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An Introduction to Czech Cinema

15 Jul

Czech Dream

After an extended period away while completing a Postgraduate Diploma (in Czech language, no less!), Kinokinomozi has returned with new content. This short article was originally written for Glasgow Guardian’s Thirty Days of Summer series, encouraging students to try something different this summer.

You’ve realised that the Glasgow “summer” lasts for about an hour and it’s now pouring down outside. Or you’ve got a dismal summer job while your pals are Inter-railing around Europe. Maybe you’re just disappointed with the soulless, CGI-enhanced crap that gets churned out of Hollywood every few weeks. Whatever your reasons, Central and East European cinema offers a stylish and engaging alternative to film fans and culture vultures, and the cream of the crop can often be found in films originating in the Czech Republic.

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The Czech Republic?!

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Aye. Unfortunately the Czechs usually get stereotyped as merely being a country of beer, ice hockey and stag nights in Prague, but if you look closer there’s a rich and interesting history that many forget about. Film in the Czech Republic and the former Czechoslovakia has always been a strong art form, from communist times right up until EU membership, and domestic films routinely beat their North American counterparts at the Box Offices. You can find everything from Arthouse movies to period drama, and even wince-inducing American style comedies, which is pretty diverse for a country of ten million people slap-bang in the middle of Europe.

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But where can I get a hold of these films?!

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Thankfully, out-culturing your friends this summer doesn’t mean shelling out on expensive flights to C.R, or even spending money at all. The uni’s Language Centre library is tucked away in the Hetherington Building, and is usually overlooked by students who don’t study languages or have lectures there. However, the selection of DVDs on offer is excellent, and it’s open all throughout summer (for opening times see here). You’ll be able to find Polish and Russian DVDs too, the vast majority of which will come with subtitles.

If you fancy delving in, here are five you can find in the library:


Jízda (The Ride, dir. Jan Svěrák, 1994)

Svěrák is one of the most well-known Czech directors after his film Kolja (1996) won an Oscar for best foreign language film, but I think this is a more well-rounded film. A classic ‘road movie’, Jízda tells the story of two twenty-somethings driving around the Czech Republic in an unlicensed car, and their struggle to fit into the changing environment of a democratic, capitalist country. Skirting around the edges of drama and comedy, and accompanied by a preeetty cheesy soundtrack, this has become a cult movie around young people; and a must-watch if you want to understand the changes to everyday life of Czechs after the dismantling of communism.

If you liked this, try: Knoflíkáři (Buttoners, dir. Petr Zelenka, 1997)


Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, dir. Jiří Menzel, 1966)

Talking about Oscars, Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains scooped an award for Czechoslovakia in the mid-sixties, and is by far the most famous film of that time in the nation’s cinematic history. Set in the times of Nazi occupation, it is a coming-of-age tale about a young man’s self-discovery and attempted sexual liberation, with a backdrop of resistance to fascism having a strong part to play. On the surface this is merely a sweet, funny movie about the protagonist Miloš trying to lose his virginity, but what makes it particularly interesting is the technique and subversion employed by the director – although the sixties were a liberalising time in Czechoslovakia, it was difficult to openly criticise the regime, so look out for attempts to compare the Nazis with the communists throughout. If for some reason you’re wondering who the man playing Dr. Brabec is, that’s also Menzel.

If you liked this, try: Černý Petr (Black Peter, dir. Miloš Forman, 1964)


Kouř (Smoke, dir. Tomáš Vorel, 1990)

Another cult film from the 1990s, Kouř is a musical set in the final years of communism, and based in a factory. Take from that what you will, but this is excellent – stylistic, entertaining and exceptionally exposing of the time it’s set in. Much of the humour can be derived from the absurdity of communist bureaucracy, the fact that no work ever seems to take place and (especially to the outsider) how drab and inoffensive popular culture is (look out for the stereotypical ‘Soviet bloc’ disco!); yet throughout Vorel underpins the hypocrisy of the system and the grim everyday life of the ordinary person. Compared with the modern state we see today, it is at times remarkable how bleak and drab the setting is. For those with an interest in politics and history, you’ll also see underlying tensions between those who favour liberalisation and the hard-line faithful. The fact that Kouř is still popular today should be an indicator as to how well many Czechs can relate to the situation, and just how good the delivery is.

