Filmmaking legend Otakar Vávra dies at 100

Otakar Vávra, photo: CTK

Czech filmmaking legend Otakar Vávra – who turned 100 earlier this year – has died in Prague. Over the course of a remarkable career, Mr Vávra – praised by many of the film elite – directed more than 50 films, from early dramas to acclaimed projects in the 1960s like Witches’ Hammer.

Otakar Vávra, photo: CTK
Earlier I spoke to Irena Zemanová, a film critic for the daily Hospodářské noviny about Mr Vávra’s contribution to Czech cinema.

“He shot his first movie something like 80 years ago, so his life very much mirrors a century of Czech or Czechoslovak cinematography. It’s impossible to consider his career without considering that aspect. His very first movies in the late 1930s were among the best being produced: he worked with the most brilliant actors of that era, people like Hugo Haas, Adina Mandlová, Zdeněk Štepánek and several actors from the National theatre in Prague. A first-class director.”

What were some characteristics of his early films, either in terms of their directing style or themes that he approached?

“On all counts he was a great perfectionist, especially regarding his screenplays. That was not as common in the pre-war era: a lot of films were more like romantic comedies or what they called society comedies – B or C class movies and romances and so on. But Otakar Vávra often worked with literary sources, like Alois Jirásek, and so on. He aspired to something greater.”

'Witches’ Hammer'
How did his early films compare to work he did in the 1950s or 1960s, when he did Witches’ Hammer?

“Witches’ Hammer was an extraordinary film – a miracle of the 1960s, a typical film from the Czech New Wave. But the years that preceded it – the 1950s – were pro-Communist regime, after previously working also during the Nazi Protectorate. He used to say that film was all he had and he was very serious about his work and he wanted to shoot so he had to cooperate. But during the ‘50s he made some films he later regretted.”

The fact that Mr Vávra worked “under every regime” is something that he was often criticized for: do you think the fact that he ‘cooperated’ tarnished his career as a whole?

“Well, I think there are always the films you can’t forget: Panenctví or Kouzelný Dům in the '30s and work in the 1960s that we already mentioned. Then there were the films that he made in the 1950s that were negative.”

Otakar Vávra, photo: CTK
Besides being a film director Mr Vávra was also a film educator at FAMU, where he co-founded the department of directing. Do you think, along with his other work, this was an important contribution?

“Absolutely. His students included Věra Chytilová (Daisies), Miloš Forman (Loves of a Blonde, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus), and Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains) – the last two Academy Award winners. Chytilová and Forman have mentioned Vávra as one of their greatest teachers who influenced them. They could not forget him. That is one thing that should be mentioned when talking about Otakar Vávra.”