During the late 1960s, amid the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s Army Film studio became the country’s most permissive space for film production, rivaling the contemporaneous New Wave in its aesthetic innovations while challenging political orthodoxies and military regulations. This critique was particularly trenchant after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, when a series of experimental Army films offered a sober vision of post-invasion reality. Among them were two shorts which will feature in the Walker’s Expanding the Frame series, Imagination Is Power: Ivan Balaďa’s 1969 Forest (Les) on April 5 and Vladimír Drha’s 1969 34 Women (34 ženy) on April 19. As a complement to the four-part screening series, we offer a series of writings on Crosscuts this month, by a range of thinkers including Amir George, Ayo Akngbade, Bidayyat Audio Visual Arts, Chicago Film Archives, Nadie Cloete, and Valérie Déus. Here, in an excerpt from her book Army Film and the Avant Garde: Cinema and Experiment in the Czechoslovak Military (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015), Alice Lovejoy discusses the revolutionary nature of Czech films of the era.
Forest documents the funeral procession of Jan Palach, a philosophy student at Charles University in Prague who immolated himself in January 1969 in protest of the consequences of the invasion and died a few days later. The students with whom he attended university organized a funeral procession that was attended by thousands and that represented the last major spontaneous protest of the Warsaw Pact invasion before the post-invasion period of normalization began in earnest.1
Palach’s funeral also highlighted the changes that had occurred in Czechoslovak media culture since the invasion and underscored documentary’s continued relevance within it. For while, as Paulina Bren reports, television and radio were forbidden from “broadcasting programs or segments on Palach,” according to Balaďa, during the funeral procession, “everyone who had a camera” was in the streets, filming.2
Forest, however, shot by a collective of cameramen with instructions from Balaďa and cinematographer Juraj Šajmovič, was a different sort of film. “I looked for a metaphorical means of expression,” Balaďa says. “I remembered Gorky’s prose-poem, ‘Danko’s Burning Heart.’ A cantata had been composed on the text, and we knew in advance we wanted to use it in this way. So the reportage details of the funeral procession are not there.”3
Indeed, almost nothing in Forest is expository, and the film is made up primarily of crowd shots. These impart an overwhelming impression of the mass: the camera rarely allows anything other than human faces and bodies to enter the frame, and we are never given any visual clues to the reason behind the gathering, beyond a brief sequence in which we glimpse, through the crowds, a student honor guard. Thus, the viewer has the sense of being part of the crowd, glimpsing what one can from an embodied point of view.
This lack of explanatory detail is matched by spatial indeterminacy. Forest begins with a series of tracking shots. Some of these sketch barely visible figures standing in line in the pre-dawn darkness; others are tilted upward, showing streetlights and the outlines of rooftops against the sky. These do not orient the viewer in a particular space—in fact, they do the opposite. Just as in the crowd shots, where the viewer has no sense of where he or she stands, in Forest’s opening moments, which should logically serve as establishing shots for the entire film, location is implied to be indeterminate. This sense of dislocation is heightened by the film’s frequent use of frontal shots of faces and bodies and extreme high-angle shots, which eliminate spatial and historical context.
For Balaďa, this decontextualization is part of the film’s metaphoric charge and works in dialogue with its soundtrack. Gorky’s story is that of a young man, Danko, who leads an enslaved people out of a dark, dangerous forest by holding his own burning heart aloft as a beacon. When they emerge from the forest, Danko dies, a martyr, unthanked. The use of this metaphor in Forest is complex. On one level, the film posits a simple equivalence between the figures of Danko and Palach. Within this, however, is a broader critique of post-invasion Czechoslovakia. Kieran Williams argues that Palach’s actions reflected the ultimate refusal by most of Czechoslovak society to resist the invasion: “In his effort to stir the nation he opted for self-destruction rather than terrorism; he chose the morally superior route of defiance, just as the entire country had in August  when it renounced violent resistance to the invasion. Though stunning in its dignity, this approach brought no political rewards.”4
Balaďa, in his discussion of Forest, seems to critique post-invasion Czechoslovakia in a similar way. He notes that his film’s static dimensions were intended partially to emphasize a lack of action, an idea that Forest’s ending underscores, picturing the assembled masses as they scatter: “The sadness was real and big … but afterward, when the funeral procession ended, people went home quickly, as if from a football match. … So I put that at the end, because I sensed what would come, that people would really forget.5
While Forest documented the effects of the invasion on Czechoslovakia’s civilian sphere, a series of Army Films from 1969 shed light on something less widely discussed: its ramifications for the rank-and-file Czechoslovak soldier. These ramifications were substantial: the invasion and occupation fully disempowered the Czechoslovak Army on its own soil, and soldiers were ordered to the barracks as Warsaw Pact troops entered the country. Films on the topic accordingly abandoned both the antimilitarism and civilian concerns prominent in Army films produced earlier in the decade and began to see the military—traditionally a bastion of order and routine—as a site of confusion and indeterminacy.
Most significant among these was a tetralogy by director Vladimír Drha and cameraman Karel Hložek that reacts to the September 1968 transfer of Czechoslovak military units from bases in central Bohemia, near Prague, to eastern Slovakia. The transfers were ostensibly to make room for occupying soldiers, but it was generally understood that they were intended to prevent resistance to the occupation by the reformist Army. The “transfer tetralogy” begins with Lesson (Lekce, 1969), a sometimes sarcastic, sometimes mournful documentary of soldiers packing up a central Bohemian base and “welcoming” its new residents, and it continues with 34 Women (1969), following thirty-four transferred officers’ wives on a weekend visit from Prague to their potential new home in Humenné, Slovakia, and Color Wheel (Barvotisk; in Slovak, Farbotlač, 1969), documenting the first “military marriage” between a transferred soldier and a local textile worker. It ends with the film Village (Ves), a portrait of Milovice, one of the central Bohemian Army towns from which Czechoslovak soldiers were transferred and which the film depicts during its occupation.
In 34 Women, military commanders attempt to convince the officers’ wives to join their transferred spouses. Yet between the overnight train trip and interminable “friendly gatherings” in which the women seem mostly to drink and smoke, they barely have a moment alone with their husbands. In suggesting the invasion’s collateral social damage, 34 Women is linked thematically to Color Wheel, whose wedding Drha documents from its preparations to its church ceremony, ending with a raucous party in a pub. The first film evokes this collateral damage in juxtaposition: in the extreme distance between central Bohemia and eastern Slovakia, captured in lengthy handheld sequences in the train; in the disjuncture between military officials’ optimism and Humenné’s grim surroundings; in the film’s sarcastic intertitles. Conversely, Color Wheel’s grotesque, carnivalesque images (captured in the garish palette from which the film takes its name) themselves signify this damage, which is emphasized by the film’s opening and closing images: a live rooster by a chopping block, and the dead animal, its fresh blood red on the snow.
1 Kieran Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968–1970 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 188–191.
2 Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 31; Ivan Balaďa, interview with the author, Prague, September 15, 2008.
3 Balaďa, interview with the author.
4 Williams, The Prague Spring, 190.
5 Balaďa, interview with the author.