“He was a storyteller”: Czech directing great Ivan Passer dies at 86

Ivan Passer, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio

Ivan Passer, one of the leading lights of cinema’s Czechoslovak New Wave, died in the US late last week at the age of 86. Best-known in his home country for the magical Intimate Lighting, he will be remembered by many internationally for the cult classic Cutter’s Way.

Ivan Passer,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio
Ivan Passer’s 1965 Intimate Lighting, a charming film loosely following a visit by a symphony musician to an old friend now living in a village, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest Czech works of cinema of all time.

When it was restored in 2016, the Prague-born Passer looked back on the shooting process at the Karlovy Vary film festival.

“The strongest memories I think are of my anxiety that I am making a film where nothing happens…

“But I knew that when you make a movie, you have to be like a hunting dog.

“You have to follow the trail, regardless, and ignore everything that disturbs you or is trying to get you off the trail.

“So I followed the trail.”

Michal Bregant of the National Film Archive, which restored Intimate Lighting, offers this assessment of Passer’s position among the directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave, the greatest period in the history of domestic cinema.

“It’s well known that they were very good friends and would cooperate together very closely.

'Intimate Lighting',  photo: National Film Archive
“There was apparently not much jealousy among them. They knew each other and would share ideas and work together.

“So what’s special about Intimate Lighting compared to the other films?

“It’s maybe that, unlike Miloš Forman, Passer was not commenting too much.

“He was not commenting on the situations, characters, stories; he was rather showing them directly.

“I don’t see some sort of intellectual filter between the director and the story.”

Passer co-wrote the Forman classics Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball. Indeed, the two directors were close friends for over 70 years and even, Passer revealed recently, fled Czechoslovakia together in the late 1960s before both settled in the US.

Passer’s best-known American film was Cutter’s Way, which didn’t achieve success when it came out in 1981 but is today widely regarded as an underrated gem.

Alongside his own projects and collaborations, Passer taught film and lived for many decades in California. It was there that Michal Bregant got to spend time with him in recent years.

“He loved to entertain people.

“He would tell stories in a great manner; he was a storyteller first and foremost.

“He loved people around him.

“I had a chance to be with him a few times in his favourite restaurant in Los Angeles and it was absolutely fantastic how all the people around him loved him.

“It wasn’t because of big tips – it was because of his great personality.”