The Party and the Guests

Jan Němec

About film

One of the last competition films screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1968 was the grotesque allegory The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966) by Jan Němec. It was one of three Czech competition films that year, along with Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto, 1968) and The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1967). But no winners were announced that year. In light of the turmoil that month in France, filmmakers, led by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, curtailed the event. That meant that Němec’s film, with an already limited domestic distribution that subsequently was basically terminated by the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, didn’t get a chance to earn recognition either at home or abroad.[1]

The film’s development and production went smoothly. When Němec finished Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964) he had started looking for a theme for this following film. Ester Krumbachová brought him one of her older stories in three acts, a parable about the relationship of an individual to power. In February 1964, she signed an agreement to write a synopsis.[2] In addition to a plot summary, the fourteen-page-text titled The Summer Carnival included an introduction by Krumbachová and a psychological characterisation. It indicated that the film should be an attack on oblivion, which “often makes us move in a vicious circle.”[3] According to the author’s explication, the film’s genre was to be social comedy. Krumbachová wrote the film story in collaboration with Němec, who later said: “I made some surgical changes to the story, I narrowed it, I kept the plot, but it was given a certain asceticism.”[4] The story was submitted in November 1964. The approval from the creative group of Erich Švabík and Jan Procházka came soon, probably due to the success of Diamonds of the Night. Without undue delay, the literary script A Report on the Party and the Guests was approved the following spring. Only film critic Jan Kliment, who later became editor of the cultural section of Rudé právo, had some objections in his assessment. He thought the script was too fabricated and encrypted and unsuitable for socialist cinema.[5] But Kliment’s objections didn’t sway the management of the creative group. Lukáš Skupa thinks that the approval process was relatively easy because the responsible people couldn’t identify the potentially harmful content of the film[6] and also thanks to Jan Procházka’s political connections[7]. But these very connections would later prove be harmful to the film. The technical script was submitted on 21May 1965, and the censorship committee approved it on 11June 1965.[8]

As early as in May 1965, the crew scouted locations, held auditions and chose props that would fit an Art Nouveau style with their manneristic ornamentalism. Due to a higher number of characters, rather than design original costumes, Krumbachová used costumes from the studio repository, which were modified to represent the personality traits of the characters. The relatively short and quick shooting took place in June and July in a forest near Těptín, a village South of Prague.

As his DoP, Němec chose Jaromír Šofr. According to the actors, the director, the cinematographer and Krumbachová knew how each scene should look down to the slightest detail. They laid out the image concept, often determined by a concrete work of art[9], and shot composition in advance. They cast mainly non-professional actors, popular artists and friends whose civil appearance and mentality – in the spirit of medieval moralities – corresponded with the portrayed characters. But within the meticulously laid out scenes, they could afford to improvise, so multiple takes were not necessary. That’s why the shooting was quick and there were no delays. The film was supposed to be premiered in the spring of 1966. But in January, Procházka screened the film to his friend, President of the Republic, Antonín Novotný, as was his habit. Novotný swiftly banned the film. He also ordered that Neměc be dismissed from Barrandov Studio and made it impossible for him to continue his career. Novotný allegedly thought that the character of the host represents Lenin. Just like other people with power, he considered The Party incomprehensible (and thus open to undesirable political interpretations); an absurdity, ridiculing the socialist society.

Němec and Krumbachová didn’t intend to refer to specific Czechoslovak phenomena but rather to portray people unable to act, who could exist at any given time. They always rejected the label of a political parable. They knowingly wanted to follow the tradition of absurd drama (Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett) and present several model situations to depict the nonsensicality of social principles.

The film without a main protagonist is divided into three acts. In each of them, the leading part is assumed by a different character. It is set in a non-specified time period and neutral landscape. It begins with a picnic of several middle-aged men and women. It continues on a clearing and culminates at a party by a lake. In the interest of their own survival and peace, the participants resort to collaborating with the authorities. They don’t have the courage to stand against them. Restrictions and submission to the benevolence of the host becomes a medication for anxiety.

Standardised characters lack their own identity; they are spiritless figures communicating with incomprehensible allusions, mere fragments of longer statements without beginnings and sense. Conversations don’t represent means of communication – they don’t use them to convey any message and most likely have nothing to say to each other – but merely a mechanically observed social tradition.

The motivations of the spiritless characters remain more or less hidden. Ivan Vyskočil, as the host, represents an archetypical ruler who rewards and punishes his subjects on a whim. By his side is Rudolf (Jan Klusák), his servant and loyal follower. Individual guests personalise passivity, servility, the inability to perceive context, and other character flaws.

