In the 1960s, an exciting body of filmmakers emerged in what was then Czechoslovakia, making films that directly challenged the Communist power structure in much the same fashion as Spanish directors challenged their fascist state around that time. However, instead of using horror, they used comedy, spiked with near-surrealistic and sometimes bitter elements, to get their point across. Their bold manner initially spurred a larger spirit of social reform in the country, until the Soviet Union halted the movement in August 1968, causing some of their top talents to flee the country.
Two of the standout creatives from the Czechoslovak New Wave were longtime school friends and collaborators Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer, who collectively were responsible for five films in this halcyon period before they emigrated to the States. Their early English language films continued their themes of absurdist comedy, deftly transplanted into American situations. And when scholars talk about films of the ‘70s auteurist era that have continued their impact into the present, both of them are represented on those lists, Forman with his Academy Award-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Passer with his cult favorite Cutter’s Way. So on Sunday, March 26th & Monday, March 27th, we are eagerly presenting two of their Czech-language classics, both naturalist episodic human comedies, that paved the way to their world success.
The Firemen’s Ball from 1967 leads off our tribute, written by both men with Jaroslav Papoušek, and directed by Forman. A small town volunteer fire department wants to host a festive gala to honor their former chief and raise spirits in their economically depressed environment. The noble gesture degenerates into an increasing series of blunders, with beauty pageant contestants who refuse to walk the runway, raffle prizes that get stolen and audience members trying to work the chaos to their own benefit. And then an actual fire occurs down the street…
After collaborating on Loves of a Blonde, Forman, Passer and Papoušek were inspired to create The Firemen’s Ball after visiting a similar fundraiser during a writing vacation. Forman recalled, “What we saw was such a nightmare that we couldn’t stop talking about it. So we abandoned what we were writing on to start this script.” The film was cast entirely with untrained actors, including actual small-town firemen, to give the characters the look of quiet lives lived hard and with resignation.
Though an initial hit in its native country, the film was quickly caught up in multiple controversies – Czech firemen felt ridiculed, Communist functionaries suspected they were being attacked, and when initial producer Carlo Ponti pulled out his financing upon completion, Forman faced jail time for misuse of state money to make it. It was while soliciting replacement funds in France that the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, leading Forman to stay in exile. Once it reached America, it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 41st Academy Awards, losing to Sergei Bondarchuk’s Russian-backed adaptation of War and Peace. The Cold War Communist regime that seized power in Forman’s country banned the film “forever,” but it still had an impact on its citizens; to this day, Czechs use the term “zhasnout” – to switch lights off – to describe corporate crime, based on the theft of raffle prizes in the dark during his film.
Passer takes the spotlight for Intimate Lighting from 1965, written with Jaroslav Papoušek and Vaclav Sasek. Petr, a working orchestra soloist, returns to his hometown with girlfriend Stepa in tow, and looks in on an old musician friend, Bambas, who stayed behind, and gets by from teaching music and playing at funerals. Over the course of 24 hours, they’ll play some music, get a taste of each others’ lives, get drunk, play some more music, and take a deep look inward at their life choices.
Passer essentially made this directorial debut at the prodding of writer friend Sasek, at first to merely help him collect a paycheck; he was taken aback when producers, despite the slim nature of the story, agreed to back the project based on his work with Forman. “My strongest memory is my anxiety over the fact I was making a film where nothing happens,” he recalled. Much like the later strategy of Firemen’s Ball, Passer cast mostly non-professional actors who knew how to play the instruments depicted in the script, with the exception of Věra Křesadlová as Stepa, who was a successful pop star and Forman’s then-wife. Karel Blažek, playing Bambas, withheld from Passer that he was dying of leukemia, lending increased poignancy to his character’s musings on the choices not taken; he passed away mere weeks after the production wrapped.
Despite the light and hardly overtly political tone of the film, Intimate Lighting was also banned in Czechoslovakia for 20 years, after the failed “Prague Spring.” It is now rightfully recognized as a precursor to the style of behavioral observation stories directors like Eric Rohmer and Richard Linklater have been acclaimed for. Passer has observed, “It was an opportunity to make a film which people would revisit once in a while, the same way as we go and visit our relatives. They look the same, they behave the same way, but because we like them and we feel good being with them [we felt that appeal] would work with the movie audience. It probably succeeded, because I remember a Czech veterinarian told me once that he saw the film 60 times, more than I ever did.”
In the midst of a tumultuous period of paranoia and oppression, Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer still managed to make people laugh and find determination to keep up their struggles on a personal level. Reacquaint yourselves with their inspiring and still funny messages on this last corner of March 2017 at the New Beverly!