Through June, the National Film Archive in Prague is presenting a series of Czech films from before the age of “talkies”. It is part of a wider European project which aims to acquaint the public – especially younger viewers – with classic silent films.
The National Film Archive selection includes some of the first movies ever shot in the Czech lands, as well as works unavailable to public audiences for decades. Among them are classics by Karel Lamač (who directed over 100 films throughout Europe); films featuring early performances by comedic actor Vlasta Burian; and others starring Anna Ondráková (known abroad as Anny Ondra, and the wife of German boxing champion Max Schmeling).
Within the European project “A Season of Classic Films”, the newly reconstructed Czech film prints offer unique insight into the history of the medium, organisers say, as the program traces its development, from period blockbusters to marginal, quasi-documentary films.
At the same time, silent films were never silent – screenings were accompanied by pianists or even whole ensembles. So, the National Film Archive is engaging musicians to create accompaniments that reflect diversity – and appeal to contemporary audiences, says festival manager Jonáš Kucharský.
“We premiered four or five of these restored films at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, accompanied by original modern compositions. We’re taking bit different approach to showcasing Czech cinema from the early 20th century. So, there are romantic melodramas and comedies, like Lamač’s Hříchy lásky (Sins of Love) and Milenky starého kriminálníka (The Lovers of an Old Criminal), but also some that are more obscure.”
Among such all-but-forgotten works is a 1923 film by Svatopluk Innemann called Buď připraven! (Be Prepared!), which portrays the early Czech boy scout movement through a simple story set in myriad period locations, such as Orlík castle and St John’s Rapids, which no longer exists. The screening of the 35 mm print, now restored and coloured to reflect the original tinting, will be accompanied live by the Wabi Experience duo.
Perhaps among the most original films is Boris Orlický’s harsh drama Ukřižovaná (Crucified) about an army officer named Karel Vyšín involved in a love triangle a young woman named Ruth, the daughter of a Jewish innkeeper. Ruth’s father disowns her when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, to a man outside the faith. Spoiler alert: one of them is literally crucified amidst a pogrom.
Again, just as when the films were first screened in the early 20th century, the music is integral to the experience, festival manager Jonáš Kucharský told Czech Radio.
“We try to show what sound can bring to a film. So, viewers won’t find traditional piano accompaniment. Screening films online is tricky, and we thought long and hard how to create an atmosphere close to being in a cinema audience. In the end, we chose a split screen, one with the film itself, the other with the musicians. It’s been very positively received, so we’re quite pleased.”
Altogether, 22 institutions from across Europe, including the National Film Archive in Prague, are taking part in the “A Season of Classic Films” project, under the direction of the Association of European Cinémathèques (ACE). Many of the screenings will be followed by discussion sessions – some in English – in which speakers address issues related to silent film and its presentation.