The balance upheld by willing submission to power games is disrupted by the character of the Husband (Evald Schorm), a taciturn outsider who’s the only one to prefer freedom to a false sense of security. By expressing a moral standpoint, he illuminates the unprincipledness of others who are indifferent to anything but their own comfort and profit. But their small-mindedness and series of small concessions has consequences. “Everything they express is humorous – but in totality, it’s tragic” is how Krumbachová summarised the film’s message.[10]

Despite its figurativeness, The Party is narrated with a curt realistic style of a report based on facts from a testimony filed in a Police protocol. The statements aren’t encoded; they’re just incomplete. Only the events of a given moment are portrayed. There’s no context. The politicians were most concerned with the possibility of ambiguous interpretation clouding the film’s real meaning. But the ruling elite’s negative perception wasn’t the only thing complicating the screening. After 1965, the approval process at Barrandov got much stricter. The Party and Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) by Věra Chytilová were labelled examples of undesirable experiments. These two titles were the basis of MP Jaroslav Pružinec’s interpellation at the National Assembly in May 1967. He called for a total ban on their distribution. The new wave directors responded by sending a protest letter to Minister of Culture Karel Hoffmann.

Despite the critical response from various sides, no one was initially considering a total ban. It was assumed the appeal to general audiences of an incomprehensible film like The Party would be minimal. The plan was to limit public awareness of the film, also abroad. That is apparent from Pavel Juráček’s diary entry from June 1966: “Deputies holding the rank of ministers write to Italy that they can’t tolerate interfering in our domestic cultural policy because the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party asked them to allow screening The Party and the Guests at the Venice Festival. Hendrych allegedly shouted that we’re bastards and informers and that we were speaking about the existence of these films in Cannes and Pesaro.”[11]

Any kind of promotion and festival screening was banned. The press was allowed to write about The Party only with approval of Miloslav Brůžek, Miroslav Barvík, or their head from the Ideological Section of the Central Committee, Pavel Auersperg.[12]

After December 1966, screening were allowed only in smaller regional town and club cinemas. At the end of May 1967, Juráček wrote in his diary: “There is still to be no public mention about The Party and the Guests. Press supervisors even delete the name of this film. It can only be referred to as Němec’s second or previous film.”[13] Cinemas in Prague were allowed to screen the film after 1967, when the conservative wing of the Communist Party lost some influence. During the Prague Spring, the situation was reassessed and The Party was included in the first artistic category. But Němec had already given his notice to the Barrandov Studio in August 1967, and after he finished the hastily approved Martyrs of Love (Mučedníci lásky, 1966) with Ester Krumbachová, they were only allowed to work on apolitical stories such as television songs.

Krumbachová, who wrote The Party’s story and script, and designed the costumes, sets and props, was designated a subversive element. She wanted to publish The Party in an anthology book with other stories. But because of the abovementioned ban, the book was never published. In her memoirs, she said that Němec’s second film literally ended her career.[14]

The film’s sharp analysis of compromises, obedience, cowardice and manipulations has remained timeless despite the injustice, as proven by its newly digitally restored version created by the National Film Archive in collaboration with the State Cinematography Fund and Karlovy Vary IFF. British company Second Run released this version on Blu-ray with a rich bonus section. In a recent poll by website DVDBeaver, its readers picked The Party and the Guests as the 8th best Blu-ray of last year.

Martin Šrajer


[1] Despite the fact that public had almost no chance to see the film, the critics and filmmakers praised it very highly. It received the Czechoslovak Film Critics’ Award in 1966, won in a poll by Film a Doba magazine and both Ester Krumbachová and Jan Němec won the Trilobit Award given by the Union of Czechoslovak Film and Television Artists (for The Party and Martyrs of Love).

[2] Jan Bernard, Jan NěmecEnfant terrible české nové vlny. Díl I. 19541974. Praha: AMU 2014, o. 185.

[3] ibid, p. 186.

[4] ibid, p. 204.

[5] ibid, p. 197–198.

[6] As evidenced by the opinion of the Central Committee’s Ideological Committee: “This film, realised as a seeming absurdity, is essentially a persiflage of social events and allows for various political interpretations.” Lukáš Skupa, Vadí – nevadí. Česká filmová cenzura v 60. letech. Praha: National Film Archive 2016, p. 140.

[7] ibid, p. 139.

[8] Jan Bernard, op. cit., p. 200.

[9] Some scenes, especially in establishing shots, were arranged according to Goya’s Caprices or Dutch and Flemish still lifes; the scene at the brook refers to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass; the feast is supposed to resemble a photography from the Nobel Prize Awards; the loyal listening to the host imitates the footage from Hitler’s Munich speech; and the scene in which Karel is beaten up is inspired by a documentary from Vietnam in which eight armed men attack a defenceless person.

[10] Antonín J. Liehm, Slovo má… Ester Krumbachová. Literární noviny, no. 50, 1966, p. 7.

[11] Pavel Juráček, Deník III. 19591974. Praha: Torst 2018, p. 530.

[12] Lukáš Skupa, op. cit, p. 140.

[13] Pavel Juráček, op. cit, p. 659.

[14] Ester Krumbachová, První knížka Ester. Praha: Primus 1994, p. 20.

Filmographic data

Jan Němec

Ester Krumbachová, Jan Němec

Jaromír Šofr

Karel Mareš

Ivan Vyskočil, Jan Klusák, Jiří Němec, Pavel Bošek, Karel Mareš, Evald Schorm, Jana Prachařová, Zdena Salivarová-Škvorecká, Helena Pejšková

Filmové studio Barrandov, 71 min.


