This month, the Offscreen film festival in Brussels, Belgium, brings a retrospective of eighteen Czech films from the 60s and 70s, from lyrical pearls, over historic parables to atypical fairy tale adaptations of Cinderella, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. Director Juraj Herz of dark masterpieces like The Cremator and Morgiana is a festival guest, along with stop-motion filmmaker Jiri Barta.
Here are the eighteen best fantastical films from Czechoslovakia according to Offscreen...
Karel Zeman's playful virtuosity lends itself perfectly to the classic tale of Baron Munchausen. Making the impossible a reality, the "Czech Meliès" places the actors in wonderfully inventive animated decors and brings the Baron's improbable tales to life like never before. A highlight in Zeman's oeuvre.
Beauty, as popular wisdom will have it, is in the eye of the beholder. But here, that beholder is a mythical monster that forbids its prized possession to return its gaze. Beauty and the Beast is a dreamlike and ethereal adaptation that draws out the uncanny qualities of the original story and pities the antihero his inner turmoil.
How can a man explain he is not a rabbit when he’s got no proof to the contrary? Taking the question to absurd heights in a freewheeling spin on Gulliver’s Travels, Jurácek presses the sore spots of bureaucracy in the guise of a mesmerizingly surreal tale that blends nostalgia with political commentary.
Vampire mythology is taken for a spin by adding themes of technological anxiety and a critique of consumer culture. Like a horse powered Nosferatu, race car Ferat drains the blood of any victim unlucky enough to get behind its steering wheel. A film that's not only profoundly weird but also scary and fun.
Barta gives a dark twist to the classic folktale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin: a corrupt and materialistic city distorted into an expressionistic tableau populated by cubist characters. This one-of-a-kind stop-motion fairy tale adaptation is hailed as one of the masterpieces of puppet animation.
The chaos and anarchy of the dark Middle Ages were seldom as strikingly rendered to the screen as in this cinematographic masterpiece on the struggle between two rival clans. Often cited as the best Czech film ever made, grab the chance to see this mystic, hallucinatory classic on the big screen.
The blackest of black, the ultimate shade of noir, the high priestess of Gothic supreme: veils, coffins and the petrifying eyelashes of its leading ladies included. No label quite sums up the baroque magnificence of Morgiana. Ensnares fully with a story of madness, betrayal and hallucination-inducing poison.
A businessman can't seem to find his way home when he wanders into a serpentine shopping mall where time has stopped. The bizarre characters he meets have no intention of helping him either. Herz deals a hand of massive psychosexual terror and claims this film as his second favorite after The Cremator.
The circus comes to town in this vibrant and deliciously jazzy treat with Technicolor inserts! National comedy icon Jan Werich leads the dance as the magician stirring up trouble in a small, stuck-up village. Following in tow are a beautiful trapeze artist and her mischievous cat with a very special gift.
The horrifying professional cremator in Herz's masterpiece would make a great Halloween character, and he'd be a knock-out. This baffling and darkly humoristic tale of a deranged institutional figure is made up of dizzy strokes of expressionist folly and is as disturbing as it is aesthetically gratifying.
The Golden Fern
Based on an "indigenous" fairytale, this is an exquisitely dark and brooding piece of folklore by one of the great directors of the Czech New Wave. The titular fern plays a pivotal role in a young man's life whose ambition leads him to a crossroads between two very different women, and two competing destinies.
The pain and beauty of unrequited love marvelously combine in one of the most breathtaking and obscure examples of the Czech fairytale cinema, where staggering art and costume design vie with an equally brilliant electronic score. A pearl from the deep indeed.
"A fanciful rediscovery" is one way of putting it. A key fairytale in the oeuvre of The Dark Baron. Herz riffs on the concept of 'seeing anew with childlike wonder' in a concoction that features a pouty-lipped princess, a brave vagrant, a maleficent evildoer and nine children's hearts!
Buñuel's surrealist legacy lives on in the utterly "magical" urban environment of Prague, but while the scathing jokery of our party does bear resemblance to that of the master, it is a sharp-toothed beast of its own. The Party and the Guests is a top entry in the "subversion-through-comedy" category of the Eastern Bloc.
A princess is no damsel in distress, not necessarily. Is there a fairytale character better suited to a narrative of female empowerment than Cinderella, working her way up from the dust she was raised in? This loveable rewriting thrills with a tomboy heroine who is very much in charge of her happy ending.
An old suitcase in a dusty attic is the home of an eclectic collection of toys. When the beautiful doll Buttercup is abducted, her friends organize a search party and go on an adventure that’s filled with danger and intrigue. A stop-motion gem that is bound to captivate the minds of both young and old.
The quintessential gem in the canon of Czech surrealism. Valerie dreams a young girl's dream where menacing and lecherous men lurk behind every corner and crave her unspoiled flesh. The spirit of the Poetic avant-garde soars in this predominantly visual world that is all color and texture and splendor.
Based on a series of actual witch trials in the 17th century, this shocking film is gorgeously shot in stark black and white, thus mirroring the moral schism of its characters. Both a genre film and a political fable, its anticlerical message hides a barely veiled critique of the totalitarian regime.
Which of these movies are you looking forward to seeing?