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History of Czech cinematography

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The Czech film tradition dates to the very beginnings of the industry itself. Its high quality can be demonstrated by its several Oscar winners. The real master of the film, also known worldwide is director Milos Forman.


Beginnings of Czech cinematography

The miracle of motion pictures appeared in the Czech lands soon after its first major successful presentation by the Lumiére brothers in Paris. The first film presentations took place in 1896 in Karlovy Vary and in Prague. A year later, a film was made for the first time in Bohemia, when an American film company shot a traditional Passion Play theater production in Horice na Sumave.

The first permanent movie theater was opened in Prague in 1907. Nevertheless, films that were completely made on the domestic scene (i.e. not just shot but also developed in the Czech lands) had not yet emerged.

In accordance with foreign models, private Czech film companies began to emerge in the Czech lands in the first years of the 20th century, but they had an ephemeral lifespan. The Czech film industry lagged behind global trends and remained in a state of pioneering experiments.

The history of the first Czech film experiments is humorously described by director Jiri Menzel in his film Bajecni muzi s klikou (Magicians of the Silver Screen).

The beginnings of the 20th century

The situation of the film industry did not begin to develop substantially until after the end of the First World War and the establishment of an independent Czechoslovak Republic. Post-war euphoria gave a boost to all of Czech society, including film. New film companies were formed and the first professional studios were established. Ambitious projects were begun based on Western models.

Czech cinema started to be an active player in all genres, and a strong mainstream of productions emerged. Outstanding directorial figures began to materialize who pulled Czech film forward during the important period when sound arrived – Martin Fric,Karel Lamac and Gustav Machaty.

The first Czech actress to become a European-caliber star was Anny Ondrakova. She later played the lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s first film with sound, Blackmail (1929). The historical drama Stavitel chramu (The Cathedral Builder) and the social drama Erotikon (Seduction), as well as the contemporary melodrama Varhanik u sv. Vita (The Organist at St. Vitus' Cathedral) represent the apex of Czech silent-film output (comparable with foreign productions).

The young Czech film industry weathered the arrival of sound without any major upheavals. One of the first Czech films to be made completely with sound was C. K. polni marsalek (Imperial and Royal Field Marshal, directed by Karel Lamac). This movie was a huge success, especially for Vlasta Burian, who played the lead role and went on to become one of the most popular film stars.

Besides the arrival of sound, a crucial event for Czech film was the building of Barrandov Studios. A large film complex was constructed on the outskirts of Prague, and was at that time the most modernly equipped studio in Europe. It became one of the symbols of the Czech film industry. The first film was made here in 1933.

The fact that Czech film was finally enjoying a proper upsurge is evident from how successfully it managed to overcome the years of economic crisis. The vitality of Czech film was partly provided by experienced and professional filmmakers (Lamac, Fric, Machaty ) and partly by new acting stars (Vlasta Burian,Hugo Haas,Jan Werich and Jiri Voskovec,Adina Mandlova,Lida Baarova and others).

Films that were major hits primarily included the movies Extaze (Ecstasy, directed by Gustav Machaty) and Reka (The River, sometimes known in English as The Ecstasy of Young Love, directed by Josef Rovensky), which also enjoyed considerable success abroad.

Wartime cinema

Naturally, starting in 1938, circumstances began changing radically all over Europe. From the moment Czechoslovakia was forced to accept the Munich agreement, it was only a short step to the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (and an autonomous Slovak state) under the “wings” of an aggressive Germany ruled by Hitler. The German administration naturally had a huge interest in Prague’s Barrandov Studios, which became the main film center of the Reich.

At the beginning of the war, it was still possible, albeit to a limited extent, to make Czech films for the Czech public. By the end, however, this truncated cinema industry was fighting for survival.  Filmmakers often used themes from Czech history and literature, but films were also made, especially comedies, which addressed audiences all over Europe – the most popular of these pictures in foreign countries was the drama Nocni motyl (The Nocturnal Butterfly, directed by Frantisek Cap). Some of these films are still permanent features on the schedules of Czech television stations – e.g. Kristian (directed by Martin Fric), in which the greatest actor of the 1940s, Oldrich Novy, gives a dazzling performance.

With the end of the war came the end of private enterprise in the field of film. The entire film industry was nationalized soon after the end of the occupation (1945). Other post-war occurrences relating to film included the foundation of an Academy of Performing Arts with a film school (FAMU) as well as the establishment of a film festival in Mariánske Lazne in 1946, which was later moved to Karlovy Vary, and which, over the course of time, became the largest showcase of films in the country: the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

In February 1948, however, the Czechoslovak Republic suffered another blow in the form of a governance monopoly of the Communist Party that overruled film as well. It installed official dramaturgy of socialist realism and the Czechoslovak film industry again suffered under censorship and propagada.

