Past and present collide at Karlovy Vary as eastern Europe’s finest festival returns

The Hotel Thermal hosts the Karlovy Vary crowds. Photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

Eastern Europe’s most prestigious film festival is also one of the world’s oldest, alongside other European greats Cannes, Berlinale, and Venice, and it returned earlier this month for its 58th edition. Karlovy Vary International Film Festival has a proud history of bringing the very best titles in world cinema to delegates in this Czech spa town; over nine days across June and July, the festival showcases a rich variety of contemporary and culturally important heritage films from the East and beyond.

Karlovy Vary boasts a star-studded list of attendees since its inception in 1946: from Hollywood’s Rita Hayworth back in its very first year, to American indie auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen via legendary English actor Sir Michael Caine. And this year’s packed festival proved to be no different. Hollywood legend and Academy Award winner Russell Crowe accepted the award for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema while Ewan McGregor received the President’s Award.

But beyond the turnout of the industry’s finest, the real star at Karlovy Vary Film Festival is the programme. Attendees were treated to eight days of meticulously curated cinema from across the world: including Justine Triet’s recent Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall, German icon Wim Wenders’ new film Perfect Days, and Ira Sachs’ contemporary romance Passages. When we weren’t stood admiring the beauty of historic Karlovy Vary, we were delighted to be seated in busy cinemas alongside eager audiences. While picking a favourite from the eclectic line-up proved impossible, the festival still served up its usual range of eastern European highlights.

Eli Skorcheva in Blaga’s Lessons (dir. Stephan Komandarev, 2023)

The main competition, the Crystal Globe, was one by Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev for Blaga’s Lessons, four years after his compatriots Christina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s win with The Father. This remarkably suspenseful drama tells the story of Blaga, a retired schoolteacher who loses her life savings in a phone scam. A complex and thrilling character study, the film follows the repercussions of this pivotal event, and Blaga’s whirlwind attempts to gain the money back. Komandarev is no stranger to success, with over 30 awards and 24 nominations to his name, but it’s Eli Skorcheva’s portrayal as the protagonist that cements the film’s success, with her gripping transformation as her character grows and changes over the course of the film, offering a rich commentary on how the vulnerable and the elderly are treated in contemporary Bulgarian society.

Another title that arrived in Czechia surrounded by awards buzz, thanks to director Marika Kavtaradze’s success at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Lithuanian drama Slow received its European premiere. A far cry from the tensions of Blaga’s Lessons, this beautiful exploration of the intimacy between dancer Elena and sign language interpreter Dovydas offers a fresh look at relationships on film, eschewing stereotypes and simplistic definitions and illustrating a companionship with a captivating sense of delicacy. This beautiful film also presents a vision of asexuality that is unusual for mainstream film, giving audiences an intimate perspective on a fledging relationship fraught with challenges. The on-screen chemistry between Greta Grineviciute and Kestutis Cicenas, combined with the distinctive warmth and texture of the 35mm photography from Laurynas Bareiša, give this complex but powerful film a timeless energy.

Given the festival’s location and reputation, events in Ukraine remained at the forefront of both audiences’ and organisers’ minds. Ukrainian director Antonio Lukich climbed on stage proudly draped in the blue and yellow flag of his country to give a passionate introduction to his sophomore film, Luxembourg, Luxembourg. After some humorous tales of the comedic chaos we could expect from his film, he proceeded to tell us: “there is nothing much to laugh about in Ukraine at this moment.” His deeply personal, emotional, and yet hilarious introduction gave Luxembourg, Luxembourg the set-up it richly deserved. One of the funniest and zany films we saw at the festival, this quasi-autobiographical tall tale is the story of two estranged brothers on two very different paths, who are unexpectedly brought together when their father passes away while working in Luxembourg and they are called to his deathbed. This perfectly balanced Ukrainian dramedy will make you laugh then cry, with Lukich confidently switching tone throughout.

Amil and Ramil Nasirov in Luxembourg, Luxembourg (dir. Antonio Lukich, 2023)

Lukich’s efforts demonstrated an old truism: no other genre is as difficult to get right as comedy. When it works, it is the most joyous shared experience one can have in a packed cinema – but get it wrong, and the effect can be painful. The situation is made more fraught at cosmopolitan festivals, where humour needs to work across international audiences. Luckily, She Came at Night, from Czech directorial duo Jan Vejnar and Tomáš Pavlíček landed perfectly. From the opening scene of a young man offering to take a photo for a family in the middle of a domestic dispute, the audience in the intimate theatre grabbed this film with both hands and went with it. A quiet young couple have their lives thrown into chaos when the woman’s estranged (and intense) mother turns up in the middle of the night and disturbs the peace. This wickedly funny dark comedy is sprinkled with a thriller-like tension throughout and had us on the edge of our seats.

Karlovy Vary has a growing reputation for its curation of restored and neglected classics – a point proven this year by the wild success of its retrospective for Japanese master Yasuzo Masamura. Of the eastern European heritage titles on offer, we were most impressed by Eduard Grečner’s 1967 Dragon’s Return. This Czech period classic introduces us to Martin Lepis, a potter nicknamed Dragon, who is falsely accused of evil intentions and ousted from village life. When Dragon offers to help return a herd of lost cattle in exchange for the freedom to return to the village, the townspeople begin to grow suspicious of his motives. The beauty of Vincent Rosinec’s cinematography is brought to life in the magnificent 4K restoration which screened in the stunning Karlovy Vary Municipal Theatre, a venue fit for a film with such history and prestige. But what made this screening so special was an introduction from director Grečner himself. The charismatic filmmaker, who is 91 years old, made his first trip to the festival in 1948, two years before it was even moved to Karlovy Vary itself. He recalled memories of the film’s production and release like it was only a few years ago, entirely captivating the audience and providing a living link between past and present.