Czech Christmas Fairy Tales

The top ten České pohádky - essential Christmastime viewing

Jason Pirodsky

Written by Jason Pirodsky Published on 13.12.2011 01:58:47 (updated on 13.12.2011) Reading time: 7 minutes

In the English-speaking cinema world, there’s no shortage of Christmas classics, ranging from It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol up to A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Home Alone. Without fail, there’s a big-budget Christmas-themed film produced every year, though I doubt Fred Claus or Four Christmases will make it classic status. They all have one thing in common: the Christmas theme.

In the Czech Republic, however, you’ll be hard pressed to find a popular film that actively deals with the topic of Christmas (years of religious suppression under communist rule may have something to do with that).

Instead, there’s another holiday viewing tradition: feel-good fairy tales, from Cinderella to Goldilocks to The Little Mermaid. Without fail, you’ll find a new one of these produced each year, too, usually by Česká televize. While recent fairy tales haven’t enjoyed the popularity of their predecessors, there are a number of classics from the 50s through the 80s that remain quintessential holiday viewing.

Here are my top ten picks, from least-to-most relevant:

10. S tebou mě baví svět (1982)
DVD (English subtitles) | IMDb | ČSFD

It’s not a fairy tale, but it’s essential seasonal viewing. This comedy (voted the best Czech comedy of the past century) is a nostalgic winter-time classic; it’s something akin to a Czech version of A Christmas Story (minus the holiday theme). Directed by Marie Poledňáková (Líbáš jako Bůh), the story involves a group of husbands and fathers who go on their annual winter retreat in a mountain cottage – and are saddled with bringing along the kids. Child neglect has never been so funny.

Clip – the most famous line:

(Roughly translated, that’s – Pepino: “Daddy, pleeeease….” Dad: “Pepino, we’ve had enough!” Pepino: “So have we. Matýsek just shit himself.”)

9. Mrazík (1964)
DVD | DVD (MST3K version) | IMDb | ČSFD

It’s not a Czech film, but the Russian-produced Morozko (Mrazík in Czech, and translated in English as Jack Frost or Father Frost) is a seasonal favorite, both in the Czech Republic and abroad. Despite some familiar storytelling (Cinderella-esque heroine, wicked stepmother), the result is a wonderfully bizarre hodgepodge of various fairy tale elements. The English-dubbed version was hilariously skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in one of their very best episodes.

The MST3K version, in 10 parts:

8. Malá mořská víla

This version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid wasn’t as well-received as the other fairy tales on this list; some audiences may not appreciate too much artistic ambition in their sugary holiday viewing. Directed by Karel Kachyňa (he also made the excellent Ucho, which was banned under Soviet oppression), and starring Libuše Šafránková’s younger sister Miroslava in the title role, Malá mořská víla is gorgeously designed and scored and downright haunting. If you’ve only seen the Disney version of this story, you owe it to yourself to check out this one. Interesting comparison: Rusalochka, a Russian-produced version of the same story that came out the same year.

Note: the local DVD does not feature English subtitles, but if you have the DVD (or obtain the film through other means) you can pair it with these nicely translated subs in .srt format.

Full feature (for English subs, click the CC button):

7. Šílene smutná princezna

Šílene smutná princezna comes up in any discussion of classic Czech fairy tales; unfortunately, it’s the only film on this list that I wasn’t able to locate with English subtitles. Translated as The Incredibly Sad Princess, director Bořivoj Zeman’s film charts the fate of a prince and princess who are arranged to be married but still seek true love. Helena Vondráčková stars in the title role. A young (20-year-old!) Jan Hammer (who later found success in the US with the Miami Vice theme and other works) did the memorable score; this was one of his very few contributions to the Czech film scene.

Full feature (in six parts):

6. Princezna se zlatou hvězdou
DVD (English subtitles) | IMDb | ČSFD

Directed by Martin Frič (who also made the classic screwball comedy Kristian), Princess with the Golden Star follows Princess Lada (Marie Kyselková), who literally has a gold star embossed on her forehead, as she flees from the evil king and would-be husband Kazisvět (Martin Růžek) into the arms of a handsome young prince (Josef Zíma). A classic story, told with that old-fashioned warm embrace. Kyselková vanished from the film world after this, her first and only starring role.

