“He was simply loved”: Actor Josef Somr dies at 88

Josef Somr

Popular Czech actor Josef Somr passed away on Sunday at the age of 88. He played the womanising train dispatcher Hubička in the Oscar-winning 1966 film Closely Watched Trains and starred in The Joke, released in 1968.

Josef Somr | Photo: Czech Television

Josef Somr was born on 14 April 1934 and had a long and successful career as a theatre and film actor. His two most famous roles, according to Michal Bregant, the head of the Czech National Film Archive, were in Closely Watched Trains by Jiří Menzel, where Bregant describes his performance as “legendary”, and The Joke by Jaromil Jireš.

“In both Closely Watched Trains and The Joke he was able to play ridiculous things seriously. He was not pretending anything – he was in his role but not overdoing it.”

Closely Watched Trains (1966) | Greatest Film Scenes

Somr started out working in theatre, but in the mid-60s began appearing in films, starting with a small part in the 1964 film The Accused by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos. His very next film, released in Czechoslovakia in 1966 and abroad in 1967, was his most famous – Closely Watched Trains. Based on Bohumil Hrabal’s book of the same name, it picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 40th Academy Awards in 1968.

The Joke | Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Český rozhlas

His next most famous role came in the same year as the winning Oscar – as scientist Ludvík Jahn in Jaromil Jireš’s The Joke. Both that and Somr’s first film, The Accused, have recently been digitised. When I spoke to Michal Bregant he was at the Lumière Festival in Lyon in France.

“Today at 4pm we are showing the digitally restored version of the film The Joke by Jaromil Jireš, so with the permission of the audience here, I’m going to dedicate this screening as an homage to Josef Somr.”

However, despite his success in film, Bregant says the actor always preferred theatre.

“Somr would always say that he felt safer on the theatre stage than in front of the camera. He would say that the camera could show his face in profile, which he didn’t like so much.”

Failed revenge from Zert (the Joke) 1969, Jaromil Jires, Milan Kundera

Somr was also known to Czech audiences through his voice, which he lent many times to the radio, audiobooks and poetry readings, and was especially loved for his performances in film versions of Czech fairy tales in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and for his performances at the Činoherní klub, a small Prague theatre.

Josef Somr | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Český rozhlas

Michal Bregant describes him as a very versatile actor but says that Somr was also a charming, warm person in and of himself.

“Josef Somr was the most humble and shy star of Czech theatre and cinema. He was a great professional, able to perform on any stage of any size. You could see how human he was in the official trailer of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival from five years ago. He was a super charming personality, and people simply loved him.”

52nd KVIFF Official Festival Trailer - Josef Somr