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Czechoslovakian Film History


The history of the Czechoslovakian cinema started with a presentation by Eugene Dupont, a Lumiere cameraman on July 15th, 1896 at the Lazensky dum in Karoly Vary when Czechoslovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is a report that there was an earlier presentation in May in Belgrade, but it hasn't been confirmed.

In Czechoslovakia, an early pioneer that had been working on the idea of animated photographs was Jan Krizenecky who filmed the first actuality or 'factual' called Dostavencicko ve Mlynici and the first short Plac a Smich in 1898. The first film/drama produced in Czechoslovakia was Vystavni Parkar a Lepic Plakatu in 1898. Because of the growing political tension that led to World War I, the film industry stayed small and self sufficient.

After the war, the Czech cinema began being influenced by the American film industry as did most film industries in Europe. By 1921, the A-B Company opened a studio in Vinohrady and produced a fairy tale called Zlaty Klicek (the Gold Key). Also, as a note, the first Slovak full-length feature movie was Jaroslav Siakel's production of Janosik in 1921.This era produced several notable works with several films from famous novelist Jaroslav Hasek.

Gustav Machaty produced an enormously successful film Erotikon in 1929 and is credited with generating great interest in erotic cinema. 4 years later he would utilize this foundation to direct a film that became known around the world as Extasy where the first glimpse of Hedy Kiesler (later Hedy Lamarr) was seen in the nude. This film caused a tremendous backlash from the Catholic Church and censor groups.

During this late 20s silent era, Czechoslovakia was producing 30 to 35 feature films a year. As sound came in and did major damage to the film industry of most European countries, it had a reverse effect in Czechoslovakia. This actually caused an increase in production with the first Czech sound films being released in 1930, with audiences hungry to hear sound films in their own language.

The 1930s brought growth and expansion. In 1933, the Barrandov Studios, founded by Milos and Vaclav Havel were completed and soon production soared. Despite the push towards commercialism, film makers such as Josef Rovensky, Martin Fric, Gustav Machaty, Otakar Vavra and Hugo Haas created such innovative films that they received international acclaim at the Venice Film Festival in 1934. Because of films such as: Josef Rovensky's film Reka (the River); a documentary about the Slovak countryside called Zem spieva (the Earth Sings) by Karel Plicki; Gustav Machaty's Extasy; and a short by Tomas Trnka called Boure nad Tatrami (Storm on the Tatras), they were awarded the Cup of the City of Venice, which is the prize for the best set of films of high artistic merit.

By 1938, at the peak of film attendance in Czechoslovakia, there were 1824 cinemas with a total of 600,000 seats throughout the country.

The war brought devastation to most film industries in Europe, but the Czech industry showed little change, with the Germans expanding the modern Barrandov production studios in Prague. Over 100 feature films were produced by Czech studios during the war.

After the war, there was a new surge towards animation and puppetry. Karel Zeman and Jiri Trnka lead with great advancements to new levels of animation. Zeman made 10 features including 4 childrens stories and 6 that interacted with live actors. Trnka made 16 puppet films from spoofs of westerns to versions of Shakespeare. Czech animation flourished with dozens of artists producing hundreds of films. The communist party took control of the country on February 25, 1948 and maintained control until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

One great example of the ability of the Czech studios is Gene Dietch:

In 1946 Dietch started as an apprentice in the then cutting edge Hollywood animation studio, UPA, working as an assistant Production Designer on the first Mister Magoo cartoons for Columbia Pictures. Within five years he rose to be Creative Director of UPA's New York studio. In 1956 CBS purchased the Terrytoons animation studio and named Gene Deitch as its Creative Director, replacing Paul Terry. Under Dietch supervision and direction, the studio produced 18 CinemaScope cartoons per year for 20th Century-Fox, and won its very first Oscar nomination.

Deitch's stay at Terrytoons was only two years, but they turned out some exciting cartoons. They began earning some praise and recognition creating many other characters, such as Sidney the Elephant, Clint Clobber, Gaston Le Crayon, John Doormat, Foofle... the most popular being Tom Terrific. Tom Terrific, with Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, was the very first animated serial for network television.

