Happy End

Oldřich Lipský

About film

Following the success of Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe, 1964), Oldřich Lipský wanted to make an Italian co-production with foreign actors filmed in attractive locations such as Capri, Mallorca and the Alps. Even though he eventually couldn’t join forces with Italian producer Moris Ergas, Happy End (1967) is an exceptionally ambitious film in the context of Czechoslovak cinema. Not just thanks to its production value, but also thanks to its experimental form of narration.

“In Happy End, the story starts at the end. The film begins with the execution of a man who cut his unfaithful wife into quarters and took her away in a suitcase. I think the audience will have fun. But I also think that Happy End isn’t just a gratuitous comedy, I think it has scenes which will make the audience think whether they want to or not.”[1]

Upon an unwritten agreement with the audience, most live-action films respect certain narrative conventions. Consequences are preceded by causes, answers by questions, endings by beginnings. In the 1990s, terms like “mind-game films” and “puzzle films” started to describe films that don’t follow such rules. In these films, classic narrative methods are substituted by complex narrative structures with many deliberate gaps, blurred lines between reality and imagination, unreliable narrators and ambiguous meaning. The story can go in several directions at once or comprise several stories in one, taking place on different planes of reality or in different timelines. The Aristotelian story structure (beginning, middle, end) with a linear chain of causes and effects is usually not applied. In such films, commonly used cognitive schemes helping us to piece together many fragments to discover a coherent plot just aren’t enough. [2] Predecessors of films designed to confuse the audience can be found all over the world (for instance Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s film labyrinths with no way out). One such film, whose intellectual requirements on the audience surpasses films such as Fight Club, The Sixth Sense and The Prestige, was made in Czechoslovakia fifty years ago. Just like Memento (2000), Bakha satang (2000), Irreversible (2002) and Five Times Two (2004) some thirty years later, Happy End (1964) by Oldřich Lipský and Miloš Macourek bends the conventional rules to conform to its own reversible world. It’s a manifestation of extraordinary playfulness and simultaneously the unwillingness to play with the others. But the film, perceived in the light of more serious production from the Czechoslovak New Wave as a banal “joke”[3] for one-time entertainment, is elaborate and multi-layered and deserves at least the same amount of attention as The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1964) and Markéta Lazarová (1964), released in the same year. [4]

Francis Scott Fitzgerald had the idea to tell the life story of his protagonist in reverse already in 1922, when he published his story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, widely known thanks to its film adaptation by David Fincher. But in this case, the atypical content was presented to readers in a classic form with a chronological order of events. It’s just that the protagonist isn’t getting older but younger. Experimenting with the form isn’t very prominent and instead of building a reversible film world, the author uses the standard chronology of the actual world. While Fitzgerald required the readers to accept only the reversed flow of life, the first collaboration of director Oldřich Lipský and writer Miloš Macourek reversed the entire fictional world along with the hero. Other examples of literary works with reversed chronology created before Happy End include for instance Goodbye to the Past (1934) by W. R. Burnett, The Human Season (1960) by Edward Lewis Wallant and Christopher Homm (1965) by British writer C. H. Sisson. The history of films starting at the end in our country dates back to 1898, when Jan Kříženecký played a short film at the Exhibition of Architecture and Engineering titled Žofín Swimming Pool (Žofínská plovárna) backwards, to great amusement of the audience. [5] Thanks to reversing the reel, the swimmers jumped out of the water. The same “prehistoric” gag is used also in Happy End, which claims its allegiance to the beginnings of cinema by its setting (early 20th century) and sepia tone reminiscent of old photographs. The movement back is also manifested in its artistic stylisation. According to Dutch ludologist Johan Huizing, a precondition to accept the rules of a game that we don’t know is a desire to play it. [6] The game framework in Happy End is set already in the opening credits. The first words to appear are “The End.” After that, the credits say “Central Film Rental in Prague Presented.” At a certain point, traditional credits are replaced by a mirror text that is subsequently reversed so we can readily read it. The opening scene of the film is puzzled together piece by piece during the entire opening credit sequence. The resulting image shows the decapitated head of Vladimír Menšík, which winks at us and asks for cooperation. The authors play a game and challenge us to take part in it (puzzling, a very popular activity, is once again used to “put together” the wife chopped into quarters).

Just like in the early years of cinema, Happy End uses the film medium as an attraction to entertain the public. The narrative flow stops several times and its integrity is compromised in order to offer the audience stimuli of an attraction nature inspiring awe and astonishment over the possibilities of the film medium (for instance, the very graphic murder of the wife, several minutes of pulling biscuits out of one’s mouth and the aforementioned jumping out of water.). Despite the presence of a simple plot line, Happy End often comes across as a showcase of attractions used by the first cinema owners in their programmes. The requirements placed on the receivers of audiovisual content are, however, much higher than in the era of cinematography attractions. The alteration of narrative and attraction organisational principles prevents the perception exclusively through sense stimulation. Due to the reversed order, we have to constantly evaluate the images and sounds and actively think about them. [7] Similarly, the film doesn’t settle for a shallow comical effect, and its humour is much more sophisticated than the humour we know from early film comedies.

