Origins and development of ‘New Wave’

In 1962 the directors designated by film historians as the ‘great three’ entered feature film production – Martin Hollý with his full-length debut Havrania cesta (‘The Crows Fly Over’), Peter Solan with Boxer a smrť (‘The Boxer and Death’) and Štefan Uher with Slnko v sieti (‘The Sun in the Net’) – bringing not only a distinctive professionalisation of film direction and modern means of expression, but also a personal, authorial approach to the interpretation of their chosen themes.
Hollý’s Havrania cesta is a dramatic story set against the background of the construction of electric distribution systems in rural Slovakia. Although the theme of the film is based on the ‘official’ theme of the ‘industrialisation’ of Slovakia, Holly depicts it through distinctive dramatic characters, their relationships and conflicts. Instead of awakening agitation, it presents real social relationships in actual conditions and depicts their effects on the life and actions of an individual.
Boxer a smrť deals with the theme of individual relationships and conflict between people in the environment of a small concentration camp during World War II. The symbolic boxing match between the commander of the camp and a prisoner constitutes the metaphor of the unequal struggle of military power and oppressed innocent people. In the gradual re-birth of the resigned prisoner into a defiant hero, the film becomes an emotional utterance with deep thoughts about the existential situation which under the oppression of power affects the lives of individuals and the community. Solan’s film is free of any ideologising or simplified interpretation of historical reality; his accurate direction offers a dramatic story built on thorough psychological analysis of his characters and the gradual development of the basic conflict up to its metaphorical utterance.
Slnko v sieti marked the turning point in the development of Slovak and Czech feature films in 1962, indeed several historians have designated it as the first obvious impulse of the Czech and Slovak film ‘New Wave’ of the 1960s.
The film focuses on the lives of two young adults, Bela (Jana Beláková) and Oldrich ‘Fajolo’ Fajták (Marián Bielik), as they cope with conflicts in their family lives as well as with each other. The town and its close surroundings constitute the dominant environment of this film in poetic depiction with distinctive symbolic imagery (filmed by director of photography Stanislav Szomolányi) and the use of town slang in dialogues. The authors disturb the ‘classical’ dramatic composition of the story and literary conventions in film story-telling. They focus on the feelings, pictures and everyday situations in a free association format. Thus, a powerful mosaic originated and created the space for a metaphorical interpretation of the work. Slnko v sieti became one of the most artistically distinctive and modern utterances in the history of Slovak cinematography.
Another trio of distinctive director personalities trained by FAMU in Prague made their feature debuts in the second half of the 1960s.
Juraj Jakubisko (b 1938) was the first from his generation of contemporaries to direct a full-length feature film. His feature debut Kristove roky (‘Crucial Years’, aka ‘Christ’s Years’, 1967) and especially the films Zbehovia a pútnici (‘The Deserters and the Nomads’, aka ‘Deserters and Pilgrims’, 1968) and Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (‘Birds, Orphans and Fools’, 1969) brought new authorial and film poetics to Slovak film. Screenwriter Lubor Dohnal called it ‘madness in contradiction to commitment’. This designation hides the creative freedom and boisterousness of film expression, open resignation and refusal of any thematic or stylistic conventions and inclinations towards playfulness and the subjectivising of the author’s utterance. However, even the social and historic context on the surface of this carefree individual game frequently changed it into a tragedy or a situation with no way out. In an interview at the time, Jakubisko characterised his poetics as ‘a thought and style collage of fiction and reality’ in which documentary facts meet fairy tales, naturalism meets poetry and reality meets imagination. The films of Jakubisko marked the opening of the way to a distinctive film imagination in the context of Slovak cinematography.
Elo Havetta (1938-1975) showed a similar wealth of imagination. In his first feature film Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade (‘Celebration in the Botanical Garden’, 1969) he and screenwriter Lubor Dohnal created a ‘carnival fiesta’ full of fantasy, parodies, film quotations and playfulness, inspired by various influences – from biblical motifs through naïve painting, folk art and medieval poetry up to a Chaplin grotesque.
