Showing posts with label Ivan Passer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ivan Passer. Show all posts

24 November 2012

The Czechoslovak New Wave: A Collection DVD Review

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Second Run has released a limited-edition three-disk set, The Czechoslovak New Wave: A Collection, which features three films from the 1960s: Diamonds of the Night (Jan Němek, 1964), Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer, 1965) and The Cremator (Juraj Herz, 1968). The Czech New Wave was a very brief episode in European cinema that is probably best known for the fact that Milos Forman came out of it (Forman later directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus).

During the short five-year period from 1963 to 1968, the finest films of this movement were very much influenced by surrealism or were, conversely, very light comedies. It’s a strange mixture but it works. This box set is a good introduction to both sides of this dichotomy. Diamonds of the Night is an almost silent film about two teenage boys who take a train from one concentration camp to another. There is a spell-binding tracking shot that follows the boys as they escape the train, which goes on for at least three minutes. After their escape, the rest of story is told through fragmented memory and fantasy sequences of before they were captured, their capture, escape and re-capture. It was based on a then-unpublished survivor’s book: in the true story, the person was captured and escaped three times and had no memory of how he made his final escape.

Němek owes a huge debt to Robert Bresson, the minimalist French director, but also his direct opposite, the surrealist Luis Buñuel. The film has a very overt homage to Un Chien Andalou (1929) in a fantasy sequence where the boys are lying on the ground and one’s hand is covered by ants and later face. This juxtaposition of surrealism and realist/minimalist filmmaking is very interesting—it’s just a fantastic, moving, hour-long film.

Intimate Lighting is the “worst” film of the collection, but only because the other two are so much better. It is a light comedy about a group of classical musicians who are in a house rehearsing for an upcoming concert performance, and concerns their interactions with each other. Director Ivan Passer is better-known for his early collaborations with Milos Forman, whose early films he wrote, but he also directed the fantastic neo-noir Cutter’s Way (1981). His directing career seems to have taken off much more in America than in Czechoslovakia: most of his films have been in English.

The Cremator is quite possibly the best film in the collection. It follows a professional cremator in Nazi-occupied Prague. He becomes increasingly deranged, and then gets involved with the Nazis. It is a black comedy: a surreal and unsettling film with a great performance by Rudolf Hrusínský, who resembles an Asian Peter Lorre (although he is not, in fact, Asian.) This film has some of the most impressive use of fish-eye lens shooting in cinema, right up there with Citizen Kane and Seconds, as well as some truly astonishing tracking shots and angles, and imagery that will never leave you.

The director Juraj Herz was a puppeteer and animator before becoming a filmmaker, making him an outcast amongst the Czech New Wave crowd as he had not attended film school with the rest. This background gave him a surrealist animator’s look at film. The dvd also an introduction by the Brothers Quay. The Cremator really must be seen to believed it’s indescribable.

Overall, the box set is a very good value for money: two excellent films and one good one. After the failed Czech Uprising of 1968, the majority of New Wave filmmakers left Czechoslovakia, some going to America and others to Europe. Once you’ve watched these, it would also be worth having a look at Cutter’s Way to see how practices that originated in the Czech New Wave impacted American film. Interesting, the director of Diamonds of the Night has recently stated making low-budget/no-budget digital films that hearken back to the experimental nature of this early work, so the story does not end here.

Ian Schultz

Diamonds of the night (15)
★★★★★

Intimate Lighting (PG)
★★★1/2

The Cremator (15)
★★★★★

Directed ByJan NemecIvan PasserJuraj Herz
Cast Rudolf HrusínskýVlasta Chramostová , Zdenek BezusekKarel BlazekLadislav Jánsky

BuyThe Czechoslovak New Wave - A Collection (3 Film Box Set) [DVD]