Mouthful (Sousto, 1960), Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964) and particularly The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966) are film poems, metaphors, or rather parables with a poetic order not built from experience and observation but from mental concentration on the basic conflict of humanity, the strife between folly and sense, between individuals and totality, between humanity’s desire for freedom and the unwillingness to deal with the problems affecting it. 

Jaroslav Boček, Film a doba 12, 1966, no. 12, p. 626. 


“In his parable, Němec uses realistic means of expression. He puts an artificial scene of a feast in contrast with genuine nature. He reveals the townish need of representation by letting ladies in evening dresses stumble over rocks and roots. And yet we feel that the most absurd things are still far behind reality. A daring film.” 

Gotthard Böhm, Die Presse, 15th March 1969.


The Share of Stupidity and Selfishness in the Tragedy of Man

Not the story, that’s only a pretext for a sarcastic view on basic types, on moral principles of people who so often actively participate in the misfortune of others and in massacres – in case of our film, a manhunt to find a single person. Rather than a story of a ruined dinner party, our film The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966) is a documentary (and at the same time a parable) showing that people are willing to participate in the glory of life just as much as in its shame, that their desire to share a table with anyone, as long as they can benefit from it, is often more powerful than any individual or moral standpoint.

In our film, we deliberately used several situations and scenes which are known, we know what they mean. Among them is for instance the opening impressionist scene of the “trip to nature;” the fight with Karel reminiscent of photographs of massacres at various “pacification” events (the metal-tipped boot of one of the kneeling people); the loyal faces of men listening to their beloved leader. The scene of the celebration at the lake was composed according to a photograph of a feast annually held for Nobel Prize Laureates.

This doesn’t mean that we were guided by an effort to imitate reality: with all the stylisation of our story, these allusions are meant to point out the association of the trip, apprehension, interrogation, feast and betrayal in our film with what’s happening anywhere in the world at this very moment.

Ester Krumbachová, Jan Němec

3 ½ podruhé, Praha 1969, p. 204. 

Ester Krumbachová

„What I remember from my own life is that I used to be a child and I no longer am one, then that I used to have many different jobs, I was fired from some and other ones I left myself […] and one day when I found myself in a film studio, I was hit with the love arrow and that was the end of me – I succumbed to film like others do to alcohol.“[1]

When we hear the names of films such as Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci), A Carriage Going to Vienna (Kočár do Vídně) or All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci), we automatically think of the names of their directors: Němec, Kachyňa, Jasný… Under the auteur theory, they are seen as the key personalities arranging for everything – it was their brilliant minds from which these jewels of the New Wave sprang. Seen from the common perspective, the other members of the large teams are less important. They only submitted to someone’s creative vision.

However, if we look closer and take into account the specific background, such monolithic understanding of a work of cinematography is no longer sustainable. The concept of emanation of art from an ingenious mind should be replaced by the emancipation of film workers. You clearly realize the need for such a step when you start exploring the career of Ester Krumbachová, a woman of many professions and of much greater influence than usually admitted. This might also be due to her humility and modesty, mentioned by many of her colleagues and friends, together with her originality, large-mindedness and sense of humour.

To what extent is Diamonds of the Night exceptional because of Jan Němec’s directing and to what degree is it so unique thanks to the decision not to use costumes commonly used in Second World War dramas? Isn’t the character of the widowed Krista in A Carriage Going to Vienna so iconic because of the black scarf Iva Janžurová has around her head? Doesn’t the unique narrative structure of All My Good Countrymen function to a great extent thanks to the different styles of the individual chapters using different colours and colour contrasts, among other things?

It was Ester Krumbachová who came up with all these ideas in the role of a designer, costume designer or co-screenwriter. There can be many such questions related to many films she was involved with, or more precisely the general tone of which she co-determined.

Thinking outside the box

As is clear from the available sources and statements, Ester Krumbachová was not only attractive and charismatic, as Josef Škvorecký wrote about her (and about Věra Chytilová), but also immensely talented – at least as talented as her male colleagues. At the same time, unlike many of them, she was all her life less willing to compromise, going by the words: „it is okay to argue and hold one’s own when it’s about things that matter.“[2] This was related to her extraordinary ability to think outside the box, as illustrated for instance by Petr Václav in the documentary portrayal Searching for Ester (Pátrání po Ester).

Václav describes how they were thinking over the concept of colours in Marian. The obvious way would be to dress all the boys in the juvenile detention centre in the same uniforms with numbers. However, Krumbachová rejected this obvious solution and recommended dressing the inmates in civilian clothes, leaving them some freedom in their confinement. By rejecting conventions, she came up with a system Václav could then control. He was the last of the many directors who owe the final form of their films to this renaissance personality of Czech film with her unique artistic style.

Her entire life, Ester Krumbachová was stepping out of her roles, moving between genres and media, science and magic, noble and low. Close to her were both urban decadence and the order of nature, which she valued more than different human regulations and doctrines. More than to people following rules having their strings pulled, she was attracted to those who were insecure and unpredictable. Maybe it was because she herself pursued what mattered to her instead of trying to please every person and every regime. Thinking about Ester means thinking beyond the established structures and discovering the less-explored interspaces of the history of Czech theatre, film, and visual art.