Havetta was the first to bring to Slovak film the principle of creation as a game – with the world, man, film and art and with the spectator as well. While Havetta’s first film was set in the fictitious ‘biblical’ village of Babindol, his second feature film Ľalie poľné (‘The Wild Lilies’, 1972) was thematically incorporated into a more concrete historical-social context (the return of soldiers from World War I). However, even here Havetta developed the ‘tramping history’ of the central duo of characters and the depiction of historical reality is made up of individual experience, feelings and recollections. Unfortunately Ľalie poľné was finished at the time when, under the pretext of ‘normalisation’ in Slovak cinematography, political pressures, censorship and ideological supervision re-emerged. Havetta’s films were thus locked away in a vault and the filming game turned into a tragedy for its author. After briefly working in television, he died prematurely in 1975 at the age of 37.
Dušan Hanák (b 1938) was the third of the generation of directors who entered feature film production at the end of the 1960s.
Unlike Jakubisko and Havetta, he already had experience with documentary films, and had also worked with experimental film and photography. In most of his feature and documentary films he worked on the boundaries of documentary, creating stylised depictions of reality. These poetics were manifested in his feature debut 322 (1969). It is the story of a man who is suspected of suffering from a serious illness (the title of the film is the code for cancer in the medical register of diseases, which can also metaphorically be apprehended as society’s diagnosis) and who re-evaluates his present life experience and feelings. He feels especially guilty about his participation in the process of forced collectivisation in the 1950s. In this film, Hanák manifested his author’s orientation concerning the characters and fates of the common people, in which he looks for their individual uniqueness and internal beauty.
Hanák developed this creative striving more fully in the full-length documentary film Obrazy starého sveta (‘Pictures of the Old World’, 1972) in which, inspired by the photographs of Martin Martinček, he presents convincing and suggestive portraits of predominantly old people. Although they live ‘on the margins of society’ in unfriendly living conditions, Hanák discovers their beauty, spiritual certainty, internal optimism and unbreakable energy. The poetics of this film incurred the reproaches of ideological supervisors and was designated as the ‘aesthetics of ugliness’ that did not belong in cinemas. Consequently the film eventually ended up in the ideological ‘vault’. However the significance of this film ranks it among the greatest inspirational films in the Slovak and international context. After 1989 it won a number of prestigious international awards, including the Special Acknowledgement of the Jury of the European Film Award in 1989, the Prize of the Film Critics Association in Los Angeles in 1990 and a nomination for the Documentary Film Oscar by the American Academy of Film Art and Science in 1991.
In the second half of the 1960s, television entered into the context of Slovak cinematography. A dramatic ensemble known as Television Film Works was established in 1964 and proceeded to make several television movies based on literary works by Slovak and foreign authors.
These distinctive television movies were shot on film with the participation of several film directors (Martin Hollý, Stanislav Barabáš, Peter Solan, Juraj Herz, Jozef Zachar) and directors of photography (Stanislav Szomolányi, Igor Luther, Dodo Šimončič, Vincent Rosinec). Characterised by inventive camera work and stylish musical scores, they include Balada o siedmich obesených (‘The Ballad of Seven Hanged Men’) by Martin Hollý, Sladké hry minulého leta (‘Sweet Amusements of Last Summer’) by Juraj Herz, Krotká (‘The Meek One’) by Stanislav Barabáš, Dáma (The Dame), a narrative creative interpretation by Ivan Balaďa based on the literary work of Švantner, Horňák’s adaptation of Vincent Šikula’s S Rozarkou (‘With Rozarka’), Peter Solan’s Slávny pes (‘The Famous Dog’) based on the short story by Jan Weiss, and Ťapák’s Živý bič (‘The Living Scourge’) based on the novel by Milo Urban and others. Several of these films won prizes at international television festivals. Despite the official closure of Television Film Works in 1971, the dramaturgical and creative potential unleashed there later became the foundation for the development of dramatic television work and its creative culminations in the 1970s and 1980s.