There couldn’t be a better time to dive into the gems of the Czechoslovak New Wave, associated with directors like Jan Němec and animator Jan Švankmajer. Multiple streaming platforms have programs dedicated to this movement, produced during Czechoslovakia’s brief political thaw in the 1960s. These films embodied the innovative avant-garde spirit of FAMU, Prague’s prestigious film school. (One apocryphal anecdote claims Orson Welles said that one can’t teach directing, except maybe at FAMU.) Here are some great films to start with.
Loves of a Blonde (1965)
Most Americans likely know Miloš Forman for the Oscar-sweeping One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) or the infamous biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), but the early films he made in his home country are must-see delights. In this one, a young woman, Andula (Hanna Brejchová), works at a provincial factory, where the social scene of dusty dance hall parties isn’t particularly promising, until she meets a young pianist. After he leaves, Andula decides to follow her one-night stand to the city, surprising him and his family. It’s a tender, ironic look at gender differences and the complicated economic situation young Czechs faced at the time.
No single film encapsulates this movement’s brazen spirit of experimentation like Vera Chytilová’s cinematic kaleidoscope, which often plays out like a performance piece. Two young women lure men into taking them out to dinner by posing as submissive schoolgirl stereotypes. With their subsequent anarchic antics, gorging excessively and wrecking parties, they call out society’s narrow construct of womanhood as a farce. Watch this not just for the two brilliant lead performances (from nonprofessional actresses), but also Ester Krumbachová’s fantastic costumes and Jaroslav Kucera’s inventive cinematography, with its jump cuts, abrupt color changes, and inserts of experimental animation.
The Cremator (1969)
Released one year after Warsaw Pact armies marched into Prague, stifling oppression is felt everywhere in Juraj Herz’s grotesque tale, tinged with dark absurdist humor. A sublimely chilling Rudolf Hrušinský plays Kopfkringl, a calculating crematorium manager who believes he’s bringing salvation to humankind through death. Stanislav Milota’s cinematography is another highlight, with its distorted lenses and unusual camera angles.