The Klassiki Companion: the humanism and surrealism of the Czech New Wave

The Klassiki Companion is our beginners’ guide to the key filmmakers, movements, and concepts explore the political and artistic contexts that produced the Czech New Wave: a playful, subversive, and deeply influential movement that emerged from the post-Stalinist “Thaw” of the 1950s to transform Central European cinema.

Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová in Daisies (dir. Věra Chytilová, 1966)

The Czech New Wave was a national phenomenon, but one with international origins, both political and artistic. Following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, most of the Eastern Bloc entered the so-called “Thaw”: a loosely defined period marked by greater freedom of expression and a more relaxed attitude toward cultural and intellectual activities. Like their counterparts in other bloc republics, the Czechoslovak Communist Party initiated a policy of “de-Stalinisation”, distancing itself from the harsh repression and censorship of the previous era. These changes were one catalyst for the Czech New Wave, leading to the birth of artistically unique films, as well as fostering dialogue with Western cinema.

According to film historian Peter Hames, the New Wave can be divided into two phases: the first wave, lasting from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, and the second wave, spanning from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. The first was heavily influenced by the Italian Neorealist movement, while the second drew inspiration from the French New Wave. However, categorising these phases rigidly would be incorrect, as their structures often intertwined, and the social and political messages were similar. Italian Neorealism and the Czech New Wave shared a focus on the everyday lives of ordinary people, cast non-professional actors, and dealt with social themes; both movements also sought to capture the complexities of material life and articulate the perspectives and emotions of marginalised groups – in other words, they cherished the humanist ideas so important in the post-war era. Meanwhile, the French and Czechoslovak New Waves both attempted to radicalise film form, particularly in their use of nonlinear narrative structures and focus on subjective experience.

Like Kafka, the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave relied on allegory and symbolism to couch their political commentary: a very real necessity at the time

The New Wave drew inspiration from outside the film world, too. Franz Kafka, the central figure in Czech literature, who transcribed his anxieties and phobias onto paper, was an ever-present interlocutor. Bureaucracy and the pressure of the state apparatus were his primary nightmares – concerns of great relevance to the filmmakers of the era, who had ample reason to recreate onscreen the “Kafkaesque” ambience of absurdity. Like Kafka, the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave relied on allegory and symbolism to couch their political commentary: a very real necessity at the time.

The result of this hybrid set of influences was the Czech New Wave’s heady and distinctive combination, across its 15 or so years, of the humanist with the surrealist. As its filmmakers sought to capture the complexities of the human experience, they focused on the perspectives of marginalised and oppressed groups, such as the working class, rural inhabitants, and the citizens of small towns. These films often featured characters with complicated pasts and uncertain presents, grappling with personal problems and doubts about their surroundings, especially the political context. The New Wave’s creative experiments were often attempts to express these feelings on behalf of their characters: from sharp editing to expressive cinematography and production design, to say nothing of the sometimes entirely psychedelic narratives. Many films featured unconventional plotlines, multiple narrators, and an emphasis on subjectivity. The following (highly selective) watchlist captures this humanist-surrealist essence across seven essential titles.

Rudolf Hrušínský in The Cremator (dir. Juraj Herz, 1969)

Daisies (dir. Věra Chytilová, 1966)

Two young friends, both named Marie, declare the world to be immoral, and then proceed to behave accordingly. They challenge all social norms and declare a rebellion against their surroundings. Chytilová’s contributions to the Czech New Wave arguably posed the most radical challenges to classical cinematic form, emphasising the status of the cinematic image as a fragile apparatus. Daisies is not only her most famous work, but also a highlight of the entire New Wave. An absolutely avant-garde film, it captivates with every frame. Chytilová employs collage editing, hyper-expressive set designs, and disrupts temporal and spatial continuity throughout. Subverting the stylistic canons of communist cinema was not merely an artistic experiment – it served as a critical message against conservative social norms. Instead of “realistically” portraying the female experience, the director moves into a surreal space in order to confront the absurd patriarchal fantasies that shape the surrounding reality. Marie and Marie are presented as hyperbolised images of femininity, dismantling the integrity of such representations.

In addition to these social themes, Chytilová manages also to subtly comment on the legacy of the war. The film opens with gun gears and concludes with documentary footage of a city ravaged by bombings. Through these scenes, Chytilová draws attention to the destructive consequences of conflict and the necessity of peace and stability. Simultaneously, the scenes underscore the contrast between carefree existence and the harsh reality of the surrounding world.