The film’s images and diegetic sound force us to think in reverse. Bedřich’s monologue, on the other hand, complies with the chronological flow of time. The constant alteration between these two modes of reception and retrospective matching of plot incidents with statements uttered earlier is relatively demanding attention-wise. Constantly going back to performed actions and uttered lines doesn’t mean that the film’s humour is incomprehensible. In a certain sense, Happy End works in both ways. The verbal humour is built mainly on incorrect word order, which often creates short Dadaistic formations (– Were you born? – Not at all!). In one direction, the sentences are humorous, in the opposite direction, they make sense. We can enjoy Happy End as a nonsensical film pun without any trouble. The palindromic elaboration of the literary original that enables the two-way perception of the film was probably created by Miloš Macourek, who repeatedly demonstrated his Dadaist playfulness and penchant for paraphrasing popular genres and wordplay in his poetic work and his long-term interest in the work of Alfred Jarry (Macourek was the co-author of the script for F.A. Brabec’s King Ubu (Král Ubu, 1996). The reasons of this devotion to wordplay, which in Happy End is equal to physical gags, can also be found in the long tradition of Czech verbal humour epitomised for many by Hašek’s gabby Švejk.

The film can be characterised by a number of small inside games, whether on the formal or content plane. At one point, the film is livened up by slow motion – a horse race is shown backwards and in slow motion. Once again, we return to the beginnings of the cinematograph, which was originally supposed to serve scientific purposes by helping to examine animate objects. Muybridge’s footage of a running horse is one of the emblematic early attempts to animate still photographs. The playfulness of the film is manifested in multi-level contrasts. Thanks to the rewinding, morbid scenes are not only funny (a head jumping back on a neck, limbs “sawed onto” the body) but also stand in an opposition to some romantic moments, which are on the other hand disgusting (pulling cookies out of one’s mouth accompanied by an inappropriate adjective “excellent;” Bedřich’s dreams about his beautiful past at a slaughterhouse.) Another dichotomy repeatedly arises between Bedřich’s and ours (normal) perception of the circle of life. In the absurd reverse world, the death of his father-in-law is joyful news and the birth of a child tragic. We have Bedřich the murderer and Bedřich the creator. The object of his actions is in both cases paradoxically the same person, his wife. By seeing the story with elements of a murder ballad with his own inverted logic, Bedřich justifies all crimes he committed. As the narrator of the story, he refuses any alternative interpretations that would make him the guilty party. His commentary de facto isn’t in direct contradiction with what we see, but it denies the universally valid standards of what is admissible and right. Does that mean that Bedřich automatically becomes an unreliable narrator who bends the truth to suit his personal interests? Or does he speak the truth in his universe? Due to the fact that he comments on events that already happened to him and should be dead, Bedřich could be a post-modern narrator standing above the story and realising the importance of himself as someone who narrates the story. Just like the first commentators at film screenings, he tries to explain the sequence of images to the viewers who could get disoriented. It seems that his commentary influences occasional stops in the films (description of individual items that Bedřich was “presented” in jail.) Accepting Bedřich as a commentator of moving pictures would mean giving the film another attribute inducing the spectator experience from the beginnings of cinema. If formal experiments destroy the narrative coherence, the objects in the mise-en-scène help the comprehensibility of the plot and the characters. But their function is also ambivalent. The painting of lovers at the wall could at one point foreshadow what could happen between Julie and Ptáček – if the film wasn’t shown backwards. In the reversed chronology, the hint becomes a confirmation of a known fact. On the other hand, the function of the newspaper with a peephole is unquestionable. With its help, Bedřich pretends to be a private investigator. Switching between various roles is a motif developed throughout the entire film. Opinions about the film’s characters based on the first impression are mostly misleading. Based on his refined vocabulary, not many people would expect Bedřich to be a butcher (and this kind of self-stylisation takes us back to the unreliable narrators). Ptáček is described by Bedřich as a treacherous villain but doesn’t act like one. He is merely the lover of Bedřich’s wife. This volatility in the perception of the characters based on available information (and the order in which it is presented) and the necessity to constantly alter one’s opinion about individual characters is a part of the game, whose rules are evolving constantly.

The authors resourcefully play with the sound. Words sometimes pointlessly describe what we hear (“click”) and act as intertitles in silent films; other times they describe what we see (“hand”, “head”, “leg”) and underline the action nature of some scenes. An example of an original usage of sound as a musical background can be found towards the end (i.e., the beginning) of the wedding ceremony when the sounds of kissing set the rhythm of the scene. Every listed example works with sounds differently than we’re used to – the sound doesn’t supplement the information presented by the images but doubles it. The playfulness of Happy End is also manifested in smooth transitions to musically stylised dance numbers. However, only the form is musical, not the content. Bedřich elegantly dances with the body of the murdered Julie; Julie, in an effort to hide her lover, frantically dances with Ptáček. The tango, danced later by Julie and Ptáček, is downplayed by mooing of cows in the background. These discrepancies have a comical effect and contribute to the perception of Happy End as a film whose driving principle is a deliberate reversal of logic known from standard live-action films. The links between the film’s comical effect and used narrative means could be summarised in a paraphrase of a quote by Charlie Chaplin: “Life is a tragedy, when lived from the beginning to the end, but a comedy in reverse.” [8]

