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Avant-Garde to New Wave

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

Jonathan L. Owen
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Avant-Garde to New Wave
    Book Description:

    The cultural liberalization of communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s produced many artistic accomplishments, not least the celebrated films of the Czech New Wave. This movement saw filmmakers use their new freedom to engage with traditions of the avant-garde, especially Surrealism. This book explores the avant-garde's influence over the New Wave and considers the political implications of that influence. The close analysis of selected films, ranging from the Oscar-winningClosely Observed Trainsto the aesthetically challengingDaisies, is contextualized by an account of the Czech avant-garde and a discussion of the films' immediate cultural and political background.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-127-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: Surrealism In and Out of the Czechoslovak New Wave
    (pp. 1-24)

    The abrupt, rebellious flowering of cinematic accomplishment in the Czechoslovakia of the 1960s was described at the time as the ‘Czech film miracle’. If the term ‘miracle’ referred here to the very existence of that audacious new cinema, it could perhaps also be applied to much of its content: the miraculous and marvellous are integral to the revelations of Surrealism, a movement that claimed the attention of numerous 1960s filmmakers. As we shall see, Surrealism was by no means the only avant-garde tradition to make a significant impact on this cinema. But it did have the most pervasive influence. This...

  6. Chapter 1 Inspirations, Opportunities: Cultural and Historical Contexts
    (pp. 25-45)

    The story of Surrealism has been told many times and in numerous languages. Yet that standard history comprises only one story, a story in which the Surrealist movement is rendered synonymous with a small group of avant-garde artists and intellectuals who lived in Paris between the wars. Famous émigrés from Germany or Spain generally comprise a few of the lead characters, though that is as far as the coverage of Surrealism’s international dimension goes. The story of Czech Surrealism has never received a comprehensive telling in English, and in so far as the Czech movement is even mentioned it is...

  7. Chapter 2 Pavel Juráček’s Josef Kilián (1963) and A Case for the Young Hangman (1969): From the Surreal Object to the Absurd Signifier
    (pp. 46-71)

    Josef Kilián, Pavel Juráček’s first significant directorial effort, appeared during the beginnings of Czechoslovakia’s political and cultural thaw.¹ Despite the film’s short length (it runs just under 40 minutes), it was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable and provocative Czechoslovak films to have been released for many years. Yet in a sense Juráček’s Kafkaesque portrayal of impenetrable bureaucracy could not have found a more ideal context of reception than its domestic environment.Josef Kiliánappeared in the same year as both the groundbreaking conference on Franz Kafka in Liblice, a key step towards the domestic rehabilitation of that writer’s work...

  8. Chapter 3 Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (1966): Hrabal and the Heterogeneous
    (pp. 72-98)

    The work of Bohumil Hrabal, author of the 1965 novellaClosely Observed Trainson which Jiří Menzel’s 1966 film is based, provides one of the few immediate links between the postwar Czech avant-garde and the cultural renaissance of the 1960s. Born in 1914, Hrabal was loosely affiliated with the underground group of writers and visual artists that ‘published’, Samizdat style, the cultural anthologyMidnight(Půlnoc) in its various instalments during the first half of the 1950s. The Půlnoc group included two more deeply influential figures in Czech culture, Hrabal’s friends the poet Egon Bondy (Zbyněk Fišer) and the ‘Explosionalist’ artist...

  9. Chapter 4 Spoiled Aesthetics: Realism and Anti-Humanism in Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966)
    (pp. 99-128)

    In 1975, frustrated by her situation as a politically dubious filmmaker whose projects were continually and systematically scuppered by the authorities, the ever-outspoken Věra Chytilová wrote a letter to President Gustav Husák appealing for the right to practise her chosen profession. In the course of this long letter, Chytilová reiterates her allegiance to socialism, dismisses official criticisms made of her work, and summarizes her career as a director to date. Whether attempting to allay any fears of the ideological dangers that her return to the film set would present, or simply to demonstrate the unconditional artistic validity of her work,...

  10. Chapter 5 Flights From History: Otherness, Politics and Folk Avant-Gardism in Juraj Jakubisko’s The Deserter and the Nomads (1968) and Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969)
    (pp. 129-156)

    ‘I, Juraj Jakubisko, a Slovak film director, will tell you about those who wanted to be mad.’ Those words, with which the opening voiceover commentary toBirds, Orphans and Foolsbegins, accompany Jakubisko’s trademark charging camera as it pursues a group of children dressed in colourful folk costumes and holding aloft a large sheet. On that sheet the shadow of the film crew is clearly visible. Jakubisko does not recite his commentary himself, but ‘speaks’ through, first, the voice of a young child and then through that of an adult woman. Though Jakubisko had already completed two features before he...

  11. Chapter 6 Back to Utopia: Returns of the Repressed in Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
    (pp. 157-187)

    Jaromil Jireš’sValerie and Her Week of Wondersis adapted from a 1935 novel by Vítězslav Nezval, a writer whose transformation from bohemian experimentalist to exemplary literary representative of Stalinism, while not unique, seems as abrupt and remarkable as the shape-shifting ofValerie’s protagonists. The greatest poet of the Czech interwar avant-garde, Nezval founded the Czech Surrealist Group in 1934, only to try and disband it four years later in a display of his allegiance to Communist cultural and political orthodoxy. After February 1948, Nezval established himself as, in Alfred French’s words, the ‘official poet of the regime’,¹ embracing Socialist...

  12. Chapter 7 Jan Švankmajer: Contemporary Czech Surrealism and the Renewal of Language
    (pp. 188-217)

    Jan Švankmajer is the only major Czech filmmaker to have joined the Czech Surrealist Group, and on such grounds he has distinguished his work from the, in his view, superficial appropriations of Surrealism by the more ‘mainstream’ New Wave filmmakers. Does that privileged status necessitate excluding Švankmajer from a study focused primarily on the New Wave? As Švankmajer demonstrates in his own work, distinctions and boundaries exist to be interrogated, if not overthrown, and the strict differentiation between the Surrealist and the non-Surrealist (or ersatz Surrealist) can prove problematic. Michael Richardson questions whether there exists ‘a pure surrealism and then...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 218-223)

    The Czech culture of the 1960s bit the iron fist that fed it. Throughout the decade writers, philosophers, artists and filmmakers were engaged in an aboveground, state-funded rebellion against the cultural and political establishment. Yet the Czech New Wave, which would become the most internationally celebrated manifestation of this rebellion, was never concerned simply with addressing the past crimes of Stalinism or the present iniquities of neo-Stalinism. The New Wave was interested less in the exposure of lies than in the assertion of neglected truths. It represented an attack on what it saw as a deficient way of looking at...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 224-238)
  15. Index
    (pp. 239-245)