Looking for Ester Krumbachová: the Czech New Wave mastermind hiding in plain sight

Ester Krumbachová on the set of A Report on the Party and Guests (dir. Jan Němec from a story by Krumbachová, 1966)

Artist, guru, witch, muse: Ester Krumbachová (1923 – 1996), the dazzling phantom behind many essential titles of the 1960s Czech New Wave, is a mysterious figure. Working across costumes, production design, dramaturgy, scriptwriting, and direction, Krumbachová’s contribution to the country’s film culture is in some ways highly visible, and in others totally obscured. The look and feel of many essential Czech films of this period – Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), Jan Němec’s A Report on the Party and Guests (1966), Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) – came directly from Krumbachová, but her influence extends way beyond the design roles which make up most of her official credits. Often working far outside the limits suggested by her job title, Krumbachová, who died in 1996, has left behind a complicated legacy which is only now being properly rediscovered and understood.

That rediscovery has been a long time coming. Back in 2005, Chytilová made Looking for Ester, a documentary portrait of Krumbachová pieced together from archive footage, photographs, and interviews. The establishment of a dedicated archive cataloguing her work in 2019, was another big step forward, but perhaps most decisive is the recent restoration of Murdering the Devil (also known as The Murder of Mr. Devil, 1969), Krumbachová’s sole directorial credit and a lost marvel of Eastern European feminist cinema, which has begun screening this year on the festival circuit. A delicious work of feminist subversion, Murdering the Devil offers a playful skewering of heterosexual relationships and gender dynamics, buried behind layers of gleeful kitsch. A lonely, unnamed woman (Jiřina Bohdalová) living alone in a beautiful apartment, receives a call from an old flame, a Mr. Devil (Vladimír Mensík). She invites him round for dinner, anticipating romance, but is shocked to find her once lithe lover has grown into a coarse middle-aged man. Nevertheless, she cooks him dinner and he eats his way through her cupboards, revealing a supernaturally insatiable appetite. The two embark on a highly dysfunctional romance, until one day, our heroine tires of the gluttonous Mr. Devil’s endless hunger, and decides to take her revenge.

Working across costumes, production design, dramaturgy, scriptwriting, and direction, Krumbachová’s contribution to the country’s film culture is in some ways highly visible, and in others totally obscured

Murdering the Devil is a quirky piece of work, a singular labour of love from Krumbachová who not only directed, but also wrote the script, made the costumes, designed the set, and cooked the many fabulous dishes guzzled over the course of the film. The film presents a heightened world, with stylised design, supernatural plot twists, and fourth wall breaking monologues, but it’s also highly autobiographical; Krumbachová based the heroine on herself, styling Bohdalová’s hair and makeup to look like her own and recreating a version of her own apartment as the film’s set. Watching Murdering the Devil feels like opening a hatch into Krumbachová’s wildly creative mind.

The world Krumbachová conjures is a visual marvel, full of kitschy excess, sparkles, and tchotchkes, but this aesthetic wonder is coupled with a sharp, politically resonant script. In its depiction of a self-styled domestic goddess apparently content, at least initially, with serving the bottomless appetite of a boorish man, Murdering the Devil offers a witty satire of the feminine mystique and a sly critique of patriarchal power’s dependency on unacknowledged female labour. The ripple of the supernatural that runs through the film also speaks to the filmmaker’s interest in magic as a subversive force. Krumbachová often told people she had been a witch in her past life, and witches also have a feminist resonance, as a symbol both of female victimhood and of independence from mainstream society.

Jiřina Bohdalová and Ljuba Hermanová in Murdering the Devil (dir. Ester Krumbachová, 1969)

The political and feminist elements which run through Murdering the Devil become all the more powerful when viewed through the wider lens of Krumbachová’s life and career. Krumbachová’s official directorial debut came after she had already spent the best part of a decade working in Czech avant-garde film, often taking on additional uncredited work alongside her core work as a designer. Coming into the industry initially as a costume designer, Krumbachová was already contending with the limited credibility afforded by this underappreciated, women-dominated field. Murdering the Devil’s central depiction of an endlessly extractive man living off female labour is a potent metaphor, one which can be read in many ways; it could just as easily apply to the dynamics of the film and art worlds, as to the domestic sphere.

From early on in her career, Krumbachová pushed at the boundaries of people’s expectations, both of what costume design could be, and what she herself was capable of. Born in Brno in 1923, Krumbachová grew up in a small tenement with an absent father and a chronically ill mother. After art school she found her way into theatre where, handy with a hacksaw and equipped with a rich imagination (both self-sufficient legacies of a neglectful childhood), she taught herself set design. Even at this early stage, she had an all-encompassing approach to her work, and would often challenge male playwrights, pushing them to write better female roles. In the theatre, she also began to develop a philosophy for her approach to design, seeing costume as part of the larger artistic mission; as Krumbachová is quoted as saying in Looking for Ester, “A costume is not just a costume, it must philosophically exceed the real character.”

