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30 July

The first defenestration of Prague, 1419

Along with the Diet of Worms, the Defenestration of Prague is one of those events that make history students giggle. And as with exsanguination, which dresses up the base act of bleeding to death in a fancy Latinate term, defenestration is nothing more than throwing someone out of the window. It should be the defenestration at Prague, then, logically? Semantics to one side, the most famous defenestration of/at Prague took place in 1618, but the first time it happened was on this day in 1419, when an angry crowd led by a Hussite priest was marching towards a confrontation with the local authorities at the town hall when someone inside the town hall threw a stone at their leader, Jan Zelivsky. Now even more enraged, the crowd broke into the town hall and threw a judge, burgomaster and 13 members of the town council out of the window. They all either died from the fall or were killed by the mob on landing. The king of Bohemia, Wenceslaus IV, was said to be so shocked by the event that he died shortly afterwards. The event marked the opening shots in what became the Hussite Wars.

Daisies (1965, dir: Vera Chytilová)

When Vera Chytilová released Daisies, aka Sedmikrásky, in 1965, the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia immediately banned it. One glance at it and it’s obvious why – because Chytilová’s film is trying to connect Czechoslovakia up with the non-communist world and it’s flower-power moment, rather than the socialist realism of Moscow and its satellites.

A stylistic and thematic cousin of Jaromil Jires’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, it’s an intensely 1960s film, heaving with themes and tropes, styles and techniques that connect it up with the French New Wave, the psychedelia of California and the stop-go of Richard Lester.

And in a typical piece of 1960s mindfuckery, it’s about two teenage girls with the same name. Marie 1 (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie 2 (Ivana Karbanová) both spend pretty much the entire film going through society like a scouring pad – a duo playing at being naive but totally on the make, having a whale of time ripping off old guys, brushing off young guys, shocking the bourgeoisie, indulging in low-level pilfering while dressed in an Eastern Bloc version of Mary Quant mini-skirts, the King’s Road as filtered through Prague. The film climaxes with them at a banquet laid out for some party function, where they skitter about poking at dignitaries’ dinners and end up in a food fight.

As well as Chytilová’s nervous, constant changing of point of view, switching of film stocks and use of filtration over the lenses, sometimes dropped in halfway through a scene, there’s also the relentless use of advertising parody, plus sets that are replete with surreal imagery – apples all over the place, the wall hung with giant exotic leaves suggestive of … the Garden of Eden? Maybe.

Think of the way films in Europe or from America at the time were treating women – as sexual props – and these pre-feminist action girls are remarkable. They are the sole agents of their own destiny and when they’re not causing mayhem they’re regularly biting suggestively on phallic bananas, sausages or pickles, anything that can be pressed into service. As for the references to “yummy meat” and their coy, girlish behaviour, we are having our stereotypes tweaked by a director who has decided to go for broke.

Not everyone is going to go for its freeform madcappery and the excess does get a bit excessive. But it’s a short film, at 74 minutes, and there’s really nothing like it. And remember it’s a film from behind the iron curtain and resist the urge to see it as a satire on materialism, which it might be if it had been made in the West. The censors in Czechoslovakia, casting about for a reason, banned it because it was wasteful of food. And surely that was Chytilová’s whole point.

Why Watch?

  • A great debut by Vera Chytilová
  • Jaroslav Kucera’s amazing cinematography
  • Karel Lier’s fabulous sets
  • Part of the amazingly vibrant Czech new wave

Daisies – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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