MASTER CLASS – OLAF MÖLLER: WHEN MIRACLES WERE NEAR

Five years ago I did a little masterclass dedicated to the less known Slovak side of the widely celebrated ČSSR’s New Wave. Remember: Everybody talks about this phenomenon as the Czech New Wave but historically speaking it were the Slovaks who lead the way with Štefan Uher’s Slnko v sieti (The Sun in a Net, 1963); and if we want to look at matters a bit more broadly we could also mention Vladislav Pavlovič’s splendid 1961 comedy Most na tú stranu (The Bridge to the Other Side) whose freshness pointed towards roads not yet taken in Czechoslovak cinema – a vivacious feeling of truthfulness to life decidedly apart from the tenets of Socialist Realism, adherence to which the Novotný government would certainly have preferred but didn’t dare to fully enforce, leading to the troubled history of the ČSSR’s New Wave that is made as much of suppression of films and exile of directors as it is made of auteurs finding their very own ways regardless of who’s running the country. The 2015 program was all about offering a wide vista of the era’s new masters as well as the different aesthetics they explored, while trying to stress what was different in the Slovak idea of New in comparison to its Czech counterpart.

Now, this year’s selection works differently: We’ll look at a very brief period of time, 21 months in toto, from December 29th 1967 when Jozef Zachar’s Zmluva s diablom (A Pact With the Devil) opened, till September 27th 1969 when Juraj Jakubisko’s Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birdies, Orphans and Fools) started on it’s limited first release before getting shelved back home (but not in the rest of the world!) for some two decades.

Here’s what happened in those few months. Six days after Zmluva s diablom hit the ČSSR’s screens, the Slovakian politician Alexander Dubček became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which led to a torrent of reforms summarily remembered as the Prague Spring (after Novotný’s violent suppression of a students’ strike in late October 1967 had escalated the ČCP’s internal struggle between reactionaries and progressive into a full-blown confrontation over the nation’s future direction). In early August 1968, about two weeks before a Soviet-led army consisting of troops from four Warsaw Pact-signees invaded the ČSSR, Leopold Lahola’s Sladký čas Kalimagdory (The Sweet Time of Kalimagdora) opened in a fatherland he’d fled shortly after the Gottwald putsch of ’48 and was never to truly live in again due to his premature demise at age 49 on January 12th of this fateful year. Elo Havetta’s Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade (Celebration in the Botanical Garden, 1969) and Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni, finally, were revealed locally roughly five and seven months respectively after Jan Zajíc, following the example of Jan Palach, burned himself to death on Wenceslas Square, which can be seen as the last public stand against the so-called Normalization.

What further binds this selection is the films’ playful fascination with the fantastic, ranging from: the pop-Gothic erotica of Zmluva s diablom; via the consumerism-critical fairy-tale of Sladký čas Kalimagdory and the subversive bucolica of Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade; to the post-Apocalyptic fable of Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni. Fairies and Devils fight here over the soul of Man, while in the heart of Europe, one small nation fought for its right to be different, embark on its own path through history. All this: The hopes and their crushing, are here, in these four films. And more, much more, above all: Marvels, miracles and mirth. For this is a cinema of joy, however bleak things sometimes might get.

Olaf Möller