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History of Czech Cinema


Anny Ondrakova

History of Czech Cinema

The Beginnings

The wonder of motion pictures appeared in the Czech lands soon after the first major success by the Lumiére brothers in Paris. The first film presentations took place in 1896 in Karlovy Vary and Prague. And a year later, a film was made for the first time in Bohemia, when an American film company shot a traditional Passion Play theater production in Horicena Sumave.

The pioneer and man who can be considered the father of Czech filming was the architect, Jan Krízenecký (1868-1921).Krízenecký, dazzled by the Lumiére brothers’ artefact, filmed the first local production, Dostavencickove Mlynici and the first short, Plac a Smich, in 1898. However, due to the growing political tension that led to World War I, the film industry stayed small.

The first permanent movie theater was opened in Prague in 1907. Nevertheless, films that were completely made on the domestic scene were still scarce. Local film companies were still new and their efforts lagged behind global trends and remained in a state of pioneering experiments.

The Industry During the Wars

After WWI, the Czech cinema began to beinfluenced by the American film industry, as weremost film industries in Europe. By 1921, the A-B Company opened a studio in Vino hrady and produced a fairy tale called Zlaty Klicek(Gold Key).This era produced several notable works, including several films from the well-known novelist, Jaroslav Hasek.

This period was characterized by the production of melodramas with social themes. These silent movies were filmed in studios and rarely on location. During the end of the 1920s, silent films began to give way to sound films ― a period in which actors had to prove their dramatic talents more than before. Talented performers took advantage of this new feature. One of them, Czech actress Anny Ondráková, garnered praise locally and then became an international star when she had the leaking role in Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film.

The 1930s marked an important decade for the film industry in Czechoslovakia. No European city counted so many cinemas per capita as Prague. The number of productions steadily increased every year and, gradually, the film industry needed more studios.By 1938, at the peak of film attendance in Czechoslovakia, there were 1824 cinemas with a total of 600,000 seats throughout the country.

Despite the push towards commercialism, filmmakers like Josef Rovensky, Martin Fric, Gustav Machaty, Otakar Vavra and Hugo Haas created innovative films that received international acclaim at the Venice Film Festival in 1934. From these years, Gustav Machaty’s masterpiece Extasy (1933), caused a sensation in that time because of the two nude scenes starring the young Hedwig Kiesler.

In the 1940s, after the Nazi invasion to Czechoslovakia, the Germans expanded the local industry and over 100 feature films were produced by Czech studios during the war. However, following the CommunistCoup of 1947, a new era began for Czech filmmaking. Most film studios were nationalized as the Russians introduced their own ideas in Czechoslovakian film and soon, strict censorship and 'social realism' ruled.

In addition toa small number of interesting feature films, including one of the most successful Czech films of all time, Borivoj Zeman’s Pysnaprincezna (The Proud Princess), a large number of animated films were produced. In the 1950s, beautiful films were made by important filmmakers such as Karel Zeman, a pioneer with special effects and Vynalez zkazy. Both combined acted drama with animation.

The Golden Age of the 1960s

Marked by an open-minded era, these years were witness to an outstanding change in the country’s filmmaking brought about by the so-called Golden Age of Czech Cinema. With figures like Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos, among others, the industry started to produce anti-Stalin and anti-Socialist films that also ventured into the new sexual revolution and gradually grew in strength.

Most of the directors that excelled in this decade studied at Prague's Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), one of the oldest film schools in Europe. It is remarkable that Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos's The Shop on Main Street and Jiří Menzel's Closely Watched Trains both won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. At the dawn of the decade, the Soviet invasion in August 1968 brought the era to an end and many directors left the country to avoid censorship and repression.

Post-Communist Era

After the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in 1989, all major production companies were privatized. That, combined with the new open market, which meant foreign films could be screened without restrictions, caused a plunge in the country’s industry. By 1992, only eight films were shot compared to the 25 per year in the Golden Sixties.

However, the 1990s produced a generation of talented directors including Jan Svěrák, Jan Hřebejk, Saša Gedeon, Petr Zelenka, and David Ondříček. Svěrák's Elementary School was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and his movie Kolya won the award in 1996. Hřebejk's Divided We Fall also received an Academy Award nomination in the same category.

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Jan Hrebejk

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