the young, self-conscious, confused protagonist. The film is visually and aesthetically stunning, and its seemingly straightforward narrative approach is deceptively brilliant in its deeper complexities.
At the end of this paper, I share some personal insights about my time at Columbia and my thoughts on various questions raised by cinema, such as author films versus Hollywood films, the moral responsibilities of filmmakers, and my opinions on the Czech New Wave and what I learned from it.
During the 1960s, Americans tackled the free speech movement, the civil rights movement, a cultural revolution, and the Vietnam War. However, the decade was characterized by social upheaval worldwide, and the Czech New Wave emerged as a result of the tension that gripped the country due to Communist control. “In the 1960s something interesting happened in Czechoslovakia. Artists started to realize that the aesthetics of social realism contrasted with the realities of their everyday lives…The films of the so-called Czech New Wave rose as a movement in response to the political and historical reality of Czechoslovakia” (Buchar 9). These filmmakers recognized the inherent dangers in Socialist Realism, which “is best understood in negative terms: by replacing genuine realism with an appearance of realism it prevents the contemplation of the human condition and the investigation of social issues” (Kenez, “Soviet” 55). The proponents of Socialist Realism simply hope that the art will act as a pacifier for the masses. Maybe if they see it in films and other artwork enough, they will start to believe it. Basically, the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave challenged the system and bravely exposed reality.
When discussing national film movements, perhaps none is more difficult to define than the Czech New Wave. There are no specific features that all of the films have in common, so the movement is really characterized by this diversity. For instance, Closely Watched Trains expresses a very basic story, while Vera Chytilova’s The Fruit of Paradise requires multiple viewings to even begin to break its code. Also, the filmmakers valued the emotional quality of art. These films tend to emphasize feelings more than typical narrative conventions. Unlike today’s greedy society, these directors made films for the sake of art and not to make money. They worked because they enjoyed it, and these filmmakers often collaborated on each other’s projects and formed a close and intimate community. In such a turbulent time, the Czechs never lost their sense of humor and “created a cinema of sharply observed social comedy” (Ellis 294). Comedy fused with allegory and satire to produce works such as Daisies and Report on the Party and the Guests. Some films take a more serious approach while still managing to comment on the problems in society, such as Diamonds of the Night. While the government tried to impose conformity on the country, the Czech New Wave celebrated individuality and self-expression.
According to Josef Skvorecky, “I am convinced that the reason Jiri Menzel did such a superb job with Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains lies in the fact that he himself is essentially Milos Hrma, the shy apprentice who unsuccessfully tries to make love to the pretty conductress Masa” (161). It seems that Menzel’s motivation to make the film stemmed from a personal attachment to the story and a sense of empathy with the characters. Additionally, he used the film to comment on the futility of war. “It is in subverting the stereotypes, showing everyone as human, war as absurd, and heroism as accidental that the film contrives to be both reassuring and thought-provoking” (Hames 179). Clearly, Menzel recognized the influential nature of film and the accompanying moral issues. Closely Watched Trains does not impose morality on the viewer forcefully; rather, it cleverly initiates a thought process by which the viewer will remember Menzel’s message. By diminishing the significance of the war in the film, he offers his criticism and passes moral judgment, effectively denouncing war and also any sort of totalitarian regime.
In spite of the comedic aspects, Closely Watched Trains also resembles a drama. For example, Milos is deeply tortured by his condition of premature ejaculation, and he struggles constantly with his insecurities. The ending of the film is certainly tragic, although that depends on how the viewer interprets Milos’ death. This film also functions on a suspenseful level, especially in the final scenes with the hearing for Hubicka’s behavior coinciding with the arrival of the doomed ammunition train. Most of all, Closely Watched Trains falls into the category of a coming-of-age film. During the course of the film, Milos must grow up and deal with his sexual issues and lack of self-confidence. It deals very candidly with the pressures of entering adulthood. At the beginning, Milos can barely speak to a woman, but at the end, he finds the courage to defy the Nazis and blow up a train, even if it results in his death. His inner journey to find peace, happiness, and self-discovery propels the story and matters more than the surrounding war. By including several different genre types and modifying them to suit the story, Closely Watched Trains offers something for every viewer.
Even though Closely Watched Trains seems like so many other films in its narrative structure, it is completely unique in its sensitive and honest treatment of the characters. Also, it stands out due to its gorgeous visual style, intelligent sense of humor, and thoughtful examination of humanity. Most importantly, this film just tells a story well, better than most films, and its simplicity is touching. Compared to other Czech New Wave films, Closely Watched Trains marks a distinct contrast, which probably accounts for its international acceptance. Many of the other films rely on an experimental style that involves disruptive editing, a frantic use of the camera, and a bombardment of images and sounds, like Daisies or The Fruit of Paradise. They often avoid conventional narrative storytelling at all costs, much like Diamonds of the Night. Closely Watched Trains differs from other Czech New Wave films because of its purity, simplicity, and the emphasis on a script and a story.
All in all, the Czech New Wave is one of the most fascinating and complex movements in film history. It developed quickly as a result of the political and social atmosphere and initiated a period of unabashed originality. Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains still resonates today as a powerful and poignant representation of the period’s intense creativity. Unfortunately, the Czech New Wave is also one of the most underappreciated movements, barely even mentioned in film history textbooks. Conditioned by the blatant nature of Hollywood that requires no imagination whatsoever, many people are simply unwilling to devote any energy to understanding these demanding films. For people willing to make the effort, though, the Czech New Wave films offer a completely unusual and rewarding experience that allows the viewer to glimpse the tumultuous history of Czechoslovakia.