The Czech nouvelle vague cinema is back in vogue. Fifty years after Warsaw Pact tanks quelled the political and cultural reform movement in Czechoslovakia, Europe has rediscovered the genius of Czech filmmaking from the 1960s. Movies like Loves of a Blonde, The Joke, and Cremator have withstood the test of time and still capture the imagination of viewers and art critics alike. In the past year, Czech New Wave film festivals have been organized on all continents. In 2018, Czech cultural centers from Brussels and London to New York and Bucharest featured many movies directed by the nouvelle vague generation, drawing large crowds.
Brilliant directors like Věra Chytilová, Miloš Forman, Jaromil Jires, Juraj Herz, and Jiří Menzel —whose film Closely Watched Trains won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film— were all graduates of the Film and TV School of The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). Featuring cinematographic innovations and often adopting an absurd and surreal outlook loaded with dark humor, their movies addressed controversial themes such as the shortcomings of socialism and large-scale Czech collaboration with Nazi-Germany after the German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Inspired by the magnificent literature of equally brilliant authors such as Milan Kundera, Ladislav Fuks, and Jiří Weil, the quality of the Czech New Wave was arguably even higher than that of its French counterpart. With films usually made using state funding, money was not an obstacle, helping to make the production value of the Czech nouvelle vague films high.
The majority of films from this genre were shot in Czech in the prestigious FAMU studios located in Prague or the state-run Barrandov Studios located on the city’s outskirts. The main exception was The Shop on Main Street, directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, which won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It takes place in Slovakia during World War II and tells the story of a poor Slovak man named Anton “Tono” Brtko, who is tasked by the local fascist regime to act as the “Aryan owner” of a button shop run by an elderly Jewish woman.
The invasion by the Soviet army and other Warsaw Pact troops —save Albania and Romania— in August 1968 brought an end to the liberal reform movement (“socialism with a human face”) led by Alexander Dubček and others in Czechoslovakia. With it, Czech nouvelle vague cinema, as well as the reform movement’s other cultural expressions, was censored. Filmmakers like Miloš Forman and Jan Němec managed to flee to the West and continued making high-quality movies, but the momentum of the Czech nouvelle vague was lost.
Fifty years later, the Czech New Wave has made a comeback, attracting large audiences around the world — proving that culture always eventually trumps politics.