Every day like a detective story

Unconventional was already her background, shaping her personality when she was young. She was born on 12 November 1923 in Brno. Her mother of Jewish origin was a well-read teacher with many interests. Housework was not among her priorities. Krumbachová’s father came from Slovakia and was probably a factory owner or businessman in Bratislava. Even though he was of Hungarian-Romani origin, he collaborated with the Nazis under the Protectorate, which might have saved his wife and her family from being deported to a concentration camp. Spending a lot of time abroad, he eventually found another partner in Prague and left his wife, also abandoning Ester and her younger brother for good.

Ester’s mother took the betrayal very hard and refused to accept alimony from her unfaithful man. The household found itself in a precarious situation, with Ester taking a large share of responsibility. She was cooking, cleaning, taking care of her brother and got involved in the anti-Nazi resistance movement. She was interrogated by the Gestapo and was forced to labour in a Berlin factory. Her war experience strengthened her desire for law and justice. At the same time, it temporarily deprived her of zest for life, which she claimed to only recover when she was thirty.

Under the Protectorate, Ester attended the monastic girls‘ Czechoslovak grammar school and the fourth Czech Realgymnasium in the same city. In 1943, she entered the School of Applied Arts in Prague where she studied applied painting and graphics until 1948. After graduation, she could illustrate books of design posters; however, she never did so except for a short period of drawing for the Communist Party newspaper. Living culture and living people were closer to her. After the end of the War, she was taking care of former inmates of the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp suffering from typhus. In this was, she wanted to at least partly atone for the guilt of her Nazi-collaborating father, the first of many unreliable men in her life.[3]

Due to the lack of job offers in her field, she had several manual jobs after graduation. She worked as a decorator at agricultural exhibitions, grazed sheep in a Romani (“Gypsy) settlement, sold flax, estimated the price of antiquities and held a temporary job as an agricultural worker in the borderland woods… But, most importantly, the whole time she was in touch with authentic marginalized people whose unyieldingness impressed her and whose style of clothing, untouched by the fashion trends of the time, would later become a source of artistic inspiration. Their behaviour was not motivated by an effort to maintain a place in the system. To live, they didn’t need pretence, something Krumbachová despised. This might have been one of the reasons why she later had no problem fitting in with the regulars at her favourite pub, Na Zelené lišce, to have long dialogues with them and soak up their animality; to work with her hands, job hop, and not to have a stable income; to reject privileges guaranteed by her social capital, the acceptance of which would mean being obliged to someone and giving up a part of her freedom. Without security or submitting to anyone was how Krumbachová spent her entire life. „The underlying mistake of my life might be that I have never learned to respect any authority,“ she admitted later.[4] She also never turned into a lazy, careful being who gets stuck in a place, digging a hole until it becomes her grave. Thanks in part to the fact that she never stagnated, Krumbachová, in her own words, „lived an adventurous life with every day being a detective story.“[5]


It was in Pilsen that Krumbachová met the theatre director Svatopluk Papež and started entering the world based on pretence and acting, but in a controlled and reflected manner. In 1954, she became a promotion officer for the České Budějovice Regional Theatre. Before long, she asserted herself as a scenic and costume designer. The first stage she designed was for Musset’s comedy No Trifling with Love.

With her unique artistic sensibility, she impressed Miroslav Macháček – first her colleague, and later her life partner. She also attracted the attention of the State Security, who suspected the rising artist had links to foreign intelligence services. Her „romance“ with the State Security was to last on and off until November 1989. She later summarized her experience with field agents invading her privacy and limiting her freedom as follows:

„[…] it seemed to me that they weren’t the sharpest pencils in the box … They generally used simple-minded methods, and they usually contacted people of poor character. It does little credit to the several hundreds or thousands people in our country, as these workers fully relied on the Czech enviousness.“[6]

In 1956, Krumbachová together with Macháček moved to Prague. She began doing scenic and costume design for the ABC Theatre, Karlín Musical Theatre and National Theatre. Her work earned her the recognition of critics and colleagues alike. Several plays she worked on were directed by Macháček (e.g. After the Wedding [Po svatbě], Brawling in ChioggiaOedipus Rex), Rudolf Hrušínský (The Curious SavagePygmalion) or Jan Roháč (Once upon a Time, there Were Two… [Byli jednou dva], Tough Guy or Albert [Tvrďák aneb Albert], Julius and Darkness [Julius a tma]). She most valued her work on Midnight Mass (Půlnoční mše), Third Wish (Třetí přání), and Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse.

Her props, costumes and stage sets, which she learned to paint herself, were determining and complementing the characters and giving the plays more general meanings and dimensions. Into every scene, she was trying to incorporate an idea, without encumbering it with useless ornaments stealing the spotlight. She made certain that no detail was accidental and for everything to be grounded in a general concept. In this way, every component involved the philosophy of the whole. It was a well-balanced interplay in which Krumbachová could make use of her analytical thinking and extraordinary erudition, spanning from Nietzsche to old Chinese opera.

