The Image Speaks: Miloš Forman and Free Cinema

By Peter Hames


One day while working on his second feature A Blonde in Love (Loves of a Blonde / Lásky jedné plavovlásky, 1965), Miloš Forman had a visitor. He looked like an unemployed dock worker but spoke like an English lord. It was Lindsay Anderson. Forman noted, "his visit was a big event for me because I'd been terribly impressed by his movie This Sporting Life". The start of a long term friendship, it also marked the beginning of Anderson's association with Forman's cameraman, Miroslav Ondříček, who was to work with him on The White Bus (1966), If…. (1968), and O Lucky Man! (1973).

Reflecting on the same visit in his diaries, Anderson noted that he had found the whole collaborative atmosphere enormously sympathetic. "It reminded me of the kind of atmosphere that we (i.e. myself and Karel Reisz, Walter Lassally, John Fletcher) used to have years ago when we were working on the Free Cinema films, and which it's practically impossible to get when you're working on a full-scale feature film in this country…"  Writing of the completed film in April 1965, he noted: "Full of superb and delicate poetic things: the reminiscence of Free Cinema is extraordinary: the drinkers, the National Anthem – but with of course a great 'something more'". The following month, he recorded his impressions of the Czech "New Wave" in his Times article, 'Nothing Illusory about the Young Czech Film Makers' (19 May).

Anderson's noting of parallels and subsequent collaboration with Ondříček prompts speculation on other links. Anderson, who arranged a screening of Humphrey Jennings films during his 1965 visit, makes no mention of any direct connection with Free Cinema. However, there is little doubt that the Czech and Slovak filmmakers would have had the opportunity to see some of the British "New Wave" films of the early 1960s. Tony Richardson's films of The Entertainer (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961) were both shown at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, winning awards in 1960 and 1962 respectively. Karel Reisz, one of the key protagonists of Free Cinema along with Anderson (and subsequently director of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and producer of This Sporting Life (1963)) was a member of the Karlovy Vary jury in 1964. The Free Cinema films had also attracted attention at international festivals – notably Venice. The political and ideological divisions of the 1960s were not necessarily shared by filmmakers.

Of course, this was not the first link between the British and Czech cinemas. The leading Czech director, Jiří Weiss (another friend of Anderson's) had worked on documentaries for the Crown Film Unit during the war and directed the Anglo-Czech feature Ninety Degrees in the Shade (1965), featuring Anne Heywood, Rudolf Hrušínský, Ann Todd, and Donald Wolfit. It was co-written by David Mercer, who also worked with Reisz on Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment the following year and with Ken Loach on Family Life (1971).

But there are certainly interesting links between the objectives of the British and Czech filmmakers. The "Free Cinema" films refer to a sequence of six programmes held at the National Film Theatre (BFI Southbank) between 1956-59. The credo of Free Cinema included such notions as "No film can be too personal and "An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude. Implicit in our attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday". Writing about his largely improvised documentary Everyday Except Christmas (1959), Anderson wrote, "I want to make people – ordinary people not just Top People – feel their dignity and importance so that they can act from these principles". Thus the films were not only intended to investigate the everyday (something that commercial cinema pointedly ignored) but to allow a critical analysis.

Forman and colleagues such as Věra Chytilová similarly turned against the conventions of accepted cinema taste. In their case, it was various manifestations of Socialist Realism (i.e. classic narrative cinema harnessed to ideological conformity).  As was the case in Britain, everyday reality was noticeably absent from the screen. To capture that reality, Forman uses mainly non-professional actors and a script almost totally lacking in conventional dramatic development. He has often spoken of how he almost literally "salivated" at the prospect of putting reality on screen. Writing of Peter and Pavla (Black Peter / Černý Petr, 1963) on its release in 1964, Antonín Liehm referred to the fact that the story was like "a living organism that takes shape as the shooting progresses…"

When he made his debut film Audition (Talent Competition / Konkurs) in 1963 along with Ondříček and Ivan Passer, they began with "documentary" footage of auditions for the Semafor Theatre filmed on 16mm for their own interest and as a matter of record. The similarities with Free Cinema are striking. Lindsay Anderson filmed O Dreamland (1953) with no prospect of screening while Reisz and Richardson filmed Momma Don't Allow (1956), also on 16mm, an account of an evening at the Wood Green Jazz Club. All had humble beginnings, a desire to record a hidden reality, and little prospect of being screened.

