Czech contributions to Western culture are not widely recognized outside the country's borders. That's a shame since despite being a relatively small country, the output in film, literature, and music has been nothing short of remarkable.
Czech filmmaking has a long tradition, but the heyday came in the mid-1960s when a group of young directors made quirky films that managed to capture both the pathos of life under Communism and the Czechs' innate pluck and humor under adverse circumstances. These "New Wave" films as they were called took the world by storm, garnering two Oscars for best foreign film and several other nominations.
Jirí Menzel and Milos Forman were the leading directors at the time. An easy-to-find example of this period's work (with English subtitles) is Menzel's Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains, a snapshot of the odd routine at a rural Czech train station.
Forman made his splash with a quirky look at a night in the life of a town trying to have fun despite itself. The Fireman's Ball shows Forman's true mastery as he captures the essence of being stone-bored in a gray world, yet he still makes it thoughtful and funny. Of course, this was made before Forman emigrated to the big budgets of Hollywood and first shocked Americans with Hair. He then directed the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. For Amadeus, Forman sought authenticity, so he received special permission from the Communists to return to Prague; while filming, he brought back to life the original Estates' Theater (Stavovské divadlo), where Mozart first performed.
Czech-based directors after the New Wave mostly disappeared from view, but one stunningly brave film was made in 1970, as the repressive post-invasion period known as "normalization" began its long, cold freeze of talent. In The Ear (Ucho), director Karel Kachyna presents the anguished story of a man trapped in an apartment wired for sound, subject to the Communist leaders' obsession and paranoia with Moscow. That The Ear was made in the political environment of the time was astounding. That it was quickly banned wasn't. Fortunately, local TV has dusted off copies from the archives, and it has begun playing to art-house audiences again.
The film about Prague probably most familiar to American audiences is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on the book by émigré author Milan Kundera. Set in the days surrounding the 1968 Soviet invasion, the story draws on the psychology of three Czechs who can't escape their personal obsessions while the political world outside collapses around them. Many Czechs find the film disturbing, some because it hits home, others because they say it portrays a Western stereotype.
Nowadays, modern Czech directors are trying to get back some of that old mojo, but with only hit-and-miss successes. The father-and-son team of Zdenek and Jan Sverák did manage to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1996 for Kolja, the bittersweet tale of an abandoned Russian boy grudgingly adopted by an aging Czech bachelor on the cusp of the 1989 revolution. Other important younger directors include Jan Hrebejk, who tends to make tough, unsympathetic films about modern life, like his 2004 Horem Pádem (Up and Down), and Petr Zelenka, who's made a series of offbeat, cult films that while all very different nevertheless manage to capture some of the absurdity of the 1960s' New Wave, such as 2002's Rok dábla (Year of the Devil), and Knoflíkári (Buttoners). Many of these are available on DVD.
Prague has also become a popular location for shooting major motion pictures. Producer/actor Tom Cruise and director Brian De Palma chose it for the stunning night shots around Charles Bridge in the early scenes of Mission: Impossible. During shooting, a verbal brawl broke out with Czech officials, who jacked up the rent for use of the riverside palace that acts as the American Embassy in the film (the palace is actually claimed by the von Liechtenstein family). Immortal Beloved, a story of Beethoven, made use of Prague's timeless streets (shooting around the graffiti).
More recently, the fields and forests around the Barrandov film studios south of the city center were transformed into idyllic Narnia for 2008's Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia, based on the C. S. Lewis classic.
Five Czech Films to Rent on DVD -- A list of great Czechoslovak and Czech films could run well into the several dozen, but these five convey a good flavor of Czech life over the decades, complete with ample doses of Czech sardonic wit seen as necessary to making sense of it all. All five are available with English subtitles through services such as Amazon (www.amazon.com) or Netflix (www.netflix.com).
1. Loves of a Blonde (1966). Milos Forman's New Wave masterwork artfully combines the tender sadness of unrequited love and the frustrations felt by a group of single women stuck in dead-end jobs in a Czech factory town.
2. Amadeus (1984). Forman's absorbing Oscar-winning Mozart drama was partly filmed in Prague, an homage to the city that appreciated Amadeus's genius long before Vienna and the rest of the world caught on.
