• Email
  • Print

After the Czech “New Wave”

All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema

by Josef Skvorecky
Peter Martin, 256 pp., $8.95

Political Grouping in the Czechoslovak Reform Movement

by Vladimir V. Kusin
Columbia University Press, 224 pp., $11.00

Reform Rule in Czechoslovakia: The Dubcek Era 1968-1969

by Galia Golan
Cambridge University Press, 327 pp., $18.50

Antonin Liehm, that tireless memorialist of Czech culture in the Sixties, somewhere tells a story about a discussion in Prague between Novotny and Khrushchev. How did one keep the impudent sparrow of art in order? Novotny suggested squeezing it in one’s fist until it became meek and breathless. Khrushchev found this unsubtle. The thing to do was to hold the sparrow between finger and thumb and pull out all its feathers one after another. When the creature was quite nude and plucked, you opened your hand. And the sparrow would have no choice but to snuggle back into your palm for warmth.

This revolting tale has application for Czechs today. The feathers have been plucked and have floated off in the Siberian wind to land in places as diverse as Hamburg, Hollywood, and the porters’ lodges of suburban Prague hotels. None of the major artists is actually in jail, but none of them, if employed at all within Czechoslovakia, has been given work of any significance. About half the best men and women in literature, the theater, the films are abroad. The naked sparrow crouches in the palm, but so far, it must be said, has shown no signs of snuggling. Lists of published fiction and current films are short and full of blank spaces.

Until something begins to happen again in Czechoslovakian culture—by which I mean something of artistic value that is published rather than written for the drawer or for transmission abroad, or shown on the screen of a public movie house instead of causing official tantrums in the projection room of a film school—this remains a time for looking back and for assessment. The artists of the Sixties are entitled to be proud of what they achieved, and to enjoy some nostalgia. In All the Bright Young Men and Women, whose subtitle is “A Personal History of the Czech Cinema,” Josef Skvorecky has written a touching and very comical book about the apparently extinct dynasty of the Czech film makers. Skvorecky himself, who now lives in Canada, is a novelist whose book The Cowards caused one of the first cultural uproars in post-1948 Czechoslovakia, and who afterward became something of a one-man advice bureau to the dozens of writers and directors who subsequently made President Novotny hit the ceiling.

As well as writing novels, Skvorecky was a jazz maniac (a main theme in The Cowards) and movie addict, and when he was kicked off the publishing lists he gravitated naturally to films. He wrote scripts, contributed ideas, married an actress, and worked as an extra in films directed by his friends. A round man of evident appetites, he had a fine bit part as the Greedy Man in Nemec’s Report on the Party and the Guests. Skvorecky, with his friendships throughout the Prague cultural scene and his inclination to laugh rather than cry at all but the worst disasters, was the perfect man to write this gossipy, engaging, and shrewd book about the gestation and birth of the Czech “New Wave.”

In his time, it was already possible to regard the cultural bureaucracy as absurd rather than terrifying. At the top sat Novotny, empty-headed and irascible, but somewhere, deep down, longing to be the artists’ friend. In the middle was the Assembly of Dramaturgists, gravely chewing up good scripts into nonsense and taking years over it. The Assembly spent four hours, Skvorecky relates, pondering a sentence in a script which directed a policeman to walk up to a fence and piss. The author was sent for and rebuked, until it became plain that what the policeman really did was “remain silent” (mlci) instead of “urinate” (moci)—as a typist’s error had him do.

This problem was rapidly settled in comparison with the torments of a script by Skvorecky and Milos Forman about a jazz band under the Nazi occupation. Although the authors artfully called their film an “anti-fascist musical comedy,” the Assembly became gloomy about the jazz band. It became a symphony orchestra. Then it became a brass band. Then it vanished altogether, until a perceptive member of the Assembly of Dramaturgists asked why the script was called “The Band Won” if there was no band in it. Slowly the engines clanked into reverse. The symphony orchestra came back, and somehow transformed itself into a jazz group again. Two years later, the Assembly finally approved the script. But then Prague Radio reported the approval, describing the script as “a musical comedy about a student band” by Josef Skvorecky. Novotny, who evidently listened to his own radio programs, flew to the conclusion that this must be a film version of The Cowards and everyone concerned with the anti-fascist musical comedy—the Assembly of Dramaturgists, Forman, and Skvorecky—slipped back into the doghouse of his loathing.

Episodes like these were, in retrospect, the first labor pains of what came to be called the “New Wave” of Czech films. A few years later, with the bureaucracy and the President that much more muddled and puzzled and tentative, and the film makers that much older and more determined and better organized, there began to appear the films by Forman and Passer, Nemec and Chytilova, Menzel and Papousek and Schorm, which brought the Czech cinema into its brief flower. Well, perhaps not so brief. Forman made Peter and Paula as early as 1963, and fine films like Jaroslav Papousek’s Ecce Homo Homolka and Juraj Herz’s The Corpse Cremator were made and screened after the invasion. But the Western public, even the quick-witted and appreciative West German film importers, took some time to realize what was going on, and by the time most British audiences were seeing Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, made in 1966, the Warsaw Pact armies were already busy rescuing Czechoslovakia from creeping counterrevolution.