Having evolved a collaborative way of working on his script, and in his use of mainly non-professional actors, Forman extended this method to his two feature films, Peter and Pavla and Loves of a Blonde. While continuing these methods, The Firemen's Ball (Hoří má panenko, 1967) moved to the level of satire and metaphor. The earlier films, much like Free Cinema films such as Momma Don't Allow and We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959), were primarily concerned with the exploration of teenage lives and everyday reality. Shortly after the release of Audition and Peter and Pavla in 1964, the Marxist philosopher, Ivan Sviták wrote that the new Czech films, by "abandoning dramatic rhetoric" marked a change in "the grammar of film expression and a change in relationship with the audience". The new filmmakers, he argued, were concerned with " ideas, authenticity, exactness, and truth".  

These ideas, which were not too different from those of Free Cinema, also found their parallel in the work of British director Ken Loach, who has always listed A Blonde in Love as one of his favourite films. He once wrote: "It made a great impression on me when it first came out; its shrewd perceptiveness, irony, warmth. It allowed characters time to reveal themselves.  You weren't manipulated like US films, but it was also pleasantly free of the stylistic devices typical of the French films".

Loach, who originally worked in television, was one of those directors who sought to move television away from its theatrical (an conventionally dramatic) roots toward cinema. In his groundbreaking Up the Junction (1965), he combined fragmentary narrative and cinematic technique to create a significant creative breakthrough. However, in his observational style and use of little known or non-actors, his later work was often analogous to that of Forman. Forman, of course, was uncovering the realities of "actually existing socialism" while Loach was examining the realities of capitalism. But the aims were not too far apart. And, as Anderson wrote of the Free Cinema programme, it was presented in the context of a cinema that still rejected "the stimulus of contemporary life, as well as the responsibility to criticise…"

Two years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1970, Loach's second feature film Kes (1969) won the main award (the Crystal Globe) at Karlovy Vary. Did this mean that Loach's socialist credentials were favoured by the new masters of Czech cinema? Far from it. The award was supposed to go to a Soviet film. It was only when two jury members – Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi and French actress Marie-José Nat – threatened to resign, that the award was agreed. Loach has also noted that his cameraman, Chris Menges, who had worked as an assistant to Ondříček on If, used many of his insights. "…it was a case of finding a sympathetic way of looking at the subject, the people in it, rather than using an exploitative cinema style…" By 1972, when the Karlovy Vary authorities had established a firmer hand, Loach's Family Life left without an award.   

If both Free Cinema and the films of Forman, Passer, and Loach sought to put their respective realities on screen, it is worth noting that not all of the "Free Cinema" films were by English directors. The Swiss film makers, Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner, who later gained fame as feature directors, made Nice Time (1957), and the Italian Lorenza Mazzetti, then a student at the Slade School, made Together (1956). A film about two deaf mutes and set in London, it was edited by Anderson. In another Czech connection, Mazzetti had previously made K (1953), based on Kafka's Metamorphosis. She has subsequently worked as a novelist and painter.

It is also worth noting that three of the six Free Cinema programmes showcased foreign films. In 1958, there were programmes dedicated to "Polish Voices" (including short films by Polanski and Borowczyk) and "French Renewal". The latter programme included Truffaut's Les Mistons and Chabrol's Le Beau Serge (both 1957). In rather different ways, the French "nouvelle vague" was also reacting against the classical themes and structures of French cinema. The interactive nature of European cinema in the late 1950s/early 1960s was an undoubted reality. But so also was the changing of the generations, the drive to interact with and reflect contemporary reality, and the reaction against "bad", "fake", or simply "old fashioned" films.   This sequence of programmes charts the development of two cinemas that found themselves on parallel – and sometimes interactive – courses in different situations. There are some striking and instructive resemblances. Both cinemas attracted international attention and their influence can be seen in many areas. For a variety of reasons, Forman, Anderson, Reisz, and Richardson subsequently found themselves following different paths. Only Loach, often with European backing, has been able to sustain his commitment to the lives or "ordinary people".

Peter Hames is a Visiting Professor in Film Studies at Staffordshire University. His books include The Czechoslovak New WaveThe Cinema of Jan Svankmajer, and Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition. He most recently contributed to the award winning Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney. He is also a programme advisor to the BFI London Film Festival.