Bedřich sees the confiscation of his property in jail as creating a socially just society in which everyone is equal because no one owns anything. The obvious political connotation of this situation, actually a literal representation of an anecdote popular during socialism, reveals another layer of Happy End. Its unrestrained playfulness disregarding the existing rules has almost anarchistic qualities. The closest thing to abstract meaningless declarations in the film is not surprisingly the communication of official authorities. In Happy End, Havel’s ptydepe language has a fitting film form. But it’s not malicious anarchism intended to destroy and harm, it’s an anarchism governed by a childishly impish desire to subvert the established order.

Scenes portraying revolt against the established order are mostly gastronomical, as was typical for this period. A year before Happy End, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) sparked outrage at higher places because it included scenes in which food was wasted (this was also used as the official explanation for the film’s limited distribution). [9] As an ironic commentary to disapproving reactions on wasting food, Happy End includes anti-consumerism scenes. The characters don’t actually eat the food but produce it. The ensuing self-production system changing the consumer directly into the producer is a playfully exaggerated but biting example of what a communist utopia could look like in reality. Happy End is a unique film not only in Czechoslovak cinema. By implementing its own set of rules and disregarding the existing ones, it represents a unique conversion of Dadaistic poetics to film. Just like many New Wave filmmakers, Oldřich Lipský and Miloš Macourek used games as a distinctive method of approaching reality. The time definition of the most expressive displays of playfulness in Czechoslovak cinema could tempt one to perceive games as a phenomenon bound to the culture of the 1960s, but as several examples mentioned above indicate, probable sources of Happy End’s playfulness are far older than that. For political reasons, it was impossible to make similarly playful films for two decades after Happy End was released. It seems that, in addition to a creative tandem like Lipský – Macourek, contemporary Czech cinema lacks the courage to fully give itself over to game.

Martin Šrajer


[1] Oldřich Adamec, Dvanáct nových rolí Vladimíra Menšíka. Kino 22, 1967, no. 10 (18th May), p. 11.

[2] More detailed to the concept of mind-game film see Thomas Elsaesser, The mind-game film. In Buckland, Warren (ed.), Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema. Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell 2009, pp. 13–41.

[3] Such elitist classification of Lipský’s comedy came from Jan Žalman. Umlčený film. Vimperk: KMa, s. r.o. 2008, p. 253.

[4] In an interview with Antonín J. Liehm, Oldřich Lipský complained about an ignorant view of critics on his comedic production because of the comedic genre itself.

Ostře sledované filmy. Praha: Národní filmový archiv 2001, p. 174.

[5] Sometimes also named Výjev z lázní žofínských, Zdeněk Štábla, Český kinematograf Jana Kříženeckého. Prague: Československý filmový ústav 1973.

[6] Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens: O původu kultury ve hře. Podlesí: Dauphin 2000.

[7] With certain simplification, we could apply the concept of intellectual attractions synthesising intellectual and visceral film experience on Happy End. Radomír D. Kokeš writes about it in relation to contemporary Hollywood action films: Kinematografie intelektuálních atrakcí: jistá tendence blockbusterového filmu. Cinepur 59, Sep-Oct 2008, p. 25–31.

[8] Chaplin allegedly said “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” See Jeffrey Vance, Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. New York: Harry N. Abrams 2003, p. 56.

[9] The interpellation of MP Jaroslav Pružinec in the Czechoslovak National Assembly is now infamous. 15. schůze. Poslanecká sněmovna Parlamentu České republiky [online]. [quoted 2017-02-08]. URL: <http://www.psp.cz/eknih/1964ns/stenprot/015schuz/s015015.htm >.

Filmographic data

Oldřich Lipský

Oldřich Lipský, Miloš Macourek

Vladimír Novotný

Vlastimil Hála

Vladimír Menšík, Jaroslava Obermaierová, Josef Abrhám, Bohuš Záhorský, Stella Zázvorková, Jiří Steimar

Filmové studio Barrandov, 69 min.


“It's an unusual and daring experiment in a way: it tells the story backwards. Its comedic effect comes from telling the story from the end to the beginning, which is then claimed as its own happy ending in a counterpointed commentary. The authors have attempted to follow this reversed, backwards procedure consistently – except, of course, for the dialogue, which would be completely incomprehensible.”

Luboš Bartošek, Filmový přehled, 1967, no. 30.


“The moment of surprise soon passes, and the audience becomes bored with the plot, which might have been enough for a funny short film, but in feature-length footage it gives the impression of camouflaged mindlessness. It was certainly worth some effort not to satisfy with the basic funny idea and to pay attention to the development of the anecdotal play on comedy into a larger number of grotesque situations, conceived, however, in a certain uniform style.”

Vlastimil Vrabec, Svobodné slovo 23, 01/09/1967, p. 4. 