3. Closely Watched Trains (1965). Jirí Menzel charmed the world with this Oscar-winning tragicomedy about Milos, a young man with "issues" who only discovers his manhood in a futile act of resistance against the Nazis in World War II.
4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Imperfect yet highly watchable adaptation of the Milan Kundera novel of the same name manages to capture something of Czech humor under adverse circumstances in the days before the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968.
5. Czech Dream (Ceský sen; 2004). Offbeat documentary is a brilliant send-up of consumer capitalism and shows what can happen when a new shopping center offers impossibly low prices. The problem is, it's just a "dream."
Fiction -- Any discussion of Czech literature with visiting foreigners usually begins and ends with Milan Kundera. Reviled among some Czechs who didn't emigrate, Kundera creates a visceral, personal sense of the world he chose to leave in the 1970s for the freedom of Paris. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the anguish over escaping the Soviet-occupied Prague he loves tears the libidinous protagonist Dr. Tomás in the same way the love for his wife and the lust for his lover does. More Czech post-normalization angst can be found in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Laughable Loves. Kundera's biting satire of Stalinist-style purges in the 1950s, The Joke, however, is regarded by Czech critics as his best work.
Arnost Lustig, a survivor of the Nazi-era Terezín concentration camp and author of many works, including Street of Lost Brothers, shared the 1991 Publishers Weekly Award for best literary work with John Updike and Norman Mailer. In 1995, he became the editor of the Czech edition of Playboy.
The best work of renowned Ivan Klíma, also a survivor of Terezín, is translated as Judge on Trial, a study of justice and the death penalty.
Jaroslav Hasek wrote the Czech harbinger to Forrest Gump in The Good Soldier Svejk, a post-World War I satire about a simpleton soldier who wreaks havoc in the Austro-Hungarian army during the war.
Bohumil Hrabal, noted for writing about the Czech "everyman" and maybe the country's all-time favorite author, died in 1997 when he fell (so they said officially) out of a fifth-story window while trying to feed pigeons. His death was eerily similar to the fate of a character in one of his stories. He had two internationally acclaimed hits: Closely Watched Trains (also translated as Closely Observed Trains, on which the Menzel film was based), and I Served the King of England. When then-President Bill Clinton visited Prague in 1994, he asked to have a beer with Hrabal in the author's favorite Old Town haunt, the pub U Zlatého tygra (At the Golden Tiger).
No reading list would be complete without reference to Franz Kafka, Prague's most famous novelist, who wrote his originals in his native German. The Collected Novels of Franz Kafka, which includes The Castle and The Trial, binds his most claustrophobic works into a single volume.
Nonfiction -- If it's contemporary philosophy you want, there is, of course, the philosopher ex-president. Václav Havel's heralded dissident essay, "The Power of the Powerless," explained how the lethargic masses were allowing their complacency with communism to sap their souls. His "Letters to Olga," written to his wife while in prison in the 1980s, takes you into his cell and his view of a moral world. Available are two solid English-translated compilations of his dissident writings: Living in Truth and Open Letters. Disturbing the Peace is an autobiographical meditation on childhood, the events of 1968, and Havel's involvement with Charter 77. His first recollections about entering politics are in "Summer Meditations," a long essay written during a vacation. Havel's most recent work To the Castle and Back (2008) recounts his ups and downs in high office as president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic from 1989 to 2003.
For an epic intellectual tour of the long, colorful, and often tragic history of the city, try the 1997 release of Prague in Black and Gold by native son and Yale literature professor Peter Demetz. His follow-up book, Prague in Danger (2008), is an absorbing history of Prague life during the Nazi occupation interwoven with poignant tales of Demetz's own family.
Five Czech Books for the Plane or Backpack -- Though publishers have dropped the ball in recent years when it comes to publishing English translations of Czech literature, fortunately there's a good body of work available in English, including most of the classics from the Communist period. Here is a highly subjective list of five "musts."
1. The Joke, Milan Kundera. Kundera's first novel was written in the brief period of relative freedom in the mid-1960s and tells the story of Ludvík, an enthusiastic young Communist whose sarcastic sense of humor puts him at odds with the party faithful and changes his life forever. Funny and moving in equal measure.
