Czech Please

Nick Pinkerton on “Ecstasy and Irony: Czech Cinema, 1927–1943”

Gustav Machatý, Extase (Ecstasy), 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 83 minutes.

THE ENORMITY OF INTERNATIONAL FILM HISTORY is daunting; you might devote a decade to seeing everything from 1932 alone and never, ever get to the bottom of it. In the face of such bounty, the response is often inexcusable apathy—see, for example, the almost total absence of pre-1950 cinema from Netflix, which, having driven the video store into extinction, now uses its market dominance to push its mediocre-to-awful original programming. With such epidemic cultural amnesia running amok, the work of repertory programmers provides a valuable corrective: Witness the Museum of Modern Art’s fourteen-film “Ecstasy and Irony: Czech Cinema, 1927–1943,” a precious reminder of just how vast and inexhaustible the treasury of world cinema is.

In recent years MoMA has made a specialty of throwing light on the product of national cinemas dating to pre-television boom times, displaying a high level of craftsmanship, narrative proficiency, and technical polish: Argentine film noir, the fruits of the Mexican Golden Age, the postwar Swedish studio pictures of Hasse Ekman. Here, the treatment is given to Czechoslovak film—not the brief, niche-famous 1960s New Wave efflorescence that ended with the rumble of Soviet tanks in 1968, but the industry that flourished there between the Great Wars.

The period covered by MoMA’s survey straddles the silent-to-sound conversion, which in Czechoslovakia, as everywhere, didn’t happen all at once. Indeed, many of the films here are silent-sound hybrids—for example, Jindřich Honzl’s musical comedy caper Peníze nebo život (Your Money or Your Life, 1932), the second outing of the popular duo of Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich, alternates between scenes of verbal banter (including some surreal sound-track gags) and wordless chase scenes. The twosome, former law students who’d made an unexpected success performing satirical sketches in their Liberated Theatre of Voskovec and Werich, can also be seen in Martin Frič’s Svět patří nám (The World Belongs to Us, 1937), the last film they made before fleeing Czechoslovakia—Voskovec became a naturalized American and gigged regularly in Hollywood, and Werich returned to Communist Prague. Prints of the film, which features a former flimflam man and carnival barker elevated to the level of populist demagogue, were rounded up and destroyed when the Germans completed their occupation of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, apparently detecting some unflattering parallels with their infallible Führer.

Director Frič stayed on in the subjugated “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” pivoting from political burlesque to light comedy in Kristián, a suave farce combining elements of Jekyll and Hyde and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Oldřich Nový as a meek, married travel agency clerk who once a month takes up the alter ego of a studied Casanova swanning through Prague’s swankest nightclubs. Only one film wholly produced during the Nazi occupation will play at MoMA, Otakar Vávra’s Šťastnou cestu (Happy Journey, 1943), as the series largely focuses on the fervid inventiveness of the 1930s—as in Hong Kong before the Handover, political panic can be a catalyst for creative overdrive.

Among the verifiable discoveries here is Karl Anton’s Tonka of the Gallows (1930), another semi-silent picture that cues up the synch sound to give a couple of musical numbers to starlet Ita Rina. In the part of the eponymous Tonka, Rina is introduced on a homeward-bound train chugging through the countryside, surrounded by very authentic-looking peasantry with open, weathered, affable faces. The city girl’s joyous reunion with her mother and a bucolic romance with a friend from girlhood follow, but it’s a short-lived stopover in paradise. Tonka’s face clouds over whenever her mother mentions her daughter’s success in Prague, indicating a dark secret that anyone with a basic acquaintance with melodrama can guess at—that she is, in fact, a cabaret girl, a life which she returns to in shame. This may sound like the usual ground-to-bits-by-the-gears-of-fate setup, but together Rina and Anton lend the material a harrowing conviction, and the last reel is a real running of the gauntlet, as those friendly peasant faces turn ghoulish and jeering, and Tonka swings between doss house and snow-swept streets, finally granted the happy ending that’s evaded her in an extended, shimmering death’s-doorstep hallucination.

Martin Frič, Kristián, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes.