Apart from a small number of interesting feature films (including perhaps the most successful Czech film of all time – the fairytale Pysna princezna, or The Proud Princess, directed by Borivoj Zeman), a surprisingly large number of outstanding animated films were produced. In the 1950s, beautiful films were made by important filmmakers such as Karel Zeman, a pioneer with special effects (culminating in successful films such as Cesta do praveku (Journey to the Beginning of Time) and Vynalez zkazy (A Deadly Invention), which combined acted drama with animation, and Jiří Trnka, the founder of the modern puppet film. The artistically exceptional film Vynalez zkazy, based on the Jules Verne novel received the Grand Prize in Expo 58 in Brussels.

Another Czech cultural phenomenon came into being at the end of the 1950s. This project was called Laterna magika (The Magic Lantern) and it was the brainchild of renowned film and theater director Alfred Radok. This resulted in productions that combined theater, dance and film in a very poeticizing manner and that premiered at the EXPO ’58 world exposition in Brussels, where they enjoyed enormous popularity. Alfred Radok and his collaborators returned to Prague from Brussels with the gold medal.

The New Wave: The 1960s

A relaxation of totalitarian conditions came at the start of the 1960s, and this paved the way for one of the most celebrated eras in Czech film, the New Wave (named after the French model).

} was the most notable forerunner of the New Wave and later became its main exponent. In 1963, he made Cerny Petr (Black Peter), the first Czech film shot according to a cinéma-verité template. Forman made another two films in Czechoslovakia (Lasky jedne plavovlasky, or Loves of a Blonde, in 1965, and Hori, ma panenko, or The Firemen’s Ball, in 1967) before emigrating to the United States in 1968 (where he shot a number of excellent films with his regular collaborator, cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek).

In the 1960s, two masterworks were also made by other film collaborators of Forman. Ivan Passer shot Intimni osvetleni (Intimate Lighting, 1966); he also later emigrated to the United States and made films there). Jaroslav Papousek made Ecce Homo Homolka (Behold Homolka, 1969). The actual core of the New Wave was made up of young graduates from the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) – Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova, Jan Nemec and others.

All filmmakers strove to exploit the relaxation of attitudes (e.g. director Otakar Vavra, who made his debut as far back as the time of the Protectorate. He shot a historical film, Kladivo na čarodějnice (Witches Hammer), about witch trials in the 17th century. It was possible to perceive a clear indictment of the Stalinist era of the 1950s in the background of this film.

Impressive new films were made that contained fresh, more complex perspectives on the war , such as Demanty noci (Diamonds of the Night), directed by Jan Nemec; and most notably Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street), directed by Elmar Klos and Jan Kadar; and Ostre sledovane vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), directed by Jiri Menzel, which were awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film by the American Film Academy in 1965 and 1966). Films were also made that took a new more complex look at ancient history (e.g. Marketa Lazarová directed by Frantisek Vlacil ) as well as the recent past: Spalovac mrtvol (The Cremator), directed by Juraj Herz;Vsichni dobri rodaci (All My Good Countrymen), directed by Vojtech Jasny;Skrivanci na niti (Larks on a String), directed by Jiri Menzel; and contemporary circumstances such as Zert (The Jok), directed by Jaromil Jires and based on the book by Milan Kundera.

Besides Laterna magika, another remarkable film project was conceived in the minds of Czech artists. This was Kinoautomat,"the first interactive film in the world," which allowed the audience to stop the movie anytime. It was successfully presented at EXPO ´67 in Montreal.

The 1970s and 1980s

After the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968, another large wave of emigration followed, and not just of filmmakers. The film poetics of the 1960s were irretrievably lost and the creators of the New Wave were at the very least banned from making films in the first half of the 1970s (if they hadn’t already emigrated). Many films could not be shown and some (those which most sharply criticized the communist regime) were impounded by the censors – these movies are known as vault films and include The Cremator, Larks on a String, Ucho (The Ear), All My Good Countrymen and others).

Films with children’s themes could even be made by otherwise troublesome artists, such as Karel Kachyna's Uz zase skacu pres kaluze (Jumping Over Puddles Again, 1967), based on the book by Alan Marshall. Parodies became a very popular comedy sub-genre. The duo of Zdenek Sverak and Ladislav Smoljak, working in both theater and film, came up with a type of humor that was specific to the Czech environment and which is practically impossible to translate for foreign audiences.

All Czech film are available via the Czech Film Center.

Successes of more recent Czech cinematography are introduced under Modern Czech cinematography.

Added: 03.01.2010

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