by Nikhil Clayton
Serving as the main propaganda mill for both Hitler and Stalin, for the majority of the twentieth century, few true “Czech” films were actually made. However, for a brief period in the 1960’s there was a renaissance of Czech Films called the “Czech New Wave.” Instead of the direct nature of the French New Wave or Italian NeoRealism, the films released during this period relied on experimentalism and surrealism to weave complex messages and governmental critiques past the censors (Orlowski). For example, in the movie Daisies, there is an elaborate dance scene on top of a table of food, referencing the food famines and blind excess of the rich (Orlowski). While most foreign audiences saw these films as bizarre or absurd, these tactics allowed Czech films to speak to their citizens like never before. For this reason, scholars typically look to the decade of the “Czech New Wave” as the seminal representation of the Czech identity. In 1989, following the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic became a free and democratic nation for the first time since Nazi occupation fifty years prior. Almost immediately, it was declared that without the unified element of resistance and the tight-knit community of the 1960s, Czech cinema was dead (Buchar).
However, not only is Czech cinema still alive, but it still has a clear message and an identity that takes direct influence from the New Wave. As assessed by the Republic itself, the Czech people have developed a sense of humor “specific to the Czech environment… which is practically impossible to translate” (About CZ). It is through this absurdist sense of humor that many Czech people still interpret their issues today, as shown by Jan Svankmajer’s 2005 film, Lunacy.
This video essay means to contradict the ideas that modern Czech cinema lacks meaning or substance through the evaluation of the deeper meanings of Lunacy and the strategies it utilizes. The essay begins with a scene where the central villain of the film is orchestrating an elaborate show for himself. This is juxtaposed with the sequence of a puppet show performed with raw meat. This is done to show how the stop motion characters, usually consisting of body parts or raw meat, are simply stand-ins for the live action characters in the film. Their inclusion only serves to highlight the absurdity of, not just what is going on in the film, but of life itself. Every stock-motion scene in the film either relates to the theme of freedom or directly references a live-action character or scene. Their existence is the first example of deeper meaning in Lunacy, stating that all we are is a random assemblage of bones, hearts, tongues, and flesh that float about in life instinctually and with no real direction. This grappling with freedom is a direct reference to the main contemporary struggle of the Czech people. The film utilizes its surreal visuals, as well as many other New Wave tactics, to satirize and analyze the unseen dangers of absolute freedom and highlight the feeling of aimlessness that can come from having said freedom thrust upon you.
The next section of the essay consists entirely of the words of New Wave directors. Each director’s words are read by a new voice. Each line either discusses the strategies of the New Wave or the reasoning behind announcing Czech cinema to be dead. Directly contrasting clips are taken from all over the film chronologically and played over the words to show how almost every strategy named has a clear parallel and every criticism has a clear argument against. Special attention is given to the structure of the film, such as with the three clips of a man killing and burying someone in the forest, which were originally spread out throughout the but, when connected, tells a full story. The same is true for the scene of two hospital workers attacking the protagonist in bed, coming from the beginning and end of the film but played over each other, the blocking of the scene shows clear foresight and symbolism. This is done to counter the main argument that films are made without any real artistic plan or overarching message. The only words not belonging to a director come second to last, taken from Rob Orlowski’s video essay about the use of expressionism in Czech film, in which he remarks that the censors inspired creativity in expressionistic and absurd visuals. This is said directly before the final director, Drahomira Vihanova, comments on the absurdity of modern Czech films only resonating with young audiences.
The essay ends with what starts the film, an intro and warning from Jan Svankmajer. This becomes the final director’s commentary and draws specific attention to the deeper meaning of Lunacy, as his words take on a deeper meaning when juxtaposed with clips from the film and real life. The subtlety of the film message is made painstakingly clear by the inclusion of real-life scenes of the Velvet Revolution and Stalin giving a speech as he discusses the different ways to run a mental asylum. This finally paints the film as the allegory it was always meant to be. Jan Svankmajer had a clear, if not controversial, message to share when he made Lunacy. By showing the true head of the hospital is not better than the Marquis, our central villain until this point, he reveals that freedom is just as bad as totalitarianism and that there is no clear villain or hero.
The issue with modern Czech film is not that there is no unified struggle in the Republic today, it is simply that this struggle is not as tangible as the one from the New Wave. Yet, the tactics used have grown and evolved to tackle more the more modern and mental issues faced by a nation struggling with newfound freedom and morality. The Czech identity is clearly defined, it is absurdist and experimental, but it resonates with its people and serves as the most effective way of tackling national issues.