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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to filmfestivals.com

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


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Czech Film Marathon 2018

At Manhattan’s Czech Center 12 film masterpieces covering 120 years of Czechoslovak film history were presented in one day long session on March 24th in three screening facilities. The selection of these outstanding films from a country at the center of Europe’s political and cultural cross roads   reflected a compelling record of the principal film makers of one of the oldest European film industries.

The Czech film industry was born during the earliest days of film making with the first local feature produced in 1896 and screened publicly in 1898 in Prague at an Architecture and Engineering Exhibition. The program included films by Jan Krizeneck, Lumiere films, and his sketches from the exhibition grounds and the streets of Prague. The first film studios in Czechoslovakia were established in 1931 transforming Prague into a leading European film production Center. From 1929 to 1999 2,488 movies were produced including films of all length.  The expertise of Czech film makers has led to numerous international films being shot or co-produced in the Czech Republic annually. The local film industry completes about 40 feature films and full-length documentaries each year.

Except for The Return of the Idiot (1999) all productions of the Czech Film Marathon originated in Czechoslovakia prior to its split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The program included Marheta Lazarova, 1967, by Frantisek Vlacil, a drama on the feud between two rival medieval clans, considered to be one of the greatest Czech films ever made. Directed by Kafrel Zeman in 1958, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne with its pacifist ideals gained international critical acclaim. The Cassandra Act, 1963, featuring the beautiful artist Olivia and a tomcat able to reveal the true characters of adult humans around him was helmed by Vojtech Jasny. In Higher Principle, a superb psychological drama from 1960, by Jiri Krejik, the murder of a 16 year old student slain for his anti-nazi beliefs in the aftermath of the Hydrich assassination is analyzed.  My Sweet Little Village directed by Jiri Menzel in 1985 depicts the interaction between a truck driver and a mentally challenged young man, a film that was nominated for the foreign language Oscar in 1987. Gustav Machaty depicts in his 1929 drama Eroticon the seduction of a station guard’s daughter by an elegant traveler who has missed his train and her coping with being pregnant after the encounter.  The musical Hop-Pitchers by Ladislav Rychman from 1964 covers the amorous involvement of students in a workers’ outing and a professor’s attempt to decipher what is happening. In the drama Oil-Lamps from 1971 Juraj Herz focusses on a wealthy liberal woman who cannot find a suitor in the small town where she lives and marries her greedy cousin who turns out to suffer from syphilis.

Kristian, Martin Fric, 1939 

A most appealing comedy of manners, shifting self presentations and superb depiction of contrasting life styles is offered by Martin Fric in this film that has with stood the test of time.  The two protagonists are bored and unhappy with their lives which they cannot escape. Alois Novak is a subdued travel agent whose married life is totally predictable  and he tries to get temporary relief  through monthly  visits  as Kristian at the fashionable Orient Bar parading as a rich mysterious  guest and bon vivant. The other equally well played character is a young attractive woman, Suzanne, whose fiancé wants to marry her, yet has neither charm or romance to offer, boring her out of her mind. Kristian charms and seems to seduce a different woman on each of his visits with his stories about travels and Suzann falls for him, but he disappears.  She is intrigued. Through the discovery of a business card she is able to uncover his identity.

Men about Town, Zdenek Podskalsky,  1969    

In Kristian a different identity is adopted to escape the boredom of everyday life. In Men About Town three married plasterers engage in a similar venture playing out a snapping parody of social life of Prague and the moral fiber of the Communist society.  Since their prior ventures in upscale settings as workers were met with failure they decide to learn how to dance, take a course in social behavior, acquire language, use of arts and the science, control their accents like Pygmalion, and get dressed in fancy cloth. They succeed in their transformation into gentlemen. Not realizing that the three women they court in the luxury Diplomacy Grill and afterwards had gone through the same training.  Men about Town is superbly entertaining and proved to be a box office hit in Czechoslovakia.

 Alice [Czech title Something from Alice], Jan Svankmajer, 1987.  

 Svankmajer engages with Alice in a voyage of discovery where the Lewis Carroll classic story recedes into the background and the narration is provided by a child and an old doll.  The unmistakable imprimatur of Svanmajer’s unique and original style is infused in the imagery he presents, assorted strange objects are discovered through Alice and the juxtapositions and discontinuities of the film impair our inability to anticipate the next turns of the story. We are faced with the opposite of high tech film making and special effects. Rather there is low tech, the contrast of the fantastical with the ordinary, the replacement of Carroll’s language and wit through surrealist setting and images. As depicted by the director Something from Alice could play anywhere with the travel through Alice’ subconscious and the dream like effect of stop motion.  It is a gritty rendering of the story devoid of pleasantries and sentimentality.            

Return of the Idiot, Sala Gedeon, 1999 Czech Republic   

In its review Variety considered Return of the Idiot “One of the most original and inventive pics out of Central Europe in some time” suggesting overseas exposure beyond the festival circuit.   The film was nominated in the Foreign Language Oscar competition.  Inspired by Dostoyevsky’s novel Sala Gedeon follows the return of Frantisek who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital to a small town where he has some distant family contacts.  His responses to the outside world do not seem to have been shaped by past social and familial experiences. His response to the characters and relatives he meets are not biased by preconceptions. He is bound to be truthful, generating antagonism and even violence.  He does not volunteer observations but is mostly reactive. What he says breaks reality people are immured in and he amplifies the doubts they already may be having about the life they lead.  In Frantisek’s path there are ruptures and break ups forcing some people to question what they are doing.  Since the setting is a small town people know each other and the return of Frantisek troubles stereotypical expectations the people share.  The semi-mute performance of Pavel Liska as Frantisek is extraordinary as is Tatiana Vilhelmova as Olga who invites him to her home.

Open to the public without a charge the 2018 Czech Film Marathon delivered an outstanding selection of the best productions and a cogent introduction to Czechoslovakian film makers covering divergent filmmaking approaches.  As a marketing and public diplomacy project it certainly was a success and should be repeated.

Claus Mueller   filmexchange@gmail.com

 

 

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