An excerpt from the booklet essay by Cerise Howard
It is curious that two of the films produced in 1963 that heralded the coming of the Czechoslovak New Wave – that irreproducible fecund burgeoning of cinematic art in a small, short-lived, Central European nation state prone to abrupt regime changes – featured Felis catus in their narrative engine rooms.
One, Josef Kilián (Postava k podpírání), directed by Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, was an absurdist semi-vérité black-and-white featurette concerning one man’s hire of a cat from a shop in Prague’s Old Town that the following day, exasperatingly and inexplicably, is nowhere to be found. Far removed from the stuffy, hidebound world of studio productions, its makers took to the streets, blurred fiction and documentary, actors and non-actors and cocked no few snooks at the sinister faceless forces governing the lives of others.
The co-directors were students of FAMU, the storied film school founded in 1946 in the centre of Prague and at the centre of the nascent New Wave.
The second film no less prophesied, through its similarly inspirational example, the New Wave’s jettisoning of the doctrinaire Socialist Realist strictures concerning content and form that had become the norm in communist post-WWII Czechoslovakia. Aptly entitled The Cassandra Cat in anglophone markets, with respect to its own narrative and to the broader, scarcely credible changes to Czechoslovak cinematography it heralded, it is also well known, per its native title of Až přijde kocour, as When the Cat Comes.
Yet its director Vojtěch Jasný (1925-2019) was of an older, first generation of FAMU-educated filmmakers whose earliest authorial credits dated more than a decade prior to those of the New Wave. At FAMU he was formatively schooled by the likes of the school’s co-founder Karel Plicka (director of The Earth Sings/Zem spieva, a famed 1933 poetic documentary on village life in the Carpathians); montage theorist Vsevolod Pudovkin (Mother, 1926) – as his class’s only Russian speaker, Jasný became Pudovkin’s assistant – as well as the pairing of director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, longtime collaborators integral to the development and propagation of Italian neorealism.
Jasný graduated in 1951 alongside Karel Kachyňa, with whom he shared directorial credits for his first feature film, 1955’s Everything Ends Tonight (Dnes večer všechno skončí), as well as several short and longform documentaries produced in the service of the state and its armed forces, including a clutch made on an official trip to China for which both filmmakers were promoted to the rank of Major (the better to gain access to Chinese dignitaries) and ultimately awarded Mao Zedong state prizes.
However, returning home via an extensive trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Jasný bore witness to scenes of squalor and poverty belying what he had routinely been fed about life in the Soviet Union, jaundicing forever this good Party member’s view of communism such that he quietly vowed to himself ‘to wait until Stalin was gone. Then I would start making films for real.’ (Jasný, Golden Sixties).
The Cassandra Cat was in fact Jasný’s sixth fictional feature film, and just as all of the greatest subsequent New Wave films would, it exemplified film as a collaborative artform wherein a film’s greatness was a function of the combined contributions and innovations of exceptional talents working in concert, with their work, moreover, fully subsidised by the state. Foremost amongst The Cassandra Cat’s key contributors was the cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, like Jasný a FAMU graduate of the early ‘50s and, per director Martin Frič whose career spanned the silent era to the late ‘60s, ‘the most extraordinary cameraman this country has ever had’.
Cerise Howard's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
i. Jasný's Cinema of Freedom
ii. Interview with Vojtech Jasny
iii. Interview with actor Emília Vášaryová
iv. Interview with still photographer Karel Ješátko
v. Jan Werich: A pioneer in Czech theatre and film