The Wave did not, of course, arise in an empty sea. The Czech cinema has its own history; it was a small, sly, cheerful industry, which, after an inauspicious beginning in 1918 with an unbelievable national epic called Czech Heaven, started properly in the Twenties with the comedies and thrillers starring Anny Ondra (to judge by the stills in Skvorecky’s book, the prettiest of all silent actresses).

By the time of Munich, the industry, if a midget compared to Hollywood or the pre-1933 German cinema, was fully formed with its own traditions in thrillers, comedy, lyricism, and Pabstish social-critical realism. The film academy, led by the experienced Otakar Vavra, was founded just before the communists came to power in 1948 and there began the relatively short period in which a sudden, lavish endowment of money and security and educational opportunity for young film makers coincided with the crassest years of enforced social realism. The endowment survived Stalinism and was in the end to nourish a new generation of directors as no commercial or market-dominated industry could possibly have done.

But while Zhdanovism lasted, “people in the cinemas laughed at dramas and slept through comedies.” The obligatory cast of characters—the chain-smoking Party officials, the kulaks with “bristles in their hat bands and thermometers in their pockets,” who “used the mercury to poison cows at the collective farm,” and the capitalist factory owners maddening their lusts with Count Basis records—managed to bore the directors into inertia too. Production fell from twenty-one movies in 1950 to eight in 1951.

Stalinism being a world in which fewer meant worse, even the bureaucrats took fright, and in the later Fifties the propaganda standards imposed on the cinema began to relax. In 1959, things seemed to have gone too far, and a film conference was convoked at Banska Bystrica to “battle against the remnants of bourgeois thought.” The older generation of good directors, most of them Party members, were deeply shaken by the accusations of political opportunism. But the younger men and women then coming out of the film academy, a non-Party generation, rightly saw Banska Bystrica as a counter-offensive by the remnants of Stalinist thought. They went cautiously ahead through the firings and script-mashings of the next few years.

Skvorecky, of course, has seen Czech films which few foreigners can know, like Krska’s Hic Sunt Leones, and others which the Czechs themselves never got to see: The End of the Clairvoyant by Svitacek and Rohac, for instance, a murderous political satire about the decline of the spiritualist trade after nationalization, which was banned before release and nearly wrecked the careers of its makers. If Skvorecky says it was one of the funniest Czech films ever made, few people can contradict him: like all the other films banned or withdrawn in 1970, when the heat of “normalization” finally turned on the cinema, it lies locked in the vaults at the Barrandov studios.

But the best of his book, in any case, is anecdotal, the evocation of a group of extraordinary people: Jana Brejchova, the superstar of the national cinema, sleeping on the floor in a heap of blankets while Forman argues about a new script; or Jan Nemec, making Report on the Party and the Guests and only realizing as he watches the rushes that the ominous figure of the host looks just like Lenin; or Skvorecky and Jiri Menzel plotting a slightly disgraceful film about a band of homicidal schoolgirls called the “Kill Kitten Klan” starring a girl who has a tongue so long she can lick her forehead (what became of her?). All over now. Skvorecky thinks that the film in Czechoslovakia will revive: “If theory fights against practice…it is fighting a hopeless war,” and observes that even the Russians have begun to criticize the timid standards of those who now act as spokesmen for the subjugated Czech cinema. But those who make the revival will be new people. “There are traumas which a person cannot overcome, and sometimes there is just so much that one can take in a single lifetime.”

It is a pity that Skvorecky did not tell us more about the way in which the film makers organized themselves in the late Sixties to strengthen their position and take advantage of the weakening of the artistic bureaucracy. Antonin Liehm has pointed out the importance of the formation of the Union of Film and Television Artists, the first professional organization set up from below which was not one of the Party-created “transmission belts” of power. It was no coincidence that this autonomous body was able to play such a strong part in 1968, and was elected to the first chairmanship of the Coordinating Committee of Creative Unions, the short-lived lobby of the creative intellectuals which put effective pressure on the Party leadership during the reform.

Groups like these are the subject of Vladimir Kusin’s remarkable book, a carefully researched account of how the Party’s monopolistic regimentation of society into huge, saluting battalions collapsed in the course of 1968 and was replaced by a proliferation of smaller organizations responding to the authentic wishes of their members. This was a process which no single observer could survey properly at the time. Too much was going on. Everywhere, in dingy halls, associations of veterans and civil engineers, writers and journalists, puppet political parties and enormous trades unions were throwing out their old committees and drafting new programs. And the new leaders were waiting on the political guides of the nation—Smrkovsky and Kriegel in particular—to lodge their demands, to propose parliamentary bills, to ask permission to form new and independent groupings.

