Otakar Vavra: Film director who fell foul of the communists
Monday 17 October 2011
Comprising over 50 feature films in as many years – mostly literary adaptations – during one of the most tumultuous periods in Czech history, the length and variety of Otakar Vavra's career as a film director bears testament both to the physical stamina that recently brought him to the age of a hundred and to the discretion with which he served a succession of fearsome political masters.
Born into the Austro-Hungarian empire, Otakar Vavra studied architecture at Brno and Prague University before becoming a publicist and critic in 1929. Beginning with Light Penetrates Darkness (1931) he made a few experimental shorts and entered the industry in 1933 as a scriptwriter and assistant before making his solo feature debut as a director with A Philosophical Story (1937). His third feature, Guild of the Kutna Hora Virgins (1938) took the Luce Cup at the Venice Film Festival, only to be banned by the Nazis after they invaded Czechoslovakia. His films during the occupation included The Masked Lover (1940), an adaptation of Balzac starring Lida Baarova, and Happy Journey (1943), detailing a day in the lives of a group of shopgirls in a large department store, singled out by the film historians Mira and Antonin Liehm as "a forerunner of postwar film realism".
In 1946 Vavra was among the founders of the FAMU film school in Prague, where he taught on and off until 2008. Regarded as the best teacher there, he helped to foster several of the talents that came to comprise the New Wave during the mid-1960s. During the earlier cultural flowering following liberation in 1945, Vavra had earned distinction with Krakatit (1948), from the novel by Karel Capek, and The Silent Barricade (1949), depicting the uprising against the Nazis in 1945 before the arrival of the Red Army. Wrote the Liehms, "For the first time Vavra toppled the barrier that literature had built in front of his camera and indicated that he could become a spokesman for reality, observed in all its immediacy". But Silent Barricade became one of the first films to earn the displeasure of the new Communist regime and Vavra was to fall silent for nearly five years.
When he returned, it was with the appropriately named Fall In! (1952), a Soviet-style spectacular in colour recreating the resettlement of Czechoslovakia's border area during 1945-48, which Vavra followed with The Hussite Trilogy (commencing in 1955 with Jan Hus), based on the classic novels by Alois Jirasek and starring Zdenek Stepanek as the eponymous 15th century precurser of the Czech Reformation.
Ten years later, as the talent Vavra had fostered (such as Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel) began to take wing, he recaptured some of his élan with Golden Rennet (1965), a study of intellectual cowardice in the '50s which won the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian film festival; Romance for Trumpet (1966), a melancholy tale of growing up based like Golden Rennet on a poem by the lyric poet Frantisek Hrubin, depicting two ill-fated young lovers and set in the southern Bohemian countryside; and Witchhammer (1969), a ferocious account of the last witch-burnings in Bohemia during the late 17th Century, depicting the folly of using torture to produce worthless confessions.
The latter was possibly Vavra's indirect disclaimer to a paper to which he was obliged to lend his name in 1968 endorsing the Soviet invasion. In 1970 he was nevertheless temporarily dismissed from his post at FAMU after one of his students made a film that upset the authorities, for which he atoned with a trilogy of monumental product-ions about the Second World War: Days of Treason (1973) a documentary about the Munich crisis, Sokolovo (1974), a co-production with the Soviet Union, and The Liberation of Prague (1976). His films of the '80s included Dark Sun (1980), an inferior updated remake of Krakatit, Comedian (1984), and his final feature, Europe Danced a Waltz (1989). In 2003 he released a historical documentary, My Prague, and in 2006 made his final bow with a pop video.
He wrote A Film Director's Meditations (1982), and this year his memoirs, The Strange Life of a Film Director.
Otakar Vavra, film director and teacher: born Hradec Kralove, Czechoslovakia 28 February 1911; partner to Jitka Nemcova; died Prague 15 September 2011.
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