“It is to be expected that audiences and critics will give the filmmakers more credit than they deserve. It is not just a matter of being grateful for a few really good scenes and gags, and for an overall undeniably original idea. While making our shaky reservations, we have to remember that with the comedy Happy End, the filmmakers wanted to entertain us in a new way. Even if they did not quite succeed, we have to appreciate that they did not take the beaten path.”

Ivan Bonko, Pravda 48, 06/09/1967, p. 2. 


“The authors were ruthlessly consistent when working with their idea. They revel in the possibilities that this technical jest offers. The film contains about four eating scenes, all of them based on the fact that as the film seems to have been shot in reverse, the empty plates that the feasters have in front of them slowly fill. An actor digs into his mouth and takes out a cookie; an actor raises an empty glass to his mouth and it fills to the brim. This is more disgusting than funny.”

Václav Šašek, Zemědělské noviny 23, 07/09/1967, p. 2. 


Writer's statement

Happy End is a film that begins with the end and ends with the beginning. People walk backwards, racehorses jump obstacles backwards, the hero jumps out of the car feet first and so on. This is nothing new, of course; every filmmaker has seen this joke hundreds of times in the editing room and considers it boring. In fact, such a film has even been made already. It was a short film called Première (Premiéra) and it was shot twenty years ago by Vladimír Novotný, who happens to be the cinematographer of Happy End as well. He says that Première was a success especially among amateurs who were entertained by the series of tricks they could not have done themselves.

But Happy End is not a short film, it is a feature film. So it seems an obvious risk to base a feature film on such a naive and purely mechanical effect, doesn’t it? It is clear that this formal joke cannot entertain the viewer for more than a few minutes.

But it was on those first few minutes that Lipský and I put our money on. We believe that we will be able to engage the viewer enough to become hooked on the story we are trying to tell. It is a story that begins with a tragic end of love and progresses step by step to its idyllic beginnings. It goes from tormentuous, murderous and jealous scenes to tender and enchanted glances, innocent touches and timid words. Those who have murdered and been murdered speak of the happy future that awaits them. And behold – happiness does come! But only because the two protagonists walk backwards to the moment when they see each other for the last time. Or rather for the first time, right? And it is in this double meaning of each meter of the film where there are hidden the possibilities of both the comic and the tragic effects that transcend common conventions.

And that is basically what Lipský and I had in mind. In order to be aware of these ambiguous meanings, the viewers will not only have to watch the story unfolding backwards, but they will also have to reconstruct in their mind the ‘original’ history as it happened in the normal passage of time, of course. To achieve this, we had to meet the viewers with banal situations where they can safely recognize the right side by the wrong side, so to speak. The fact that they will have to take help from their own experience of the conventions which they have accepted and to which they have surrendered – that is part of our intention. In the case of dialogues, they will also have to hold the answer in their memory, because they will always hear it before the question. But even here they will be able to navigate well, because these will once again be phrases they know by heart.

Either way, Happy End is probably not going to be an undemanding film. Both for the audience and for those who will make it happen. The meters that the camera shoots backwards, the dialogues that are shot normally and where the reverse moves have to be faked, the arranging of scenes, the careful rehearsal of movements about which one can never be entirely sure how they will come out in reverse motion, all this makes Happy End a problem during the execution phase. We can only keep our fingers crossed that it will be successfully resolved.”

Miloš Macourek

Záběr, 1966, no. 17, p. 1.


“When Macourek and I came up with this thing that is about to haunt us, we did not think about the work we would have to do once we figure it out and start executing it. What the viewers will find a rather challenging, funny result (challenging in the sense that they will have to 1) follow the reverse narrative; 2) listen to and process the dialogues that make sense both front to back and back to front, yet slightly different each time; 3) to follow the commentary that will confuse them by passing off what is happening on the screen as the actual normal course of Bedřich’s life; and 4) to reconstruct for themselves what really happened) meant – and still means – months of hard work that is not funny at all, to tell the truth.

At first glance, it might seem that a film like ours can be made quite easily in a normal way and then just shown in a reverse mode. Some of the actions could have been done in this way, that is true, but with dialogues, this is impossible because the actors would be talking backwards on the screen and that is not the result we want. And that could not be fixed with a post-sync either, since then their mouths would not correspond with what their saying. And so in some scenes they are forced to speak normally and perform movement actions backwards, which is quite demanding, while in others they move normally and say their dialogues backwards, which is even more demanding. In some scenes, we can help the actors by zooming to a close-up when they are about to speak. It is also very difficult to choose action gags, because their common and familiar comic effect loses its validity here; only some of the gags, the simplest ones, retain the effect even in reverse.

In order to make it easier for the viewer to do the work that will begin when we are finished, we have chosen the most trivial story that will be easy to navigate: love, marriage, infidelity, murder, execution (actually in reverse order). To set such an ancient story in the hot present seemed far-fetched, so we set it in the 1920s. This led to further complications: old cars, old ambulances, old taxis and even an old roadblock had to be procured. The cinematographer Vladimír Novotný works with the image of slightly blurred, softly contoured photographs of this era, and in the final laboratory phase, the film will be tinted to a soft sepia colour, so that it takes on the character of a poignant, brownish faded picture from an old album.

