Like many other communist led countries, Czechoslovakia utilised the media to spread communist propaganda to the masses. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia controlled all mass media in the country; Private ownership was not allowed. The main aim of these media outlets was to ‘provide complete information, but it must also advance the interests of socialist society and promote the people’s socialist awareness of the policy of the communist party as the leading force in society and state.’ This meant any printed or recorded material on the government controlled television and radio network that did not fit this ideology would be censored or completely cut out; the laws were so strict it was not allowed to print or duplicate more than 11 copies of any printed material. But unlike other communist countries, many foreign (Austrian, Polish, German and Hungarian) radio stations and television channels were not blocked and could still be accessed.
Most of the propaganda aired would either discuss the enemy that is the west or reinforce ideology of the Czech People’s strength through communism/ socialism.
The American Bug
The American Bug is a film clip about the Colorado potato beetle, a beetle that destroys potato crops. This beetle started to increasingly appear in Europe during the 1940’s. The Nazi’s and later on the communists believed that the Americans dropped these beetles using their air force to destroy their countries. The communists also believed the Americans used this method to ruin the countries crop and create food shortages, which would to a negative image of failing communism to be spread.
A film that shows the athletic competitions in Spartakiada, many films of this nature were created to highlight the grace and strength of the Czech people, also the importance of accepting the socialist ideology to better yourself and your country.
The Czechoslovak New Wave Cinema
The Czechoslovak new wave (1960’s) is the period were film makers created films that questioned the communist regime in an open manner. These films usually casted nonprofessional actors, contained dark humour and impulsive dialogues that weren’t previously scripted. These films questioned society, expressed political and cultural freedom while trying to make the Czech people understand the oppression that they were enduring in a way that most film makers living in communist led countries couldn’t. Film makers such as Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Jaromil Jireš, Vojtěch Jasný and Evald Schorm spearheaded this movement.
Milos Forman created many well-known anti-communist films such as Black Peter and The Loves of a Blonde, as well as Hollywood films such as One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In The Loves of a Blonde a young factory worker Andula living in a small village with a higher number of women in northern Czechoslovakia falls for a jazz pianist. She chooses him over all the other more suitable suitors and follows him to Prague after he tells her “most women are round, like guitars but you are a guitar by Picasso”. In this film Forman depicts the communist perceptions of sexual relations, pop culture and worker’s alienation in communist Czechoslovakia. Andula defies all this during the film; this is Forman’s message to the people to break free of social/ communist bounds.
The Loves of a Blonde (1965)
Milos Forman left Czechoslovakia in 1968 for America; his films had gained international success and even Oscar’s (The Loves of a Blonde and Fireman’s Ball). The same trend followed with his Hollywood film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He continues to be attracted to films about a single person fighting societal oppressions and refusing to conform. It is obvious his past in communist Czechoslovakia has influenced him greatly. In an interview with John Tusa of the BBC, Forman speaks about his experiences dealing with the communist censorship and bureaucrats when filming as well as the Czechoslovakian communist era’s effect on his work.
An excerpt from the interview:
So you had the experience of living under Nazism, and then from 1948 onwards the experience of living under Communism. There are quite a lot of people, and I think of course as time goes by people forget what the experience of living under Communism was, how would you convey the essence of living in that sort of regime to somebody who doesn’t know about it and didn’t live in that way?
Simply said it’s living in fear, which is boring. Because you are afraid to lose the chance to go to school, to have a job, to do things so you have to censor yourself what you say, what you do, you know, how you behave. But it’s not an exciting kind of rebellion against the regime …it’s a very boring rebellion because…I guess any totalitarian system is basically very, very boring.
What about the people who actually ran the party, the bureaucrats, what sort of people were they?
Well I guess they are people who their only pleasure in life is power, nothing spiritual, just power, and they… I don’t even know if they believed in it or not, they just did it to keep themselves in power and keep everybody away who could disturb their power.
So how did you deal with this when you started making movies which were going to be mainstream movies?
Well my situation was sort of lucky because we started right at the moment when there was a certain kind of a relaxation of this strict ideological………
Late 67, early 68.
Early ’67 after Khruschev, you know, denouncing Stalin and telling “comrades we have to give a little more confidence to young people and like that, that was a little more relaxed period and we started. Fortunately for us because as much as the communists denounced the decadent West you know, which is falling apart and very soon will disappear from the planet, nothing they like more than the success in the West and hard currency of course, which usually comes with some success, you know. So because our first films were fortunately, you know, were successful and brought some hard currency, so they started to tolerate us, you know.