Her film works would be governed by the same logic as were her theatre ones. Just like in the theatre, her priority would be her artistic freedom and not having to submit to all the requirements from above: „For instance, designing a stage was even better when I could come up with everything myself. I hated when somebody was telling me how to do it.“[7]

First films

In 1961, Krumbachová started working as a costume designer and artist in the film industry, which gave her a chance to focus on more details and further extend her range of activities. For instance, for her first film, The Man from the First Century (Muž z prvního století), she was creating artefacts herself in the Barrandov Studio workshops. Oldřich Lipský’s film shows the future of designer practice with brain detectors materializing clothes based on the wearer’s individual taste and mood. „On the threshold between Brussels‘ sharp-edged aesthetics and postmodernism,“ the costumes were designed by Krumbachová.[8]

Working on The Man from the First Century, Krumbachová also met a legend of Czech film, which she described in První knížka Ester (Ester’s First Book): „Or for instance Martin Frič was walking around […] and I was pounding something, all grimy in my overalls and convinced that no one could do this better than me (what an illusion!) – and he told me: ‚You must be pretty nuts as well, right?‘ So I asked him what he meant by AS WELL, if he meant he was nuts, too, and he was all excited about it and then we made several short films together, mainly with Jan Werich […] and also one feature film – it was called The King of Kings (Král králů) […]“[9]

The next film Krumbachová was involved in was again a sci-fi one: Ikarie XB 1, for which she designed the costumes together with Jan Skalický and Vladimír Synek. To emphasize the subordination of the main ship’s crew to a common end, they all wear unisex clothes with minimal differences.[10] Krumbachová described her thought process in designing the costumes in an interview for Mladý svět Weekly: „[…] I always start with the actor since his personal tone, his personal smell always and without exception influences my work and his eventual appearance in the film. I first focus on the eyes. Then on his laughter. And then on the hands – they are interesting as well. His costume is also given by the general concept, scene composition, colour tone, etc., and often also directly by the situation on location at that moment.“[11]

In the early years of her career, Krumbachová also designed costumes for Zbyněk Brynych’s war dramas A Convoy Leaving Paradise (Transport z ráje) and And the Fifth Rider Is Fear (A pátý jezdec je strach) and for the anti-war musical If a Thousand Clarinets (Kdyby tisíc klarinetů). In many cases, she was involved in the filming process and film production in other roles as well, be it as a designer or a dramaturgist helping to connect individual visual motifs. As key as her influence may have been for the resulting form, atmosphere or composition of a film, she was not always mentioned in the credits. Trying to appreciate her actual contribution to Czech film thus really involves „searching for Ester“, as suggested in Věra Chytilová’s documentary on Krumbachová.

Telling are the words of Otakar Vávra with whom Krumbachová first worked on The Thirteenth Chamber (Třináctá komnata), and later together adapted Kaplický’s book on medieval trials, The Witch Hunt (Kladivo na čarodějnice): „This is the second time I have been working with Ester Krumbachová. This time we already met over the screenplay. Even though our temperaments are completely different, we work very well together. I would say that she helped me deepen the dramatic relief of the story, she spiced up and livened up the characters, applying the screenplay’s intention in her rich scenic ideas as well.“[12]

The Diamonds and the Party

Fateful was Krumbachová’s encounter with Jan Němec – another personality with uncontrollable creative energy unwilling to submit to conventions and standards: „[…] we immediately fell in love to death so that I couldn’t even eat, sleep, walk or do any other things that would be beneficial to life.“[13] It was according to Arnošt Lustig’s short story that they made Diamonds of the Night. Krumbachová’s input was not only limited to costume design, as film databases suggest. She also intervened in dramaturgy and moved the initially rather realistic story towards an existential statement about the human fate. Němec himself later admitted that without her, Diamonds would have been a completely different film.  

Krumbachová and Němec’s relationship was always partly conflictual, but also mutually enriching. What they mainly had in common was their enthusiasm and passion for their work. Krumbachová appreciated Němec as „[…] an extraordinary director, who in addition to being neurotic possessed enormous power to see the pressing question you keep asking yourself through to the end.“[14] In Němec, she found an author with whom she didn’t have to make any concessions thanks to their artistic connection: „None of his peers would have accepted what I was proposing to him for Diamonds of the Night. In a similar way, he embraced my project The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech), which everyone had been laughing at.“[15]

In the above mentioned parable, Krumbachová already appears in the credits as the author of the story and screenplay. The author described the strenuous process of writing – in which the authors draw on their innermost beliefs, leaving behind a part of themselves in the work, something which Krumbachová always strove for – in an interview for Obroda magazine: „The most difficult thing is when you sit over a blank paper and you are supposed to start writing or drawing. Or when there is a raw, untouched material in front of you and you are supposed to give it a form, to master it. It is this moment before you start working when you are embarrassed to realize that you have no idea what to do with it.“[16]

For Krumbachová, the main theme of all her artistic works was her own life. Every work was supposed to be identical with it. For her, art was an expression and formulation of the approach to this main theme. For several means of expression, film was an ideal medium. If she always strove to achieve the concord of individual elements and their harmony with other components, to find unity and connecting lines, it was because we are not capable of such things during our lives.

