Czech, please!

A new film series revives old modernist spirits

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A faltering economy is the biggest threat to most national film industries, but Czechoslovakia's had a more distinct misfortune: it was shut down by occupation forces not once but twice. Most famously, the 1960s Czech new wave, in which talents like Jirí Menzel, Ivan Passer, Vera Chytilová, and Milos Forman first flourished, was abruptly dammed by the 1968 Soviet invasion. The type of widespread film-buff culture that brought attention to those directors scarcely existed when — before the Nazis commandeered local studios and permitted only a handful of strictly escapist films to be made for the home market — the country's cinema had its first golden age.

Before World War II, Czechoslovakia boasted one of the most adventurous and lively — if not widely exported — movie industries in the world. Of course, this meant there was room for a lot of populist fluff. But the 12 features in the Pacific Film Archive's new series "Czech Modernism, 1926–1949" show why Nazi invaders sensed a celluloid threat: these films are full of playful social critique as well as imaginative stylistic leaps. They assume that an audience is intelligent and that it will enjoy the subversion of authority. These films don't provide pacification, let alone propaganda.

As playwright and Velvet Underground fan turned president Václav Havel would suggest some decades later, Czech life — at least the urban variety — has long appreciated the intersection of the avant-garde and leftist politics. The region's geographic location, between the sophisticated capitalist West and the stylistically impoverished Communist USSR, at times seems directly reflected in these films' colliding influences, from German expressionism to Soviet formalism to an Erich von Stroheim–esque attitude decadence.

The series' two movies by director Vladislav Vancura apply a mad stylistic energy to subjects that might easily have been played for simple melodrama or pathos. In 1933's On the Sunny Side, a pair of city children whose friendship bridges the class divide end up dumped in an orphanage when their parents are deemed unfit: first it's fatherless, accordion-playing Honza, then pigtailed Babula, whose womanizing dad has just bankrupted the family. Frenetic montages contrast the adult worlds of poor and rich, cutting between breadlines and champagne-guzzling flappers. At the progressive home for foundlings, by contrast, equality is ensured by self-government — as a collective, the kids are better able to look after their own welfare than the grown-ups who've failed them.

Vancura's Faithless Marijka, from the next year, is set in the Carpathian Mountains, with local nonprofessional actors as the leads. But it's no sylvan idyll. The supposedly central tale of a lumberjack's cheating spouse is nearly lost amid the struggles of laborers to triumph over their greedy oppressors (whose ranks include a disturbing anti-Semitic caricature).

A similar mix of poetic naturalism and Eisensteinian montage marks Karl Junghans's 1929 silent Such Is Life. Its titular shrug downplays a vigorous look at some ordinary Prague residents, notably a put-upon laundry worker (Vera Baranovskaya, who played the title character of Vsevolod Pudovkin's 1926 Mother), her loutish husband, and a manicurist daughter pretty enough to attract major trouble. Similar perils await two office girls lured into a lecherous nightlife in 1931's From Saturday to Sunday, by Gustav Machatý, who would create an international sensation with Hedy Lamarr's nude swim in Ecstasy two years later.

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