Miloš Forman: Man on Two Continents

04 September 2017

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Miloš Forman: Man on Two Continents

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New restoration of Miloš Forman’s debut feature, Black Peter, premieres at Venice International Film Festival.

by Irena Kovarova

There is only one world-renowned filmmaker whose illustrious career connects the Czech Republic with the United States in sharing his fame, awards, and artistic excellence over the director’s long life span. Turning 85 this year, Miloš Forman is celebrated in both his homes with equal reverence.

It’s impossible to say which is more significant: his early works — black comedies in cinema verité style, stemming from his study and love of neorealism, American slapstick and early documentaries — or the masterful Hollywood films? They all deserve praise, and this fall the celebrations culminate with the premiere of Forman’s debut feature, Black Peter, at the Venice International Film Festival. 

Even before 33 Oscar nominations and 13 wins for his films (including the “big five” record win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, equaled only by two other filmmakers), as well as multiple Golden Globe, Cannes, Berlinale, BAFTA, Cesar, Donatello and Czech Lion awards, Forman was synonymous with the famed Czechoslovak New Wave, and the year of his film debut, 1963, is also considered the beginning of this informal movement.

Forman came to directing after a long gestation period that started with studies of screenwriting and dramaturgy at Prague’s film academy FAMU in the late ’50s, and assisting Alfréd Radok on several of his films for the screen and the Laterna Magica theater. Only at age 31 did he bring together a team and start shooting films with his own camera. As he says in his memoir: “When I look back at my first films, I have the impression that I was attempting to achieve one thing: to closely observe. Only later did I realize that I was subconsciously reacting to the highly stylized, dramatic and spectacular style of Alfréd Radok.” His mentor’s film language brought the viewer “on a trip to the Moon” that necessitated a lot of baggage. “After these escapades, I wanted to take a walk around the block and see what life actually looks like at home.”

Authenticity became Forman’s trademark. For a generation long denied the freedom of artistic expression, telling the truth of lived reality was not at all banal. Throughout his career, it’s evident that Forman is first and foremost an excellent storyteller who is able to construct a film around the simplest of stories and gags. His first feature, Black Peter, is a prime example. As the distribution posters announced, it is a “black comedy not only about young people.” Generational conflict was new to the film medium in Czechoslovakia, and Forman made wise use of it in all his Czechoslovak films. Even more unusual though was casting nonactors.

The story of Black Peter is based on a book by sculptor Jaroslav Papoušek, who along with Ivan Passer became a core member of Forman’s creative team. The main character of Peter, the son of an imposing father and an apprentice in a grocery store, reminded Forman of his childhood spent in his uncle’s shop. Forman found Papoušek’s dialogues very convincing and worth bringing to the screen. As Josef Škvorecký said in All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema, the book “was as Miloš would have written it, if he had been a writer.” He continued: “The story contradicted everything demanded of films about the young by socialist-realistic aesthetics.” In Forman’s treatment, the collection of glimpses of mundane situations in a teenager’s life becomes true satire.

Decades later, the immensely popular coming-of-age story still entertains, and its dialogues remain a part of the Czech vernacular, repeated over and over by each new generation. Despite the fact that some characters are prime examples of the ideal of a socialist working class, some Communist Party critics condemned Black Peter as decadent, pessimistic, and reactionary. But overall, the official reception was positive, and soon the film was invited to compete at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Beginning of an International Journey

With his 1964 win of Locarno’s main competition prize, the Golden Sail, for Black Peter, Forman opened the floodgates for Czechoslovak cinema, deluged with awards throughout the 1960s. In that year alone, six awards were bestowed on Forman and other Czechs in Locarno. True, Jiří Trnka and other animators and directors, such as Jiří Krejčík, had frequently been honored in the previous decade, but never before or since have festival prizes come in such enthusiastic bursts. A true film wave indeed.

Black Peter also began Forman’s international journey. The warm reception he received at the festivals in Locarno and Venice allowed him to travel to the West on his own, rather than as an assistant to another filmmaker. The Locarno win secured him an invitation to the New York Film Festival, fulfilling his dream of coming to America. New York City was love at first sight — though at that time there was no way for him to know the city would end up being his home for decades to come.

As his feature debut, Black Peter was Forman’s promise to the film world on which he made good with the masterful Loves of a Blonde in 1967. His sophomore feature brought the director his first Oscar nomination in the best foreign film category; it was widely distributed around the western world with extensive theatrical runs in Paris (27 weeks), New York (25 weeks), and even Los Angeles (17 weeks). After that, he was showered with screenplays from Britain, France, and, most important, Hollywood. It also attracted foreign producers to the project of Forman’s final Czechoslovak film, Firemen’s Ball, which fully confirmed his place in the sun. 

The Restoration

The National Film Archive’s restoration of Black Peter marks the first restoration project of this magnitude for Barrandov Studio in Prague. Tereza Frodlová, the NFA’s digital restoration specialist, researched the rich supply of materials in the archive’s holdings, working from a well-preserved negative as well as a number of archived copies. Together with a team that included cinematographer Jan Malíř and sound designer Pavel Rejholec, she supervised the laboratory’s work, consulting with Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer throughout the process.

As is often the case, the research surfaced a scene in the film’s opening sequence found only in one of the archived film prints — most likely cut by the filmmakers themselves to preserve the film’s rhythm. It will be included as a bonus feature on the upcoming DVD release.

The Venice International Film Festival’s premiere of the brand-new digital restoration will be followed in mid-September 2017 by distribution premieres in Prague and Kolín, the town where Black Peter was filmed.  

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