Czechoslovakia’s postwar years were dizzy with social and political confusion. The Axis and the Allies danced across her land with presidents rising and falling as ink flowed across treaties. Uprisings and demonstrations supported the just and accused the rotten. Germans were expelled; Hungarians and Slovaks were repatriated; and the Soviets marched in the streets. The land was peppered with bodies whose deaths under mysterious circumstances could have been political murder just as easily as suicides. Blood was on the pavement, treason on the gallows, and revolution whispered from lips in alleyways. Lines were redrawn. In 1960 Czechoslovakia’s constitution proved socialism victorious, and a democratic centralist communism replaced Stalinism with the swipe of a pen. The power in the electorate returned to the hands of the people, and they embraced their newfound communal independence in every aspect of society. While the challenges of a more Leninist communism became apparent relatively soon, it seemed Czechoslovakia benefitted in art and culture as they moved away from the totalitarianism of the red country they knew for so long.
In the following years, art exploded in Czechoslovakia. Visual artists began experimenting with form and execution as a newfound freedom seemed to blow across all mediums. Film was no exception.
As a recent graduate from an all-male program, film major Věra Chytilová released shorts and a small feature films to relatively mixed reception. That was until 1966 when, at thirty-five years old, Chytilová was awash in red. She released Daisies (Sedmikrásky) and not only became the most recognized female director of the Czech New Wave film movement, but changed everything about narrative, structure, decorum, and the format of the medium.
Daisies is the story of two teenagers named Marie who spin through a strange new Czechoslovakia by declaring that they will finally, for once in their lives, be selfish. What follows is a dreamlike allegorical farce of intimate feminist indulgence, zeroing in on their existential interactions with men, food, sex, entertainment, alcohol, dance, beauty, and simply being alive. The two young women are partners in a revolution of self-gratification, a sisterhood that weaves through revolutionary visual vignettes.
The world through a stark red hue is a recurring visual device in the film, and perhaps one of the most rewarding is when Marie I and Marie II burst into a cabaret featuring a band playing for dancers performing a routine from the roaring twenties. The Maries sit in a booth, each filch a bottle of libations, and the red filter washes over everything. The music of the age of excess gallops ahead, and the decorum of the restaurant is devolved into crimson chaos as the young women wordlessly perform their own interpretation of the piece. In red, they guzzle their bottles clean. In red, they climb the molding and swing from the columns. In red, they torment the other patrons, devolving them into set pieces from which to hang and ignore. In red, they are pulled across the dance floor and ejected through a red curtain, beaming with grins of cherry teeth. Red asserts their existence as women, as citizens, as associates in drunken revelers ignoring extrinsic values. Red is their revolution.
The film is a decisive political and sexual statement. To Chytilová, this revolution in red visually fights against the violent, helpless patriarchal pedestal that her nation had been teetering on for decades. Her Maries stand in stark vermillion just as she does among her peers, an uncontrollable force bleeding visionary brilliance. Chytilová’s protagonists, just as her Czechoslovakian sisters, finally deserved to gratify their talents and tastes. It paid off, as the duo fulfil their appetites in every possible way by the end of the film just as Chytilová does in her postmodern visual assault.
For her artistic indulgence, Chytilová was punished. The film was immediately banned for her depiction of irresponsible wasting of food, evident in practically every scene of the film. Her audience, thirsty to experience the thematic freedoms explored by the Maries, were simply shielded from its message of literal and emotional bounty. Perhaps Chytilová was aware of what would happen when freedom is pushed to its boundary on celluloid, as the protagonists meet their end when they are suffocated on a banquet table under an opulent, gilded chandelier.
Two years after its release and subsequent censorship, Czechoslovakia was invaded by hundreds of thousands of troops from Soviet Eastern Bloc armies in what was known as Prague Spring. While Daisies won international acclaim, Chytilová found it virtually impossible to work in the new Czechoslovakia. She was blacklisted and eventually resorted to directing commercials as Jaroslav Kučera, borrowing her husband’s name to sit behind the camera once more.
In Daisies, the Maries are bathed in red. Chytilová’s red is the color of passion, of heat, of lust, of passion, of the simmering summer sunset, and of the memory of violence. Chytilová’s red is the very essence of the deep, dark muscle beating our lifeblood in a cage of bone. Chytilová’s red is the everything we finally deserve.
Garrett Zecker holds an MFA in Fiction from the Mountainview MFA and an MA in English from Fitchburg State University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in print and online. His story “Milktooth” appeared most recently in Black Dandy Magazine, and his story “Rachel” is forthcoming in The New Guard Literary Review. You can find more online, including extensive literary and film reviews, at his website garrettzecker.com or on twitter at @mrzecker.