Milos Forman (b. 1932) was one of the major figures in the Czech/Slovak ‘New Wave’ of the mid 1960s. He became known for a series of observational social comedies that also satirised the communist state. The four films from this period are:
Konkurs (Talent Competition) (1963)
Peter and Pavla (1964)
Blonde in Love (1965)
The Fireman’s Ball (1967)
Forman and his collaborators (including writer/director Ivan Passer and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek) found non-professional actors and filmed them in a documentary style. Many of the films included music performances and several of these can be seen on YouTube (search under “Milos Forman”). In 1968 after many years when Czech films were ignored, three were chosen for screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, including The Fireman’s Ball. However, the events of Paris, May 1968, had made an impact on French directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and to Forman’s dismay, they and other French directors picketed the festival and caused it to close. Returning briefly to Prague, Forman saw the Russian tanks coming and decided to get out to America while he still could.
In Hollywood, Forman and Ondricek made Taking Off (1971), a wonderful film that continued the Czech sequence of comedies, this time dealing with middle-class American families whose teenage daughters had run away from home. Several of the techniques adopted for Konkurs are repeated here. The film flopped (it got a wide circuit release in the UK) primarily, Forman argues, because it was a European film without a ‘proper’ ending. Forman went on to have many big hits including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). His latest film is Goya’s Ghosts (2006), made in Spain with Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman in the lead roles, which reunited Forman with scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière who worked on Taking Off.
Arguably the major figure in Polish Cinema, Andrzej Wajda (born 1926) will be featured in the first class session. Wajda trained as a fine artist after experiencing the war as a teenager but at age 24 he turned to cinema joining the newly established film school in Lodz. His big success came with a trilogy of films dealing with the Polish experience of Nazi occupation, resistance and subsequent liberation. A Generation appeared in 1955, Kanal in 1957 and Ashes and Diamonds in 1958. These films allowed Wajda to gain a high profile in international arthouse distribution — effectively giving a voice to Poles otherwise trapped behind the Iron Curtain in cultural terms. Later Wajda would repeat this success with two films, Czlowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble) (1976) and Czlowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron) (1981) which managed to satirise Polish politics during the difficult times when workers’ resistance to the communist authorities was growing.
In 1999, when Poland was joining NATO and preparing to become part of the ‘New Europe’, Wajda made Pan Tadeusz, a ‘Romantic epic’ from Polish history and in 2007 his new film Katyn, about the infamous massacre of Polish Army officers by the Red Army in 1940, was a major hit in Poland. In a fascinating interview on the Senses of Cinema website, Wajda explains how Polish Cinema has fared since the Cold War ended and why he has changed the kinds of films he makes. His earlier films were hits abroad but not ‘popular box office’ at home. His recent films have failed to get a wide release abroad, but attracted large crowds in Poland. Has he become a more ‘conservative’ filmmaker serving up nationalist nostalgia? Wajda is offering Poles a chance to think about who they are and he is intrigued by the problem of presenting younger Polish audiences with ‘political’ stories when all they want/have become accustomed to are American-style entertainment films. Ironically, the lifting of censorship has removed the possibility of making political films. In the 1970s people went to those films that got past the censor in the hope of finding some form of critique. Now they don’t bother. This is a problem we will discuss towards the end of the course.
Wajda has his own website (in English) and there are also useful summaries on Wikipedia.