In Murdering the Devil, Krumbachová works within conventional form, whipping up a concoction that’s apparently featherlight and frivolous, a commentary on female rebellion topped with whipped cream and served in a crystal coupe

In 1962, Krumbachová took her first film job as a costume designer on Oldřich Lipský’s The Man from the First Century. From here, she quickly became both the go-to designer of the Czech New Wave and an in-demand Renaissance woman, beloved by ambitious directors. On Jan Němec’s debut Diamonds of the Night (1964), Krumbachová is credited as costume designer, but Němec would later call her the “the guru of the project”, describing how she was a key force in turning a story about the Holocaust into something that felt universal, like a Greek tragedy. Němec and Krumbachová went on to marry and would continue to work together, most notably on A Report on the Party and Guests, a satire adapted from one of Krumbachová’s short stories (furiously creative and industrious in all directions, she had a drawer in her home full of manuscripts). On set, Krumbachová was effectively a co-director, heavily involved in every aspect of the production, and when she had to go to holiday to Yugoslavia halfway through the shoot, she spent the entire holiday directing from afar, spending a fortune on phone calls in the process.

A Report on the Party and Guests was almost immediately banned by the Czech authorities, and both Krumbachová and Němec would eventually be blacklisted from filmmaking for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Before that happened though, Krumbachová managed to gather an impressive array of credited and uncredited projects. She co-wrote and designed Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer (1970), a vivid depiction of the medieval witch trials as a metaphor for political and sexual repression. The lush, jewel-like visuals of Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders also came from Krumbachová, as did the twisted fairytale screenplay. On Vojtěch Jasný’s All My Good Countrymen (1969), which traces the currents of Czech rural life across the 1940s and 1950s, she took a more realist approach, sourcing clothes from local villages and giving each character only a few costumes, which would be aged as the story moved through the years. Aside from Němec though, her most meaningful collaboration was probably with Vera Chytilová, with whom she worked on Daisies, Fruits of Paradise (1970), and The Very Late Afternoon of the Faun (1983).

A Report on the Party and Guests (dir. Jan Němec from a story by Krumbachová, 1966)

In Looking for Ester, Chytilová describes how collaborating with Krumbachová helped her draw out Daisies’ central theme: destruction. “Once we were clear on that, we decided to show destruction in every sense of the word, not just things and relationships, but the entire film image.” This obsession spills out into every aspect of the film, playfully evident in scenes in which the Daisies’ protagonists grab scissors and literally slice up the film we are watching, before our eyes. In those moments it’s tempting to draw a direct parallel between the girlish agents of chaos at the heart of Daisies and Chytilová and Krumbachová themselves: two mischievous, feminine forces gleefully pushing at the form’s limits in a fraught political context. “We were bored of the way films were done then, we wanted to try to push the envelope,” Chytilová remembers. “We were in perfect harmony in our protest against the destruction happening around us; we considered the film a period documentary.”

Curiously, although otherwise a great advocate for Krumbachová’s talent, Chytilová openly despised Murdering the Devil. That view seems to have been shared by many of her peers in the Czech film scene. Looking for Ester mercilessly criticises the film, and in one astonishing sequence Chytilová angrily attacks Němec for being involved in the shoot, telling him that he prostituted himself by being on set; Němec sombrely agrees that “the whole thing was nonsense.” It’s an oddly aggressive digression in an otherwise celebratory documentary, but perhaps it speaks to Krumbachová’s originality and vision that she managed to make a film which apparently went so dramatically against the values of her peers and commentators. Murdering the Devil, with its appropriation of genre tropes, unapologetically feminine aesthetic, and wacky humour, was possibly just too out of step with the explicitly deconstructionist avant-garde of the time. Working with Krumbachová, Chytilová expressed political dissent by destroying the very form of film. In Murdering the Devil, Krumbachová works within conventional form, whipping up a concoction that’s apparently featherlight and frivolous, a commentary on female rebellion topped with whipped cream and served in a crystal coupe. But just because it looks beautiful and tastes delicious, doesn’t mean it has nothing to say.

Rachel Pronger is a freelance writer and curator, currently based in Berlin. Her writing has been published by outlets including Sight & Sound, The Guardian, MUBI Notebook, Art Monthly, Elephant Art and BBC Culture. Rachel is also co-founder of archive activist feminist film collective Invisible Women.