Czech Oscar Winners


With this year's Oscar ceremony behind us, the time is ripe to do two things: first, to congratulate the winners (we loved Argo, and we thoroughly enjoyed Ms Lawrence's Mr Waltz's performances in Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained (we have not seen Lincoln and Les Miserables), and, second, to recollect the Czech and Czechoslovak movies who that won the Best Foreign Language Film category in the past. The Czech cinematography has a very long tradition, booming especially in the 1960s with the filmmakers of the "New Wave" (when the Poles want to say that something is confusing, they say "it's like a Czech movie"). All in all, despite the Iron Curtain and all, three Czech(oslovak) movies managed to win the Oscar Best Foreign Language Film award. All these films can be bought on DVDs here in Prague, with English subtitles.

Shop on the Main Street - 1965

Directed by the duo Kadar/Klos, the film is a wartime story of Anton Brtko, Slovak carpenter, who is pressured by his friends and wife to Aryanize a shop owned by an elderly, senile Jewish woman. Finding out that the shop is not profitable at all and the woman relies on donations, the Jewish community offers a small payment to Brtko in exchange of not giving the store up and taking care of the woman. In a dramatic finale, the authorities round up the Jewish population of the town for transport to a concentration camp, Brtko is faced with a dilemma whether to give in the old woman, or hide her. We will not reveal the ending but let's just say the film does not have what you'd call a happy ending. In a strong scene at the end of the movie, Brtko drinks in the shop while the authorities spell out the names of the Jews sent to the transport. We think this is a powerful and true image of the times: the silent majority too scared to do anything about the wartime events around them:

The movie won the Best Foreign Language Film award in 1965, and Ida Kaminska was nominated for Best Actress.

Closely Watched Trains - 1968

Based on a story written by one of the best-known Czech novelists, Bohumil Hrabal, the film was shot in 1966 by Jiri Menzel, one of the leaders of the New Wave of Czech filmmaking. This is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the end of the World War II. The lead role of Milos Hrma, a young man exploring his sexuality in the Bohemian and Moravian Protectorate, is played by Vaclav Neckar, a famous Czech singer that we already wrote about here. The film is one of the best-loved Czech movies of all times, a very tender human comedy, and the "stamping scene" is one of the most quoted scenes in Czech filmmaking ever. The movie is set in a microcosm of a small village railway station, with the war being a distant, yet very present, reality. Again, this film does not have a happy ending. We looked up the original US trailer and it's funny how much they emphasize the sexual topics of the movie and downplay the war theme, which is equally, if not more, important in the movie.

The movie won the Best Foreign Language Film award in 1968.

Kolya - 1996

Written by Zdenek Sverak (who plays the lead male role) and directed by his son, Jan Sverak (whose previous collaboration, Obecna skola, was nominated for an Oscar in 1992), Kolya is a story set in Prague near the end of the Communist era. The main character, Mr Louka, is a womanizing bachelor, a viola player who needs money for a small Trabant car that would allow him to take more gigs. He is persuaded by a friend to enter a fake marriage with a Russian girl, which would allow her to stay in Czechoslovakia. The woman instantly leaves for West Germany, leaving her five-year-old son, Kolya, with Louka. Enemies at first, a strong relationship develops between Kolya and Louka, as Louka looks for the small boy who becomes sick. Louka later faces jail time for the fake marriage but as the Velvet Revolution ends the Communist regime, Kolya's mother comes back from West Germany to collect her son.

The movie won the Best Foreign Language Film award in 1997.

Finally, we have to mention three films that won Oscars, but not in the Best Foreign Language Film category. First is the "Ropaci" (Oil Gobblers) short that won the Best Student Picture in 1988. It was directed by Jan Sverak who later directed the Oscar-winning Kolya movie. It's a fake documentary about a new species found in the parts of the Czech Republic devastated by Communist heavy industry. Unlike humans, the Oil Gobblers need exhaust gases, oil and coal to live. It's a well-produced film with a strong environmental message. You can see the entire movie on YouTube:

The last two movies worth mentioning are the two movies directed in the US by Milos Forman, a Czech native who escaped from the Communist Czechoslovakia to pursue his filmmaking dreams in the USA. Two of his movies won Oscars for Best Picture: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975 and Amadeus in 1984. Milos Forman won Best Director on both occasions.

We think all the three movies are great and would be a great addition to any movie collection.