Slovenian Rina, a sloe-eyed, dark-haired beauty and an actress of considerable resources when invoking pathos, was apparently a go-to for depictions of innocence despoiled by the metropolis’s insalubrious influence. In Gustav Machatý’s Erotikon (1929), she’s the daughter of a country stationmaster, seduced and abandoned by a well-heeled lothario (Olaf Fjord) looking for shelter from the rain—an affair later resumed in the city, where Rina’s character has set up with her husband, an unassuming middle-aged gentleman. It’s Machatý, without question, who is the star of MoMA’s series, represented with three films that are strikingly modern not only in their deployment of film grammar but also in their treatment of sexuality—I can find no hard evidence that Czech author Milan Kundera encountered Machatý’s films as a young man, but the temptation to draw a parallel is overwhelming. Ernst Lubitsch was made famous by his “touch,” while Machatý is possessed of a full-on caress, an extraordinary ability to delineate relationships by following the electric currents of sexual attraction as carried through a desirous gaze, and to anchor a scene on a small, perfect detail, like the petals of a wilted flower being ruffled by the exhalations from the nose of a sleeping drunk in From Saturday to Sunday (1931).

A marvel of scale and narrative compression, that sixty-nine-minute wonder follows Magda Maderova’s shy stenographer through one very eventful weekend that takes her from a posh nightclub to a rough-and-tumble dive and into the arms of a handsome stranger (Ladislav H. Struna). As a document of the allures and perils of prewar urban life as experienced by young lower-middle-class people, it can stand up alongside Pál Fejös’s Lonesome (1928) or People on Sunday (1930), and it fairly vibrates with Machatý’s feeling for muted longing: There’s one shot that follows Maderova leaning back to languidly exhale from a cigarette which feels both effortless and shamefully voluptuous. A tireless experimenter, Machatý took to sound on film like a kid with a new toy and found expressive dramatic uses for the novel technology—the dinning drip of a leaky faucet acting as a goad to growing despair, or the music of a marching band, audible loud and clear from the street after a window is broken, suddenly creating a joyous, life-affirming fanfare.

Extase (Ecstasy, 1932), an Austrian-Czech coproduction, is Machatý’s most famous film, counting Henry Miller among its admirers—its international infamy spread because Hedy Lamarr, who rocketed to Hollywood stardom at MGM in the years after its initial release, is briefly seen in it romping au naturel. The film opens with the eighteen-year-old Lamarr on a honeymoon with a new husband near dotage who dozes off before the marriage is consummated, leaving the young bride to make her own fun with a strapping young engineer (Aribert Mog). Machatý’s gift for visual synecdoche has never been sharper than it is here in his symphonies of trembling bosom and parted lips, and if there is a 1932 film more single-mindedly fascinated with the female orgasm, I sure haven’t seen it.

Extase’s storyline had curious echoes in Lamarr’s own personal life—she was trapped in a miserable marriage with munitions manufacturer and Fascist sympathizer Friedrich Mandl, fifteen years her senior, who threw a hissy fit when he was subjected to the sight of his wife getting hot and bothered on screen. Lamarr packed her bags and headed to Paris soon enough, and many of the leading lights of the Czechoslovak film industry would also be on the move by the end of the 1930s—Voskovec as well as Machatý himself, whose mostly fits-and-starts American career includes a noir effort for Republic Pictures, Jealousy (1945), with the cast featuring his fellow expat, Hugo Haas, whose antifascist Bílá nemoc (The White Disease, 1937) plays at MoMA.

With its brightest talents spread to the four winds and the cement shoes of Eastern Bloc socialist realism stifling any remaining free artists, it would take a generation for Czechoslovak cinema to (temporarily) recover its vitality, while the new governing powers’ scrupulous efforts to erase history have assured that the prewar blossoming became nothing more than a distant memory. But now, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of the Czech National Film Archive, these films live and breathe and even, in the case of Machatý’s sensorial delights, heave again. They’ve done the heavy lifting; all that remains is for the viewer to come and surrender.

“Ecstasy and Irony: Czech Cinema, 1927–1943” runs Tuesday, April 11, through Sunday, April 23, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.