The 1960s’ Czechoslovak New Wave was lightning in a bottle, a glorious film miracle born of an unrepeatable collision of societal and political factors. An extraordinary pool of talented young filmmakers came to study together at Prague’s storied film school FAMU under the tutelage of several of Czechoslovakia’s greatest filmmakers, like Otakar Vávra and Elmar Klos, who covertly exposed their young charges to the revolutionary cinema from neighboring lands which they otherwise would not have been exposed to.
The state subsidised these students’ practical studies and their later works both, even if it wasn’t always willing to release the films produced. This allowed for an unprecedentedly rich period of formal and narrative experimentation emblematic of huge strides taken from the doctrinaire, Stalinist tenets of Socialist Realism – if only until the quashing of the Prague Spring late in 1968.
While Czechoslovakia had long tapped home-grown literature as a fecund wellspring for its cinema, the thawing of Soviet censorship in the 1960s allowed newer, more subversive works to be adapted. The literature which inspired it celebrated individuality and idiosyncrasy, rather than the hidebound extolling of the benefits to the body politic of collectivisation and uniformity.
No author better exemplified this, nor more intersected with the vital film culture of the time, than Bohumil Hrabal. Nowadays a revered, canonical figure but then a newly emergent talent whose rambunctious first official collection of stories, his Perlička na dně (Pearl on the Bottom), had only just been released after four years of delays.
Be there such a thing, the typical Hrabalian character fancies themselves a captivating raconteur and is given to regaling others with dovetailing stories tall yet sometimes true. The stories are thus told, often as not, serving as discursive crossfire amongst participants and delivered in lockstep soliloquies rather than functioning as conversation, per se.
Enriched by a distinctly Prague vernacular, Hrabal’s stories’ garrulous denizens favour free-associative anecdotal exchanges inspired in part by the French Surrealists’ predilections for automatism. New to the times, his work celebrates people from a wide array of walks of life, reflective of the author’s own highly varied prior employment and company kept, rendered oftentimes with a corresponding quotidian authenticity. At other times, his work was marked by a caricaturist’s heightened, albeit deadpan, skewered sense of the absurd.
The New Wave directors immediately identified in him a kindred spirit whose work they wished to promote. The initiator of the project, Jaromil Jireš, and six others promptly signed up to adapt stories from Hrabal’s debut towards the production of an omnibus film, with talismanic cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera in tow (another who’d emerge as a major cinematographer, Miroslav Ondříček, operated second camera.)
While two segments of the seven were later released separately – Ivan Passer’s Fádní odpoledne (A Boring Afternoon) and Juraj Herz’s Sběrné surovosti (The Junk Shop), the five filmmakers whose works made the final cut nonetheless represented the New Wave in miniature. Each of them, bar one (Jiří Menzel) – Jireš, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm and Věra Chytilová – had at least one highly accomplished feature film already behind them, and all had more glories to follow. Not least of these was Menzel, who would go on to enjoy a long-term collaboration with Hrabal, most famously winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1966’s Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains), co-scripted with Hrabal.
Between all five, such was the variety in aesthetic and narrative approaches, indicative of the breadth of directions the New Wave filmmakers would pursue overall, that Pearls of the Deep came to be regarded ipso facto as a manifesto of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Shot in Academy ratio and – aside from Schorm’s lurid Dům radosti (House of Joy) – in black-and-white, Pearls of the Deep privileges the cinéma vérité-like location shooting and natural lighting beloved of the New Wave. Yet it can also accommodate Chytilová’s beautiful play with textures and super-slow motion in Automat Svět (At the World Cafeteria), pointing to the radical experimentation which would fully blossom between her and Kučera in Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) and Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969).
Lyricism has a place, but is not employed as in Socialist Realism, to exalt the toil of the worker on collective farms, but rather in aesthetic appreciation of spectacles more associated with leisure, like the motorcycle racing in Menzel’s Smrt pana Baltazara (The Death of Mr. Baltazar), where verism is suddenly abandoned and Bach deployed to accompany the glorious, slow-motion vision of racing bikes surmounting a crest, or in the magical sight of a treetop city of onlookers enjoying the view of the race from hammocks and elaborate makeshift scaffolding.
Narratively Pearls encompasses both Jan Němec’s uncharacteristically conventional – albeit ultimately bitter – gag film set-up in Podvodníci (The Impostors), in which two hospitalised old blowhards’ self-aggrandising banter is doubly undercut by a hypocritically sanctimonious younger man, but also Chytilová’s surreal non-linearity at the other extreme. Notably, figures from outside society’s mainstream feature, with Jireš’ Romance a lively account of a tryst between a shy young Czech man and a brash young gypsy woman. Schorm’s House of Joy profiles the eccentric domicile of the very outsider artist (Václav Žák) who inspired the original story in the adaptation of which he stars. There’s room too for Hrabal’s penchant for earthy grotesquerie; Jireš closes the film with a montage gag in which a young boy appears to loom large over a grey cityscape, seemingly urinating a downpour upon all the umbrella-bearing worker ants far below, finding a comical analogue in editing to Hrabal’s mosaic-like free-associative play in his storytelling.
And Hrabal’s love of characters with morbid preoccupations is given rich vein. Menzel’s race spectators are more interested in nostalgically recollecting race crashes than in who might win or lose. A hanging haunts Chytilová’s segment, and there’s talk within it and in Menzel’s piece both of characters wishing to throw themselves to their death out of windows. This Hrabalian motif is granted great resonance by the death in 1997 of the author, who himself perished after a fall out of a (hospital) window.
Perličky na dně (Pearls of the Deep, 1965 Czechoslovakia 105 mins)
Prod Co: Filmové studio Barrandov Prod: František Sandr Dir: Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš Scr: Bohumil Hrabal with each of the directors Phot: Jaroslav Kučera Ed: Jiřina Lukešová, Miloslav Hájek Mus: Jan Klusák, Jiří Šust
Cast: Pavla Maršálková, Ferdinand Krůta, Alois Vachek, Josefa Pechlátová, Ivan Vyskočil, Věra Mrázková, Václav Zák, Vladimír Boudník