2. I Served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal. Far more than Kundera, Czechs identify with Hrabal and his themes of quirkiness, absurdity, and human folly. This is his most accessible book in English and describes the hilarious rise and fall of an ambitious waiter during the Nazi occupation and the years immediately after.
3. Life With a Star, Jirí Weil. Weil wrote two classics on the fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Prague during World War II. This book tells the story of a young Jewish banker who goes undercover to save his life. The other. Mendelssohn is On the Roof, is equally gripping.
4. The Good Soldier Svejk, Jaroslav Hasek. Humorous tale of a Czech army recruit who'll do anything to avoid military service in Austrian army during World War I, including acting the half-wit. Or maybe he really is that stupid? Czechs laugh too but tend to resent the portrayal; after reading it at least you'll understand all those restaurants named "Svejk" around the country.
5. The Castle, Franz Kafka. Kafka is more widely appreciated than read, but give this book or his short-story collections a try to understand the complexities of modern life as viewed by a prescient German-speaking Jewish insurance salesman in the years during and after World War I. The ending is unsatisfying but chilling.
Czechs have bequeathed the world at least three household names in classical music: Antonín Dvorák, Bedrich Smetana, and Leos Janácek, as well as heaps of pop tunes that are mostly unknown beyond the country's borders but still fun to listen to.
Dvorák is best known to visitors for his Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), which was written during his stay in the United States in the 19th century and was so beloved it was taken to the moon by astronaut Neil Armstrong during his Apollo mission in 1969.
Smetana wrote probably the best-known piece of Czech classical music, the Moldau Symphony (Vltava), whose ominous low notes (like thunder rolls) will be instantly recognizable to any classical music lover. Smetana's composition was part of six symphonic poems entitled Má Vlast (My Homeland) that sums up perfectly in bars and measures Czechs' yearning for their own national identity in the 19th century.
Janácek, an early 20th century composer from Moravia, will be less familiar to most, but better known perhaps to hard-core opera lovers for compositions such Kát'a Kabanová and The Cunning Little Vixen. His works mix traditional Moravian folk melodies with modern impulses to create music that initially sounds discordant but soon grow on you.
Five Czech Songs for the iPod or MP3 Player -- Google and YouTube have made it easier than ever before to find and sample Czech music ahead of your visit. Simple searches like "best Czech songs" or "Czech music hits" bring up hundreds of tunes that you can listen to, watch performed, or note for downloading on sites such as iTunes. If anything, the variety is overwhelming and you'll have to look around to find your niche. Some places to start:
1. Promeny (Changes), Cechomor. Dreamy ballad by the country's leading folk, or "world music," band whose phrasing and harmonies sound as if they could have drifted straight out of the Middle Ages.
2. Lady Carneval, Karel Gott. One of the best-known songs from the 1960s by a Czech crooner who's been likened to Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, and Engelbert Humperdinck all rolled into one. He's still at it well into his seventh decade.
3. Porcelánový prasata (Piggy Bank), Kabát. Don't blast this through your ear buds if you want to keep year hearing. This is loud, aggressive rock that touches both an anarchic and nationalistic chord and remains wildly (inexplicably) popular.
4. Srdce (Heart), Krystof. One of a number of likable teen-rock tunes from arguably the best pop band to emerge in the past decade.
5. Oh Baby, Baby, Marta Kubisová. Nostalgic '60s tune brings back those optimistic days before the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. Kubisová's music was banned by the Communists in the '70s and '80s and she was only permitted to perform publicly after 1989.
Czech popular music came into its own in the 1960s with singers like Karel Gott (who recently celebrated his 70th birthday and is still going strong), Marta Kubisová, and Helena Vondrácková. Czech pop at the time was heavily influenced by Western bands like the Beatles, but nevertheless retains something of the naïve hope and optimism of those days before the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion when it seemed Czechoslovakia might actually break free of communism.
Modern Czech popular music mimics international trends in rock, pop, electronic, and hip-hop. Some of the more popular bands include Cechomor (beautifully rendered folk ballads), Kabát (hard-core rock), and Support Lesbiens (tongue-in-cheek pop sung in English, and, yes, the misspelling is intentional).