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Karel Kachyna, 1924 — 2004
By Ronald Bergan

Exactly a year ago, Karel Kachyna, who has died aged 79, was at the Riverside Studios in London to introduce a season of his films. It was a long overdue tribute to one of the predominant Czech directors, comparatively unknown to British audiences. This was partly due to the fact that four of Kachyna's major films were banned for over twenty years, and only re-released after the "Velvet Revolution" brought down the Communist regime in 1989.

Although Kachyna began making films in the early 1950s, his work only started to make any impact a decade later during the time of the Czech "New Wave". For a short period, directors such as Kachyna, Milos Forman, Vera Chytilova, Jiri Menzel and Jan Nemec made films that rejected the official state socialist-realist aesthetic and produced eclectic, highly assured features that captured the world's attention.

Most of the directors were educated at FAMU, the Czech state film school, from which Kachyna was among the first to graduate. The "Czech Film Miracle" reached its peak in the Prague Spring of 1968, when Alexander Dubcek became first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, the culmination of a period of social and cultural democratisation in Czechoslovakia which afforded filmmakers unprecedented artistic freedom.

Kachyna was born in the small town of Vyskov in Moravia. At 16, during the Nazi occupation, he was forced to work in a German factory. After the war, he studied cinematography at the new Academy of Arts in Prague. There, he met a fellow Moravian, Vojtech Jasny, with whom he made his graduate film with the optimistic title "The Clouds Will Roll Away" (1950), a semi-documentary story about farm workers. A year later, Kachyna and Jasny went to China where they shot a series of reports about Chinese soldiers. When the political climate changed and China ceased to be Czechoslovakia's friend, these films were banned, a taste of what was to come.

One of Kachyna's first solo efforts was "King of the Sumava" (1959), which was set on the Czechoslovak-German border in the marshy region of Sumava in the summer of 1948 when many people fled the country after the communistic putsch. The film became immensely popular among the younger generation who appreciated the way it broke away from previous platitudinous political dramas, by creating recognisable characters. The film also revealed one of the main elements of Kachyna's style: he preferred visual rather than dialogue scenes to move the plot along.

In the early 1960s, Kachyna began a long and fruitful collaboration with the screenwriter Jan Prochazka. "Hope" (1963) started a so-called 'black' series of films which were openly critical of society. It is a story of two outcasts who officially did not exist under Communism — an alcoholic and a prostitute. This was followed by the ironically titled "Long Live The Republic" (1965). The events at the end of World War II — the arrival of the Russian army and the German expulsion — seen through the eyes of a sensitive and imaginative 12-year-old boy, demythologises the legend of victory, which led to the eventual banning of the film.

"Coach to Vienna" (1966) tells of a woman, whose husband has been killed by Germans, being forced by two German deserters to take them in a cart to the border. Although at first determined to revenge herself she develops a mutual understanding with the younger soldier. The film, which describes the brutalising effects of war and the tragic pointlessness of revenge with clear-sighted intelligence, was banned during shooting for failing to present wartime partisans in heroic terms. But Prochazka pressurised the President to let Kachyna finish the film, and it was shown in shocked silence at the Karlovy-Vary Festival, before it was put back on the shelf by the authorities.

"Night of the Bride" (1967) again tested the regime to the limits by dealing with a young nun who decides to organize the kind of Christmas midnight mass as there used to be before the communist coup. It was also an attack on forced collectivisation. Fortunately, it was released during the Prague Spring which came to a sudden halt in August 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into the capital.

"Funny Old Man" (1969), a bitter film about a 60-year-old former prisoner in a Stalinist concentration camp, who undergoes heart surgery, was completed just after the invasion and was only shown briefly. "The Ear" (1970), the last in the series of Kachyna and Prochazka's political parables, told of a senior government official, every room of whose house is bugged, who spends a night destroying possibly incriminating papers, while his wife rounds on him, accusing him of cowardice. Needless to say this was promptly banned. When it resurfaced at the Cannes Festival in 1989, little of its message had lost its sting.

Soon after the invasion, Kachyna was fired from the Academy, where he was teaching. He continued to make films, however, but they were safe and conventional. The most widely seen was "I'm Jumping Over Puddles Again" (1970), an excessively heart-warming story about a child with polio who is determined to ride horses.

When democracy returned to Czechoslovakia in 1989, Kachyna was offered a job at the Prague Film Academy once again and all his films were taken out of the vaults. A year later, Kachyna made the Czech-French co-production "The Last Butterfly" about Jewish children in the Theresienstadt ghetto.

In 1992, Kachyna directed "The Cow", a simple rural drama about the hard life of poor village people at the turn of the 20th century. For Kachyna, the film had special significance because Alena Mihulova, the leading actress, became his third wife. His last film was "Hanele" (1999), set in Sub-Carpathian Ukraine, where a girl from a traditional Jewish family leaves for work in the big city and falls for a man who has turned away from his traditional faith.

Kachyna is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Ronald Bergan
© FIPRESCI 2004

    Karel Kachyna, film director;
    born May 1, 1924; died March 12, 2004.

(Published with permission from The Guardian, London.)

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