The Czech Republic lost a film legend this week with the passing of director, screenwriter Věra Chytilová, aged 85. Chytilová, known for her lifelong fearless approach, was one of the brightest talents to come out of the Czech New Wave, alongside ‘alumni’ like Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel.
Originally, Chytilová studied architecture but left the field for filmmaking, famously starting as a clapper girl at Prague’s Barrandov Studios and later she worked as an assistant director. Her newfound passion eventually led her to film school, where she studied under Czech cinema legend Otakar Vávra.
At FAMU, Chytilová soon made a name for herself but it was as a professional with her second feature called Sedmikrásky (Daisies) that she won both domestic and international fame. The unconventional film, released two years before the Prague Spring, focussed on two rather unlikable main characters, Marie and Marie, a wilful teen duo whose behaviour is mapped in a series of madcap or absurdist vignette-like scenes. On one level the film was viewed as a fairly scathing critique of modern society and that earned her the label of troublemaker under Czechoslovakia’s socialist regime.
Film journalist Jan Foll:
“All of Chytilová’s films aimed to provoke and were in a sense unforgettable. I admit there was a time when I felt that Daisies was dated and the message no longer relevant. But gradually, I came back to the film: where before it was critical of the marasmus of socialism, its message can apply to the tabloid society of today.”
It wasn’t long before the avant garde work was banned and Chytilová herself was barred from making movies. The irony, at least according to some interpretations, was that “Daisies” had been less a criticism of socialism per say than a broader lack of values and moral crisis. Lidové noviny film critic Vojtěch Rynda:
“I don’t think it was criticism of the regime that much; to me it was more a ‘child’ of the 1960s, a film inspired by ‘new waves’ of European cinema… and it definitely is ‘absurd’. There is the ending when the chandelier falls on both of the characters, so there’s that. It’s more a critique of a certain hedonist lifestyle, and not caring about others or anything else. That was a topic Chytilová would come back repeatedly throughout her career.”
When she could stand no longer being kept away from film, Chytilová wrote communist President Gustav Husák to let her to make movies again. Critic Vojtěch Rynda:
“She was totally unflinching and courageous both in terms of her artistic career and lifestyle and the way she was able to cope with the regime. In artistic terms she had many influences, ranging from documentary films but also highly-stylised films like ‘Daisies’ and in her struggle with the regime she went so far as to write Husák ‘demanding’ she be allowed to return to the film business. In this respect, she took no hostages and in the end she was able to do what she wanted.”
After Chytilová returned to making movies, she was no doubt under intense pressure from censors and the regime to toe the line, but the director refused to be cowed, reportedly once storming into a meeting of heads at Barrandov Studio leading her to be forcibly carried out the front doors. On set of, she was uncompromising. One of Chytilová’s strongest films, Panelstory, took aim at one of the regime’s sacred cows, the panelák block or pre-fab apartment blocks – comfortable ‘modern’ living for all promised by the regime. But she tore the dream apart.
As some reviewers noted, the story followed the lives of residents of a communist-bloc apartment complex “from hell”. Film critic Vojtěch Rynda:
“It was made in 1980 and that letter to Husák was in 1975 or ’76 and this was shortly after she was allowed to shoot again. Yet it was against the regime. Even if had been commissioned by the regime, she would have made it according to her own style, she couldn’t have cared less.”
Her sharp and defiant approach, proved valuable not only under Communism but also in the heady days that followed 1989, when may naively expected better lives overnight. Her first post-1989 feature, Dedictví aneb kurvahošigutentag (The Inheritance) featured an unforgettable Bolek Polívka as a lazy and no good forestry worker who inherits a brick factory which was stolen from his family and nationalised by the former regime. The film makes use of satire and even a little farce to dissect the behaviour of the ‘suddenly rich’, lacking or having lost all real values during years growing up in a morally bankrupt system. Inheritance showed there was no guarantee that Wild West capitalism would be any better than what come before.
Vojtěch Rynda again:
“Back when Dědicvtí was released in 1993 it received mixed reviews. But if we look back, it is one of the best movies which reflects early capitalism in the Czech Republic and it kind of predicted what would happen next: gangsters with purple suits and people who couldn’t handle new found wealth. So it was a visionary thing.
“For me, Chytilová was maybe the only member of the Czechoslovak New Wave, with the exception of Jan Němec, who was able to adapt to new conditions after the fall of the Communist regime, and who was able to follow new trends. Jan Němec adapted to digital cinema and she adopted new topics and new methods of filmmaking.”
“For her ‘story’’ was just a means to an end. She tried different styles, from documentary to more experimental forms and she was always trying something new. Also in terms of topics: for instance 1989’s Kopytem sem, kopytem tam dealt with the subject of AIDS. So she was always up-to-date.”
Besides continuing to make feature films, in the 1990s, Věra Chytilová also taught at the FAMU film school: former alumni who had classes with her include filmmakers like Radim Špaček or Bohdan Sláma. In the ‘90s, she also worked as one of a number of short profiles and documentaries for the Febio production house for Czech TV. Cameraman Tomáš Kobolka remembers what it was like to work on smaller projects with a legend.
“It was wonderful to be able to work with someone like her. Of course it was a little intimidating at first. This was Věra Chytilová, whose films I grew up with! She was aware of her reputation and of the effect she had on people but it also made it easier for her to approach them.
“As a director, she always knew what was going on. When we were shooting, she somehow knew without looking through the viewfinder, whether I was in close-up or medium shot. I hadn’t seen that in anyone else.
“She also never lost the ability to take risks: she emphasized the importance of the camera not being ‘hypnotised’ by the subject – as is often the case in TV production – but that it could ‘wander’ and to make broader visual connections. So, she took risks and who better than an artist to take them?”
This week there were naturally many reactions from those who worked with Věra Chytilová, but perhaps renowned comedian and actor Bolek Polívka summed it up best: while her passing was a blow, he said, there was consolation we still had the films, in other words an extensive – and truly remarkable – body of work.