Kachyňa's films from the 1960s have given him the most fame internationally, but he has also produced popular and enduring works in the other four decades he has worked in. Dora Viceníková surveys the director's career.
Karel Kachyňa is one of the most productive directors of the post-war period, and as a film-maker he has been active over several decades and in a range of different political atmospheres. Despite this, certain themes within his work have remained constant, even if the style of film-making has varied markedly.
Kachyňa studied photography at FAMU in Prague, which influenced his feeling for composition, something that permeates through his whole film career. He started in documentary film at the beginning of the totalitarian 1950s, when he made his debut Není stále zamračeno (It Isn't Always Cloudy, 1950). He then, like many of his contemporaries, made a number of optimistic and slightly propagandistic films, such as Za život radostný (To a Happy Life, 1953) and Král Šumavy (King of the Bohemian Forest, 1959), the latter a tale of border troops looking for smugglers that has become almost a symbol of Communist propaganda film.
The new aesthetic
However, in the second half of the decade (and despite Král Šumavy), Socialist Realism in film-making started to lose its iron grip, and the director's film language started to mature. Together with Vojtěch Jasný and Zdeněk Podskalský, Kachyňa belongs to group of directors who are known as "The First Generation of FAMU." However, not all the film-makers emerging at this time had graduated from this now renowned film school (amongst those who did not are Ladislav Helge, František Vláčil and Zbyněk Brynych), so there is a parallel tag for the whole generation-Generation 1957.
The new aesthetic included the critical reflection of reality, more freedom in choosing the themes, the imagery of taboos and also elements of lyricism and fantasy. The creators viewed cinema very seriously; each film they took as a possibility for the condemnation of mistakes of previous times and also as an oppurtunity to show explicit moral positions. The main protagonist is usually a unique individual who stands face-to-face with a very difficult conflict. The importance, pathos and heaviness of testimony are typical elements of the film production of this generation.
Even though most of the directors of Generation 1957 emerged in the second half of the 1950s, they experienced their best creative period in the 1960s as a part of the "Czechoslovak cinematic miracle," a multi-generational phenomenon that saw both new and established directors making pioneering films in a variety of styles with a variety of aims. In spite of this large generational and stylistic plurality, a marvellously homogenous stream arose as part of a movement that overtook the whole of Europe, starting in France. Although credit for Czechoslovak New Wave has been attributed to political liberalisation in the late 1960s, the films of Kachyňa and his contempories show that the seeds of this golden era were sown in the far-from-liberal environment of the 1950s and that the republic's most famous film era is a logical progression of Czechoslovak cinema language rather than an offshoot of the political changes these films would later become iconic of.
Black looks at history
In the 1960s, Kachyňa started to co-operate with writer and scriptwriter Jan Procházka, with whom he made his best work, which is related to early production of the New Wave. These features lose the epic and dramatic dimension, and psychology, lyricism and emotional features come to the fore. These films of the early 1960s—Trápení (Suffering, 1961), Závrať (Vertigo, 1962) and Vysoká zeď (The High Wall, 1964)—and principally about emotional maturation.
In the second half of 1960s, he made a number of films, now called the black series: Ať žije republika (Long Live the Republic, 1965), Kočár do Vídně (Coach To Vienna, 1966), Noc nevěsty (The Holy Night, 1967), Ucho (The Ear, 1969). These films offer a fresh and merciless look at modern Czech history, taking stances that were in opposition to Communist historiography. Ať žije republika depicts the last days of the Second World War in the Moravian countryside through eyes of twelve-year-old boy. It is a time when the rabble gets to the power and the authors categorically question the heroism of citizens. Kočár do Vídně also offers provocative view of war, taking place almost without a word.
In Noc nevěsty, Procházka and Kachyňa presented the theme of collectivization of village by showing the conflict between fanatical religion and Stalinist practices. Their following film, Ucho (The Ear, 1969), remained in the vault until 1990, such was the ferocity with which it attacked the political practices of the 1950s.
About children, not for them
Procházka, due to Ucho, could not continue to write for film, and Kachyňa had to choose uncontroversial motifs when the post-1968 period of Normalisation truly kicked in, primarily making films for children. These films are poetic and depict the fragile word of youth. Their atmosphere is largely sad, because the protagonists are outcasts from ordinary life. This type of hero we can see, for instance, in films such as Už zase skáču přes kaluže, (I'm Jumping Over the Puddles Again, 1970), based on Procházka's (uncredited) dramatization of Alan Marshall's novel, or in Počítání oveček, (Counting Sheep, 1981). The films are maybe more about children than for children, such is the extent to which sadness is invoked.
In the 1980s, Kachyňa made bitter comedies, choosing subject matter such as healthcare, as in Pozor, vizita! (Look Out, Ward Round!, 1981) and Sestřičky (Nurses, 1983).
In the 90s, he co-operated with Czech Television, making the TV serial Prima sezóna (The Swell Season, 1994) based on Josef Škvorecký's novel and Tři králové (Three Kings, 1998). In feature film, the changed political circumstances allowed him to return to stories by Procházka (although the writer himself had died of cancer in 1971) in the films Městem chodí Mikuláš (St Nicholas Is in Town, 1992) and Kráva (The Cow, 1993). He also made Fany, (Fanny, 1995), which contributed to the wave of films about handicapped people made at that time (Rain Man, 1988; Forrest Gump, 1995; Shine, 1996).
Kachyňa's latest film Hanele (1999) wasn't very successful with the critics, but is notable for belonging to a groups of films that appeared at this time in which Czech film-makers started to examine the country's Jewish heritage, something that had gone unexplored in the years of Normalisation.
Despite the wide range in critical reception that the director has experienced throughout his five decades in film-making, he is still much admired by Czech film audiences and film events such as "The Eye of the Camera," a retrospective of eight Kachyňa films presented by the Czech Centre in London in March earlier this year, have helped bring his work to a wider audience.
Although internationally his known oeuvre is currently almost entirely restricted to the 1960s and to a lesser extent the 1990s, films from throughout his career are still firmly lodged in the Czech popular psyche. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the art-house classics of the 1960s that have enamoured critics around the world are mostly unavailable on video in the Czech Republic at the moment, whereas a large number of his works from the 70s and 80s are.
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