The UK's Second Run DVD recently celebrated 10 years of existence and 100 releases. About a quarter of the reissue company’s titles have been Czechoslovak films, ranging from the relatively famous Intimate Lighting by Ivan Passer to Adelheid, a lesser known work by František Vláčil, director of the classic Marketa Lazarová. When I met the company’s founder Mehelli Modi at a busy London café I wanted to know how he selects the Czechoslovak movies he releases. As he explained, it all springs from his own life-long passion.
“Because India was a Non-Aligned nation. Americans had huge influence in India because of their cinema. People went to see American movies, they dressed like them, etc. A huge influence, culturally.
“So the Soviets, at that time, thought, Why don’t we send our movies as well?
“From all the Eastern Bloc countries films were sent to India. Nobody went to see them – but I used to go.
“I still remember the first [Czechoslovak] film I saw: Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night. And it was like, Wow, what is this film?
“So Czech cinema has always been really important to me. And when I decided to start Second Run, the reason I started it was because I was an avid DVD collector and the films I wanted to see were just not available. Nobody’d released them.
“I thought, Let’s see if there’s a way to do something small, but release things that you really care about and want other people to see.”
How is it acquiring the rights for these old Czechoslovak films?
“It’s always been difficult, because they were all state films, etc. But I think now they’ve got it quite well established. That films from a certain period can be negotiated with the archive. They have the materials.
“In a way, now that people know us it’s a much easier conversation. When they didn’t know us, it was really difficult.
“It was like me saying, I’ve never released a film, I want to release this and I can’t pay you very much. And they were like, Who are you? [laughs]. But now it’s different.”
Of the Czechoslovak films that you have released, which have made the biggest impact?
“I guess the two films from a Czech point of view that have grown the most from a zero base have been Marketa Lazarová, because it is an incredible film, and Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies).
“Daisies is really interesting because when I released it literally if we had a screening I’d be standing outside saying to people, Just come and watch this film.
“We released it five or six years ago. Then the feminist people got onto it and it grew because it is amazing. It’s a one-off.
“Last year there was a screening at a place called Wilton’s Music Hall and the place was packed out – we had to bring in more chairs.
“I think a bigger company couldn’t do that, because they’ve got a hundred other things to deal with.
“When we release Daisies it’s because we love it. And we don’t care how long it takes. But at some point it crosses over and becomes much more general.
“That’s happened to a lot of films. And over time they all kind of equate. Not at the beginning, but if you look back four or five years later, they’ve really grown.
“There’s something about Czech cinema of that time. People react – there’s a kind of connection that comes through.
“You mentioned Intimate Lighting straight away [it features on the cover of the Second Run 10th anniversary catalogue]. That is a beautiful film.
“There’s a story there as well. It was shown here and the subtitles were so terrible that the subtlety of that film was totally lost.
“That’s why whenever we release something we re-subtitle it. We start again. It has to be right. Without that, especially a film like Intimate Lighting, would never, ever come across. There are so many things that need to be overseen.”
“Not really. I think what’s happened nowadays is that because of digital most rights owners, a lot of archives, are finding that if they can collect some money together they can make HD transfers.
“Restoration is very different. The Czechs have done wonderful restorations. But I think only four or five films, because it costs so much money to restore.
“However you can, if you have good materials, prepare a HD master. That’s something that can be done on a kind of factory basis, with somebody there who understands the quality of what the film should be.
“[The Czechs have restored] the Jasný, The Firemen’s Ball, Closely Observed Trains, Marketa Lazarová. But I think those are the only films that they have actually restored."
Would many of the titles that you have brought never have been released in English, or in the English-speaking world, before?
“A very large number. Because again the intention was, there are so many great films that haven’t been seen… If somebody else has released it, there’s not much point my releasing it as well.
“So we’ve actually tried to stay with films that have never had a release. Some of them have never been released in the world. Some of them have never been released in the English-speaking world. And some of them have never been released in the UK.
“The Jasný was released in America before by a company that used to release amazing Czech films called Facets. The quality was terrible but they were the only ones who released them.
“So All My Good Countrymen was released there. Then the Czechs have done a restored version, but I think it’s without English subtitles. So ours is a UK premiere.
“But Marketa Lazarová was a world premiere. So most of them have certainly never been seen in the UK. But generally they also haven’t been seen around the world until we release them.”
It’s very hard for me to believe that Marketa Lazarová wasn’t well-known internationally, because it really is great. Many Czechs say it’s the greatest of Czech movies.
“And it’s still being seen. If you look at that little brochure I gave you, one of the filmmakers [Ben Rivers] talks about never having seen it before and how it was a real revelation for him.
“But it’s not just that, you know. The films that were important – this one, All My Good Countrymen, Marketa Lazarová, The Ear, Ucho.
“Ucho had never been released. It’s just magnificent and now it’s more relevant, as well. I hope they restore it.
“Films going back a bit, filmmakers like [Zbyněk] Brynych… I don’t know if you’ve seen his work? He made a number of films but he made an extraordinary film called Transport from Paradise, which we released as a world premiere. No-one had released it.
“So yes, there are still films which no-one has released that are on our list.”
And you’ve also brought out something by the great Karel Zeman, I believe?
“Karel Zeman had never been released in the UK, even though he’s been so influential on filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, etc.
“Last year we put out our first Zeman, Jester’s Tale, Bláznova kronika. And again the reaction to it was, We want to see more Zeman. So I’m trying now to release more Zeman.
“In Bologna, where they have a festival called Il Cinema Ritrovato, it’s an archive festival, they made Zeman’s film, and our DVD, the best rediscovery of the year.
“So in a way I’m hoping these films get seen much wider than only in the UK… Yes, Zeman is amazing.”
Generally speaking, do you think there’s some characteristic that perhaps typifies Czech cinema?
“I don’t quite know how to express this, but Czech cinema of a particular period, which we’re looking at, was influenced by the period before.
“So if those circumstances hadn’t been there, I don’t think the films we’re talking about would have been released.
“There was a great film school. Filmmakers had access to a lot of cinema – I know for sure that they watched things from around the world at that time.
“They had the state to support them, in a way, and a state to cause them a lot of grief as well.
“So I think those kind of situations are rarely repeated. And I personally don’t think we’ll see another period like what we call the Czech New Wave.
“So I think the nature of what they do was special because of where it all kind of came from. If you look at Poland or Hungary, the history was slightly different.
“I think the Czechs were very special. Because they also have this… the Czechs over history have been betrayed so many times that they have a kind of sense of surreal balance that I don’t think any other country quite had.
“And they can capture it, in cinema. In cinema they can capture it, yes.”