The birth of national cinematography

After Slovakia’s proclamation of autonomy on 6 October 1938, and especially after the proclamation of the independent Slovak state on 14 March 1939, control over the film business and the application of the national principle in the ownership of film enterprises became one of the interests of state propaganda. Between 1939 and 1945 the number of cinemas in Slovakia almost doubled.
In November 1938 Tatra banka in Bratislava established a special film department, the Central Administration of Joint Movie Theatres, which began to produce the weekly film news journal Nástup – slovenský zvukový týždenník (Muster – the Slovak Sound Weekly Journal). Then on 7 November 1939, with capital from both the state and Tatra banka, the Nástup Company was established. In January 1940 the state legally guaranteed the Nástup Company exclusive rights for the production, import, export and distribution of films throughout the entire territory of the Slovak Republic, thereby creating the conditions necessary for film production in Slovakia and setting in place the state-run monopoly of Slovak cinematography which was to continue right up to 1990.
Immediately after its establishment, the company took over the production of the weekly newsreel Nástup. It produced over 300 episodes and its screening became obligatory at every feature film presentation. It also began to produce other films and provide film distribution. At the beginning only two filmmakers worked for Nástup – scriptwriter and director Ivan Július Kovačevič and director of photography Bohumil Havránek. However, the company soon began training film workers, for whom it arranged study stays at German film studios. After 1940 other filmmakers, including Paľo Bielik, Eugen Mateička and Ján Fintora, began to work for Nástup. Later, theatre director Martin Hollý Sr joined this company and was appointed to shoot a feature film. The production of his project Hanka sa vydáva (‘Hannah is Getting Married’) began in the Summer of 1944 but due to the start of the Slovak National Uprising it was suspended and never completed.
In 1940 annual public competitions were initiated which focussed on the search for new film directors and themes. In addition to Nástup, the monthly newsreel LÚČ (The Beam) began to be produced, focusing on Slovak ethnography and culture. The establishment of film studios in Slovakia was also under consideration at this time, and according to historical sources the German companies, Wien Film and Prag Film wanted to participate in their establishment. But this investment plan was not implemented due to the war and Slovakia had to wait until after the war for the construction of its first film studios.
In addition to its weekly newsreel, the Nastup Company also made several non-feature films. At first, its production was orientated towards propaganda and so-called ‘official topics’ from the current period and from Slovak history. In 1942 this work culminated in the full-length film Od Tatier po Azovské more (‘From the Tatras to the Azov Sea’) directed by Ivan J Kovačevič. This was supposed to be a documentary about the progress and operations of the Slovak Army on the Eastern Front, but its propagandistic dimension prevailed.
From the film propaganda output of this period, other than several shots from LÚČ, only a few documentary films by Slovak film makers stood out, notably the work of Eugen Mateička and Paľo Bielik. In his film Leto pod Kriváňom (‘Summer under Kriváň Mountain’, 1943), Eugen Mateička was inspired by the lyrical stylisation of Karol Plicka in the depiction of folkloric motifs. In his work for the Nástup Company, Paľo Bielik gradually honed his skills in the cinematic depiction of reality in the documentary films Pod holým nebom (‘Under the Open Skies’, 1942), Hlavátky (‘Salmon’, 1943) and Na ostrove kormoránov (‘On the Isle of the Cormorants’, 1944). In his ethnographic or natural history themes he managed to eliminate the effects of the ideology of the period, creating work that would be the foundation of the Slovak documentary film for many years to come.
After the proclamation of the Slovak National Uprising in August 1944, several Nástup filmmakers openly split with the ruling regime and joined the participants of the uprising. Paľo Bielik and director of photography Karol Krška, together with other film co-workers, joined the promotional unit of the uprising army which was given the title Czechoslovak Army Film. They planned and began shooting a film entitled Odboj 1944 (‘The Resistance 1944’) but the material was eventually completed after the fall of the fascist regime under the title Za slobodu (‘For Freedom’). This film documents the gradual suppression of the uprising and later became the main source of authentic film shots for other post-war documentary work relating to the Slovak National Uprising.
The operations of the Institute for School and Adult Education Film (Školfilm) constituted a special activity in film production from 1939 to 1945. Established by government order on 17 December 1940, the institute acquired the monopoly on the purchase and supply of projection equipment to Slovak schools as well as exclusive rights for the production, duplication, import, export, distribution and sale of 16mm films. Školfilm also began to produce its own educational films. By 1949 it had produced 61 silent films and four films with sound. Their themes were various and incorporated political current events and educational, ethnographic and natural history films. The activities of Školfilm formed the basis for a later line of popular-scientific and instructional films in post-war Slovak cinematography. The first animated films shot by Viktor Kubal represented a special feature of Školfilm productions. His works Únos (‘The Kidnapping’, 1942), Studňa lásky (‘The Well of Love’, 1942) and Tajomný dedo (‘The Mysterious Old Man’, 1944) became the foundation for the later development of the animated films in Slovakia, in the production of which Kubal led the field for most of the second half of the 20th century.
Following the liberation of Czechoslovakia, the Nástup Company was placed under national administration, which meant that it was de facto liquidated. But by using the technological infrastructure of Nástup, several of its leading lights went on to create the foundations for further development in post-war Slovak film. Despite the complex historical, social and political backdrop to the wartime Slovak State, the cinematographic sector continued to develop during this period, with regular film production including popular-technical and educational films, an enlarged network of cinemas and the ongoing training of creative employees. Due to the necessity of state assistance, it was impossible to create films devoid of state ideology, and films made during this period were always understood to be an instrument of state propaganda. However, in several independent creative manifestations this ideological influence was successfully eliminated in favour of the filmmaker’s personal utterances and a professional film depiction of reality. In this way the post-war years saw the establishment of the fundaments of Slovak documentary and animated film work. However, the Slovak cinematographic sector still lacked the skills and resources for the development of feature films.