Writing the screenplay for The Party was long and difficult also because Krumbachová wanted to make a statement, as comprehensive as possible, about human indifference and adaptability – qualities in total contradiction with her moral principles and which she was never going to accept in others: „I don’t mind if someone is earthbound when they want at least something, be it a stupid thing. But I can’t forgive indifference.“[17] Again and again, she found herself in opposition to the mainstream population, for whom obedience and subordination was an acceptable solution.

For Krumbachová, dialogues were important components of The Party. She was trying for the characters not to say anything meaningful; we were only supposed to hear fragments of sentences. These were not meant as allegories though. The hollowness was an authorial intent. „I didn’t use any word in The Party in an effort to conceal, encipher anything. I just wanted to expose the jibber-jabber we hear around us every day […]. I tried to use paradoxes and absurdities to characterize people who fail to utter a single reasonable word and whose opinions are ridiculous – yet the ultimate result is tragic.“[18]

Even though the screenplay was approved without comments, problems appeared after the film was finished due to assumed multiple meanings of the dialogues and the risk that viewers would interpret them as political criticism. The censors saw parallels between the film characters and some politicians, living and dead. In the Host character, Antonín Novotný saw Lenin, and as such considered The Party and the Guests an attack on Leninism.[19] If Krumbachová was targeting the powerful, her focus was broader and timeless and based on her disgust for „[…] the cordial fatherliness of men of power distributed across different states, with their kindness only concealing the actual state of things: the fact that they were only trying to maintain power and superiority over the dumber or less powerful.“[20]

What made the situation around The Party even worse was the fact that working on the film was the production team of the politically active writer Jan Procházka, who unlike the conservative Novotný belonged to the reform wing of the Communist Party.[21] The film’s fate was sealed by MP Pružinec’s speech in the National Assembly claiming that The Party and Chytilová’s Daisies (Sedmikrásky) were „trash“, attacking the politics and ideas of Czechoslovakia. Even though its distribution was not officially prohibited, The Party wasn’t advertised didn’t screen at any domestic festival, and no reviews of it were published, effectively minimizing awareness of the film.

A guest in the world of men

While with The Party, Krumbachová had the concept in mind from the very beginning, with Daisies there was a lot of last-minute writing and thinking. She and Věra Chytilová had met thanks to Bohumil Šmída and Ladislav Fikar, leading one of the Barrandov Studio production teams. Chytilová initially wasn’t very happy about not having a completely free hand in writing the screenplay, but she soon got on the same page with Krumbachová and realized thanks to her how important it is to get the theme of the film straight, „to clearly state what the film is about and stick to it.“ If Daisies had more artistic and semantic layers than Chytilová’s earlier cinéma vérité films, it was undoubtedly the result of her inspiring cooperation with Krumbachová: „Ester helped me find ways to express the meaning of the screenplay, to clarify what it was about and then push the screenplay in that direction, so that no scene came in vain.“[22]

Daisies was targeting indifference as well. This time it was embodied in two insidiously innocent young girls named Marie around whom the world is falling apart, and who in their impassivity and amorality remain untouched. The psychology of the characters is reflected in the film’s composition, which is as shaky as the qualities of the adaptable heroines, changing to fit every situation. The decomposition of values is mirrored in the overall stylization, with destruction as a key word. The film image itself isn’t exempt from it either, becoming in the hands of Krumbachová, Chytilová and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera a multimedia collage whose individual parts can be freely reordered. Whereas the destructive energy of the two Maries is devastating, for the authors of Daisies destruction served as a creative tool for expressing creative imagination, freedom and the impossibility to counter the absurd by other means than absurdity.

The unpleasant epilogue of The Party and Daisies was the beginning of the end of Ester Krumbachová’s film work. Perhaps in anticipation of the impending prohibition of such activities, she still managed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to enhance some of the most appreciated films of the New Wave with her original ideas: The Witch Hunt (Kladivo na čarodějnice), The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko), All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci), The Ear (Ucho)… Many other projects couldn’t be executed though. For instance with Němec she was planning a series of eccentric crime comedies (Four-leaf Clover for Luck [Čtyřlístek pro štěstí], The Witness of Five Crimes [Svědek pěti zločinů], Three Brothers and a Miraculous Spring [Tři bratři a zázračný pramen]), and with Václav Havel, she wrote a non-executed screenplay for Broken Heart (Zlomené srdce), a film planned in co-production with the USA with an international cast.[23]

One of the projects completed in the initially excited, later tense and eventually depressing atmosphere of the late 1960s was a parable of a paradise from which people were expelled when they learned the truth and refused to come to peace with it. According to Věra Chytilová, it was her colleague and friend who was behind Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromů rajských jíme), a film so visually sophisticated that every scene had its own concept of colours: „Ester came up with the idea that we could start from a true story about a murderer of women published in the press; she thought that we could use it to explore more general questions of truth and lies, friendship and betrayal, which were moving our society in 1968.“[24]

In addition to the favourite motif of indifference condemning people to a cyclic (and in a way very comfortable) repetition of the same malfunctioning life patterns, the film emphasized the motif of the uneven fight between the genders. Krumbachová commented on this topic in several interviews and elaborated on it in her directorial debut Murdering the Devil (Vražda ing. Čerta), which we wrote about in detail recently, and in Faun’s Delayed Afternoon (Faunovo velmi pozdní odpoledne).