If you liked this, try: another cult film, Rok Ďábla (Year of the Devil, dir. Petr Zelenka, 2002)


Český sen (The Czech Dream, dir. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, 2004)

This is definitely worth a watch, if only because it’s the most controversial Czech film in years. This is documentary feature film, done at the time of accession to the European Union, and a project by two film students from Prague. The idea was to set up a new hypermarket, with dirt cheap prices, a real consumerist paradise…except, of course, the ‘Czech Dream’ hypermarket never existed. In perhaps the largest practical joke of all time, the directors started a month long advertising campaign, promoted on TV and radio, and even build a fake façade out of scaffolding – then gave it an official opening. Then pretty much had to run for their lives. Very effective in highlighting the increasing capitalistic nature of the Czech Republic, and a criticism of unquestioning support towards the EU, Český sen has a notorious place in modern Czech film history and popular culture.

If you like this, try: another documentary: Zdroj (The Source, dir. Martin Mareček, 2005)


The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, dir. Juraj Herz, 1966)

Finishing off on a high note, this is deeply disturbing and a classic example of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Although not the most accessible to beginners of film, the New Wave was a critical step in the development of modern European cinema. Drawing from Italian and French influences, this movement of the 1960s created highly polished, artistic films employing shedloads of black humour and more often than not deliberately set out to subvert and attack the regime. Spalovač mrtvol is often considered one of the best Czech productions of all time, and upon viewing it is easy to see why. Against a backdrop of an impending World War and a widening Nazi sphere of influence, the director of a crematorium, Karl, becomes not only radicalised by the ideas of fascism, but obsesses over the dead, to the point of absurdities which become chillingly real as the plot unfolds. Special mention has to be made to lead actor Rudolf Hrušínský, who is absolutely brilliant in convincing the viewer of the chilling thoughts that Karl has.

If you liked this, try: Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball, dir. Miloš Forman, 1967)

Of course, when it comes to cinema, everyone is different – some films you like, some you despise – but if you’re after something a little different from Avengers and multi-million dollar productions, and something a little bit authentic, give Czech cinema a go. I guarantee you’ll be surprised!


Knoflíkáři and Cinematic Technique

6 Apr

Knoflíkáři (Buttoners) is a 1997 film directed by Petr Zelenka, which deals with the experiences of its protagonists in the post-communist Czech Republic. The essay below looks at the issues of irony and synchronicity in the film and what it suggests. Originally written in February 2010.


Petr Zelenka’s 1997 feature Knoflíkáři (Buttoners) is often held up alongside Jízda and Kouř as one of the defining cult films of Czech cinematography of the 1990s. A black comedy divided into six separate, yet interlinked, parts; Knoflíkáři examines the experiences of various people in the new Czech Republic, as well as that of an American pilot who was responsible for dropping the first Atomic Bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Subjects such as relationships, society as well as life and death are explored within this framework, in an original and thoughtful manner. The lives of those portrayed, and indeed the stories they tell, range from that of a Prague taxi driver whose passengers wish to have intercourse in the backseat, to an unemployed man who takes much pride in his ability to spit under train carriages whilst lying on the track. Indeed, the film’s title comes from another character: with a penchant for ripping buttons out of antique furniture with the aid of a set of false teeth.

Two integral themes crucial to the film are employed both overtly and covertly by Zelenka: namely that of irony and synchronicity. These are highlighted through several different techniques, both in the film’s plotline, narrative and delivery. The question that this essay will be attempting to answer is not only based in identifying when such themes are employed, but to analyse the significance of their usage and why there is a high level of significance attached to them.