I would also like to point out that a certain absurdity of our film lies not only in the mechanical joke, in the reverse unfolding of the plot, but above all in the way in which such an upside-down view makes ‘real’ life situations look, even though we accept these situations as ‘normal’ based on our experience and conventions, without feeling the need to analyse them. Happy end is actually an experiment. Not in the sense of the ‘new waves,’ but in the sense that we are testing what the film can withstand and what the viewer can endure (and vice versa).”

Oldřich Lipský

Filmové informace 17, 1966, no. 50, p. 1.


Miloš Macourek

Writer and screenwriter Miloš Macourek is known primarily as the author of first-class sci-fi comedies or of the animated TV series for children Mach and Šebestová (Mach a Šebestová). His scope, however, was much wider.

He was born on 2 December 1926 in Kroměříž into the family of a lawyer. He first studied at the grammar school in Frýdek Místek (1939-1941); after the school was closed by the German occupants, he briefly transferred to the conservatory of music and drama in Ostrava. Then he was deployed in Zákolany near the town of Kladno and in Odolena Voda (1943-1944). After the end of WWII he continued his studies, but in 1946 he left for Prague. There he tried his hand at several professions (print shop worker, set designer, warehouseman, printer in advertisement, publishing editor). After the obligatory military service (1948-1950) he worked in the Central Council of Trade Unions (Ústřední rada odborů, 1950-1954) and from 1954 as a lecturer in the Department of Literature and Art History at the Central School of Trade Unions (Ústřední škola odborů).

In 1959 he began working as an author for Divadlo Na zábradlí and a year later he entered the world of film. He worked at the Barrandov Film Studio – from 1960 as a literary manager, and from 1963 as a scriptwriter. In 1980 he went freelance as a professional writer. He wrote numerous plays and dramatizations, prose, poems, fairy tales, and texts for exhibition catalogues and comic books. At the same time, he contributed to a number of periodicals, translated, collaborated with the Viola and the Divadlo v Nerudovce theatres, organised the exhibition 40 Years of Czech Political Cartoons (40 let české politické karikatury, 1961), but primarily, he wrote for film.

Throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, he created several dozen animated films as a writer and, in many cases, also a director. In addition to the artists and animators Břetislav Pojar, Stanislav Látal and Jiří Brdečka, he later worked in tandem with Adolf Born and Jaroslav Doubrava. These collaborations of his resulted in many interesting films, such as Billiard (Biliár, 1961), A Few Words of Introduction (Úvodní slovo pronese, 1962), The Badly-Drawn Hen (Špatně namalovaná slepice, 1963), How to Obtain a Good Child (Jak si opatřit hodné dítě, 1965), Do Not Wake Up the Mammoths (Nebuďte mamuty, 1967), Pirates (Piráti, 1979), and The Hen (Slepice, 1984). Together with Born and Doubrava, they later created the still popular evening cartoon heroes Mach and Šebestová (1976–1983), Žofka and Her Adventures (Žofka a spol., 1986–1988), Žofka, the ZOO director (Žofka ředitelkou ZOO, 1996), and Mach and Šebestová’s Holidays (Mach a Šebestová na prázdninách, 1998).

In his feature films, Macourek focused mainly on (often slightly crazy) comedies, science fiction, and films for children. Playfulness, optimism, humour (including black humour), exaggeration, hidden satire, paradox, natural didactic aspects, and lyricism are characteristic of his scriptwriting. He is also well-known for the variety of genres he covered, though, his huge gift of imagination, and his sense of comic and situational humour, which made him one of the most original Czech film writers of the second half of the 20th century.

Already with his first film he formed an authorial duo with the screenwriter and director Václav Vorlíček, with whom he made most of his most successful and best-known films. The result was a parody to comic books Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Kdo chce zabít Jessii?, 1966), sci-fi comedy about exchanged brains You Are a Widow, Sir („Pane, vy jste vdova!“, 1970), fairy tale The Girl on the Broom (Dívka na koštěti, 1971), fantasy comedies How to Drown Dr. Mracek (Jak utopit Dr. Mráčka aneb Konec vodníků v Čechách, 1974) and How About a Plate of Spinach? (Což takhle dát si špenát, 1977), and the wine trilogy with Vladimír Menšík Wine Working (Bouřlivé víno, 1976), Mature Wine (Zralé víno, 1981) and Young Wine (Mladé víno, 1986).

After 1989, the duo created three more co-produced fairy tales: The Magic Purse (Kouzelný měšec, 1995), The Firebird (Pták Ohnivák, 1996), and The Quenn of the Lake (Jezerní královna, 1997), and then tried to take their TV series for children to the big screen with Max, Sally and the Magic Phone (Mach, Šebestová a kouzelné sluchátko, 2001). After Macourek’s death, Vorlíček took advantage of the popularity of The Girl on the Broomstick and, after several years of work, brought Saxana (Saxána a Lexikon kouzel, 2007-2011) to cinemas. The two creators have also made a name for themselves in the television production, creating family TV series The Flying Cestmír (Létající Čestmír, 1983), Hamster in a Nightshirt (Křeček v noční košili, 1987), and especially the Fairy Tale Kingdom in TV series Arabela (Arabela, 1979) and Arabela Returns or Rumburak the King of the Fairy Tale Kingdom (Arabela se vrací aneb Rumburak králem Říše pohádek, 1993) and a film for both cinema and television Rumburak (Rumburak, 1984).

