The Associated Press and many other sources are reporting that Czech film director Vera Chytilová died today at age 85, after apparently “battling an unspecified illness for several years.” Chytilová is best remembered for her 1966 avant-garde masterpiece, Daisies. She was unique in the history of Czech cinema as a high-profile director during the New Wave, Normalization, and post-Communism periods who did not pursue a filmmaking career outside the country.
Chytilová was born in Ostrava, near the Polish border, in 1929, and studied philosophy and architecture in Brno before working her way up the film crew hierarchy at Barrandov Film Studios in Prague. Though she was denied a scholarship or even a recommendation from her studio, Chytilová was accepted at the prestigious Prague arts academy FAMU in 1957, where she studied directing under Otakar Vávra. She learned alongside Milos Forman, Jan Nemec, and Ivan Passer, a few other budding luminaries who would form part of the Czech New Wave in the next decade. Chytilová didn’t simply represent a female presence in a male-dominated cinematic movement; she stood out as the most vocally political and aesthetically experimental filmmaker of the bunch.
After a few promising student films and shorts—including one of the segments in the anthology Pearls Of The Deep—Chytilová wrote and directed Daisies, the most deliberately abrasive and anarchic of the films that fall under the Czech New Wave umbrella. Centered on two women named Marie I and Marie II, the ruthlessly farcical allegory follows the young women as they declare the world to be spoiled and gallivant through set pieces symbolizing the Seven Deadly Sins. Overtly political in its indictments of Communist rule and the limitations placed on women in Czech society at the time, the film was banned upon release. It remains a vital and triumphant piece of feminist cinema.
When the Soviet-led invasion ended the liberal Prague Spring in 1968, many New Wave filmmakers, including Forman, Nemec, and Passer, emigrated in order to avoid stricter censorship. But Chytilová remained, though much of her new work was also banned, and she was prevented from making films for years.
Perhaps the best companion piece to her pre-occupation films is 1980’s Panelstory, which takes place in the prefab high-rises that populated the bland, depressing suburbs around Prague. Panelstory related the tragicomic reality of the woefully incomplete structures, which were imagined as a great social equalizer, with struggling families living in the same style of housing as famous or influential Czechs. The buildings were riddled with design flaws, and cranes drop into walls at regular intervals throughout the film. In attempting to construct a homogenized living space, the prefab housing units only trap the struggling citizens within shoddily made panels. Chytilová never gave up her attempts to create meaningful statements, and it cost her: Panelstory was, yes, banned upon its release, and it never received a proper public screening in Prague until after the fall of Communism.
Though her creative output declined following the Velvet Revolution—her final film was 2006’s Pleasant Moments—Chytilová remained an active voice in the Czech cinema world, dabbling in documentary and teaching a new generation of directors at FAMU.
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