Continuing Steve Williams’ exploration of the strange and surreal world of Czech cinema. Part one discussed the origins of the Avant-garde. Part two explores how Czech surrealism fostered lyricism and absurdity.

Jan Nemec, the enfant terrible of the Czech New Wave, represents a synthesis of the poetist ideal of pure cinema and the politicisation of the Novy Vlna. Demanty Noci, his 1964 film, is pure poetry of the senses. It excoriates, it bites, it enflames and inflicts wounds. It conjoins past, present and future, dream and reality. And it does this whilst barely uttering a word – the dialogue, as with his homage to silent cinema Martyrs of Love, is minimal, almost unimportant. Its use of texture and landscape through the cinematography of Jaroslav Kucera is vital in producing a sensory collage.

In stark contrast is The Party and the Guests (1966) – one of four films of the Novy Vlna to be banned forever. Another collaborative effort with his then wife Esther Krumbochova, the film depends on verbal language and dialogue. The meaninglessness phrases uttered by the party guests are empty-headed, dogmatic slogans –an Absurdist approach to communication. The protagonists’ individualities are stripped through by the forces of the microcosmic society created. The resultant powerlessness they experience leads to them seeking refuge in materialism, in objects, and to their complicity in maintaining the sclerotic system in which they co-exist.

An inability to decipher, to attach meaning, to allude knowingly to cosily recognisable symbols is threatening to any of us, but particularly to those with a despotic bent. Allegory, paranoia and oversensitivity are the bedfellows of any totalitarian regime. It’s partly their duty to read hidden meanings where there are none, their commission to be paranoid and to seek to control every thought and impulse contained within human nature. Utopia is beyond human, beyond humanity. It lies permanently over the horizon. One almost suspects that films were commissioned so that the farcical process of censorship and censure could begin again, solely to justify their own existence.

As Devetsil gave birth to Poetism, Poetism to a Czech surrealism, so this surrealism fostered elements of lyricism and absurdism. Both are evident in Pavel Juracek and Jan Schmidt’s Joseph Killian (1963) and in the works of Vojtech Jasny, Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. One of the original absurdist writers was, of course, Franz Kafka, born in Prague, and the line stretches through Vaclav Havel to modern writers from the Czech Republic. The tradition has a particular relevance to realism, argues Martin Esslin, in ‘Eastern’ Europe, where writers like Beckett were considered ‘political writers’ and absurdist theatre could recreate a realism ‘undreamed of in the west’.

Vratislav Effenberger post-war leader of the Czech Surrealist Group’s assertion that Absurdism possesses a critical function, that in order to objectify the absurd and irrational ‘reality’ that surrounds one, one merely has to point a camera at it, is evident in the ‘realist’ films of the New Wave, particularly those of Passer and Forman. The authorities banned Milos Forman’s Fireman’s Ball (1967) ‘forever’, for being over critical of its power. Its existentialist-absurdist view of the prosaic and the parochial depicts authority as bungling, seeking to impose order and reason on things it doesn’t understand and can’t control. Things like human nature. The reality on display is farcical, but one imagines entirely equable with the Gogolian existence that one had to become accustomed to. A man is offered tickets for stolen raffle prizes, to make up for the loss of his house in a fire – a fire that was raging while all the firemen’s attentions were taken up with concocting their own seedy, bucolic beauty pageant.

Absurdity and Surrealism’s critical functions seek either to disintegrate reality or to vitalise it. Many people’s idea of Czech Surrealism is embodied in the films of Jan Svankmajer, a man as uncomfortable with the term surrealist as he is with that of filmmaker, saying that ‘Surrealism is psychology, it is philosophy, it is a spiritual way, but it is not an aesthetic. It was drawn as an element from various different artists, but it does not exist’. Roger Cardinal sees Svankmajer as a collagist, echoing that congenital preoccupation of the Czech avant-garde. One of Svankmajer’s inspirations, Arcimboldo, produced surrealist collages of the 16th Century Holy Roman Empire, Rudolf II, from fruit and vegetables. Dimensions of Dialogue, Svankmajer’s 1982 film, most clearly emulates Arcimboldo as well as demonstrating strong dialectical elements of surrealism.

Svankmajer’s fascination with the secret life of objects is also interpretable as apolitical. He sees himself as a collector of objects, as opposed to a consumer – and via this process builds a relationship with them in order to uncover their true identities. The ability of objects to challenge perceptions of language and of reality, became a device employed by Surrealists as well as artists of the Novy Vlna. As Dawn Ames points out, in Breton’s essay Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality, seems to suggest that dream objects should be put into circulation in reality as a way to challenge reality itself. This eventually manifested in the surrealist objects by artists such as Dali, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim. Rene Magritte, in his pictorial declaration ‘Ceci ne cest pas un pipe’ also pointed at the unreliability of a universal concept, use and identity of an object. Similar use of objects can be seen in Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) – when a ring changes significance, and a neck tie changes purpose – and in Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lightning (1965), where a chicken is either symbolic of failure, an allegory of collectivism or creature that provides eggs. The interpretation is in the eye of the beholder and in the moment of convergence.