It is the structure of Knoflíkáři itself that makes the synchronicity aspect so effective. At first, it appears that the six parts to the piece are separate and distant from each other (perhaps reflecting the distance felt by Czechs between themselves and Western Europe after the collapse of communism), but gradually the audience becomes aware of how each story is linked on several levels. The most obvious of these linkages are those which are portrayed on screen, such as characters integral to one section becoming cameos in another, until by the end the full realisation occurs that these events were happening simultaneously. It is the final chapter, “The Ghost of an American pilot”, where this is at its most revealing – as its title suggests, the airman comes back as a ghost to the Czech Republic, and others such as the taxi driver and the psychiatrist are reintroduced through the storyline here. Any misconceptions to this continuous theme have been made crystal clear at this moment. Furthermore, within the sections several occurrences take place which link the unknowing protagonists themselves, thus there are connections between characters on multiple levels.

Perhaps the strongest example of this interlinking is in “The Taxi Driver”. As was mentioned earlier, this narrative begins with a taxi driver picking up a couple, who then wish to make love in the car (as the man can only fully perform while a car is in motion). After they leave, the car is hailed again, this time by a man who wants driven to an address in an attempt to catch his wife cheating on him. This proves to be unsuccessful, as upon entering the flat in which the supposed affair is taking place, the passenger finds an unknown woman instead. However, it materialises that the woman originally in the taxi was indeed his partner, whereas the wife of the driver is in fact the one sleeping with the man in the apartment. Romney asks that if it is “really possible that everyone in Prague that night ends up hailing the same taxi? In fact, you can imagine 100 ways that the narrative could fork off in other unexplored directions” (, accessed 24/2/10). Although a legitimate assertion, it is these random instances that make the synchronicity so strong and lingering in the viewer’s memory: ‘what if’ situations which add a psychological aspect and communicate the idea of the Czech Republic as a small, enclosed nation which is uncertain of its direction or its morals, a point often made in Czech cinema at this time. This skill is recognised by Allan who comments that “up until the final twenty minutes Zelenka maintains a tenuous grip on ‘everyday reality’, ensuring that the various stories are linked in a manner which, though occasionally a little outlandish, is nevertheless rooted firmly in the fact that such things could happen” (, accessed 25/2/10).

In addition to using protagonists as a linking factor, several other techniques are employed to reinforce the idea of all these scenes being acted out at once. It is intentional that all chapters, except the greyscale first scene, are set in the evening. Not only does this highlight the continuity between scenes, but additionally it indicates that this film could dually be perceived as either a dream or nightmare, and that there is a lack of clarity that could perhaps be avoided if set in the daytime (in other words, that some of the coincidences may not have happened). There are also several replications and similarities in traits and character: for instance, the couples and individuals who have sex in taxis, act out warfare, spit under trains or are “buttoners” – these are all experiences which excite them; for sheer thrill, sexual pleasure, or otherwise.

The point of such replications ties in with synchronicity to communicate part of Zelenka’s social commentary on life in the post-communist Czech Republic. With his interlinking, he brings everything full circle – that the different characters, diverse in background and class, yet somehow sharing common features and values – are representations of the entire nation. By doing this, Zelenka creates a microcosm of the Czech Republic as a country struggling to deal with the new democratic, Westernised society it finds itself in. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are large amounts of strange behaviour and little morality amongst the populous, as such glimpses “into the moral idiosyncrasies of post-communist life” clearly demonstrate “fear of responsibility as the fundamental form of post-modern angst” (Stojanova,, accessed 25/2/10). The director’s argument here is that such a struggle for identity is not something merely individual, but that everyone experiences it, and this is why there are so many coping mechanisms on display. Again, the structure helps carry such feelings; as although there is of course synchronicity and linking between each chapter, the mere fact that the film is separated into these instances carries the feeling that society itself is in a state of degradation and fragmentation. Thus synchronising events carries further the speed of this breakdown, carrying the weight to the viewer that all this is happening simultaneously and in real-time, and how these coping mechanisms are a result of not being able to keep up in a time of rapid change.