In 1958, a resentful Bill Weiss fired Gene Deitch and took control of Terrytoons himself. Shortly after his departure from Terrytoons, Deitch set up his own studio in New York, Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. Soon afterwards, because of the skilled labor, Deitch moved to Prague, set up his studio and did his animation from Czechoslovakia.

In the early 1960's he worked on some made-for-TV Popeye shorts for King Features, revived the Tom and Jerry characters in a series of thirteen shorts for M-G-M, and won an Oscar in 1960 for "Munro", all from Czechoslovakia.

With the death of Stalin in 1953, the politics changed. Socialism relaxed and gave more political and cultural freedom which caused the film industry in the region became more lax and by the late 50s, anti-Stalin and anti Socialist films slowly joined the new sexual revolution and gradually grew in strength into the 60s.

Top directors such as Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos, Vojtech Jasny, Jan Nemec, Vera Chytilova, and Ivan Passer began releasing quality films. Most of them studied at Prague's Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), one of the oldest film schools in Europe. Kadar and Klos's The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze, 1965) and Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledovane vlaky, 1966) both won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.

In the spring of 1968, the Czech cinema enjoyed an unprecedented freedom of expression. But the growing political freedoms were seen as a threat by the Soviet Union. On August 21, 1968, five Warsaw Pact member countries invaded Czechoslovakia. This brought an end to everything and all production was wiped out. Some film makers stayed behind to make whatever films they were allowed to, but most like Milos Forman and Ivan Passer emigrated.

Soviet troops continued to occupy the country until 1989 with the fall of communism in 1989 called the Velvet Revolution. The Czech movie industry changed dramatically after the Velvet Revolution. Barrandov Studios were privatized and were no longer guaranteed productions and funds from the government.

Vaclav Havel, former dissident and son of the founder of the Barrandov Studios, was elected president during the country's first democratic elections in January 1990.

On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two independent countries, Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic and Vladimir Meciar became the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic. The Czech Republic had more population and a much larger film audience than the Slovak Republic. At the time of the split the average income for the country was 4000 crowns which is equivilent to about $150 US dollars per month.

The 90s saw the rise of a new generation of Czech film makers, including Jan Sverak, Jan Hrebejk, Sasa Gedeon, Petr Zelenka, and David Ondricek. Sverak's Elementary School (Obecna skola, 1991) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and his movie Kolya (Kolja, 1996) won it. Hrebejk's Divided We Fall (Musime si pomahat, 2000) also received an Oscar nomination.

The 90s were devastating to the Slovak Republic. In 1995, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar privatized the Koliba Film Studio in Bratislava which was the center of the film industry in Slovakia and within two years Meciar's children are said to have held an 80% stake in the company. Allegations of asset-stripping and fraud dogged the company, and after Meciar was voted out of office in 1998 the Ministry of Culture sued Koliba to recover money given to make feature films that were not produced, one of a number of suits launched by the post-Meciar government in relation to companies that had been privatized by Meciar. The legal action dragged on through the early 2000s and did nothing to clarify the position of Koliba, effectively prolonging the stagnation and leaving the studios dilapidated and in disrepair. 36 films with major Slovak participation were made between 1992 and 2002, with Martin Sulik being the only major Slovak director to emerge in this period.

Slovak has produced more than it appears with some Slovak directors like Juraj Jakubisko and Dusan Hanak making films in Prague and other studios because of the financing. Some 350 Slovak feature films have been made in the history of Slovak cinema but confusion abounds because of the joint ventures and usage of studios and audiences.

Currently the Czech Republic has a population of about 10.3 million people with 1.5 million of those living in Prague. The Czech Republic has approximately 920 screens, while the Slovak Republic has about 5.4 million people.

Because of the low production cost and highly skilled film industry labor, the Czech Republic is becoming a favorite place for major film production with such titles being filmed in the Czech Republic as: Spy Game (2001), A Knight's Tale (2001), XXX (2002), Bourne Identity (2002), Blade II (2002), Underworld (2003), Shanghai Knights (2003), League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Van Helsing (2004), Hellboy (2004), Alien vs Predator (2004), Chronicles of Narnia (2005), and Brothers Grimm (2005).

The Czech Republic continues to grow as a hot destination for foreign movie production.