#207) Czechoslovakia 1968 (1969)
Directed by Denis Sanders & Robert M. Fresco
Class of 1997
NOTE: This post contains a brief history of Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring of 1968 that is a massive oversimplification of what actually happened. I’m no history buff, and this should not be your go-to for information on that revolution. At the very least there’s like eight Wikipedia pages on the subject.
The Plot: Presented with no narration and a score by Charles Bernstein, “Czechoslovakia 1968” is a whirlwind overview of Czechoslovakia from its founding in 1918 to the Soviet-Russian invasion and eventual revolution (known as Prague Spring) of 1968. Brought to you by your friends at the United States Information Agency.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives no specific reason, but does go into the history behind the making of the film, including the use of amateur footage that was smuggled out of Czechoslovakia. There’s also a fascinating essay by…the film’s co-director Robert M. Fresco! I didn’t know the actual filmmakers could write their own NFR essays. And here I’ve been reading works by film historians when I could have been getting information straight from the horse’s mouth (so to speak).
But Does It Really?: I give this film a pass as a representation of post-WWII government propaganda, albeit artful, well-crafted government propaganda. The film’s lack of narration gives it a universality that helps it survive better than other similar films. This is one of those movies where the history behind it – as well as the actual events being documented – outweigh any artistic merit, but Sanders & Fresco do a great job showcasing Czechoslovakian history through images, and the film holds up well enough to be worth a watch.
Everybody Gets One: We’ll see more of Denis Sanders when we cover “A Time Out of War”. Not a lot is known about Robert M. Fresco, other than he was a documentarian and screenwriter, including for a film called “Tarantula!” Composer Charles Bernstein met Denis Sanders at UCLA, and this composition was his first film score.
Wow, That’s Dated: The entire film is seemingly presented on a carousel slide projector. Somewhere Don Draper is smiling.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Czechoslovakia 1968” won the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. Typically, government films aren’t allowed to compete at the Oscars, but “Czechoslovakia 1968” played in theaters all over the world to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Prague Spring, and evidently one week in L.A. for Oscar eligibility.
- Created in 1953, The United States Information Agency (USIA) had several objectives regarding diplomacy; one of the main ones was to distribute films to foreign countries that portrayed American policies in a positive light, as well as educating the American government on foreign policy. This film is one of the latter.
- This film is occasionally presented under the title “Czechoslovakia 1918-1968”. All information I could find indicate that “Czechoslovakia 1968” is the original title.
- My favorite bit of revolution by the Czech citizens during Prague Spring: they painted over street signs and renamed their towns to create confusion. In the pre-GPS world of 1968, Soviet soldiers were occasionally misdirected out of the country.
- Czechoslovakia survived Prague Spring with nonviolent resistance, but found itself under strict Communist rule for the next 20 years. The Velvet Revolution of 1989 led to the fall of the Soviet Union, and therefore its rule over Czechoslovakia. The former Czechoslovakia is now two countries: The Czech Republic and Slovakia.
- The USIA dissolved in 1999 and parts were lumped into the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Don’t worry; they’re still creating propaganda and mischief, leading to their chairman not being allowed in Russia in 2016.
- Robert M. Fresco only has a handful of post-“Czechoslovakia” film credits to his name, and one aforementioned essay. Among Denis Sanders’ later achievements was directing “Invasion of the Bee Girls”!
- Charles Bernstein’s music career was primarily for television, but he did compose the score for “A Nightmare on Elm Street”.
- Prague Spring has inspired several pieces of fiction over the years, most notably the novel and subsequent film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”.