Pearls of the Czech New Wave

Pearls of the Czech New Wave

by Cheryl Stephenson

From left to right: Ivan Passer, Milos Stehlik, Alice Lovejoy, and Herbert Eagle

From left to right: Ivan Passer, Milos Stehlik, Alice Lovejoy, and Herbert Eagle

On April 29, 2016 Slavists and film enthusiasts came together to welcome the legendary Czech film director Ivan Passer for “Pearls of the Czech New Wave,” an evening of conversation and film, featuring the film anthology Pearls of the Deep and including the Chicago premiere of Passer’s short film, A Boring Afternoon. The event was sponsored by the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies, the Film Studies Center, the Franke Institute for the Humanities, the Central Europe Workshop, and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Bořek Lizec, Consul General of the Czech Republic in Chicago also provided a special introduction.

The symposium marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the 1966 omnibus film Pearls of the Deep, a project which brought together young directors, including Věra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, and Ivan Passer, as they adapted short stories written by Bohumil Hrabal. Pearls of the Deep launched the careers of Czech film’s most celebrated generation and was followed in rapid succession by Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966), and Passer’s Intimate Lighting (1965). “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” gave Chicago audiences a rare opportunity to speak with Ivan Passer about the import of Pearls of the Deep in forming the directors’ approaches and careers and the Czech New Wave as a whole. Although Passer’s short film A Boring Afternoon was intended to become part of Pearls of the Deep, it was not included in the 1966 release due to concerns over the length of the film. The “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” symposium was the Chicago première of “A Boring Afternoon,” presenting the film together with the complete collection of Pearls of the Deep.

The event began with a roundtable discussion moderated by Professor Malynne Sternstein, of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and featuring panelists Milos Stehlik, founder and director of Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media Professor, Herbert Eagle from the University of Michigan, Professor Alice Lovejoy from the University of Minnesota, and director Ivan Passer. Responding to Professor Sternstein’s question, “What is, or isn’t, the Czech New Wave?” the panelists highlighted several of the more contentious areas in the study of the movement, noting the limitations of using solely historical, political, aesthetic, or thematic approaches to understand the work of Czech New Wave filmmakers.

Over the course of his discussion during the roundtable and his introduction of the film, Ivan Passer shared his experiences as a filmmaker within the state-controlled film industry of Czechoslovakia. His comments focused less on his own work than on the importance of viewing films as part of his creative development and that of his colleagues. The system of censorship posed challenges for the filmmakers of his generation (although Passer explained that censors were much more generous when his works could make them laugh), but the real challenge for Passer and his generation was actually getting their hands on foreign films to watch. In discussing what made the Czech New Wave possible, Passer expressed a debt of gratitude to Antonín Martin Brousil, the professor at FAMU, the Prague film academy, whose covert screenings of foreign films stimulated the work of Passer and his colleagues.

In addition to Professor Brousil, Passer identified the crucial role played by the author Bohumil Hrabal in inspiring young Czech filmmakers of the mid-1960s. As Professor Lovejoy discussed in the roundtable, Hrabal’s non-linear, collage-based techniques are now considered a hallmark of the Czech New Wave style, even beyond the films based directly on his novels and short stories. In the film anthology Pearls of the Deep, the connection is more direct. Hrabal’s  collection of short stories of the same title was published in 1963, just three years before Passer and his colleagues released their adaptations. According to Passer, he and his colleagues Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Jan Němec, and Evald Schorm chose to adapt the collection for film in order to support Hrabal and popularize his work. Hrabal’s stories and novels often verge on the fantastical, but Passer emphasized the fact that Hrabal created very real, relatable characters who reflected people everyone knew. This quality of Hrabal’s work is certainly a product of the thousands of hours the author spent in pubs listening to the people around him. The characters in these stories and films seem real because they largely are real people, mostly non-actors in situations that don’t respect the confines of traditional narrative storytelling.

Viewers new to the works of Hrabal and to the Czech New Wave are often struck by the films’ lack of any identifiable plot lines. Indeed, attempts to summarize the “action” of these films completely fail to capture their content. A man paints his house and almost buys an insurance policy. Two old men tell stories in a hospital. People sit in a pub and talk, mostly about sports.

The idea of linear plot implies a kind of expectation in the viewer, an invitation to make assumptions which will be alternately confirmed or denied by the advancing narrative. However, in the films of the Czech New Wave— and particularly those based on the works of Bohumil Hrabal— the absurd, inane, or absent plots guide the viewer to an alternate course, challenging us to forego our presumptions and predictions, and challenging us instead actually to watch and listen.

When we do set aside our pre-conceived notions of plot development, we gain a kind of intimate contact with the people on the page or on the screen and a reminder that real people resist the limitations of the dramatic or literary type, each complex in their own way. In A Boring Afternoon, Passer’s contribution to Pearls of the Deep, we encounter the almost collage-like group of people who populate a small, local pub. A group of women sit around a table playing cards and singing old-fashioned songs, providing the soundtrack to the film. Two men engage in half-conversation, half-argument over a local soccer match, weaving in their embellished memories of their own playing careers. A young student reads and smokes alone at a table, much to the disgust of the bartender, who complains to anyone within earshot, but especially to a man sitting alone. By the end of the scene, that man appears to have died, sitting upright over his half-full beer. The very absence of protagonists, antagonists, and structured plots brings the individuals to the forefront, displaying the intricate complexity, mundanity, and subjectivity that make us all who we are.

The very notion of confining a set of films and filmmakers to a specific movement with concrete temporal and thematic parameters can often have the same constraining effect as the linear plot. The idea of the Czech New Wave often becomes a limitation, and one that does more to generate expectations and prejudices, than to actually advance our understanding. But just as Ivan Passer posed the origins of his own work, that of his generation of Czech filmmakers, and the Pearls of the Deep project as an act of consuming— watching, looking, listening, and reading—it would seem that the most productive course in understanding the Czech New Wave lies in setting aside the notion of codifying the movement and simply taking the time to watch and listen.

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