Avant-Garde to New Wave: Czechoslovak Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties

Feb 26th, 2013


The French New Wave was not the only new wave of the 1960s: during a temporary loosening of the Communist regime’s hold on culture, Czechoslovakia had its own new wave that produced films just as beautiful, witty, exciting, innovative and thought-provoking as the French. The 1960s saw two Czechoslovak winners of the foreign language Oscar: The Shop on Main Street in 1965 and Closely Observed Trains in 1967. Like the French New Wave filmmakers, Czech New Wave directors such as Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová and Jan Němec were well-versed in film history. Although Communism had restricted their access to more recent international trends in film, philosophy, politics, art and literature, during the 1960s Czechoslovak students, artists and intellectuals had greater access to contemporary movements and ideas and embraced them enthusiastically. The country was also able to reconnect with its own artistic and cultural past, formerly repressed by Communism: one major example is the work of Kafka, another is the Prague Surrealist Group, which had continued to flourish underground since the Nazi occupation of the 1940s.

For English speakers, Czechoslovak New Wave cinema has become more and more accessible of late. Since its launch in 2005, Second Run has released new DVDs of classic New Wave titles every year, including Diamonds of the Night, A Blonde in Love, Larks on a String, The Party and the Guests, Intimate Lighting, Daisies and Marketa Lazarova.

Meanwhile, those interested in learning more about the history of the New Wave, and reading illuminating analyses of its films, could turn to comprehensive volumes by Peter Hames, such as The Czechoslovak New Wave (2005) and Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition (2010). Hames has provided a much-needed English-language overview of the Czech New Wave, but in many respects the Czech New Wave remains under-explored. Similarly, there are limited resources available in English on twentieth-century Czechoslovak avant-garde movements such as Devětsil and Poetism, or the Czech Surrealist group, which was among the most significant and enduring national Surrealist movements in the world. For this reason, Jonathan L. Owen’s Avant-Garde to New Wave: Czechoslovak Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties is a particularly welcome addition to the literature. First published in 2011 by Berghahn, the paperback edition is out on the 1st of March.

The book’s introduction and first chapter provide a lucid survey of the history of Czech Surrealism, contextualising its development against the background of the 1920s and 1930s avant-garde, and relating it to its French counterpart. These sections also offer a potted history of the Czechoslovak New Wave and, most crucially, make the case for considering its cinema in relation to Surrealism at all. Refreshingly, Owen does not fall into the trap of some contemporary re-evaluations of Surrealism and cinema, where any film involving dreams, fantasy or the irrational may automatically receive the Surrealist label. The author weighs the hostile reactions of some 1960s Czech Surrealists towards films such as Daisies against the possibility that these films were misunderstood, or simply deviated from Czech Surrealism’s particular preoccupations at the time. Most importantly, Owen justifies looking at the New Wave in light of Surrealism based on the fact that it was one of many exciting new ideas circulating in the cultural milieu at the time. In subsequent chapters, he goes on to explore this influence by citing specific, detailled examples from a satisfying range of New Wave films: Pavel Juráček’s Josef Kilian and A Case for the Young Hangman, Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains, Chytilová’s Daisies, Juraj Jakubisko’s The Deserter and the Nomads and Birds, Orphans and Fools and Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The final chapter looks at several films by Jan Švankmajer, whose work was not properly a part of the New Wave, but contemporary to it, and more than justified by the director’s intimate connection to Surrealism.

Owen’s bibliography includes a considerable number of Czech language resources: as a result, his work does not just recap information already present in Hames’s books, but makes a valuable addition to the information available in English on Czechoslovak cinema and twentieth-century avant-garde movements.

Because of the limited resources available on Czech Surrealism in English, those interested in the subject will be longing for a book to cover it in greater detail. It would be unfair to criticise Owen’s book for not going in to such detail, for it does exactly what its title promises: it explores the influence of the avant-garde on Czech cinema of the 1960s. Certainly, some chapters are more substantial and convincing than others: ahead of the rest, Owen’s analysis of Closely Observed Trains stands out as particularly informative and insightful. But overall, every chapter sheds some new light on the films of the Czechoslovak New Wave. As a result, this book constitutes a valuable new resource on New Wave cinema, offering new ways of understanding the films, and not just providing them with a historico-political context, but also clearly relating them to contemporary art and ideas, both local and global. 

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