Already in the 1960s, Macourek started working with the director Oldřich Lipský in addition to Vorlíček. Together they made a film that still remains unparalleled in Czech cinema, a comedy about a husband whose wife cheats on him called Happy End (Happy end, 1967), which is told starting with the end, backwards, in reverse. Happy End was followed by a Josef Nesvadba-inspired sci-fi comedy about time travel I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Zabil jsem Einsteina, pánové…, 1969), another parody of comic books and gangster films Four Murders Are Enough, Darling („Čtyři vraždy stačí, drahoušku“, 1970), a film version of Eugene Labiche’s farce Straw Hat (Slaměný klobouk, 1971), and two circus films, a children’s comedy Six Bears and a Clown (Šest medvědů s cibulkou, 1972) and a co-produced comedy Circus in the Circus (Cirkus v cirkuse, 1975).

His scripts have been shot by other directors, too. Back in the 1960s, Miloš Macourek made a serious psychological drama by Zbyněk Brynych I, Justice (Já, spravedlnost, 1967), toying with an alternative history where Adolf Hitler had survived the end of the war. Later he wrote the satirical comedy Monkey's Playtime (Hop - a je tu lidoop, 1977) directed by Milan Muchna, and returned to time travel with Jindřich Polák, again based on a book by Josef Nesvadba, in the sci-fi comedy I’ll Get Up and Scald Myself with Tea Tomorrow (Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem, 1977). At the turn of the 1970s, Macourek added two more works to his filmography: the youth story Chasing the Cat (Hon na kočku, 1979), and the Yugoslavian-co-produced horror sci-fi The Monster from the Arcana Galaxy (Monstrum z galaxie Arkana, 1981).

After the normalization era, his script for the absurd grotesque King Ubu (Král Ubu, 1996) was adapted by F. A. Brabec; he co-wrote the screenplay of the remarkable transcription of K. J. Erben’s collection of poems Wild Flowers (Kytice, 2000); and collaborated on Roman Vávra’s fairy tale The Devil Knows Why (Čert ví proč, 2002). Occasionally, his other works have been adapted for television – TV series Bambinot (Bambinot) and Bubu and Filip (Bubu a Filip), and film The Closet (Skříň). In addition to festival and other awards (The Monetary Reward of the Barrandov Film Studio, the City of Písek Award for lasting contribution to the enrichment of the comedy genre, and the FITES Award), he became a Meritorious Artist in 1977. Miloš Macourek died after a serious illness on 30 September 2002 in Prague, aged seventy-six.

Jaroslav Lopour


Vladimír Novotný

In May 1955, the Praha cinema on the Wenceslas Square was adapted for stereoscopic screening. You needed plastic polarization glasses to watch 3D films, such as for instance a program consisting of the Soviet film In the Lights of a Circus Ring (1951) and two Czech short films made using the two-strip method: the documentary May 01 1955 in Prague (1. máj 1955 v Praze) and a passage of Reingold M. Glier’s ballet Red Poppy (Rudý mák).

The co-author of both films and a pioneer of Czech stereoscopic shooting was the cinematographer and inventor Vladimír Novotný,[1] who played an important role in several animated and trick films, popularizing and spreading new technological formats.

Without his ingenious tricks, films such as The Springer and the SS-Men (Pérák a SS), The Czech Year (Špalíček), The Girl on the Broom (Dívka na koštěti), How to Drown Dr. Mráček (Jak utopit dr. Mráčka aneb Konec vodníků v Čechách), Long Live Ghosts! (Ať žijí duchové) or the series Arabela would either never have been made or would look completely different. At the same time, he was among the first in Czechoslovakia to use widescreen film material, having come up with several widgets making the job easier for him and his colleagues – not only cinematographers. 

Familiarly called “Mulínek” by his colleagues, Vladimír Novotný was born on 17 October 1914 in Tábor, in house No. 507. He went to primary and secondary school in Tábor. At the end of the 1920s, the family moved to Prague. His older brother Antonín later became an actor and chemical engineer. One of Novotný’s teachers at the Vyšehrad Realgymnasium was a physics teacher and film enthusiast having founded a student cinema in Nusle. Novotný immediately took part in its operation. He made posters, took tickets, and accompanied silent films on the piano.

