Czech cinema is nearly as old as cinema itself. Yet with one dramatic exception, it did not gain international attention until the Czech New Wave dazzled the world in the 1960s. The exception, 1933’s Ecstase (Ecstasy), was part of an earlier modernist movement encompassing art, literature, and film that emerged in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. Ecstasy earned worldwide notoriety for its erotic content, and the attention obscured the real achievements by one of the seminal figures of that first new wave, director Gustav Machatý. His filmography is small, only 12 feature films as a director. Outside Eastern Europe, Ecstasy was known as Machatý’s one important film. But Erotikon, made four years before Ecstasy, explored the same theme of a woman’s sexuality. The full flowering of his talent came between 1926 and 1933, before war and circumstances interrupted it.
Film had flourished in the region even before there was a Czech Republic. The first films were shown in Prague and Karlovy Vary in 1896, just months after the Lumières’ first screening in France. That same year, amateur photographer Jan Křízenecky took a movie camera from Paris to Prague, and two years later made the first Czech feature and documentary films, which were also the first in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prague’s first permanent movie theater opened in 1907, and the city’s first production companies began the following decade. After the establishment of the independent Czech Republic in 1918, cinema took off. But according to film historian Pavel Taussig, most of the producers and directors were “crafts and trade persons” and had few artistic ambitions. Intellectuals rejected film as an art form, preferring American films. Writer and painter Josef Capek even warned, “garbage is garbaging garbage.” But by the end of the silent era, intellectuals and artists had begun to embrace film’s possibilities.
Machatý was born in Prague in 1901. As a teenager, he played piano in movie houses, worked as an actor, and directed his first film, Teddy Wants to Smoke (1919). He went to Hollywood around 1920, and information on what he did there is sketchy. Most sources say he apprenticed with D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, or both, but only one source mentions a specific film on which he may have worked, listing him as assistant to Stroheim on Foolish Wives (1921). Machatý’s own embellishments further obscured facts. In a newspaper interview during the 1944 production of Jealousy (1945), Machatý claimed that he first came to the U.S. “when he was fourteen,” running away from home and making his way to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher and a gravedigger to earn the train fare to California. The article adds that Machatý got a job sweeping stages at Universal then later worked as “an attendant at the zoo that the studio maintained at that time.” After learning “the fundamentals of filmmaking,” he went back to Czechoslovakia where, “at the age of 18, he produced and directed his first picture, The Kreuzer Sonata” (1926). (In fact, it was his second film as director, and he was 25.) It was followed by Schweick in Civilian Life (1927), then Erotikon, his final silent.
Machatý’s return to Prague coincided with the heyday of the avant-garde Devétsil movement, influenced by German Expressionism and French Dadaism and Surrealism. Vítěszlav Nezval, the leading Czech Surrealist poet, collaborated with Machatý (without credit) on the story for Erotikon. The two also wrote a script for a silent film called Lust. Although it was never made, that script became the basis for Machatý’s first sound film, From Saturday to Sunday (1931). It also had a sexual theme, the story of a one-night stand and its consequences. According to Taussig, “[t]he films Nezval made in collaboration with Machatý are the pinnacle of his film work. Machatý … managed to make films with a simple plot but an exciting external expression that reflected the internationalism of film, especially during the silent era.” In Erotikon, the simple plot of a country girl seduced by a city slicker is a framework for a poetically observed study of a woman’s sensual awakening.
The art director on Erotikon and From Saturday to Sunday was another avant-garde artist, Alexander Hackenschmied. Along with cinematographer Václav Vích, Hackenschmied and Machatý created Erotikon’s arresting visual style, with its extreme close-ups of faces and objects, its symbolic imagery and camera movement. The scene of a sexual encounter is particularly effective, with its deliriously spinning camera and close-ups on the face of a young woman during orgasm. Hackenschmied later moved to United States, changed his name to Alexander Hammid, and became a well-regarded documentary and experimental filmmaker. In the 1940s, he worked with another avant-garde filmmaker, his then-wife Maya Deren.
Hackenschmied also worked as scenic designer on Machatý’s Ecstasy, a bucolic idyll about an unhappily married young woman who finds sexual fulfillment with a handsome engineer. The leading role was played by 19-year-old Austrian actress Hedy Kiesler. In one scene, she is seen swimming nude; in another, in an echo of Erotikon, the camera is on her face as she simulates orgasm. The worldwide uproar over the film got Hedy a contract with MGM and a new name, Hedy Lamarr. It got Machatý a lot of trouble. Ecstasy caused a sensation at the second Venice Film Festival in 1934 but was denied a prize when the Vatican objected. When an American distributor tried to import the film, U.S. Customs refused to allow it. As Frank Miller writes in Censored Hollywood, “It was the first time customs laws had been used to keep a film out of the country.” Eventually, a bowdlerized version was allowed into the U.S., but the Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood’s self-censorship organization, refused to give it a seal of approval, effectively making widespread exhibition impossible. It did screen at a few American “art theaters” over the years, but only in 1950 did a drastically changed Ecstasy get approved for adult viewing in the United States. Novelist Henry Miller compared Ecstasy to the work of D.H. Lawrence.
Meanwhile, as the political situation in Europe deteriorated, Machatý made films in Austria and Italy and, in 1936, emigrated to the U.S. as a refugee. He settled in Hollywood but had a hard time getting work. At MGM, he directed sections of The Good Earth (1937), Madame X (1937), and Conquest (1938), all without credit, and also directed a short, The Wrong Way Out (1938). His one feature at MGM was the B-picture Within the Law (1939). Machatý’s final and best American film was Jealousy (1945) at Poverty Row’s Republic Studios. He returned to Europe in 1951, working in Germany as a co-writer on a Pabst film as well as writing and directing his final film, Missing Child 312 (1956). According to critic Elliott Stein, Machatý’s “attempts to arrange further projects in his native Czechoslovakia led nowhere.” He ended his career teaching at the Munich Film School and died in 1963.
For decades, Machatý was primarily remembered as the director of a scandalous “dirty movie,” and his work was rarely seen outside Czechoslovakia. But as his early work has become better known, he is being recognized as an innovative artist and a pioneer in exploring women’s sensuality. As film historian Thomas J. Slater writes, “He had more to offer than just a scene of a naked woman running through the woods.”
Presented at SFSFF 2009 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra