July 10 CZECH FILM NIGHT at The Beltonian: "Želary 2003 Academy Award Nominee - Best Foreign Language Film

 Ana Geislerova stars at Eliska in " Želery.”

Ana Geislerova stars at Eliska in "Želery.”

“Želery” is one of those films that makes me wish it were holographic. The scenery is so beautiful and the music is so moving that I want to be surrounded by it. This movie is best viewed on a big screen, with excellent sound.  If I could have smelled the herbs, flowers and berry fields, the clean mountain air, the chimney smoke and even the animals; if I could have experienced it with all my other senses, I would have been even happier.

It is the story of Eliska (Ana Geislerova), a medical student in Prague during World War II. The Czechs were suffering under the hand of Reinhard Heydrich, Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and architect of the Holocaust. She meets Joza (Gyorgy Cserhalmi) by chance one night at the hospital while there with her lover, who is his surgeon. Eliska and the surgeon work with the resistance, an underground network trying to save lives from Heydrich’s cruelties. When the network is exposed, she is sent alone to the country among rural folk to hide. As she adapts from city to country life and grapples with the risk she brings to the village, a romance quietly grows.

The story is set in Moravia, in the Wallachia region of the Czech Republic. This area, which includes the cities of Olomouc and Ostrava, is the ancestral home of the majority of Texas Czechs.  It is in the Beskydy Mountains, foothills of the Carpathians. The mountains are old and rounded, lush and green - similar to the Smokies here in the U.S. If you have visited there, you understand.  

The 2003 film, directed by Ondrej Trojan was nominated for the 2004 Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.  The story is adapted from two works by Czech novelist Kveta Legatova, “Želery” and “Jozova Hanule.” Although Ms. Legatova, whose life spanned from 1919 to 2012, only found fame late in life, “Želery” was a literary sensation when it hit the bookstores only a few years before the film was made. In a 2004 interview with Radio Prague, Ms. Legatova spoke of her work.

“Želery” was written thirty or forty years ago - the basic stories - though, I had to make changes. But Jozova Hanule was written now - in the 1990s, when I was already in my 80s. I decided to write Hanule based on a competition put forward by the Milos Havel Fund, promoting the writing of film scripts. I thought 'Should I apply?' Then I took a story from Zelary - the end of World War II - and expanded it into the new book."

Kveta Legatova, author of "Želery.”


Ms. Legatova was born in Podolí u Brna, a village just outside of Brno, also in Moravia and a few hours north of Vienna, Austria. But, she taught school in the Wallachia, and her characters are studies of people she knew there.

"The characters there have very sharp contours, (a feature) which elsewhere is not so well-defined - or doesn't come to a head." She spoke about her love for writing. "If I were to talk till midnight about the gallery of potential characters and you were able to choose from among your colleagues, your students, your neighbors, you would uncover one story after another. It interests me so much. If I could only write it all! If one didn't have to do anything else ..."

The Czech Heritage Museum is screening “Želery” on July 10  starting at 7 p.m. at The Beltonian Theatre, 219 E. Central Ave., Belton, Texas. Admission is free. Rated R (nudity, violence, adult themes). Czech audio with English subtitles.

Here is the trailer in English:

“Mr. Cserhalmi, burly and soft-spoken and Ms. Geislerova are both subtle, serious actors, and they handle the relationship between their characters with patience and precision. Mr. Trojan is similarly patient, allowing the story to ripen and evolve according to the seasonal rhythms of the countryside rather than marching it from one incident to the next. His camera wanders around the rugged, beautiful landscape, across the mountainsides, and through the forests, as Zelary’s human tableau comes quietly to life.” 
— A.O. Scott, Sept 17, 2004, The New York Times

June 12 CZECH FILM NIGHT at The Beltonian: Kolya, 1996 Academy Award Winner - Best Foreign Language Film

Zdenek Sverak and Andrey Khalimon in Kolya

My mother invited me to see the 1996 Czech film, “Kolya,” in Fort Worth soon after it premiered. She had been going to the Czech Republic since 1988, but I’d never been. I enjoyed it on an artistic level, but I realized then that there were a lot of points, both humorous and serious, that the movie was making which I did not understand. I asked my mother a lot of questions and that helped me comprehend some of them. This film opened in me a new compassion for the Czechs, who have survived so many indignities to the soul.

Every few years, I watch it again and marvel at how many new clues are unlocked for me. There are things I did not understand until I visited my relatives in Moravia the second time, or until I’d refreshed my history education or until I became a focused student of my Czech heritage.

It’s a beautifully-made film. The photography, lighting, compositions and music are poetic and thoughtful. The story is so emotionally universal, I believe it would be understood without any words at all.

Watching it again recently with a new generation, I found myself explaining things to them that I’d missed the first time. For example, why the hero, Louka, a famous cellist with the Czech philharmonic is in severely reduced circumstances was not clear to me the first time, nor to my fellow viewers on this, their first time.

Roger Ebert wrote that “in a moment of unwise wit, he wrote a flippant answer on an official form.”

Wikipedia stated that he had been “half-accidentally blacklisted as ‘politically unreliable’ by the authorities.”

But, this time, due to my own experiences since the last time, I heard what was clearly laid out in the script, which for some reason, I had missed before. Louka’s brother defected to West Germany and Louka was punished for it. I’ve heard this story more than once from people I've met in the last few years, in both personal and eyewitness accounts. The last time I was in Prague, our driver told us he had an uncle in Fort Worth. We thought this was a nice connection. But, then he told us how his uncle’s emigration prior to the 1989 Velvet Revolution had been the reason this young man, who had qualified for a superior education, was denied one – and a good career - by the communist authorities.  

The first time I visited our relatives, we went to the home of the mother of our cousin, Jiri. She was a kind host with a warm home. The second time, Jiri took us to see her at a cemetery. Her black marble monument was freshly painted with gold leaf. I thought of Louka’s side hustle as a monument restorer.

While watching “Kolya” recently, a new question emerged for me. Although I could understand why Louka would so desperately want to buy a car, why would he risk so much for a Trabant? Why not a Tatra or a Skoda? Tatra, based in Ostrava, Moravia, is the third oldest continuously-operating car company in the world. The Skoda’s interesting story seems more likely though. Founded by Emil Skoda, in today’s market, it has a reputation equivalent in quality to Mercedes. Even though the brand fell behind during communism, the car was generally known as reliable. (The typically Czech humor piece to the story though, is that the word “skoda” means “it’s a pity.” It's a useful pun.)

Louka’s automotive dream however, is a Trabant, described as one of the worst cars ever made. Louka was willing to sell his bachelorhood in order to possess the car reviewed in the video below. After watching this, I think I need to go back and watch “Kolya” again to see what I missed. 


What are your thoughts and experiences on these topics? I’d love to hear your comments!

- Susan Chandler