Svankmajer joined Effenberger’s Surrealist Group after Czechoslovakia was invaded by the tanks of the Warsaw Pact countries under the auspices of the Soviets and produced his first overtly political works as a consequence. The Garden (1968), a live-action film manipulates absurdist and surrealist elements into a devastatingly simple and excoriating political allegory that deals a blow by concretising an irrational reality.

This and subsequent films, such as Leonardo’s Diary (1972) and The Flat (1968), enraged the Communist party censors and Svankmajer was banned from filmmaking for seven years. In Leonardo’s Diary he splices formalistic animations of Da Vinci drawings with unauthorised footage of the reality of life under Communism. Beauty and progress flow in the film, contrasted with the drudgery and decline of existence in the Soviet utopia. This is a significant reversal of a further surrealist use of objects, apparent in Svankmajer’s films. He imbues the quotidian, the banal objects populating this existence with magical properties and a fantastical secret life. For him, salvation and liberation are to be found in these objects. They are within reach and accessible on an everyday basis. They stimulate the imagination, they free the one part of humanity that cannot be taken from you – that of the creative being who exists within all of us. Andre Breton saw existence under a ‘pragmatic reality’ or an ‘arbitrary utility’ as robbing us slowly of our boundless childhood creativity. Svankmajer’s fascination with objects is an attempt to reconnect with that innate imagination, just as Teige, Nezval and other forbearers had in the previous decades. Surrealism was politicised, especially in these central European parts, as the inner world, the sovereign state of the individual is one place ‘they’ – whoever ‘they’ may be – can never wholly rule.

With the recent death of Czechoslovakia’s esteemed former president, Vaclav Havel, and a forthcoming retrospective of master animator Jan Svankmajer’s films at the Glasgow film festival, Steve Williams introduces us to the strange and surreal world of Czech cinema. In part one, he discusses the origins of the Czech Avant-garde.

In December Vaclav Havel – an embodiment of the high-esteem in which Czech culture holds its artists and public intellectuals – passed away. The emblematic red neon heart, with which he was so closely associated, flickered and died. His death, of course, rightfully deserved the public grief it received but should also elicit an amount of confoundment and awe at over a century of Czech avant-garde art and its contribution to the political development of that region. Havel has played a significant part in both.

The Czech Avant-garde is uniquely Czech in that it is rooted in nature – complex, robust and adaptable. Many of its most notable practitioners have sought to extricate themselves from the label. Its origins lay in the Devetsil and Poetism movements of the 1920s, less nihilistic and more epicurean to other movements born out of the slaughter of World War I. It was even aesthetically different and politically nuanced. Its roots lie in the mystical forests of Sumava and in an optimistic and collective view of art. Devetsil, meaning ‘nine forces’ refering to the nine founding members of the movement, is also the Czech word for the butterbur plant, emphasising its origins in nature. No elitist cult of the artist was welcomed here.

According to one of its founder members Vratislav Nezval, Devetsil organically grew into Poetsim, which saw itself as the voice of Modernism, believing in the emancipating potential of technological developments – a less bloodthirsty and vociferous view of the function of mechanisation than its concomitant Latin relatives, the Futurists. Its Marxist ideology determined its dedication to mass art forms and the development of a proletarian culture through the synthesis of avant-garde and populist entertainment. Cinema seems an obvious medium for fulfilling these aims, however the Devetsil artists never succeeded in completing a film, writing only a series of screenplays for ‘picture poems’, although Aleksandr Hackenschmied – the future Mr Maya Deren – did produce some seminal formalistic experimental films in the 1920s. Poetism revelled in a ‘poetry of the senses’ devising, in theory at least, the concept of the ‘smell poem’. Its approach to cinema was to pursue a form of ‘pure cinema’ – a doctrine that new wave filmmaker Jan Nemec would return to in the 1960s.

The synthesis of an avant-garde populism for the masses was achieved to a certain degree in the 1920s and 30s in the work of the performers of the occasionally slapstick ‘liberated theatre’, comedy duo, Voskovec and Werich.

Robert Pynsent refers to Havel’s satire as ‘moral slapstick’. The Czech avant-garde’s dedication to the coalescence of ‘higher’ and mass cultures manifested itself when Havel became President of the once again liberated central European land. One cannot think of anyone more self aware or better equipped for the paradoxes and absurdity of power than him. Despite this he was not immune, prone to fixations with Borek Sipek designed vases and ugly lecterns, but was able to emerge from ill health and twelve years of administration with wry insight and a first feature film, ‘Leaving,’ about a former leader of a unnamed country facing up to relinquishing power.

