What are the odds that a boy born in the tiny town of Caslav, Czechoslovakia, who lost his parents to the Nazis around the age of 10, would go on to make a pair of Academy Award-nominated comedies about everyday Czech people in the late ’60s, escape Prague on the eve of the Russian invasion, and find his way to the United States, where he would direct two Oscar best picture winners?
Unlikely as it sounds, that is the path that brought Milos Forman to Hollywood, which enabled him to make “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus,” in addition to such films as “Taking Off,” “Hair,” and “Ragtime.” Forman was an exceptional artist in so many ways, and his death earlier this year at the age of 86 concludes a life of enormous sensitivity, insight, and good humor — traits that made his characters, whether great or small, so recognizably human.
Forman’s passing hit especially hard in the Czech Republic, where he is considered something of a national hero, and his legacy will be honored at the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival by opening with a screening of his delightful 1965 comedy “Loves of a Blonde” — an affectionate portrait of a naïve young woman looking for love in a rural Czech town where the women outnumber the men seven-to-one, and the right choice for an event that draws late-teen and early-twentysomething audiences each year, fresh-faced young men and women who traditionally make the city a stop on their summer backpacking tours.
That tribute gave me the excuse to look up the film’s co-writer, Ivan Passer, who has known Forman since he was 12 years old. Passer, who lives in Los Angeles and made such films as “Intimate Lighting” and “Cutter’s Way,” suggested we meet at Hugo’s restaurant, and there, over the course of three hours, shared stories of a friendship that spanned more than 70 years, including the little-known tale of their escape from Prague in early 1969.
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The two met at a boarding school in Podebrady, which Passer describes as “a place for kids who had lost their parents during the war,” including Forman, and “kids whose parents didn’t know what to do with them,” such as himself. As a child, Passer had developed a habit of disappearing for days at a time in order to poach game near his home, and his exasperated father hoped others might be able to discipline him better. Passer remembers Forman as a competitive spirit, determined to win at any and everything — sports, chess, the Academy Awards, you name it. In fact, he first earned Forman’s respect in a ridiculous challenge, in which someone dared the boys to see who could hold his hat against the wall the longest. Passer and Forman were the two left standing, and although the stunt left them so stiff they could barely move their necks for three days, they remained friends for life. Although Forman nearly always won, “It was a joy to beat him,” Passer affectionately recalls.
At school, Passer’s goal was to be expelled, while Forman was determined to become an opera singer, dragging his slightly younger buddy to every musical performance he could, pushing his way backstage to collect autographs from the singers. According to Passer, the communists dismantled the school a few years later, calling it “a nest of bourgeois ideology,” and the two boys went their separate ways until coincidence reunited them at the new FAMU film school in Prague. Forman had applied for the music program, but was instead accepted as a screenwriting student in the film school, while Passer, whose nonconformist spirit had gotten him branded a “working-class enemy” by the communists, hoped that enrolling in the directing program would clear his patchy student record. Passer was accepted, but later kicked out when they discovered what he had omitted about his past.
While Forman finished his studies, Passer apprenticed with a number of leading directors, earning experience and making connections, including DP Miroslav Ondrícek, that would benefit them when it came time for Forman to direct his first feature — technically, a pair of shorts joined together and screened at the New York Film Festival under the title “Konkurs” (“Audition”). Together with Jaroslav Papousek, Forman and Passer collaborated on Forman’s next three features, earning support from the Czech government after his sophomore feature, “Black Peter,” won the top prize at the Locarno Film Festival.
What is today recognized as the Czech New Wave was made possible by a short-lived political thawing known as the Prague Spring, during which Alexander Dubček and the Politburo devised the encouraging slogan “Let the young people express themselves.” Breaking from the highly propagandistic, Communist Party-approved work that had come before, Forman’s first two films brought positive attention to the local film industry, depicting the hopes and concerns of ordinary people in a new way.
|Ivan Passer, right, leans down toward the camera on the set of “Born to Win,” which he directed in 1971.
“Loves of a Blonde” expanded upon that approach. Inspired by a small-town girl he met in Prague, Forman decided to visit her hometown of Zruč nad Sázavou, where women found ample work making shoes and stockings, whereas most of the men had left to seek opportunity elsewhere. Forman had the idea that, faced with this gender imbalance, town leaders might organize a dance for all the single girls, asking the military to spare some of its soldiers to keep them company, only to get a batch of second-rate reservists instead.
The results are both hilarious and heartbreaking, as young Andula (Forman cast Hana Brejchová, the sister of his first wife) attempts to follow her heart, falling for a handsome pianist with less-than-honorable intentions. Shot in black-and-white with a mostly nonprofessional cast, “Loves” was enormously successful, paving the way for a full-color political satire, “The Firemen’s Ball,” in which the three writers, who got the idea after attending just such a bureaucratic festivity, poked fun at the Politburo. The Communist Party retaliated by banning the film, although Dubček reversed that briefly under the Prague Spring, only to have it “banned forever” when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Forman and Passer were both out of the country at the time, but returned home anyway, growing increasingly nervous that the Russians might seal the borders.
Though they had found support for the film abroad, Passer says, “We knew we could be in big trouble — and we were right, by the way, because our colleagues didn’t make movies.”
On the night of Jan. 9, 1969, Passer heard that Russian tanks were advancing toward Prague. He called Forman, who prepared a small suitcase, and the two of them hopped in Passer’s car, headed for the Austrian border. “This guard came out of this little booth with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder and said, ‘Comrades, where are you going?’” to which they lied, pretending to be headed to Vienna for the weekend. Examining their passports, the guard asked to see their exit visas — “which was a yellow piece of paper that they would put into your passport that nobody got,” Passer explains.
With Forman at the wheel, Passer got out and pretended to look for the visas (which of course they didn’t have) in the trunk, when the guard said, “Are you Milos Forman, the director? … I have seen all of your movies!” to which Forman replied, “And I bet you did not like any of them!”
“Can you imagine? In that situation!” Passer laughs, remembering the scene nearly half a century later. But the guard surprised them, describing a moment from “Loves of a Blonde” in which one of the reservists drops his wedding ring, chasing it around the floor. “Then he let us go,” Passer recalls. “And he spoke, in Czech, a sentence you use only when you know you will never see someone again, ‘Be with God.’”
And so it was that an unlikely fan allowed Forman and Passer to flee a regime that could have ended their careers.