I first came to Czechoslovakian cinema through surrealism. In a cinema studies class at university my tutor took us through the standard fare of the movement (mostly Buñuel and other works that were contemporary to the era). He then showed us some later films including the genius and subversive films of Jan Švankmajer. I was captivated. His version of Alice and the remarkable Jabberwocky opened up a doorway into the very stuff I was mildly obsessed with. Carrollian absurdity, Dalí’s paranoiac critical method, stop-motion animation – a world that was infused with fairy tales that acted as political allegories. While I could go on indefinitely about how much Švankmajer’s work means to me (it even inspired me to live in Prague for a short while and track down the filmmaker in his Gambra gallery) suffice to say my interest in Czechoslovakian cinema was ignited and I did my best to track down as much of it as I could, which in the early 1990s was no easy task.
VHS tapes of questionable provenance exchanged hands and I was in possession of what would become one of my favourite films of all time – Vêra Chytilová’s Czech new wave masterstroke, 1966’s Daisies. Banned several times by the government, Chytilová’s film was a sly and subversive examination of totalitarian regimes, feminism, consumption, and a perfect example of the female ‘id’ coming into conflict with the ‘super ego’ of society.
Two young women, Marie I, Jitka Cerhová (brunette) and Marie II, Ivana Karbanová (strawberry blonde) decide that as society is spoiled they shall be too and carry out anarchic plans that encompass everything from bilking older men for food and money, to drunkenly ruining a posh club’s cabaret act. Chytilová forgoes all sense of cinematic formalism to create a kaleidoscopic experience that heightens the actions of the Maries. By intercutting footage of real-world conflicts with the Maries’ antics Chytilová reminds the audience that the young women are existing in a space that is already perverse, and their seeming perversions are in fact a reasonable response to the milieu they inhabit. As their antics become more extreme they philosophise on their place in the world. A hapless lover pines for Marie II but his habit of collecting and pinning butterflies speaks of something more sinister for the young woman if she acquiesces to his desires.
Chytilová creates the Maries to be femme-enfants, they are childlike, sometimes almost marionettes. Yet they possess the desirability and impetuousness of youth unbridled. As they resist adulthood responsibilities they resist the society that would shape them. They are symbols of excess when they greedily eat at the tables set for others, yet would society let them eat at all if they weren’t feasting by nefarious means? Chytilová’s film was banned ostensibly due to the characters showing gluttony and food wastage. Realistically the depiction of societal interrupters such as the Maries could not be tolerated by the Soviet regime that took a chokehold on the bohemian country.
There are many filmmakers in Czechoslovakia who undertook great risks to create extraordinary art under totalitarian rule. Czech and Slovak filmmakers today have inherited a vibrant cinematic past and continue to produce some of the most interesting work to come out Europe.