Czech Cinema

Jan Culik

Czech cinema was first critically acclaimed internationally in the 1960s, during the period of the so called, cinematographic “Czech New Wave”. The push of the Czech writers, artists and film-makers for freedom resulted in a clampdown: after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, two decades of political oppression followed. After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, the Czech film industry was denationalised and film-makers initially tried to make “commercial movies”, conforming to the lowest common denominator.

The crisis of the early 1990s, however, has passed and Czech cinematography has experienced a re-birth. Four Czech feature films have been nominated for the American Oscars over the past fifteen years (Jan Sverak´s “Elementary School”, 1991, and “Kolya”, 1996 [which was awarded an Oscar], Jan Hrebejk´s “Divided we Fall”, 2001, and Ondrej Trojan´s “Zelary”, 2004). About a dozen feature films are now made in the Czech Republic annually. Many of these are shown in the arthouse cinemas in the West, but there is little critical analysis. The new Czech film directors are bearing witness in their work to contemporary Czech/Central European postcommunist reality, whose characteristic features remain practically unstudied in the West, primarily because what is going on in these countries is linguistically inaccessible.

In 1997, Andrej Halada wrote the first ever book-length study of post-communist Czech, Cesky film devadesatych let, Prague, 1997, 240 pp. In November 2007 Jan Culik published an extensive study of post Czech communist feature film, Jaci jsme. In English, the most consistent critical coverage of Czech cinema has been provided by Andrew Horton´s website

Cinema is currently perhaps the most important art to bear witness to the cultural mores and value system of contemporary Czech society. Czech film is undoubtedly more important than contemporary Czech literature. A student of contemporary Central Europe cannot properly grasp what is going on in these countries without a thorough knowledge of contemporary cinema.

Czech Society

Czech society is a fairly enclosed cultural environment, linguistically more or less isolated from the outside world. Its instrument of public discourse is the Czech language, spoken only by 10 million people living on the territory of the Czech Republic. In this context, it is important to analyze the issues of nationalism, national mythology (manifesting itself primarily in the interpretation of historical themes) and defensiveness towards the outside world, as they appear in the work of Czech film makers.

Contemporary Czech Cinema also demonstrates the gradual movement of Czech cultural concerns away from “collectivist” persecution and injustice, perpetrated under communism by the bureaucratic machinery of the impersonal “state”, towards a preoccupation with personal relationships, tackling archetypal ethical issues within a new, individualist context.

Czech cinema provides a wealth of material to study the value system of contemporary Czech society. Contemporary Czech films are seen by millions, unlike Czech postcommunist literature, which comes out in extremely limited printruns and whose cultural role has been sidelined.

Czech films show a gradual convergence of Czech cultural values with those currently prevailing in the West, highlighting the fact that Czech filmmakers are able to tackle the salient problems of contemporary Western culture often with exceptional vividness and freshness, due to the fact that their experience of a modern “Western way of life” has been fairly recent. Thus they have been newly discovering, within the context of past totalitarian oppression, typical features of a modern capitalist society (although, admittedly, many of these features have emerged in a distorted or exaggerated form in the postcommunist Central European society such as the Czech Republic).

Although Czech filmmakers have emerged from the background of totalitarian oppression, they are now using their experience of life within a particular Czech mixture of Western and postcommunist culture (with many controversial features) to provide a remarkable testimony to the human condition, having general validity for any contemporary society.


The main questions to be addressed are: What are the consequences of the 1989 fall of communism for the value system of Czech society, as reflected in contemporary Czech cinema? How has contemporary Czech society been shaped by the trauma of life under communism and by post-communist chaos? Is the value system of contemporary Czech society exclusively “post-communist“ or does it have deeper historical and national roots? What value judgments is Czech society currently making through its contemporary cinema, about its post-communist present and its recent, totalitarian past? How has it tackled the transition from the experience of state oppression to the experience of rampant individualism? How does Czech society exorcise its national traumas? Is it true that Czech society has embraced moral relativism and plebeianism? Is this the result of prolonged periods of oppression in the past or is the adoption of these attitudes motivated by other factors? To what extent is contemporary Czech cinema contributing to the creation of a collectivist national mythology about the present and the past and if so, what sustains the mythology? Is Czech society defensive towards the outside world? To what extent is contemporary Czech society “westernised” and how does it differ from the mature West European societies? Any student of contemporary Czech society needs to be familiar with its film culture since it is a critical component of the current social and cultural discourse. Tackling these questions should provide a valuable insight into the value system and the contemporary discourse within Czech society.