Clip – Láska je žár:

5. Princ a Večernice
DVD (English subtitles) | IMDb | ČSFD

A personal favorite. The Prince and the Evening Star, directed by fairy tale master Václav Vorlíček, is somewhat rare among these selections in its choice of a male lead: the Michael York-like Juraj Ďurdiak as Prince Velen, who marries off his three sisters to the Wind, the Moon, and the Sun, and pursues his love, the Evening Star. Bonus: the groovy, sometimes trippy soundtrack from Svatopluk Havelka and the Filmový Symfonický Orchestr.

Full feature (in six parts):

4. Byl jednou jeden král…
DVD (English subtitles) | IMDb | ČSFD

Once Upon a Time, There Was a King has a lot going for it: directed by Bořivoj Zeman from a story by Božena Němcová (she wrote many classic Czech fairy tales in the nineteenth century), it stars (and was co-written by) beloved playwright and comedian Jan Werich, and even credits animator & puppeteer Jiří Trnka with special artistic input. Werich plays King “Me First”, who asks his three daughters how much they love him; Maruška, the heroine of the tale, answers with the warmest intentions: “I love you as much as salt.” (Anyone familiar with Czech cuisine will get a kick out of this.) This one is a lot of fun, and the comedy holds up surprisingly well.

Full feature (for English subs, click the CC button):

3. Pyšná princezna
DVD (English subtitles) | IMDb | ČSFD

The Proud Princess is among the very first of the popular Czech fairy tales, and it was Christmastime staple on Czech TV for a number of years (it’s still popular, but the more recent fare has been edging it out). From (again) a story by Božena Němcová, Alena Vránová stars as the title character, who rebuffs a young prince (Vladimír Ráz), only to have him work harder at gaining her affections, in secret. The third Bořivoj Zeman film on this list; only Václav Vorlíček rivals him as master of the fairy tale; still, I (slightly) prefer Byl jednou jeden král…

Full feature (for English subs, click the CC button):

2. S čerty nejsou žerty
DVD (English subtitles) | IMDb | ČSFD

Translated as There’s No Joking with Devils, or Give the Devil His Due. Hynek Bočan’s film, based on the story The Devil’s Brother-in-Law by Božena Němcová, has all the classic fairy tale ingredients and stars Vladimír Dlouhý as a young man who makes a deal with the devil. This is a great one: nicely produced, well-shot, fun, funny, and even artistically ambitious, with an extremely memorable depiction of Hell. Going by the scores at ČSFD, this is the highest-rated Czech fairy tale.

Hell sequence:

1. Tři oříšky pro Popelku
DVD (English subtitles) | IMDb | ČSFD

THE definitive Czech Christmastime fairy tale, and one of the few to receive widespread international recognition: while largely unknown in the US, it’s a nostalgic seasonal favorite across Europe and Russia, and has been dubbed into a number of foreign languages (over on, you can pick up this sweet Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel limited edition gift set, complete with soundtrack CD and a replica of Cinderella’s necklace; unfortunately, the film is only featured in a German-dubbed version.)

Three Nuts for Cinderella was adapted from a Božena Němcová story (as were the top four films on this list) and directed by Václav Vorlíček; it’s a classic version of the Cinderella tale that will be familiar to most, and the wintry forest setting gives it extra appeal. It also launched young Libuše Šafránková into instant stardom. Most of these films have memorable scores, but Popelka bests them all with that instant shot of Christmas courtesy Karel Svoboda; and then there’s Karel Gott’s rendition of Kdepak ty ptáčku hnízdo máš, which is just the icing on the cake.

Clip – Kdepak ty ptáčku hnízdo máš:

Not enough for you? Here are some more Czech fairy tales & Christmas-themed films of note, with links to the DVD version:

Those are my selections. What did I miss?

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