Kusin’s most interesting chapter concerns the working class itself and its cautious progress toward the idea of factory democracy. The picture of a spontaneous and irresistible clamor for workers’ councils must be revised. Although the councils were a genuine expression of the factory work forces by the end of the year, Kusin implies that the impetus for their creation came largely from above and not least from Dubcek himself. He points out that the government, anxious over the almost reckless growth of organization among the non-Party middle class and intelligentsia (which in his usage means all white-collar workers), deliberately encouraged the development of trades union democracy as a working-class counterweight.

Kusin gives a careful, but rather critical, summary of one of the most explosive issues raised during the reform: the proposal to re-establish the Social Democratic Party. Long after the effective end of censorship, this was a topic which the government tried vainly to ban from press discussions, but four members of the old 1947 Social-Democrat committee had already served notice that they were rebuilding their party. Officially, the Social Democrats had fused with the Communists in 1948: their re-emergence would have presented the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies with the clearest possible evidence that the Communist Party had lost control of the working class. Smrkovsky and Kriegel managed to persuade the four organizers not to re-establish the Party formally before the Fourteenth Communist Party Congress due in September, but local groups were already being set up.

Would the Social Democrats have provoked a mass defection from the Communists, or even seized a majority at free elections? This question, like the real Social Democrat numerical strength by the time of the invasion, can never be answered. But Kusin, conscious of the horror which the very proposal was raising to the east, shakes his head: “The movement…was among the errors of the Prague Spring which could have been avoided.”

After August, both “KAN” (Club of Engaged Non-Party People) and “K-231” (the association for the 80,000 or so surviving ex-political prisoners) were condemned as nuclei of anticommunist political parties. Kusin convincingly exonerates both, although he shows that neither found a final institutional way to lobby for their members’ interests. He also discusses the intellectuals, journalists and censorship, the nationalities, the young and the students, and a multitude of smaller professional pressure groups. He is, however, oddly dismissive about the new left development among the Prague students which would seem to have been much more impassioned and effective, for a brief period, than he concedes. A paper by Pavel Tomalek for the MIT Center for International Studies (“Czechoslovakia 1968-9: The Worker Student Alliance”) gives a very different emphasis.

Kusin is generally uneasy about developments during this period that put the emphasis on class rather than on sectional interests. In his introduction, he shows how Czechoslovak intellectuals in the Sixties found that the “old, official ideology” was incapable of dealing with the “reality” of group conflict. Under Stalinism and neo-Stalinism, this was so. But there is nothing about a class analysis that makes it inherently incompatible with a study of group pressures.

Professor Golan has now written a sequel to her book The Czechoslovak Reform Movement, a careful and detailed account of events leading up to Dubcek’s accession to power in January, 1968. * The second volume covers the reform itself; its value is that Galia Golan has broken free of the customary treatments, which end with a throwing-up of hands and a perfunctory epilogue at the August invasion. Reform Rule in Czechoslovakia covers the entire period from January, 1968, to April, 1969 (the time of the Central Committee session which replaced Alexander Dubcek by Gustav Husak), and deals with the fifteen months as a single episode. The misleading catchword “Prague Spring” receives, one hopes, a mortal blow from an experienced scholar.

Like the first, this is a patient, detailed book, relying on exhaustive research through Czech and Slovak texts. In the pre-invasion chapters, Professor Golan is especially useful in her account of the development of the Action Program and of the debates on the National Front problem. Could political parties still linked in the Front to a basically Marxist approach to power offer authentic opposition? Here Professor Golan allows herself one of her rare value judgments: opposition parties loosely bound to a socialist program that was “guaranteed” (as Dubcek put it) by the Communist Party would have amounted to “not democracy, but liberalization.” This was a view which perceptive radicals in the Party took at the time, but they looked toward new experiments in mass participatory politics rather than toward a middle-class parliamentary model.

In the second, post-August part of this book, Professor Golan breaks ground which, if not quite new, is still unfamiliar. She has obviously been impressed by the argument of left-wing reformers now living abroad that after August the drive of events “at the base” accelerated from the pace of reform toward that of revolution. She devotes a great deal of space to the development of the working-class movement, which was heading at the end of 1968 toward a left-wing communism based on factory councils. This is also one of the first books to give adequate treatment to the importance of the leftist students and their alliances with the trade unions during these months.

But this is not, yet, the book one is waiting for. First, Professor Golan’s method—the sector-by-sector treatment—frustrates any general impression of the interaction of these sectors and of the historical development of the whole episode. Her prose is rather hasty and flat: the passion and the sense of a tidal onrush of events are not conveyed. A few details seem mistaken or are lacking. For example, the first threatening maneuvers on the border took place on the eve of the Dresden meeting, as I learned at that time, and not in May. It would have been good to hear more about the discussions among Party radicals during the summer on the question of replacing Dubcek by a bolder man (they had a candidate). Second, as in her first volume, Galia Golan is too prudent. Almost everything is factual narrative. Hardly ever does she risk a critical assessment, a theory, a judgment. Somebody so well informed must have her own views. She should have been more self-indulgent.

  1. *

    Cambridge University Press, 1971. Reviewed in The New York Review, August 10, 1972.

  • Email
  • Print