Even though she refused to be labelled a „feminist“, maybe because she considered the word to mean „hating men“, her reflection of patriarchal structures and disclosure of their embarrassing essence is in line with feminist thinking. To give just one example, we will quote a few sentences from her interview with A. J. Liehm: „We live and function in the world of men. Even though we are in the 20th century, a woman can still hardly do without men, or she at least experiences difficulties doing so. I mean social ones. That’s why we are like quests in the men’s world. But this could even be to a woman’s advantage because it can be easier for her to laugh at the world of men.“[25]

The stylized branch of the New Wave characterized in formal experiments and playfulness is also represented by Jaromil Jireš’s surrealist fairy tale Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů), markedly inspired by the poetics of Gothic fiction. Krumbachová was the co-screenwriter, designer and costume designer and, according to Kamila Boháčková, „using colours and space, she played with both romanticized tones (white girl’s chamber, fluttering curtains), and horror props (coffins, dark corridors with cobwebs, black coats).“[26]

Among the reverberations of the New Wave, there was Vojtěch Jasný’s anthology film Dogs and People (Psi a lidé), finished by Evald Schorm when Jasný emigrated. His authorial manuscript required several changes that Krumbachová had a hand in. Archive documents on the film offer a closer look at her consistency in thinking over the artistic dramaturgy: „Having discussed the options, we decided for a specific tone enhancing the naivist nature of all the short stories. The main four colours accompanying all the short stories are violet, yellow, black and white. These colours always appear with a different meaning and for a different period of time in all short stories, combined with other colour elements, and their duration should stand for a certain unity of all short stories and lightness suggesting that just like the characters, the colours jump from one short story to another as well…“[27]

Trying my best

After finishing the projects in process, Krumbachová stopped receiving job offers from Barrandov Studio and Television. She had no choice but to follow the recommendation to stay away from the film industry and to use her manual dexterity outside of it. During the Normalization period, she was selling hand-made jewellery, painting postcards and secretly collaborating with Laterna Magika and other theatres. She also began writing several screenplays, but there was no one she could offer them to. She was used to difficult living conditions from her youth, when she developed a thick skin and learned to fight injustice.

In 1969, she described her philosophy of life, helping her overcome both internal and external difficulties, with her typical openness, which not everyone could put up with: „For a long time, I didn’t like myself. But then I realized that one day you have to accept that you are who you are and that there are some things you cannot overcome, such as anxiety, fear or sadness arising from the walks of life. But if there are some things you can actually change, do it!“[28]

Nevertheless, the combination of the pressure she was facing and the uncertainty she was forced to live in drove her to escape through alcohol in the late 1980s. She was writing dark fairy tales and instead of an artistic concept for another film, she was contemplating suicide.[29] Having made her one of the prominent figures of Prague’s world of artists earlier, her bohemianism and hedonism turned against her in the times of artistic inactivity and loneliness, with her beloved cats as the main partners in her silence. Alcohol was a substitute for artistic creation, which until then had served as a way out, relieving her inner uncertainty.

A short-term liberation from her Normalization stasis was her work on Kachyňa’s Little Mermaid (Malá mořská víla) in the mid-1970s and Faun’s Delayed Afternoon at the beginning of the subsequent decade. It was Chytilová as the co-screenwriter and designer who pushed through her official involvement in the project. After several years‘ break, she gave maximum care to the satire, uncompromisingly dealing with men’s vanity, cowardice and hypocrisy. She was interested in seeming details, such as costume accessories and pictures on the walls. As if she sensed that she wouldn’t get another film opportunity for a long time.

Only in 1988 Krumbachová could follow up on the TV song shows popular in the 1960s (she was involved e.g. in The Lost Revue [Ztracená revue] or Necklace of Melancholy [Náhrdelník melancholie]) – she made two video clips of the Garáž band for a BBC show about Czech rock. She also reviewed the screenplay for the TV drama Grievance (Křivda). She commented on her return to the film industry after several years of inactivity very laconically in Ester’s First Book: „After 1968 I couldn’t work for twenty years and now I can again, so I am trying my best […]“[30]

In the following years, she was responsible for the artistic design of the family film Twelve Bars for Guitar (Království za kytaru) and Kachyňa’s The Last Butterfly (Poslední motýl). In 1993, she finished a screenplay for a film based on Zdena Salivarová’s novel Honzlová: „I have been working on it for a year. I am absolutely exhausted. I had to dig deep with my shovel to dig up film truths out of the anthill of words. I was a bit afraid, but the Škvoreckýs are satisfied.“[31] For the television series GENUS, she prepared documentary portrayals of the Válová sisters and Ota Ornest.