 

The Cremator (dir. Juraj Herz, 1969)

The protagonist of Herz’s film, Karl Kopfrkingl, is an exceptionally meticulous individual. Despite his stern profession as a crematorium operator, he finds time for his large family and delves deep into topics from Buddhism to classical music. However, as Nazi occupation draws near, he becomes increasingly entangled in the political machinery of the regime. Subsequently, he begins to abuse his power and doesn’t hesitate to endorse the ruthless extermination of his own relatives.

The Cremator is a surreal journey into the core of ordinary fascism, concealed behind duteous decorum. The viewer experiences the transformation of the protagonist through the intense subjectivity of Kopfrkingl’s narration. This transformation represents the destructive influence of power and the danger of unrestrained behaviour in the context of totalitarianism. Aggressive jump cuts, extreme close-ups, and the illusion of a cohesive diegetic space vividly convey Herz’s fear at the ease with which fascism can be normalised. Kopfrkingel represents the idea that the capacity for cruelty and violence is ever-present within each individual, ready to awaken under favourable circumstances. The film’s surreal style and dark humour seem like explicit references to Kafka: Kopfrkingel certainly undergoes a “metamorphosis” of his own. To my mind, The Cremator also boasts one of the most beautiful opening scenes in the history of cinema.

Magda Vášáryová in Marketa Lazarová (dir. František Vláčil, 1967)

Marketa Lazarová (dir. František Vláčil, 1967)

Medieval Bohemia. Young noblewoman Marketa is abducted by bandits. Unexpectedly, she falls in love with one of the abductors, Mikoláš Kozlík; simultaneously, Marketa suspects that an army sent by the king will soon arrive to rescue her. This adaptation of Vladislav Vancura’s novel was voted the best Czech film in history. Vláčil aimed to make a film about people who lived 700 years ago as if they were his contemporaries. The director’s desire to bridge the centuries was so strong that he spent a considerable amount of time researching societies that lived at the level of medieval development. After extensive anthropological research, the film’s ethos became authenticity in every detail: for example, all medieval weapons in the film were made from the same materials used in the past. The film was described as “unbridled” – in a positive sense. The plot revolves around violence and eroticism, with the intimate tension between Marketa and Mikoláš mirroring the external power struggle between factions and against the kingdom’s total control – not only within the film but also in the director’s contemporary context.

Despite the somewhat intricate literary foundation, the film effectively combines the brutality inherent to the original story with experimental cinematography. The camera work, with its uncompromising close-ups and unpredictable angles, along with high-contrast black-and-white imagery, elevates the narrative to an almost mythological level. Additionally, as is often to case with folkloric sources, the film is rich in binary oppositions, revealed in the early scenes: violence/beauty, man/woman, young/old, paganism/Christianity. The film’s cinematic language encapsulates the essence of each opposition, presenting an unprecedented balance of archaic and ultramodern elements.

 

The Shop on Main Street (dir. Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965)

As part of the Slovak “Aryanisation” program administered within the Nazi client state during the Second World War, carpenter Tono involuntarily becomes the manager of a small shop owned by an elderly Jewish woman. Tono’s wife, thrilled by the fervour of the nationalists and the potential wealth of her husband, is oblivious to the fact that explaining to the old lady that Jews can no longer own shops is not as simple as it seems. When Tono attempts to clarify the new rules to the former owner, she responds with a bewildered look, saying, “I don’t understand anything.” Tono develops a connection with the woman, intensifying his daily doubts about the new regime; his alcoholism, which he eventually succumbs to, only amplifies them.

In 1950, Ján Kadár made the film Katka, which displeased the local authorities so much that he was immediately removed from the registry of directors. Kadár was forced to seek employment in other studios, gaining alternative experience and eventually becoming an assistant director at the leading Barrandov Studios. In 1965, he made The Shop on Main Street, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Almost all of Kadár’s films promote a humanistic ideology. With respect and an empathetic approach, the director filmed the beauty and pain of everyday life against the backdrop of strengthening fascism. Despite the weighty topic of the early Slovak Holocaust, the film contains much ironic and genuinely humorous content. Kadár himself was Jewish and often accused of having overly Zionist inclinations, not least in his addressing the Holocaust in this film, considered a dangerously liberal stance. Nevertheless, the director boldly argued that his was just a small story about the immeasurable trauma of Eastern and Central Europe during wartime.

