- A review by Richard Harrison (2016)

Looking back is an interesting activity, especially bearing in mind that looking back 50 years means one is reflecting on the latter half of arguably the most iconic decade of the 20th century- the 1960s.

By that time, although the original Nouvelle Vague was beginning to draw to the end in its native France, its ripples were still very much in evidence in the rest of European cinema. In Britain, the New Wave was linked with directors such as Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson- as well as with Linsday Anderson, who had strong associations with Miloš Forman, whose film A Blonde In Love is the first in a new trio of titles from Second Run. Titled The Czechoslovak New Wave Collection Volume II , the set contains films that epitomise the film movement in Czechoslavakia from directors Miloš Forman, Jan Němec and Jiří Menzel. The earliest title- A Blonde In Love- is a welcome addition, for it is a film with significance both then (in 1965) and now (over 50 years later). Ken Loach has cited it as his favourite film (its production and ethos proving hugely influential), whilst Linsday Anderson worked with cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek on three of his own films and became a quasi-mentor for the brilliant Vladimír Pucholt, who plays Milda- the beau of Andula.

In terms of cast, A Blonde In Love incorporates a fascinating blend of professional and non-professional actors, the plausibility of the narrative meaning that there is no obvious distinction between them. It is a very real film in so many ways- not least in the contrast between the generations, where the older people are shown to be pessimistic, worried and concerned with banalities, contrasting the younger feelings of hope, adventure and liberated sexuality. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the small flat Milda shares with his parents, the awkward scene where he embraces Andula drawing a parallel with the earlier moments where the two are naked. That particular scene is sensual rather than sexy, implicit rather than explicit- and is all the more satisfying for that. This also ties in with the public/private face of activities within society- it is telling that Milda takes great pains to draw the blinds for their private moment of intimacy, whilst Tonda’s angst is visualised as a very public tirade, and is all the worse for it. The film also marks the on-screen debut of Jana Nováková, tragically murdered by her husband a mere 5 years later, Marie Salacová (for whom this was the only film) and Hana Brejchová (who has fortunately enjoyed a longer film career) as Andula. The natural performances and comedy (for despite the downbeat moments the film is actually very funny at times) are handled with a lightness of touch, and it is easy to see how the film captured the zeitgeist of the swinging 1960s whilst still maintaining a kitchen-sink style realism that would resonate with so many. Both sound and print quality are excellent, and include the ‘physical contact’ between Milda and Andula when they have barely met, though this particular release excludes a documented scene where Milda attempts to enter through a bedroom window. An informative and accessible booklet written by Michael Brooke accompanies the disc.

The second film in the set is Jan Němec’s 1966 feature The Party and the Guests, ‘the most subversive of all the Czech New Wave films’ according to Peter Hames’ extra feature- which is a refreshingly unpatronising appreciation. The film itself is an audacious allegory of Czech society at that time- Němec’s reward for such perceptiveness was to be banned from film studios, a ban which has only been rescinded in recent years. Rarely does a film title capture the essence of its content so comprehensively as this- in its location filming and use of actors known to the filmmaker it has associations with the Nouvelle Vague, but the film as a whole is more akin to Alain Resnais baffling and distinctly non New Wave Last Year At Marienbad than anything else. Although an air of unpredictability hangs over the film, we, as the audience who are as bewildered as the main group of characters, are at least given a voice in what Hames appropriately calls a “dissenter”- the character of Karel. It is Karel who attempts- as surely we would- to rebuff the absurd situation, but he is temporarily threatened by Rudolf’s posse of henchmen. It is the afore-mentioned unpredictability that makes The Party and the Guests so hard hitting at this point- for we are present, with our characters, in a situation which is all too real yet patently absurd. The strange atmosphere is accompanied by natural sound – the effect of this is to heighten the sense of plausibility. The film moves on to the actual party, and the slightly surreal events continue. In another pithy essay from Michael Brooke, the film’s events are detailed and gently pulled apart like the food at the party. However, for me the film felt like a jigsaw puzzle with, ultimately, a part missing. Though the general consensus of opinion is that this is part of its mastery, I never was one for jigsaws.

The final entry in the trio is Jiří Menzel’s 1969 film Larks on a String, which, much like the French New Wave films of the late 1960s, marks a shift away from the narrative concerns of earlier films in favour of a more political approach. The visual style is also different- gone is the crisp monochrome, replaced with a colour which – even if not bright- gives things less of a gritty feel. With its politics at its core, Larks on a String is therefore more akin to Godard’s Weekend, albeit with a heavier touch. A slow pan across an industrial landscape is the film’s low-key opening, although there is no sense at this stage that we are visualising the main backdrop to the events that will unfold, but the scrap metal yard fulfils the role of the wood in The Party and the Guests – it is the arena wherein everything takes place. ‘Larks on a String is a story about the first years of the Communist regime’ according to the rather bizarre ‘7 Questions’ interview featurette with Jiří Menzel which appears as an extra on the DVD. Menzel’s comments highlight the Communist mistrust (and even hatred) for the intellectual elite – it is these people who appear as characters in the film in order to satirise what was a significantly repressive regime. Thus, Menzel uses film as a tool with which to satirise (and artistically attack) the status quo much in the way that Němec does, but Menzel’s approach is less whimsical and far more direct. As the 1960s drew on, it is interesting to note the degree to which its filmmakers embraced (or did not embrace) a political didactic. To ignore films which have this satirical angle would be to omit significant titles and to paint an unrepresentative portrait of the era. On the other hand, to properly engage with the films one needs at least some concept of context- and that becomes more difficult the farther removed one is from it, both in terms of time and geographical distance. In other words, comprehending the intricate politics of a Czech New Wave film like Larks on a String is no easy task, and the film becomes more challenging as a result. Interestingly, the incendiary power of film was recognised by the authorities who banned it (it remained unseen until 1990), a fate which also befell The Party and the Guests (banned in 1973, and only seen in the post-1989 era). The problems of communication felt by the characters in Larks on a String is another mirror of society itself, their struggles a symbol of the endurance of the Czech people who were repressed for so long. But, the ultimate question is to what extent we (as an audience) can engage with this in the way we can with the struggles of Milda and Andula in A Blonde In Love. Once more, the general consensus seems to be that this is a minor detail- but it is a detail of note nonetheless.

Second Run have done (and are doing) an admirable job in bringing these films to public attention once more. Adding extras like the essays in the booklets and restoring both sound and image shows a care for the material which is heartening. Looking back has never been so much fun.

'The Czechoslovak New Wave Collection' is available from Second Run DVD.

Second Run DVD website