But always looking very carefully at what you were saying so that you didn’t overstep the boundaries of what they would regard as politically acceptable?
Oh of course, of course. With this little relaxation of course everybody who had a little freer way of thinking was trying, trying pushing the boundaries, right, and they became very sensitive … but it was the time when it was not very popular to ban like films in an administrative way. So what they were doing is that they…usually when they saw a film and they didn’t like it and they thought that it should be, you know, banned, so they arranged a screening for working people, for people, and they always planted it, you know, one or two people there who, you know, “okay comrades let’s have a discussion about the film” and here they are, you know, yes, yes, I would like to say, and now they attack the film and finally, you know, the result was, well the people rejected the film. [laughter] And this has supposed to happen to my film which I was told, the film, the name is Fireman’s Ball and it’s kind of a comedy, you know. And I was told that when the President and the First Secretary of the Party and his, you know, cohorts saw the film, that he climbed the walls, you know, and…
So he wasn’t that stupid, Novotny that he could see exactly what was going on in that film, he wasn’t so stupid?
Oh no he knew exactly, right away, right away.
So did he say ban it, or what did they do?
They immediately ordered this kind of screening and they decided, now listen he is making fun of these fireman because… the whole film was shot in a small town …there was not one professional actor, all the people are from the town and mostly they are the real firemen from that town. So he said, we’ll show that film there, and then these people will see how this film is mocking them, making fun of them, making them look ridiculous, they will tell the film makers what kind of a dirty job they did. So they arranged the screening in that little town, everybody was there, everybody who was in the film was there…
I was advised not to go there because I might be attacked, the enraged mob of very angry firemen, could beat me up. I didn’t go, but I was told what happened. That the film ended and of course immediately the planted man, you know, got up and said, “well comrades, I think this film is a disgrace, full of lies about our heroic firemen who are fighting to keep our lives and our properties intact from fires. And here look what they did and they are making fun of them, with these lies.” Like that. So he’d finished and then one of the firemen, a local fireman, you know, his hand went out and said, “well, comrades, I don’t know why are you saying it’s a lie, do you remember when the shack of, you know, this old man was burning and we couldn’t get there because I was drunk and we couldn’t get the car out of the garage, you know, my God.” And people started to applaud and laugh, because what they didn’t realise, the communist organisers of this screening, that they are not showing this to local people, they are showing it to the actors, to people who were immortalised on the screen, they were proud to see themselves on the screen. And I think that they understood that the film is a comedy, is a satire, that they didn’t take it personally. So it was total fiasco, but they banned the film anyway.
Can you just, …..can you remember what you felt and what you thought when the Red Army marched into Czechoslovakia in the Autumn of 1968?
Well I was, at that moment I was in Paris working with Jean Claude on the script for Taking Off, and well, I’ll tell you. For me the biggest shock was my brother, who was, who is a home boy, he lived in a small, tiny little place…a village, you know, far from Prague . And to travel to Prague , for him, that was a big undertaking, you know. And now the Russians came to occupy Czechoslovakia , I’m in Paris I don’t know what to do, I am trying to find my brother, I find out he’s on his way to Australia . And I reach him and said, what are you doing, and he said, he said, look, you know, I remember when in 38 a friend of our parents came to our father and said listen, I am leaving, I am leaving for England, as a matter of fact, and if you want I can arrange for you to leave too. And I remember our father who said, No, no, no, no, I have a clean conscience here, nothing will happen to us, and they both paid for this decision of our father with their lives, the father and the mother. And who knows what will happen now with the Russians, and I will not take the responsibility if something bad would happen. That for me, was okay, this must be serious.
Did you even consider going back and saying, there will be some kind of resistance or political resistance and I will be part of that political resistance?
No, I was in a very particular situation because I was outside legally, so I didn’t really have to consider defection yet, because the contract to let me… let me make a film in the United States which was Taking Off, was signed by the previous Dubcek communist regime, you know, during the liberalisation. If the new communist regime wouldn’t honour the contract they could be sued for a lot of money by Universal, right, who they’ve got the contract with. So I finished the film outside of Czechoslovakia legally, but then I was asked to come back and I knew that the moment I come back because meanwhile I learned that the Fireman’s Ball was banned forever, that I would not be able to work in the…in the cinema, so I asked for extending my exit visa and they fired me, and that’s how.