As Jonathan L Owen to whom, along with Peter Hames, this article is heavily indebted, observed ‘The story of Czech avant-garde is the story of its relationship with communism’ – which is mostly true, however, it is also the story of its relationship with idealism. The avant-garde developed during that cataclysmic rivalry between the prevalent idealisms of the 20th century into a branch of Surrealism, in which one can see the dialectics inherent in that movement. This process led to creative and political tensions – both within the ideology of the group and within the group itself.

Andre Breton and the Paris surrealists for whom Prague formed a manifest subconscious City of Murk to their Ville-Lumiere, differed in their approach to the creative potential of that undiscovered country of the human mind. Karel Teige in particular, valued the sensuous over the signified and a synthesis of conscious and subconscious as the key to unlocking the doors of human creativity rather than the pure psychic-automatism of the French-based movement. Cinema – arguably Czech cinema in particular – is bound to Surrealism. It is where reality and dream meet on another plane. It is dreaming with your eyes open.

Czech surrealism, through Teige and the nature of its birthplace, has more respect for the elemental and innate irrationality in human nature. It didn’t seek to impose ideology on it, in comparison with the French surrealists. Quite the opposite: it sought to impose itself on an ideology.

Fitting of the characteristic denial of Stalinism’s devotees, the co-founder of the first Czech surrealist group, Nezval, tried to justify surrealism as a compatible artistic form of expression for the Communist Party in 1934. He failed of course and gave himself over to social realism. He failed, not least because surrealism is not a pure art form, rather a practice given over to stimulating creativity and individualism. If this weren’t cause enough for alarm in any totalitarian ideology, its purpose in uncovering a ‘new’ reality is entirely political. It seeks to reach a ‘dynamic core of reality’. It eschews dogma and deconstruction through its playful ‘concrete irrationality’. It subverts any imposition of the conscious mind through bypassing it and reaches through the looking glass to emancipate our creative natures.

Notwithstanding, the Czech attitude of indifference to authority is entirely understandable. For centuries their lands seemed to have been administered by neighbouring empires, their subjects living under the flag of another entity. They laboured under Hapsburg bureaucracy, they endured Nazi barbarism and overcame Soviet utopianism. They are accustomed to idealism – someone else’s idealism – and to the inevitable end result of that. Unsurprisingly, the communist authorities failed to grasp the nuances to be drawn from Czech history and reacted to any criticism of authority with opprobrium.

Unor – Czech for February – is synonymous in that language with the communist takeover of the country in 1948. It took another twenty years for that winter to end and for a thaw to fully appear in the form of the Prague Spring. During that time the members of the Czech surrealist group had emigrated, surrendered to communism or been ploughed into the earth by the machinery of state. Teige was persecuted relentlessly and died in 1951.

The Novy Vlna and the literature and other artistic movements that rose during the Prague Spring cannot necessarily be aligned with that temporary season. It comprised a wealth of views still belligerently antagonistic to the communist party, no matter how much it tried to blunt its sickle or pretty up its hammer. Ivan Passer called the cinematic New Wave, a ‘conspiracy against stupidity’. And certainly, with all the partnerships – working and otherwise – that developed during this fecund period it’s easy to conceive of it as a conspiracy. It was, however, a time of immense creativity.

The climate mirrored similar developments in Poland and Yugoslavia, where without interference from party apparatchiks or without having to conform to the pressures of a free market economy, filmmakers were able to produce works of lasting beauty, immense significance and almost unrivalled imagination. David Cameron would do well to take note.

Films such as Stefan Uher’s Miraculous Virgin (1967) and Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970), dealt with Surrealist standards – nature versus a civilising influence, sex, death, beauty, ugliness. Their symbols, meanings and characters are mutable; a dream world is simultaneously made tangible and rendered impenetrable. They present a ‘concrete irrationality’.

Vera Chitylova’s Daisies (1966) is something else. In the best senses of Czech avant-garde it is a collage film, a collaborative effort between three major talents – Chytilova, co-writer Ester Krumbachova, and cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera. It is irradiated with colour, anarchic in execution and confusing in its interpretation. Vratislav Effenberger, author and leader of the new Czech Surrealist Group, disliked its ‘mere eclecticism’ and ‘decorative cynicism.’ He misses the point somewhat here. The film has more than ‘mere’ eclecticism – its essence is one of freedom. Freedom in the open and collaborative creative process, freedom in the myriad interpretations the film has been subjected to. Often misread as a chaotic critique of the communist patriarchy(even the DVD cover maligns itself with the description ‘a mad-cap feminist farce’), the original intention was much more complex. Chytilova maintains that the film does not condone the rebellious antics of the two Maries, no matter how superficially engaging they may seem. The girls are mere marionettes, complicit in their own repression and that is entirely the point. To become complicit through consumptive and destructive behaviour is not the answer. There must be a level of social responsibility, but also a responsibility towards freedom too, ergo the film’s conception around the notion of freedom – especially of interpretation. For this reason alone, the film was destined to be banned.

In Part Two, Steve Williams discusses how Czech surrealism fostered lyricism and absurdity which found its zenith in the works of Jan Svankmajer, the animator of Prague.