If Milos Forman's debut film KONKURS (Audition/Talent Competition) is generally considered to have been the pioneering production that launched what quickly became known internationally as the Czech New Wave in the heady days of 1963, its origins owe much more to theatre and its director's abiding passion for music than to any deliberate attempt to emulate in Eastern Europe the free-wheeling style and neo-realist content of the Nouvelle Vague that had so invigorated the French film industry and caught the eye of critics and paying audiences around the world.
In fact, KONKURS is two films, long shorts tenuously linked, which together make up a modest running time for a feature, and they are essentially faux-documentaries, yet they present not only the faces but several of the preoccupations that would become so prominent in Forman's later work.
Like Jiri Menzel, Milos Forman's primary interest had always been the theatre and it was only when he was unsuccessful in applying to drama school that he managed to gain a place in Prague's legendary film school FAMU. On graduation, he worked as a scriptwriter and assistant director to Alfred Radok, and was invited to work on his Laterna Magicka stage production which took Forman to Bruxelles for six months during the 1958 Exposition there. He lodged in the Belgian capital with artistes from the Semafor Theatre of Prague and conceived an idea of filming a documentary about the work of this acclaimed company. Back in Prague he engaged Ivan Passer to script and Miroslav Ondiricek to photograph, with a new 16mm camera, a sequence of musical auditions for the popular stage troupe, mixing together young hopeful unknowns with the stage stars Jiri Slitr and Jiri Suchy. (In Forman's later larger scale films he continued this technique of casting lesser- and better- known players, and Miroslav Ondricek became a faithful collaborator as his regulator cinematographer, eventually winning the Hollywood Oscar for his work on AMADEUS).
The first film is called "If there were no music" (Kdy by ty muziky nebyliy) and intercuts lyrical, amused and amusing sequences of "cool" looking Czech teenagers riding modest motorcycles as laughing girls look on, admiringly, teasingly, coquettishly, with a later more professionally mountain-motorcycle road race, the competitors geared up in their leathers and helmets as if for the Isle of Man TT. But the principal dramatic content focuses on rehearsals of amateur (or semi-professional) musicians preparing for the annual brass band championships in Kolin.
Alternating wry, tight close-ups with fly-on-the-wall -type medium shots, Forman introduces as one of the haranguing band-masters Jan Vostrcil (who would later be seen in Black Peter and The Firemen's Ball) and as an under-motivated musician Vladimir Pucholt (who subsequently played in Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde). The part-time band members are presented with gentle humour and some affection. The casual, informal dialogue artlessly conceals its origins as the band master lays in to late-comers, slackers, colleagues who imbibed more beer the day before the rehearsal, but saves his greatest contempt for the players who only turn up when they know lucrative work, playing for funerals, is likely.
There is though a genuine appreciation for traditional, Czechoslovak music..."you can t feel it without a heart”, insists the conductor. "Better not to play at all than to play falsely."
The second, much expanded film gives the production its title of Audition and involves a little more narrative and, in Vera Kresadlova, Forman found his second wife. The aspiring singers of widely ranging abilities, enthusiastically audition with pop-type numbers (considered le dernier cri at the time no doubt) and Forman famously films the same song performed by different hopefuls, inter-cutting between them with wicked humour.(He would later repeat this technique in his American debut film TAKING OFF). One of the girls has fibbed to her employer to get time off to attend the auditions, which imports more mordant humour into the piece.
Forman explained how some of his preoccupations took shape very early in his life. "Of course, every child dreams to ride that horse in the circus tent or make people laugh as a clown- it is the first showbiz experience which is really impressive for children, more than when they drag you to see some respectable plays when you are 10 years old, and they take you to see Shakespeare and you probably fall asleep. But if they take you to a circus, showbiz suddenly seduces you."
Forman was raised in Bohemia and still treasures his first connections with cinema. "I had a very strange experience as a child because the first film I ever saw - I was 6 years old- was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which of course was a memorable event. But the second film I saw in my life, was when my parents took me to a cinema in the small town in Bohemia, Caslav, and it was a film of the most popular Czech opera, The Bartered Bride by Smetana- and this was in 1938, I was 6 years old and Hitler was already standing on the border and the situation in the whole of Central Europe was very tense. The talkies were already widespread, but this was a silent version of an opera, which was absolutely absurd when you think about it!
"What happened was something which until today I will never forget, I even see images from that Sunday afternoon. The curtain goes up and there is this chorus and they suddenly start to open their mouths and you don t hear anything. But suddenly-because it is such a popular opera- the audience in the cinema started to sing and the whole time people in the cinema were delivering the sound, they were singing all the arias, all the songs from the opera! This was something that was so powerful in its absurdity that it probably provoked in me some idea that this is the most powerful thing which could happen, to show these flickering images and it can lead people to this expression, to this kind of attitude towards music.
"Music is very powerful, sometimes it is more powerful than words, because it goes directly to your emotions, it is not filtered through your intellect, when you have to listen and understand the dialogue.
It goes straight to your heart"
And Forman followed his heart in all the films that followed KONKURS, which is a marvellous miniature distillation of the chief concerns of his cinema career.
-- Phillip Bergson