When seventeen, Novotný was selected to be an extra in Vančura and Innemann’s drama Before Graduation (Před maturitou, 1932), in which his brother played the leading role. More important for him than the small role of a student was the creative environment he entered for the first time thanks to this first film experience. He later recalled this formative experience in Film a doba:

“We were lucky to meet figures such as Vladislav Vančura, Julius Schmitt, and Emil František Burian and actors playing in Before Graduation right at the beginning. This influence was indeed formative in our further activities. Somewhat automatically, we became a new generation – because we felt to be one –, that knew where to focus our creative existence under Vančura’s influence.”[2]

In the 1930s, Novotný played smaller parts in Ballad-Singer (Písničkář, 1932), Mother Kráčmerka (Matka Kráčmerka, 1934), and Hero for a Night (Hrdina jedné noci, 1935) in quick succession. At the same time, he started assisting the founding fathers of the unofficial Czech cinematography school: Karel Degl and Václav Vích. During the compulsory military service, he cooperated with the photographer and filmmaker Jiří Jeníček to produce short military films (Our Army [Naše armáda, 1937], Soldiers in the Mountains [Vojáci v horách, 1938]). In the Military Technical Institute, he also first tried animating moving subtitles and graphs.

His interest in innovative effects gave him the idea to found his own trick studio, which still did not exist in Czechoslovakia at the time. Together with his relative, the painter and graphic designer Josef Vácha, he founded the AFIT film tricks studio in 1935. First located in Prague on Štěpánská Street and later in Smíchov, the studio made subtitles, advertising and opening tags, models, and tricks for many Czech pre-war films produced by film production companies.

During the occupation, the Germans transferred AFIT to under the umbrella production company Prag-Film. Managed by the Germans, he was working on the animated The Wedding in the Coral Sea (Svatba v korálovém moři, 1944), co-animated for instance by Jiří Brdečka, Břetislav Pojar, Václav Bedřich, and other key personalities of Czech animation. Considered the first Czech animated film, the undersea fairy tale was shot on Agfacolor colour negative.

At the end of May 1945, shortly after the liberation, Novotný together with the animated film production manager Jaroslav Jílovec and architect Eduard Hofman asked the 33-year-old artist Jiří Trnka to become the art director of the nationalized animated film studio. Having accepted the offer, Trnka cooperated with Novotný on The Springman and the SS-Men (Pérák a SS, 1946), The Gift (Dárek, 1946), Misha the Bear (Míša Kulička, 1947), or The Czech Year (Špalíček,1947).

What was especially important for Novotný’s future career was assisting the great cinematographer Jan Roth, a frequent collaborator of Martin Frič and Otakar Vávra, between 1947–1948. Novotný’s first independent live action film was Pavel Blumenfeld’s The Little Partisan (Malý partyzán, 1950).  Two years later, he could draw on his experience with a drama from the end of World War II in Miloš Makovec’s epic film The Great Adventure (Velké dobrodružství,1952).

Inspired by the traveller Emil Holub’s African expeditions, the film was shot in South Slovakia. The exterior shots were so convincing very much thanks to Novotný, who was shooting the actors through small models of palm groves. Important for him was a mobile camera because he believed that only a panoramic movement could credibly connect a model with actual landscape.

Together with Makovec, Novotný also made Lost People (Ztracenci, 1956) – a balladic anti-war drama inspired by a book by Alois Jirásek. After watching the film, Ivan Dvořák called the hopeful cinematographer “a poet of the black and white image”.[3]

In the 1950s, Novotný repeatedly cooperated with Jiří Krejčík (Dawn above Us [Nad námi svítá, 1952], Frona [1954], Mrs Dulská's Morals [Morálka paní Dulské, 1958], Awakening [Probuzení, 1959]). In the mining drama Dawn above Us, Novotný used his improvement proposal related to depth photography. He used a halved lens hood which, when placed in front of an objective, changed the focal distance for one half of the image.

His original ideas were also given space during the production of the two-part historical comedy The Emperor's Baker – The Baker's Emperor (Císařův pekař – Pekařův císař, 1951), with the main cinematographer being Jan Stallich. For scenes with Jan Werich in the dual role of an emperor and baker, he made up a special camera adapter making sure that in the second exposition, the camera movement would start with one-film-frame precision, and the acts of both Werichs would be synchronized.

For dual expositions, he did not simply content himself with static shots (as had been customary in Czech films until then because it was easier). He also wanted to use panoramic and tracking shots. His device made it possible to start and stop the drive of the camera and, at the same time, to reproduce Werich’s pre-recorded dialogue accompanied by instructions for the actor’s actions in both expositions.

Increasingly sought after by leading Czechoslovak filmmakers – whether for shooting an entire film or “just” for advice on how to deal with a sequence requiring tricks or less common angles and movements – the cinematographer’s inventiveness was not limited to photographic techniques and optical tricks, as illustrated by this memory from 1953:

“I like noticing things around me that do not affect me directly and are not related to my work. So, I noticed the tiring job of editing assistants, manually numbering the copies of image and sound all days. The fact that on one working day each of them only numbered 300 metres best reflects how strenuous the work is. I was thinking a bit and devised and constructed a numbering machine numbering up to 5,000 metres a day, which is perfectly sufficient for all Barrandov cutting rooms.”[4]

In addition to traditional film shooting and screening, Novotný made a sidestep to work for the Laterna magika multimedia theatre, famous, for instance, for the act Musical Joke (Hudební žert) directed by Alfréd Radok. Jiří Šlitr was playing the piano and using stop tricks; there were gradually other Šlitrs appearing on the screen behind him, accompanying their live colleague on the piano. Also thanks to the experience gained with shooting The Emperor’s Baker, Novotný dealt with this five-fold exposition really easily.[5]

In the second half of the 1950s, Novotný was offered to work on the first Czech widescreen film, Provisional Liberty (V proudech, 1957). The realization of the co-production romance was preceded by a trip to France. Novotný was joined by architect Bohuslav Kulič and sound master František Černý. They visited French studios, laboratories, and companies producing film apparatuses and watched several films made using the Cinemascope system with stereo sound. The aim of the trip was to get acquainted with technical equipment for widescreen shooting.

