Though she is best known in the West for her widely celebrated anarchic experimental feminist classic Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966), Věra Chytilová has a large body of work. She was one of the members of the Czechoslovak New Wave whose work was suppressed after 1968, while other filmmakers such as Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer fled to the West and made the successful transition to Hollywood cinema. She was also the foremost female director of the Czechoslovak cinema in an era that was otherwise completely dominated by men.
As Meredith Slifkin has noted in Film Comment, Chytilová “was an integral player” in the New Wave, a “vehicle for political rebellion and aesthetic expression” that “defied the conventions of classical cinema and challenged the oppressive political-cultural regime”. Slifkin continues:
Her early works […] established Chytilová as not only an artistic force to be reckoned with, but as a female director unconcerned with assimilating with her male counterparts. Rather, Chytilová devoted herself with revolutionary fervor to breaking the conventions of female representation on screen.1
Born in 1929, Chytilová initially studied philosophy and architecture, and later worked as a fashion model, designer and photographic assistant. After breaking into the Czechoslovak film industry in a variety of menial capacities at the Barrandov Film Studios in Prague, she was accepted by the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), the fifth-oldest film school in the world. There, she studied under director Otakar Vávra and completed several student films – including Strop (Ceiling, 1962), a documentary on the life of Marta Kanovská, a fashion model; and Pytel blech (A Bagful of Fleas, 1962), about an oppressive girls’ dormitory – before embarking on her first, highly experimental, feature film, O něčem jiném (Something Different, 1963), which marked the emergence of a major talent on the Czechoslovak film scene.
Shot in flat, naturalistic black and white, Something Different intercuts two basic storylines – one staged, and one actual. In the documentary storyline, a champion gymnast, Eva Bosáková, prepares for a competition under the merciless tutelage of a male instructor; and in the fictional section, bored and unappreciated housewife Věra (Věra Uzelacová) contends with the tedium of her daily life while her husband (Josef Langmiler) does nothing more than come home after work and read the paper, expecting Věra to handle all the household chores. Eventually, Věra drifts into a love affair as an antidote to her barren home life, but it’s suggested that there’s no real escape or freedom for either Věra or Eva. They’ll both continue to struggle in a male-dominated world, which deprives each woman of any real chance for independence. It is a brilliant, if depressing, feminist narrative strategy.
Throughout the film’s running time, the two stories are repeatedly intercut at seemingly random intervals, and they never converge into one narrative – nor are they designed to. Věra and Eva are representative of the plight of women in Czechoslovak culture in the early 1960s, one that certainly persists to this day. Eva eventually triumphs as a gymnast in a world championship win, but Chytilová is careful to accentuate all the work that went into her eventual victory – a sprained ankle that constantly needs to be taped; the endless drill and repetition of her daily practice sessions – so that even the eventual “victory” comes at such a high price that she has sacrificed the rest of her life as a woman.
Věra’s world is equally barren, and her affair offers her no real way out of her predicament as a put-upon housewife and mother. She is painfully aware that the reality of her circumstances doesn’t tally with the idealised vision of domestic life that is sold as a consumerist vision through the media of the day and government propaganda. As Jiří Cieslar notes,
The anxiety present in [Something Different] results from a heightened knowledge that both women “compete” in their distant worlds, but with similar questions. Still, Eva’s solution is more positive: “Domestic” Věra, after her useless escape from her tedious marriage into a romantic affair, tries to patch up her broken family ties without any clearer hope for betterment. “Public” Eva’s life also does not improve appreciably, but she at least tries to pass on to her successors what [her trainer] has taught her: an art or a set of skills. Certainly, Eva has not left her space; she does not have any other.2
It should thus come as no surprise that Chytilová herself continually struggled against the existing system throughout her career as a filmmaker. While all of her films up through Daisies eventually saw a public release, Chytilová was always working against the grain of communist society.
With the events of August 1968, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to put a stop to the burgeoning cultural revolution known as the “Prague Spring” under Czech leader Alexander Dubček, Chytilová found that her work was under systematic attack. Between 1971 and 1976, she was unable to get funding or government approval for any new work, and it was only after she wrote a letter to the new Czech president, communist hardliner Gustáv Husák, that she was able to return to filmmaking with the brilliant feminist comedy Hra o jablko (The Apple Game, 1977) involving the romantic affairs of a young gynaecologist.
Even in her earliest work, which is only now becoming readily accessible in the West, we can see Věra Chytilová reaching beyond the ordinary for something altogether radical, raw and refreshing – totally experimental films with a message, social value and cultural resonance. In the end, her decision to stay in what is now the Czech Republic until her death on 12 March 2014 was a conscious decision to stay and fight for what she knew was right: the reform of all social constructs in her native country. Chytilová was a radical and utterly brilliant feminist, a revolutionary in both style and substance. Something Different gives us a refreshing glimpse into the creative mind that created a new cinema in the classic and unsurpassable Daisies.
While others left the country, Chytilová continued to fight for artistic freedom in a regime that was never really sympathetic to her work and only grudgingly allowed her to continue making films. “I was daring enough to want absolute freedom, even if it was a mistake,” she said, near the end of her life.3 This was the aim of all of her work – to continue to question authority, gender inequality and misogyny, to fight for the rights of women, to overthrow the existing patriarchal order by any means possible. Chytilová left a strong legacy: her work continues to kindle the fire within young revolutionaries, feminists and radical experimental filmmakers around the world.
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O něčem jiném (Something Different) (1963, Czech Republic, 85 min)
Prod Co: Ceskoslovenský Státní Dir: Věra Chytilová Scr: Věra Chytilová Phot: Jan Čurík Snd: Miloslav Hůrka Ed: Miroslav Hájek Art Dir: Vladimir Labský Ass. Dir: Jiří Menzel Mus: Jiří Slitr
Cast: Věra Uzelacová , Eva Bosáková, Josef Langmiler, Jiří Kodet, Luboš Ogoun, Milivoj Uzelac Jr., Vladimir Bosák
- Meredith Slifkin, “In Memoriam: Věra Chytilová (1929-2014),” Film Comment, 19 March 2014, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/in-memoriam-vera-chytilova/ ↩
- Jiří Cieslar, “‘Now I Don’t Know How to Keep On Going’: The Early Films of Věra Chytilová,” Kinoeye 2.8 (29 April 2002), http://www.kinoeye.org/02/08/cieslar08.php ↩
- Carmen Gray, “Vera Chytilová for Beginners,” British Film Institute News, 29 November 2016, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/vera-chytilova-beginners ↩