In Memoriam: Věra Chytilová (1929-2014)
In an era of censorship and austerity during the communist occupation of Czechoslovakia after WWII, its New Wave emerged as a vehicle for political rebellion and aesthetic expression that would make waves within both the nation’s film consciousness and the international art cinema. Věra Chytilová was an integral player, and the only prominent woman, in the coterie of Czech filmmakers who during the Sixties created films that defied the conventions of classical cinema and challenged the oppressive political-cultural regime.
Chytilová was born in the Moravian town of Ostrava in 1929. She would eventually leave her hometown and strict Catholic upbringing (critical religious themes would appear later in her films) to work as a model and then a clapper girl for the Barrandov Film Studios in Prague, before studying film production at FAMU (Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). Other notable FAMU graduates, and friends and collaborators of Chytilová’s, included Jiři Menzel, Ivan Passer, Miloš Forman, and Jan Nemec—all of whom would come to define this period of the Czechoslovak New Wave with films such as Closely Watched Trains (1966), The Firemen’s Ball (1967), and The Joke (1969), which focused on the surrealism and black comedy of life and national identity under Communism.
Though Forman’s name is often the most remembered, it is Chytilová whose work stands out as the most radical, experimental, iconoclastic, and overtly feminist among her peers (not just of this new wave but perhaps of any European new wave). Her early works The Ceiling (1962), Bag of Fleas (1962), and Something Different (1963), which focus on the issues of the fashion industry, women’s education, and domesticity respectively, established Chytilová as not only an artistic force to be reckoned with, but as a female director unconcerned with assimilating with her male counterparts. Rather, Chytilová devoted herself with revolutionary fervor to breaking the conventions of female representation on screen.
Daisies (1966) is her most famous and most experimental film to upset the political, artistic, and gender-bound conventions of the time. The simplest description of the film (and there is no simple description) is that it is about two female friends who, utterly bored with everything, decide to wreak havoc upon the men they encounter and upon consumer society in general. Her existential fever dream of a film makes Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers look like a stroll in the park, as the girls fall into surrealistic vignettes that take the form of a farcical morality tale (the Czech title for the film is Sedmikrásky, which can also translate to “seven beauties”—a play on the seven mortal sins).
The film is rife with narrative and formal ruptures, as well as expressive uses of color and biblical imagery, resulting in a visual magnum opus that is as effortlessly humorous as it is cuttingly critical of Czech society and the prescriptive roles assigned to women. It is a manifesto of Third Wave feminism before such a thing even existed. Daisies also marks a significant collaboration between Chytilová and her husband, Jaroslav Kučera, the cinematographer of the film, and friend Ester Krumbachová, the head screenwriter and production designer (with whom she would collaborate on 1969’s Fruit of Paradise, a retelling of the Adam and Eve tale).
Chytilová went on to make many films after the end of the 1968 Prague Spring, when Soviet communists enforced even stricter laws of censorship, and many of her male counterparts fled the country. Accordingly, her later works never gained the same level of distribution and recognition as her earlier films, though she continued to push the envelope with critiques of life as lived under communism (Prefab Story, 79) and one of the first movies to depict AIDS (Tainted Horseplay, 89).
Throughout her career, Chytilová proved herself to be a stylistically iconoclastic and absolutely essential artist to the formation of the Czechoslovak New Wave—a cinematic movement with more at stake than the bourgeoisie-obsessed French New Wave in terms of depicting national identity on screen and the sociopolitical implications of revolutionary art. With her death, the Czech and international film community loses a visionary artist and activist, as well as a trailblazing example for female directors across the globe.