The “Czechoslovak film miracle” of the 1960s has long been synonymous with the Czechoslovak New Wave, a term principally applied to works produced by a storied cluster of filmmakers who emerged that decade through Prague’s film school, FAMU. Yet, for all that the world is still catching up with the vast collective output of the New Wave filmmakers, there has simultaneously been a wilful overlooking of films produced in that country at that same time by directors associated with the nation’s popular cinema.

This elision is at its most egregious when it comes to consideration of the career of comedy specialist Oldřich Lipský (1924 – 1986), and more egregious still when it comes to Happy End (1967), a film of his as conceptually and formally radical, and virtuosic, as any helmed by the New Wave’s celebrated, most outré directors – your Chytilovás, Němeces, Jakubiskos, Juráčeks, et al. If there’s a positive to this, it’s that Happy End can astonish even the most cinephilic audiences today with its singular bravura, in a way vanishingly few feature films from the Golden Age of European cinema still can. Lucky us!

Happy End’s fundamental conceit is ingenious; its execution, doubly so. A middle-aged butcher named Bedřich Frydrych (Vladimír Menšík) narrates his life story, from birth to death. Sure – it’s that old chestnut, the posthumous narrator. However, in an avowal and disavowal at once of Sunset Blvd.’s (Billy Wilder, 1950) narrative positionality, what constitutes Bedřich’s birth in his narration is, as shown on screen, clearly his death, but shown in reverse. We watch as his disembodied head joins his body beneath the blade of a guillotine, the click of the executioner’s scissors after the blade flies upwards analogous to the cutting of an umbilical cord, and a function of a purely cinematic device, a device almost as old as cinema itself: reverse motion.

Thus is set up a unique premise for a puzzle film in which form and narrative assume a Möbius strip of interwovenness, allowing time and Bedřich’s story to run forwards and backwards simultaneously, to hilarious, blackly comedic effect. Bedřich narrates his story as it unfolds on screen in a recent past tense, incorporating ellipses which can span anywhere from minutes (one surmises) to many years, moving inexorably towards, from his perspective, the certain death that awaits all of us. Yet, at the same time, everything that happens to him in the course of the film has also already happened. His ultimate fate, then, is surely just as much to return to the womb as it is to die…

It requires considerable mental gymnastics on the part of viewers to make sense of a narrative running in two temporal directions at once, each with very different implications for the fates of the characters on screen. For example, the birth of Bedřich’s child is a tragedy – “Our lovely child got smaller and smaller. […] She lost her teeth and can’t walk. She lay down more often, and finally couldn’t even get up,” while deaths are joyous occasions. And consider the implications of the scene in which Bedřich assembles his wife(!) in and around a bathtub, while musing in voiceover:

I used to see women from the lyceum window, but they were already assembled. I’ve got no instructions. […] One little mistake and I could create a monster, which I can’t let go out onto the streets. […] I felt like the Creator, like a God!

I have written elsewhere1 about the immensely (Bride of) Frankensteinian character of this indelible scene; moreover, when we consider the Frankensteinian nature of cinema itself2 – the stitching together of disparate still parts to create, through montage and projection, the illusion of animation – this ghoulish scene is peerlessly, manifoldly Frankensteinian, in its generation of multiple contradictory meanings! 

Accordingly, Happy End’s gag-laden dialogue requires close attention to parse in the direction it makes the most conventional sense in (i.e., in reverse order) on top of enjoying the more immediate hilarity produced by the Dadaistic non-sequiturs it produces in the order it’s delivered and received.


That Lipský has been so critically under-appraised seems extraordinary. He scarcely rates a mention in Peter Hames’ essential Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition3 outside of grudging admiration for aspects of his immediately previous feature, Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera (Lemonade Joe, 1964). However, he mostly attributes its successes to its debt to animation – to wit, to its scriptwriter, Jiří Brdečka, who was also a famed director of animation.

Lipský often worked with figures from avant-garde and New Wave productions, including Až přijde kocour (The Cassandra Cat, Vojtěch Jasný, 1963) writer Brdečka twice more, many years later, on Tajemství hradu v Karpatech (The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians, 1981) and Adéla ještě nevečeřela (Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet, 1978). Those two wonderful, steampunk-y comedies, and his later fairy tale, Tři veteráni (Three Veterans, 1983), moreover, all featured significant animated contributions from Jan Švankmajer, whose ludic animated shorts of the ‘60s could be considered cousins, at one remove, of Happy End. Surely these connections alone should have piqued more curiosity and scholarship from the critical community?

More germanely, Lipský’s technical collaborators on Happy End were some of the greatest to grace the Czechoslovak film history. His Director of Photography was Vladimír Novotný, a trick photography specialist. He was the perfect accomplice, not just in realising Lipský’s vision of a sepia-toned, fin de siècle Mitteleuropa, but in executing all of the film’s elaborate reverse-motion choreography.

