The Saturday Auteur

Věra Chytilová: the Czech New Wave director banned by her government
By Cal Brockel | Film+TV | 8 May 2021
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of The Saturday Auteur

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
THE SATURDAY AUTEUR: Exploring the life and work of revered directors

A former philosophy student and fashion model, Věra Chytilová became a founding member of the Czech New Wave with her stylish and absurd cinematic assaults on the state of the nation. Her films are at the same time formalistic, surreal and delicately observed – creating human moments amidst anarchic symbolism. Her joyful and sardonic experimentations would see her censored, banned and eventually stopped from making films altogether until pressure from the international community put her back behind the camera.

Daises by Věra Chytilová, 1966

A sign of the times

Věra Chytilová was the first woman to study film directing at Prague’s prestigious film academy, FAMU. There she studied with and under many of the names that would be associated with the Czech New Wave, including Ján Kadár, Ivan Passer and Otakar Vavra. Her graduate film The Ceiling was already infused with her early brand of subtle dissent: inspired by her own experience, Chytilova’s lens explores, in fluid cinéma vérité style, the life of a young model in Prague. From this strange realism, she picks out a materialistic ennui, a sense of powerlessness, and gives an honest account of the lifestyles of her subjects. This was as unpopular with western socialists as it was with her own government.

She followed this up with another short work inspired by cinéma vérité, A Bagful of Fleas (1962). Using a group of non-actors in improvised scenes, she satirises the education of young women in a textile factory boarding house. We see this world through the eyes of new arrival, Eva, and hear her whispered internal narrative as she adjusts and forms opinions about her surroundings. Her monologues are cynical and unsentimental, though she is drawn towards rebellious Jana. The film explores a flourishing of individuality in a rigid environment. There is a key scene when Jana is brought before the works council for her problematic conduct. Her lifestyle and values are discussed in an open forum as Jana herself stands silent and refuses to engage.

Chytilova’s first feature, Something Different (1963) employs a similar style to tell the story of two women: one a champion gymnast in training, the other a struggling housewife that embarks on an affair. The film employs a mixture of documentary and fictive styles to juxtapose the two women’s lives – public and domestic. While they never cross paths in the narrative, they are united in matched cuts and thematic rhyme. They get bored and frustrated in tandem by their wildly different paths; both dominated by the men around them and both silently searching for some kind of freedom. The film is notable for its depiction of women and their deprived independence, but Chytilová often maintained that she was not a feminist but an individualist – which explians her rejection of any ‘movement’.

A Bagful of Fleas by Věra Chytilová, 1962

Daisies - Before the tanks rolled in

Věra Chytilová was able to juggle these themes publicly, along with other players in the New Wave, because of a general liberalising of the CSR [Czechoslovak Socialist Republic] during the 60s. The voices of reformers had been becoming steadily louder. As the possibilities opened up around them, writers, artists and filmmakers were more vocal in their dissent, and Chytilová made her best-known film, Daisies (1966).

Daisies is a gluttonously absurd comedy that, through its psychedelic imagery and biting satire, defined the age. It tells the story of two girls (Marie 1 and Marie 2) who decide that, since everything is going bad, they must be going bad too. They embark on a dizzying frenzy of debauchery with the constant refrain of: “Does it matter?” As the pair take out sugar daddies and leave them with enormous bills, and dance and drink to exhaustion, they philosophise about the meaninglessness of everything and the absurdity of life. Eventually they even start to question if they exist at all. In Daisies, this kind of existential doubt can be easily doused – after all, does it matter? The film is a masterful takedown of consumer-focused society and hypocritical decadence and is a high point in the art of excess.

The film is vibrant and colourful, from the costumes and the feasts to the inevitable dance number. This cheery decline into nothing is matched in the choppy editing and visual effects as the pair literally deconstruct each other with a pair of scissors. 

It culminates in an orgy of consumption as the Maries destroy a silver service feast. They feed, they fight, they sit in every chair and waltz down the table of bourgeois decadence like a catwalk. It was for this scene that the film was ultimately banned. The government called the wastage of food reprehensible. The final film contains a postscript dedication: ‘to all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled on trifle’.

Something Different by Věra Chytilová, 1963

Fruits of the Prague spring

In January 1968, the liberalisation of Czechoslovakia led to a reformist Alexander Dubček being elected first secretary. What followed were sweeping reforms that decentralised the administration and gave greater press freedoms. Dubček’s goal was to give “Socialism with a human face”.

There was an immediate reaction from the Soviet Union resulting in months of tense negotiations and compromises between Dubček and the Soviets before, on August 20th, the armies of the Warsaw Pact nations invaded the CSR. The fall was swift and globally condemned, from the USA to China. The reforms were rolled back in a process called ‘normalisation’, and Dubček was sent to work in a forestry.

It was perhaps not the perfect climate for Chytilová to release her most formalist and symbolic piece yet, Fruit of Paradise (1970): a psychedelic, surreal re-imagining of the story of Adam and Eve. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in visuals. The opening sequence is a beautiful piece of visual art and operatic sound that can make the rest of the film seem flat in comparison. Here, the characters are archetypes and live in a strange dreamworld of vignettes. The new authorities took less kindly to Chytilová’s experimentation and she was barred from making any more films.

Daises by Věra Chytilová, 1966

Internationale

In 1976, she responded to an invite to a newly-assembled Year of Women film festival in the US that her government would not let her attend. The festival had asked to screen Daisies and Chytilová revealed that there were no uncensored prints in her possession, and that she was no longer allowed to make films. This led to widespread international pressure on the Czechoslovakian government to allow Chytilová to return to her work. As the pressure mounted, she reached out personally to President Gustáv Husák in a letter. She outlined her own practice and career, highlighting her deep socialist beliefs, and it was this, combined with a decline in cinema attendance in the country that led to Chytilová’s return to cinema.

Fruit of Paradise by Věra Chytilová, 1970

The auteur continued to make experimental films – and have run-ins with the authorities – in the decades that followed. Over time, she adopted a more realist style but maintained her closely observed commentaries on commercialism, the lives of women and the controlled society that surrounded her. Her work has been historically hard to find in the west but the few that have made it through have become iconic symbols of the era around the globe. While many other censored directors of the time made their way to more liberal countries to ply their trade, Chytilová remained. Uncowed by governmental pressure to change her work, she became a voice for the individual in a restrictive world.

What to watch by Věra Chytilová:

  • A Bagful of Fleas, 1962
  • Something Different, 1963
  • Daisies, 1966
  • Fruit of Paradise, 1970
  • Traps, 1998


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