“Everything That Well-Behaved Young Ladies Aren’t Supposed to Do”: Věra Chytilová and the Czechoslovak New Wave
In early March, a new retrospective at the British Film Institute celebrated the films of the late, great avant-garde Czech director Věra Chytilová. Censored by the Czech authorities and banned from the studios for making films that were considered too “pessimistic,” much of Chytilová’s work is unavailable outside of Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, the director was a pioneer in showing rebellious, unconventional female perspectives in a world dominated by men. The season ran from March 1 to March 17, 2015 at BFI Southbank.
Sampsonia Way spoke to Peter Hames via email about Chytilová’s body of work and her legacy. Hames, an expert on Eastern European cinema, is the author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and Czech and Soviet Cinema: Theme and Tradition. He is co-editor of Cinemas in Transition in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. Currently, Hames is the Visiting Professor in Film Studies at Staffordshire University.
What is the most important thing that people should know about Věra Chytilová and the importance of her films today?
Věra Chytilová was one of the most important women filmmakers of the 1960s. If Agnès Varda was the “mother” of the French New Wave then Chytilová had the same role in Czechoslovakia. Due to the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, Czech and Slovak films disappeared from the international radar and over 100 features from the 1960s were banned inside the country, and therefore, outside as well. Many prints were returned to Prague, and foreign distributors were instructed to withdraw or destroy copies. So her films became difficult to see. Nonetheless, her first feature film Something Different (1963) was one of the opening films in the First International Festival of Women’s Films in New York in 1972. Her second and best-known film Daisies (1966) was eventually released in 1967 despite the protest. It has been issued throughout the world and its avant-garde and experimental format continues to have a profound effect on viewers. The same, I suspect, will be the case with The Fruit of Paradise (1969), which is also beginning to attract belated attention. The films she made after the Soviet invasion were, of necessity, less experimental in form but remain unusual and provocative. Her film Prefab Story (1979) was one of the most controversial and was effectively suppressed. It was a highly critical morality tale set against the high-rise apartment buildings then being constructed on the outskirts of Prague. After the fall of Communism, Chytilová turned her critical attention to capitalism, attacking the new morality, especially in her 1998 film Traps.
You mention Daisies (1966), which is considered a milestone for Czechoslovak New Wave and is Chytilová’s best-known work. The film follows two young women, both named Marie, who decide since the world is bad and chaotic, they are going to be bad, too. Czech authorities banned the film for “depicting the wanton.” What was particularly threatening about wantonness, for the Communist government in Czechoslovakia at this time?
Daisies was the subject of a petition in the National Assembly in 1967 signed by 21 deputies. It was described as “trash.” However, the petition was also an attack on Jan Němec’s The Party and the Guests, also known as Report on the Party and the Guests, and a number of other films, all of them “poisoning our lives.” I think the authorities probably saw the film as an attack on establishment values – particularly the disruption in the nightclub and the food-throwing orgy at an officially prepared banquet.
I read that Daisies is known for its “unsympathetic characters,” but when I watched the film I found the two Maries to be hilarious and, actually, highly relatable. Why do you think these characters are classified as unsympathetic? How did Czechoslovakian cinema prefer to portray its heroines in the 1960s, and in what ways did Daisies defy those standards?
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that Chytilová has always argued that the film was intended to be critical of the girls’ destructive and negative attitudes. Arguably the filmmakers – and the girls – had so much fun constructing the scenes that they entered into the spirit of their activities in a genuine revolt against convention. I think that most women will identify with them but male audience members have sometimes found the contrast with the conventions of female beauty and behavior a step too far. They do everything that well-behaved young ladies aren’t supposed to.
Fruit of Paradise, the 1969 follow-up to Daisies, was the last film Chytilová could make before the Soviet Union invasion. The theme of temptation runs strong through both movies. How did this relate to Chytilová’s politics and morality, and the political environment in which she was making these films?
I think that all her films have an intense moral commitment. In some ways, she set out to draw attention to society’s failure to conform to the social and moral standards that it professed. In the case of Fruit of Paradise, the issue of relations between men and women was also related to Genesis and the search for knowledge and truth. Made in the wake of the Soviet invasion of 1968, these were issues that Chytilová said became central.
Could you describe the impact of the Prague Spring upon Chytilová’s work?
If you think of the Prague Spring as something that happened in 1968 then it probably didn’t have a major impact, but if you think of the 1960s as a whole then I think the climate of experimentation in the arts in general was highly important. Theatre productions of Ionesco and Beckett (and Havel’s early plays), the revival of the Czech avant-garde and the resurrection of Surrealism, the presence of happenings and abstract and kinetic art could also be seen as providing a context for her films in the 1960s. There were also, of course, international influences: Resnais, Antonioni, and the French New Wave.
Why did Chytilová stay in Czechoslovakia, even when she was banned from making films?
Well, she had a family and didn’t want to leave despite offers from abroad. She was effectively out of work for around six years, but so were many other filmmakers. She continued to prepare projects but various bureaucratic intrigues prevented them from coming to fruition. Her open letter to President Husák (published in Index on Censorship as “I Want to Work” in 1976) laid the blame squarely at the door of male chauvinism.
How did Chytilová’s films act in defiance of socialist propaganda?
In general, it can be said of the films of the Czechoslovak New Wave in the 1960s that they rejected the simplifications of Socialist Realism by either showing reality as it was or breaking out in new formal and creative directions. After the invasion, films tended to fall into the categories of propaganda on the one hand and entertainment on the other. Chytilová professed her commitment to socialism in her letter. It’s just that her films highlighted socialism’s failure to live up to its ideals and objectives.
Chytilová has been described as a “militant feminist filmmaker.” What did Chytilová think of that description? What would she call herself?
She always argued that she wasn’t a feminist. When I first met her in 1990, she said as much and then outlined her plans to make a film about rape (Traps is a comedy about a female veterinary surgeon who castrates her two abusers).
She always focused on female perspectives and sent her films to women’s film festivals. Under the auspices of the International Women’s Group at the 1988 Karlovy Vary Festival, she “rescued” her fellow director, Drahomíra Vihanová’s banned film Deadly Sunday (1969). I think that in a world where men and women were united in the struggle against a common enemy – a Soviet dominated Communist Party – feminism was seen as suspect and divisive. But that didn’t stop her fighting for the cause.
How did Chytilová use stereotypes associated with women to get her films financed or released?
I doubt that she used stereotypes in this way. She no doubt presented her films as social criticism but their form allowed her to say things the authorities weren’t expecting.
Many of the films that are being shown at the retrospective at the British Film Institute have been inaccessible for years, due to the fact that they are no longer distributed. What new understandings has the retrospective offered for scholars of Czechoslovak New Wave or Chytilová fans?
Well the season isn’t over yet. A number of enthusiasts have been attending all of the films, so we shall see in due course. I think the season offers the chance to assess all of her 60s work in context but also to see the genuine commitment and experiment in her later work, even if it is no longer ‘avant-garde’ in the same way.
For those of us who don’t make it to the BFI, what is the best way that we can see more of Chytilová’s films? Is there any hope that more of her movies will become available in the future?
The English DVD company Second Run has already issued Daisies and Traps and will also be releasing Fruit of Paradise, Something Different, and her shorter films, A Bagful of Fleas and Ceiling. I hope this will kick start an interest in her other work.
This piece was originally published on SampsoniaWay.org on March 19, 2015.