The shooting was delayed due to technical complications with cameras by the French company Debrie. It was originally foreseen to work with Eastman colour material, but it turned out that the Barrandov laboratories could not process it, and that’s why it was replaced by the West German Agfa. The uncertainty as to the resulting image quality led to the decision to create two negatives, which doubled the required material provided by the French.[6] Despite the technologies used, the film emphasizing the beauty and atmosphere of the landscape was mercilessly rejected by domestic critics for its “Western” colour print qualities. [7]

In addition to films with complex tricks, such as The Man from the First Century (Muž z prvního století, 1961) Lemonade Joe or Horse Opera (Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera, 1964), Happy End (1967)[8], Novotný also shot Elmar Klos and Jan Kadár’s occupation drama The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze, 1965). The Academy Award-winning film well illustrates Novotný’s ability to pick up on any genre and adapt his work to the dramatic intentions of the authors.

The shooting style changes together with the film atmosphere: from the relaxed walk between the strolling crowds during the nearly comedic introduction to the pressing movement through the cramped rooms of the shop. At the end, the camera basically takes over the role of the hero’s conscience, constantly panning his face, never letting him in peace.

Even though his extraordinary craftsmanship and inventiveness would probably secure him a decent career abroad, Novotný stayed in Czechoslovakia even after the 1968 Soviet occupation. Striking are Novotný’s tricks for Václav Vorlíček’s fanciful normalization period comedies The Girl on the Broom (1971) and How to Drown Dr. Mráček (1974).

Just like in his previous work, even in this case he did the trick with practical, not very expensive tricks in front of the camera, innovatively using mirrors, perspective, lightning, and his own inventions, which were often executed with the help of mechanic Adolf Hejzlar in the Barrandov workshops. Years later, Vorlíček remembered how he had only just described or drawn his idea of a shot, and then he was just amazed by the cinematographer’s ingeniousness.

Mirrors were involved for instance in the studio shooting of The Girl on the Broom in the scene with Jan Hrušínský’s head separated from his body. Hrušínský was crouching in the hospital nightstand. Novotný placed a mirror in front of him at an oblique angle for the viewer to see the reflection of what the actor was hiding with his body. Mulínek used a variation of the same trick in How to Drown Dr. Mráček when Miloš Kopecký and Libuše Šafránková get out of the wash basin.

Brilliantly simple is also the way he solved the scenes with dwarves repairing the decaying castle in Oldřich Lipský’s fairy tale comedy Long Live Ghosts! (1977). Novotný again used mirrors and false perspectives. The child actors stood close to the camera. On higher ground far behind them, there were adult stuntmen in dwarf costumes, appearing to be much smaller. Novotný’s always technically precise work also enriched the series Arabela, for which he made about 150 tricks.

Until his death in 1997, the cinematographer, DIY man and visionary Vladimír Novotný was constantly following the innovations in photography and related technical fields. This is one of the reasons why his trick mastery and inventiveness is admired and analyzed, frame by frame, by domestic and foreign artists alike even now, in an era of much more advanced digital technologies.

Martin Šrajer


[1] Later on, Novotný also made a 3D film entitled Evžen Rošický Memorial Competition (Memoriál Evžena Rošického) together with Přemysl Prokop. For more information, see Vladimír Novotný, Stereoskopický film u nás. Film a doba 1, 1955, No. 9–10, pp. 434–435.

[2] Pavel Taussig, Maturanti po padesáti letech. Svědectví o filmu Před maturitou. Film a doba 28, 1982, No. 12, p. 687.

[3] Ivan Dvořák, Ztracenci. Kultura 1, 1957, No. 20 (16. 5.), p. 5.

[4] Vladimír Novotný, Něco o mé práci. Film a doba: otázky a problémy československé a světové kinematografie: soubor článků a statí o filmové tvorbě, y. 2, 1953, No. 3 (15. 6.), p. 323.

[5] Svatopluk Malý, Vznik. rozvoj a ústup multivizuálních programů. Laterna magika a polyekrany. Praha: Akademie múzických umění 2010.

[6] Pavel Skopal, „Svoboda pod dohledem“. Zahájení koprodukčního modelu výroby v kinematografiích socialistických zemí na příkladu Barrandova (1954 až 1960). In Týž (ed.), Naplánovaná kinematografie. Český filmový průmysl 1945 až 1960. Praha: Academia 2012, pp. 102–148.

[7] František Vrba, Široké plátno pro široké svědomí? Literární noviny 1958, No. 22, p. 4.

[8] For the western parody Lemonade Joe, Novotný was awarded two special awards at the San Sebastian IFF.