It is telling that the young couple featured in “Civilised Habits” are the most ‘normal’ of the people in Knoflíkáři; and ironically, the people that die. Yet themes of irony and mystification act alongside synchronicity as crucial to developing not just the atmosphere the director intends to portray, but also to aid his arguments on the state of the Czech people. This is often used by means of mock documentaries that Zelenka inserts into the film. The viewer is introduced to this concept at the beginning, with mock footage of Japan in 1945, shortly before the first Atomic Bomb blast. In this instance, irony is obvious: a Japanese businessman who has recently returned to the town of Kokura teaches his friends about how Americans enjoy swearing (we are told that there are no swear words in Japanese), and this is directed towards the torrential rain outside. This is moments before Japan is bombed. Paradoxically, the airplane headed to drop the Atomic Bomb on Kokura is diverted due to the rain, and instead the warhead is discharged on Hiroshima. The second piece of faked footage is the American documentary highlighting how scientists have sent sperm from four million men into outer space, as an attempt to save the human race. It should be noted that “unlike the generation of their parents, Zelenka and his peers do not idealize (sic) America as a beacon of freedom, but view Western values suspiciously and as an object of irony” (Stojanova,, accessed 25/2/10). This is a definite contrast to many Czechs in the immediate aftermath of 1989, and attempts to embrace Western democratic ethics and values as well as free market capitalism. By doing this Zelenka serves to portray American and Western European culture as having an unsettling effect on the Czechs, contrasting with the numerous nods to what citizens are used to (one such instance of this is the petrol station pump still operating in Czechoslovak Crowns). Discussions surrounding the footage, such as the unemployed former train worker as a “man who has not contributed” echo communist rhetoric of the working class contributing to the building of the socialist state. This sets up the viewer for the American pilot coming back as a ghost, ironic in the sense of the Czech idea of ‘returning to the West’.

The director’s use of irony enhances Knoflíkáři in its exploration of the human condition. There is certainly irony in how, as documentary footage, we take the farcical notions of sending sperm into space as fact; and this is intended to reflect further on collective ideas with reference to all characters in the film, and thus all residents of the new Czech state: there is often a lack of clarity of what is happening, a lack of factual recollection, and this has resulted in a crisis of direction and identity. Because the director is careful to “strike a balance between the social groups he parodies: the young and the old, the middle class and the working class” (Horton,, accessed 25/2/10) the conclusions are able to reflect on transition as a national rather than a personal problem. Anyone in the film who tries to take control of his or her destiny, is cruelly punished by coincidences and turns of fate, and in turn this adds to the element of unpredictability that inevitably arises from any change of system or state. Again with irony, the insecure psychiatrist, himself a caricature in the film, is almost right when he remarks to his patient that “it is not within your power to change”; indicating that there must be something more than the personal, and how difficult it is to move on from the past. Such a concept is almost made explicit with the young couple symbolically destroying their keys on the rail tack – this symbolises a moving on from the past, but just as what happens with the keys, it is difficult to break them completely.

From the use of both irony and synchronicity, Knoflíkáři becomes much more than “a film as crazy as the whole of the twentieth century” as the press release describes. In fact, it is a complex and on the whole successful exploration of the individual and the collective, of chance and coincidence, and how this has an effect on the Czech experience post-communism. From what on the surface appears to be a fragmented story of several vignettes, Zelenka crafts both overtly and covertly concrete links between the characters on physical and behavioural levels, as a method of suggesting the shared experiences of Czechs at this time. By synchronising these events and with the use of omnipresent darkness, the viewer gets the impression of a state which is morally confused and torn between the old and new, and of how as a typical occurrence in ‘real time’, the events of the film are hardly extraordinary to characters whose surreal idiosyncrasies are their coping mechanisms. The liberal use of irony helps to create a sense of mistrust to the West but is just as important in emphasising the unpredictability of what is happening in everyday life. Therefore to conclude, Knoflíkáři is another important film of 1990s Czech cinema in dramatising the problems of identity in the backdrop of rapid alternation of political and societal phases; and serves to provide an insightful commentary of a central European state in the period of transition.

Sam Beaton, February 2010

Online Articles

  • Horton, A. (1999) The Discreet Charm of the Czech Bourgeoisie: Petr Zelenka’s Buttoners, accessed        25/2/10