In 1995, she made an image accompaniment for Ivan Kral’s song Winner Takes All. She didn’t get to make more video clips, which after a long time allowed for free experimentation with image and costumes. A woman unconventional in her thinking and clothing style, well-read in philosophy and art history, scaring men off with her sharp intelligence, extremely sincere and critical, ambiguous, generous, empathic and always refusing to wander off in the wrong direction and make compromises, she died on 13 January 1996 in Prague. According to Irena Pavlásková, her colleague from the international organization of female filmmakers KIWI, before her death Krumbachová „had an enormous creative potential and could still accomplish many things.“[32]

„You can divide life into several short periods. First you realize what’s going on, then what’s going on with you and finally who you are. Only then do you start finding out what you can do and you realize there is not so much.“[33]

Martin Šrajer 


[1] Ester Krumbachová, První knížka Ester. Praha: Primus 1994, p. 7.

[2] Miroslava Filípková, Ester Krumbachová. Mladý svět, No. 47 (29. 11), 1968, p. 24.

[3] „Destiny’s mysterious hand always drove me to a moral trap in the form of a completely unreliable man,“ said Krumbachová in hindsight. Rostislav Sarvaš, Nevšední setkání. Praha: Academia 2003, p. 32.

[4] A. J. Liehm, Ostře sledované filmy. Praha: Národní filmový archiv 2001, p. 288.

[5] Rostislav Sarvaš, Nevšední setkání. Praha: Academia 2003, p. 34.

[6] Ibid, p. 36.

[7] Marie Valtrová, Nelze nikoho skličovat. Tvorba, No. 51 (19. 12), 1990, p. 4.

[8] Iva Knobloch, Radim Vondráček, Design v českých zemích 19002000. Praha: Academia 2016, p. 501

[9] Ester Krumbachová, První knížka Ester. Praha: Primus 1994, p. 8.

[10] See Markéta Uhlířová, Cesta prostorem, časem a utopickým modernismem v Ikarii XB 1. In Lucie Česálková, Zpět k českému filmu: Politika, estetika, žánry a techniky. Praha: Národní filmový archiv 2017, pp. 323–350.

[11] Miroslava Filípková, Ester Krumbachová. Mladý svět, No. 47 (29. 11.), 1968, p. 24

[12] Oldřich Adamec, Kladivo na čarodějnice, rozhovor s režisérem Otakarem Vávrou. Záběr, No. 10 (17. 5), 1969, p. 6.

[13] Ester Krumbachová, První knížka Ester. Praha: Primus 1994, p. 8.

[14] Rostislav Sarvaš, Nevšední setkání. Praha: Academia 2003, p. 36.

[15] Ibid, p. 37.

[16] Jan Kolář, Názory Ester Krumbachové. Obroda, No. 2 (15. 1), 1969, p. 18.

[17] A. J. Liehm, Ostře sledované filmy. Praha: Národní filmový archiv 2001, p. 296.

[18] Ibid, pp. 296–297.

[19] Lukáš Skupa, Vadí-nevadí. Česká filmová cenzura v 60. letech. Praha: Národní filmový archiv 2016, p. 140.

[20] Miroslava Filípková, Ester Krumbachová. Mladý svět, No. 47 (29. 11), 1968, p. 24.

[21] Krumbachová cooperated with Procházka repeatedly. Both were involved in Long Live the Republic (Ať žije republika), A Carriage Going to ViennaThe Ear and Jumping Over Puddles Again (Už zase skáču přes kaluže).

[22] Tomáš Pilát, Věra Chytilová zblízka. Praha: XYZ 2010, p. 163.

[23] Filmové projekty Ester Krumbachové a Jana Němce. Záběr, No. 10 (17. 5), 1969, p. 6.

[24] Tomáš Pilát, Věra Chytilová zblízka. Praha: XYZ 2010, p. 181.

[25] A. J. Liehm, Ostře sledované filmy. Praha: Národní filmový archiv 2001, p. 297.

[26] Kamila Boháčková, Valerie a týden divů. In Töteberg, Michael, Lexikon světového filmu. Litvínov: Orpheus 2005, p. 532.

[27] Jan Bernad, Evald Schorm a jeho filmy. Praha: Primus 1994, p. 135.

[28] Jan Kolář, Názory Ester Krumbachové. Obroda, No. 2 (15. 1), 1969, p. 18. One of the readers of the above mentioned text felt the urge to react with a letter revealing his discomfort with the artist’s openness: „I have no doubt that Ms Krumbachová is sincere in her views, but I think that sincerity alone is not a sufficient reason for publishing…“ Útržky z redakční pošty. Obroda, No. 5 (26. 2), 1969, p. 9.

[29] Krumbachová summarized her problems with alcohol very pragmatically: „I had a period of alcoholism. It lasted about five years. But I ended it by choice. At night I couldn’t sleep and during the day I didn’t want to live.“ Rostislav Sarvaš, Nevšední setkání. Praha: Academia 2003, p. 38.

[30] Ester Krumbachová, První knížka Ester. Praha: Primus 1994, p. 9.

[31] Martin Komárek, Gen. Olomouc: Hájek a spol. 1993, p. 68.

[32] Sedláček Sedláček, Irena Pavlásková. Cinema, No. 10 (30. 9), 1998, p. 30.

[33] A. J. Liehm, Ostře sledované filmy. Praha: Národní filmový archiv 2001, p. 293.