A Czech Filmmaker Who Portrayed Eastern Bloc Life Through Women’s Eyes

At Doclisboa, a comprehensive look at Vera Chytilová’s incisive critiques of gender, family, and love.

Still from Vera Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise (1970) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

Vera Chytilová, the Czech New Wave filmmaker who passed away in 2014, insisted that her cinema was not feminist. Yet her bold films, most of which are only now getting more international attention — currently thanks to a comprehensive retrospective at Doclisboa, in Portugal — make her one of the most incisive and formally innovative critics of gender inequality among Europe’s New Wave filmmakers.

Chytilová’s communist-super-block epic, Prefab Story (1979) is a case in point. In some ways, it compares to Agnieszka Holland’s A Woman Alone (1987) and Bela Tarr‘s The Prefab People (1982). All three films center on unhappy women who fight the aggression of male partners or friends and stand up to societal pressures in a communist context. But Chytilová’s knack for absurdity is greater than Holland’s or Tarr’s, as is her comedic streak. Where the other two stick to a realism that today strikes us as fantastical in its utter drabness (Holland particularly has been questioned about the bleak Poland she depicted in A Woman Alone and insisted her locations were actual apartments), Chytilová’s style is more fragmented, with short takes, kaleidoscopic storytelling, and jaunty editing.

Prefab Story is made up of numerous mini-stories: a mischievous boy whom we follow through one “super block,” (one of the endless unfinished socialist apartment complexes with giant concrete slabs jutting out and transported overhead by crane); an old Grandpa, as everyone calls him, a good-natured country bumpkin transplanted to the big city; a young student who finds out she’s pregnant by a young man with no aspirations; an unhappy housewife who puts on pretenses of marital bliss; a stylish actor who romances female neighbors. There is no single plot, as characters move into, repair or decorate their apartments. Some of the film’s parallel events include a chase after a perambulator thief, a broken car, a woman in labor and another fighting authorities, still another suspected of having died as she’s merely taking a nap. Moving briskly from story to story, Chytilová creates a place that brims with life, even if at times it’s quite grotesque. Some unifying themes emerge around the small boy’s pranks and his sudden quest to find his father, around the young woman’s doubt whether she should keep her baby, and around Grandpa’s butting into other people’s affairs.

Still from Vera Chytilová’s Prefab Story (1979)

Soviet Bloc woes are all in plain sight. The healthcare system is lacking, the apartment blocks are surrounded by ripped-up concrete, unending machinery noise and mounds of raw earth. While construction is constant, whatever is already there goes to rot. Yet amid the bleak despair, Chytilová finds solace in her characters’ artless blunders, foibles, and small secret pleasures. The drab apartments hide unbound human passions: jealous inconsolable wives, playful intellectual types and adulterers. Above all, there is no judgment. Chytilová looks with equal sympathy upon a vain man’s sexual conquest, a woman’s spontaneous tryst with the worker hired to paint her walls, or a young couple’s innocent embrace. Compared to the serious, perhaps tad morose films from Poland’s “cinema of moral concern,” Chytilová’s are blissfully amoral.

That is not to say she lacks bite. On the contrary, much of the story, none of it flattering, is told through the eyes of women. Men are oblivious to their hurtful condescending ways, or else they don’t care. One of the key turns in the film comes when we learn that the beautiful young mother who endlessly extols her family nest as a perfect sanctuary is in fact bitterly disillusioned with her life as a homemaker.

Still from Vera Chytilová’s Prefab Story (1979)

Chytilová’s earlier film, Something Different (1963), is subtler and more poignant. It revolves around the parallel stories of Vera, a bored housewife who eventually carries on an impetuous affair, and Eva, an older gymnast who faces fears about her body breaking down and her coach’s belligerence. One of the most slyly ironic moments comes when the independent Eva is told by her coach she doesn’t need to fear doing a jump, she has “a strong man on the other side.” Alone and always training, Eva’s life nevertheless isn’t free of clichés. Her reactions (wonderfully acted by Eva Bosáková) are that of a knowing child who rolls her eyes when patronized. In training, she is scoffed at, ordered about, infantilized. In one more drastic instant, her older coach slaps her on the face, an action that’s supposed to help her focus but is really just humiliating. Eva takes it all in stride and overcomes her fear, only to be told, “Good girl.” Meanwhile Vera oscillates between her lover’s possessive jealousy and her husband’s indifference, until her marriage nearly unravels. The ending brings no resolution to either of these women, though Vera has the satisfaction of passing on her knowledge to younger dancers. The black and white cinematography, scenes devoted to choreographed performance and neatness of composition recall Krzysztof Kieślowski’s early documentary, Seven Women of Different Ages (1979), though without the same metaphorical, universalizing frame.

Then there are Chytilová’s more impressionistic films, like the already famous Daisies (1966), and the gorgeous Fruit of Paradise (1970). Both marry the brainily playful genius of Luis Buñuel with refined, painterly aesthetic, and libidinous touches that bring to mind other another Czech surrealist / Freudian film maverick, Jan Švankmajer. Which isn’t to say there’s anything imitative about Chytilová’s art, but rather that she has the force and the imagination that have brought far more fame to her male counterparts, and is due some major recognition.

Fruit of Paradise is Chytilová’s retelling of the story of Adam and Eve’s downfall and casting out from Eden. In brisk Chytilová style she gets straight to the point, debunking the famous story of the apple —Eva bites it in one of the early scenes and offers it to her husband, Josef, who merely dismisses it. Temptation comes instead in the shape of Mr. Robert and his constant intrusions into Eva’s domestic bliss. Dressed in alluring red velvet, Mr. Robert stalks Eva until she can’t help but notice his chivalry. Amused by his seamlessly harmless pranks she starts following him in turn.

Chytilová clearly enjoyed taking the biblical text and turning it upside down: Eva isn’t seduced by Mr. Robert; dolled out in an Alice-in-Wonderland like white dress she stumbles on his key (but then again, nothing is quite accidental in this delightful tale), steals away to his house and opens his mysterious red briefcase. Once she stamps her thigh with the red number “6,” she’s done for. The stamp turns out to be a murderer’s mark. Rather than a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse, victim-murderer chase, an elaborate ménage-a-trois forms between Mr. Robert, Eva and her husband, Josef, with Eva as the devil’s muse, a victim whose appetites prove more diabolical than her aggressor’s.

At the end of this this complex, wondrous, and wildly imaginative tale, as Eva and Josef reunite, Chytilová seems to suggest that any mature love involves some level of compromise. Certain harsh truths must be stowed away, for our happiness depends on accepting each other’s fragilities.

The 2017 edition of Doclisboa continues through October 29 in Lisbon, Portugal. More details on the Vera Chytilová retrospective here

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