English-friendly movie night reels through history of Czechoslovak film

Kino Lucerna’s Made in Czechoslovakia brings you an Oscar winner, a highly acclaimed black comedy, and a landmark sci-fi film.

Ioana Caloianu

Written by Ioana Caloianu Published on 29.05.2023 13:05:00 (updated on 30.05.2023) Reading time: 3 minutes

After a successful launch last fall, Prague’s Kino Lucerna continues its mission to reintroduce audiences to classic Czechoslovak films through its Made in Czechoslovakia series, now screening in its small hall twice a month with English subtitles. The hall itself is a cozy space, with plush seats, wall lamps, and a baroque ceiling reminiscent of mid-20th century movie theaters. In short, a perfect setting for evenings spent time-traveling back to fascinating eras in Czechoslovak cinematic history.

The next offerings are Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains) from director Jirí Menzel, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Slovak film director Juraj Herz’s Salovač mrtvol (The Cremator), seen as one of the best Czechoslovak movies of all time, and Ikarie XB 1 (Icarus XB 1), a sci-fi classic ahead of its time.

Coming-of-age story brings humorous notes to momentous historical events

Director Jiří Menzel’s 1966 debut feature Closely Watched Trains owes a lot of its atmosphere to the penmanship of Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, who wrote a short story of the same title that served as its inspiration. Set in a small railway station in the Czechoslovak countryside, then under Nazi occupation, the film mixes the political and the private in unexpectedly funny ways, one of them being in the usage of rubber stamps to mark the beginning of a love story; or in the character of a glamorous anti-Nazi resistance agent. 

The movie brought Czechoslovakia its second Academy Award statue for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968 and is to this day one of the most popular feature films of the Czechoslovak New Wave. 

Dark comedy explores psychological depths

On a much different note, The Cremator goes back to a time of historical turmoil, namely the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, seen through the perspective of the titular character, a cremator who enjoys his work a bit too much. Reminiscent of Germany's school of Expressionism, this social satire stands out for its originality, first of all, due to the views of its main character Karel Kopfrkingl, masterfully played by actor Rudolf Hrusínský, who reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead and is consumed by the idea of transformations that happen after death. 

A man of his times, Kopfrkingl initially appears as a Good Soldier Švejk type, a good citizen and head of his family, aspects that make his descent into the surrounding anomie all the more convincing and terrifying. Kopfrkingl is the embodiment of political theorist Hannah Arendt’s view about “the sad truth (...) that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” The movie’s complexity makes it a recurrent entry on lists of the best movies ever made in Czechoslovakia. 

Icarian space story stands out for wide-ranging ambitions

Before directors Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, there was Icarus XB 1. Released in 1963, the film is set in the 22nd century, when a spaceship that set out to explore extraterrestrial forms of life runs into unexpected obstacles. A departure from the usual offerings of cinematography during the communist era, the film, in the apt words of a reviewer from the Czech-Slovak Film Database (Česko-Slovenská filmová databáze), “deserves a standing ovation just for the courage to implement something like this in our country.” 

Loosely based on Polish sci-fi master Stanisław Lem’s novel The Magellanic Clouds, the atmosphere takes on poetic notes thanks to the music of Zdeněk Liška, and the wide-angle cinematography of Jan Kališ. Its cast, comprised of some of the best actors of the era, such as Zdeněk Štěpánek, Radovan Lukavský , Dana Medřická, contributes to the touching charm of the production.  

The Made in Czechoslovakia film series is at Kino Lucerna with Closely Watched Trains on May 29, The Cremator on June 12, and Ikarie XB 1 on June 26. The series will continue next month, watch the cinema's web page for updates.

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