Film history classes may pound the French New Wave into the heads of cinema students everywhere, but not much is said about the Czech New Wave. Unsurprisingly, this movement was in direct response to the French version and was an attempt to showcase the filmmaking talents emerging in Eastern Europe. These films were made in the 1960s and featured nonprofessional actors, long dialogue, and dark humor. One of the integral figures in this movement was director Věra Chytilová, whose 1968 film, Daisies, put her on the map as a daring feminist filmmaker. As described by Criterion, “No director pushed the boundaries of the Czechoslovak New Wave further than Věra Chytilová.” Her work pulsates with an anarchic energy, each frame saying something new and explosive. While not all of her work is as overtly political as Daisies, each of her films makes a political statement about women, the Soviet Union, economics, socialism, and more.
All of the films mentioned here were made before the 1968 invasion of the Soviet Union into Czechoslovakia. Due to her controversial filmmaking, it was impossible for her to find work as a director during this time. Daisies was banned from Czechoslovakia, so she had quite the reputation for her filmmaking style. While not all of her films are described here, Chylitová worked in a wide range of genres, making a sci-fi horror film called Wolf’s Hole and a rape-revenge film called Traps.
The three films detailed here are all available on the Criterion Channel. These three examples, as well as being the most easily available online, also display Chytilová’s range and development as a filmmaker. They give a sense of her camerawork, her storytelling, her ability to depict the horrors of reality, and her dedication to creating new kinds of characters.
Something Different (1963)
Chytilová’s feature-film debut blends fiction and documentary to portray the lives of two women: a gymnast on the verge of retirement and a fed-up housewife. While these women never meet, Something Different shows the parallels between their lives, which on the surface appear so different. But, through Chytilová’s focus on their physicality, we are shown the repetitive nature of their existence, the pressure exerted on their physical bodies, and the exhaustion they encounter while trying to appease the men in their lives.
The camera spends much of the film in closeup on each of the women’s bodies, but not in the style of the male gaze. Rather, it focuses on the strength and movement of their arms, hands, legs, feet, and backs, especially as Eva, the gymnast, works through her routines. The focus is not the spectacle of her flips and jumps, but the way each of her muscles work together to propel her through space. There is an especially gorgeous shot where the camera begins upside down as she works through her floor routine and as she moves through a cartwheel, the camera follows her until it is right side up. Chytilová works to mimic Eva’s movements to create a focus on her power and the abuse her body takes with each practice.
Something Different shares similarities with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman as each illustrate the frustrations and building resentment that women experience throughout their lives, especially in relation to the men around them. Something Different relates two very different women and creates a slice-of-life film about exhaustion and the desire, but impossibility, of change.
At the World Cafeteria (1965)
At the World Cafeteria is one of five short films in the Czech New Wave anthology film, Pearls of the Deep, which showcases the work of the five directors from the movement. Chytilová is the only women featured in this collection, with her short film that takes place inside of a small cafe during a wedding. As the wedding rages on upstairs, a body is found, an artist grieves the loss of his fiancee, and horrors begin to unfold. In such a short film, Chytilová is able to portray what seems to be a sad love story that slowly unfolds in a horrifying story about abuses of power.
The sounds of the wedding play over the on-camera dialogue, which creates a deliberately confusing soundscape that creates a tension between celebration and grief. This is first established as flashes of laborers drinking and eating flash on screen as music plays and people cheer. Chytilová creates a story about economic and gender inequality with a horror story as the backdrop.
In her most well-known, and controversial, film, Daisies, Chytilová spits in the face of societal expectations and manners, letting her female characters consume, laugh, yell, and be spoiled. Daisies’ narrative is straightforward enough: it follows two women, both named Marie, who wish to be spoiled. They think the world is ruined, so why can’t they be, too? They eat, laugh, eat some more, and take advantage of older men, all in the name of hilarious destruction. This film is a destructive Bacchanalian feast where the Maries devour desserts, fruits, wine, beer, while laughing at their older financiers. They go through men like tissues, using them to wipe their faces, then throwing them onto trains that whisk the men away.
Daisies is a film bursting with chaotic energy. The camerawork and editing is an assault on the senses, never letting the spectator rest. Colors are always shifting, moving from black and white, to full color, to reds, blues, and oranges. There is no narrative explanation for such radical shifts, only that Chytilová doesn’t want the spectator to comfortably view the narrative; this is a film for thinking and understanding, not idly consuming.
It is also an absurdly hilarious film. As a man confesses his love for Marie, they cut up phallic foods, such as sausages and pickles, with scissors and eat them. They make a crude charcuterie platter as they listen to a man bear his heart over the phone, negating any aspect of romance and really just mocking the man on the other line.
What’s important about Daisies is that it portrays women being unabashedly disgusting. The Maries squish food between their fingers, shove cakes into their mouths, pour liquids all over their faces, and let food decay in their bed. They both may look like the image of perfect femininity — dresses, exaggerated eyeliner, styled hair — but their actions negate this presentation. Daisies rejects societal expectations. It is a film that displays the experimental and rebellious spirit of Chytilová, who didn’t care about censors. Instead, she wanted to push the boundaries of cinema and show the world the power of Czech filmmaking.
Chylitová passed away in 2014 at the age of 85, leaving behind a radical filmmaking legacy that spoke up against the Soviet Union, gender oppression, and communism. Even in the face of government control, she wouldn’t step down or change her ways. Like many female directors, I wish she was taught more in film history classes, as she is a shining example of bringing a film movement to life; she is the Agnes Varda of Czech film.