As with much of Lipský’s work, period-appropriate, silent-era cinema aesthetics and techniques abound. Novotný provided undercranking, overcranking and freeze frames galore – there’s an enormous amount of play with the flow of cinematic time in Happy End additional to that fundamental to the film’s premise. Much of it directly references silent and even proto-cinema, from Czech pioneer Jan Kříženecký’s footage of swimmers at a city lido jumping into the water, and back out again, in Žofínská plovárna (Žofín Swimming Bath, 1898), to Eadweard Muybridge’s famous sequential photographic series, The Horse in Motion (1878).

Happy End’s editor was Miroslav Hájek, whose brilliance was integral to the cut-up masterclass that was Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) – enough said! Moreover, Happy End was produced under the auspices of the Šmída-Fikar Creative Group, whose masterful working of the labyrinthine machinery of a fully state-sponsored but recently Stalinist film industry produced so much of the period’s most innovative and acclaimed work, from Chytilová’s O něčem jiném (Something Different, 1963), Postava k podpírání (Joseph Kilian, Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, 1964) and The Cassandra Cat in ’63, via Jiří Menzel’s Oscar-winning Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains) and Daisies in 1966 through to Jaromil Jireš’ Žert (The Joke) in ’69.

With all these links in personnel to canonised greats, it’s all the more astonishing that Lipský has been so overlooked. But let us not now overlook scriptwriter Miloš Macourek, either, whose legacy beyond his masterpiece, Happy End, is vast. Yet his high-concept “crazy comedies” of the late ‘60s and the post-’68 “Normalisation” era – amongst “the films we are ashamed of”, as Slovak film historian Petra Hanáková once described them4 – have been relegated to the critical margins.

These crazy comedies, often directed by Lipský or his comedy rival, Václav Vorlíček, are ripe for (re-)discovery and critical re-evaluation. They are routinely rife with subversive play with norms of space and time, gender, and Cold War politics and iconography, and many are teeming with glorious Pop Art production design. They also typically feature wonderful ensemble casts. 

A regular member of these ensembles was Vladimír Menšík, who too seldom got to enjoy a leading role – a shame because, as Happy End makes clear, he was an extraordinarily gifted physical comedian. See also Ester Krumbachová’s Vražda Ing. Čerta (The Murder of Mr Devil, 1970), where he quite literally chews a lot of the scenery. His fellow Happy End cast members are all superb, too, not least Jaroslava Obermaierová as Bedřich’s wife and Josef Abrhám as her dandyish lover, “Birdie”, whose affair the film’s plot(s) hinge upon, whether considered from a time-forwards or -backwards perspective.

But ultimately, it’s Menšík’s performance as Bedřich Frydrych that’ll greatest be remembered from this extraordinary film. It seems fitting then to close by acknowledging that Bedřich and Frydrych are both Czech names equivalent to the English “Frederick”. Well, of course his name’s going to be the same, whichever way you want to order it!

Happy End (1967 Czechoslovakia 69 min) 

Prod Co: Filmové studio Barrandov Prod: Bohumil Šmída, Ladislav Fikar Dir: Oldřich Lipský Scr: Miloš Macourek, Oldřich Lipský Phot: Vladimír Novotný Mus: Vlastimil Hála Sound: Josef Vlček Ed: Miroslav Hájek Prod Des: Karel Škvor

Cast: Vladimír Menšík, Jaroslava Obermaierová, Josef Abrhám, Bohuš Záhorský, Stella Zázvorková, Helena Ružičková, Jiří Steimar, Martin Růžek, Bedřich Prokoš, Josef Hlinomaz, Jaroslav Štercl, Mirko Musil


  1. Cerise Howard, “Happy End, or: A bride (and a narrative) Frankensteined by her uxoricidal husband, even” in Bride of Frankenstein, Emma Westwood (ed.) (Hornsea: Electric Dreamhouse, Hornsea, 2023), pp. 165-180.
  2. “Isn’t the myth of Frankenstein an essentially cinematographic myth, a metaphor of cinema itself?” asked Alberto Manguel in his Bride of Frankenstein monograph. Alberto Manguel, Bride of Frankenstein (London: British Film Institute, 1997), p. 52.
  3. Peter Hames, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p. 50.
  4. Petra Hanáková, “‘The Films We are Ashamed of’: Czech Crazy Comedy of the 1970s and 1980s” in Via Transversa: Lost Cinema of the Former Eastern Bloc, Eva Näripea and Andreas Trossek (eds) (Tallinn: Estonian Academy of Arts, 2008), pp. 109-121.

About The Author

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Cerise Howard has been Program Director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival since May 2023. A co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque for several years now, she previously co-founded the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and was its Artistic Director from 2013-2018; she was also a co-founding member of tilde: Melbourne Trans and Gender Diverse Film Festival. For five years she has been a Studio Leader at RMIT University, specialising in studios interrogating the shortcomings of the canon and incubating film festivals. She plays a mean bass guitar.

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