From that point of view it was a comparatively easy decision?
Right, they made the decision for me.
You have this record, and I wonder whether it has been overt in your mind, of heroes who are active counter-heroes. Larry Flynt is certainly one, McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest is certainly another – were you aware that you were producing this extraordinary canon of heroes who stand up to oppressive society, or was it just instinctive and it emerged?
Well I would like…I would like to say that, you know, yes I am showing the world the conflict between an individual and an institution, but in fact, you know, I think I just glorify this rebel because I am myself a coward, you now, and I would like to be a hero but I, you know, I don’t have courage to do that. But on the other hand, this is the eternal conflict between individual and institution, because we create institution to help us live. We pay them with our taxes, and we end up very often being dictated by them, how to live, you know.
And the last scene in Cuckoo’s Nest, though there you are, this most American of films, overtly, but I believe that you see the end when McMurphy’s friend, the Indian, picks up this huge safe, throws it through the windows of the mental institutions and suddenly they are all out in the countryside, free. That’s not, as far as you’re concerned, just about America?
No, no, no, no. That was the dream of, I would say, 99% of the young people in Communist countries, you know. Because we were not allowed to travel, you know, we were in a cage like in the zoo, you know, and we all dreamt about, one day to take that thing and throw it through the barbed wire fences and go and run to see the world.
So that was a universal gesture both about the oppressions of capitalist societies and Communist societies as well?
Any kind of oppressive society, yes.
You said just a few minutes ago that you make these films about heroes are people who rebel against society because you’re not heroic yourself. Now the question which is almost always asked of a Czech sooner or later, and so I apologise for asking it to you, but because our national archetype is Schweyk who is the ultimate evasive hero…anti-hero, do you feel there is something of Schweyk inside you?
Oh very much so, this kind of humour, that’s what, I think, made the Czech nation survive centuries. Because, you know, Bohemia , or Moravia , you know, small entity in the middle of Europe surrounded by very powerful neighbours, who are always, you know, through the last 2000 years trying to dominate this part of Europe . And this small entity can’t protect itself through power, well it’s survived through humour, otherwise we would be dead.
The full audio interview can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00nc1xp/The_John_Tusa_Interviews_Milos_Forman/
Věra Chytilová was another pioneer of Czech cinema; she created the famously controversial film Daisies in 1966. She believed it was critical to reflect on society, morals and oneself. Her films do not rely on conventional cinematography cues, but more hysterical scenes of visually manipulations to get her message across. Chytilovás most acclaimed film Daisies is a depiction of two girls both named Marie realisation of how wasted the world is so they decide to follow suit. She criticises hedonism and consumerism but also in a masked manner the government’s ideology. She has expressed her views on the Soviet Union and in this film specifically towards the “rehabilitative” actions towards the Czech people who were deemed anti-communist. The film was banned from 1966 to 1967 and continues to cause controversy due to its scenes depicting food wastage.
One petition from the National Assembly for the film to be banned read, “We ask these cultural workers: How long will they poison the life of working people?”
Though this films confusing narrative still remains a mystery, the Czechoslovakian government could still understand the primary message of the girls defying social and therefore communist convention by acting in such a liberal way. They did not understand it but they knew it questioned ideologies they were trying to spread.
The Czechoslovak new wave ended in 1968 when the Soviet Union took control over Prague.
BBC (2010) The John Tusa Interviews. [online] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00nc1xp/The_John_Tusa_Interviews_Milos_Forman/ > [07 February 2013]
BBC (2010) Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Milos Forman. [online] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/forman_transcript.shtml > [07 February 2013]
Chytilová, V (1966). Daisies [online] available from < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zm9Gh8Fpy0c > [06 February 2013]
Forman, M (1965). The Loves of a Blonde. [online] available from < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvXY7qnKgTg > [07 February 2013]
Parvulescu, C. (2010) ‘Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde: Pop Culture, Rebellion and Sexual Liberation in the Eastern European Bloc’. Senses of Cinema [online] 11 July. Available from < http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/cteq/milos-forman%E2%80%99s-loves-of-a-blonde-pop-culture-rebellion-and-sexual-liberation-in-the-eastern-european-bloc/> [06 February 2013]
Rapold, N. (2012) ‘An Audience for Free Spirits in a Closed Society’. The New York Times [online] 29 June. Available from < http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/01/movies/daisies-from-the-czech-director-vera-chytilova-at-bam.html?_r=0> [07 February 2013]