Marián Bielik and Jana Beláková in The Sun in a Net (dir. Štefan Uher, 1963)

When the Cat Comes (dir. Vojtěch Jasný, 1963)

Set in a small, stagnant town dominated by bureaucracy and hypocrisy, this film tells the story of wandering artists. One of their number, Diana, touts a cat wearing sunglasses. When they are removed, the cat’s gaze reveals the literal “true colours” of those in the audience: liars turn violet, swindlers become grey, lovers turn red, and the unfaithful appear yellow. After the performance, the cat goes missing, leading to chaos in the town and an escalating struggle to possess to magical feline.

Jasný’s film, which won a Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963, is one of the main reasons to fall in love with Czech New Wave cinema. It beautifully combines the theme of humanism with surrealistic filmmaking; it’s a completely magical spectacle, captivating with its original and non-linear plot, classical music, and colour experiments. When the Cat Comes (also known in English as The Cassandra Cat) has been interpreted as a political allegory on the situation in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s. The film’s main focus is on children, which was quite unusual for cinema at that time: they symbolise innocence, while the cat represents freedom and individuality. Adults, as is customary in fairy tales, constantly strive to disturb the idyll with their political machinations. Interestingly, the film begins with a narrator looking out from a tower over the townspeople, commenting on their lives and actions. Voyeurism was an integral aspect of a time when escaping the gaze of “Big Brother” was almost impossible.

 

The Sun in a Net (dir. Štefan Uher, 1963)

This is the lyrical love story of two young individuals, Bela and Fajolo, whose relationship unfolds on one of the roofs of a panel building under the scorching summer sun. They both come from troubled families and share in the sadly common misfortune of their struggles. Their difficult relationship faces a new obstacle when Fajolo is forced to leave for a summer labour camp.

This film, perhaps the closest in spirit to the classics of Italian Neorealism, is shot in a highly minimalist style, with natural light and limited dialogue creating a poetic atmosphere. It is also an excellent example of the transformation of state-sponsored socialist realism into the Czech New Wave: here, the backdrop of a story about ordinary workers reveals a discourse on personality and its pain. The Sun in a Net is a quiet, closed, introspective film. The director saw in this formal approach the possibility to speak freely while responding to the ideological demands of the period. The film contains many coded political messages, hidden in poetic images centred around everyday life and nature. For example, a solar eclipse signifies the twilight of communism, while a boat washed ashore represents the communist situation in Czechoslovakia. The main motif is the appearance of the sun, which begins the film and which the camera repeatedly tries to capture throughout the movie, and which symbolises the vital necessity of the pursuit of freedom.

The Firemen’s Ball (dir. by Miloš Forman, 1967)

The Firemen’s Ball (dir. by Miloš Forman, 1967)

A regional fire department organises a grand ball to celebrate the 86th birthday of its leader, who is stricken with cancer and barely understands what is happening. Despite his condition, colleagues present him with a ceremonial bronze axe, while a beauty contest is planned among the female attendees. However, the organisation of the entire event fails miserably after potential candidates have to be forcibly dragged into the selection and the lottery prizes are stolen.

Forman’s films from the New Wave period are best described as collective portraits reflecting the everyday behaviour of ordinary people. Forman clearly emphasises the strained relationships and fundamental divisions between older and younger generations that create the demand for change. The Firemen’s Ball resembles a collection of jokes that constantly blur the lines between “new” and “old” forms of humour. Stylistically, Forman was influenced by Neorealism, seeking authenticity by using non-professional actors, improvisation, and minimal lighting effects. This aesthetic approach allowed the director to undermine the glorification of the common person in socialist realism while at the same time demonstrating the psychological complexity and moral flaws of his characters. The most notable sequence in the film is the selection of participants for the beauty contest. The fire department leadership openly objectifies the candidates, hapless girls standing against a wall, not understanding what is expected of them. They dream of leaving the room, while the excited leaders try to finish this ludicrous bureaucratic process. In addition to his desire to truthfully convey the social reality of Czechoslovakia, Forman also aimed to formulate a critical message about it. The satirical behaviour of the characters in his films exposes the absurdity of ideological conservatism and the shortcomings of the state it produces.

Sonya Vseliubska is a film critic and a member of the Union of Film Critics of Ukraine, whose work mainly focuses on Ukrainian and European cinema. She is currently a student in the Film and Screen Studies course at the University of the Arts, London.