Czechs in History Ester Krumbachová – costume designer who left her mark on Czech New Wave
In this edition of Czechs in History, we look back at the life and work of Ester Krumbachová, an artist, costume designer, screenwriter, and one of the most important personalities of the Czech New Wave. Although her name is somewhat forgotten today, she was a major inspiration to the leading filmmakers of the 1960s, such as Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec or Vojtěch Jasný.
I happened to know Ester personally, because she lived in the same street as my family. I met her as a child in the early 1980s, when she was banned by the communist regime and was not getting any commissions. Though she was more than 50 years older than me, I loved spending time in her flat which she shared with her four cats, two turtles and a parrot, and which was full plants and decorations. Tereza Brdečková, a writer and film critic, was also a frequent visitor at Ester’s Pankrác flat:
“I was around 25 years old, a budding artist and she served as an example to me in what the life on an artist was like and what it demanded. She had both a very tough working discipline and an absolutely easy attitude towards life. This is really something you must learn, otherwise you are lost. She couldn’t really work; she was banned by the regime, so she was earning her living by making plastic jewellery. She had a beautiful voice, as you can remember, and she had an enormous influence on me.”
Ester studied arts in her hometown of Brno, but she has always been attracted to theatre. She started working as a set and costume designer and gradually made her way to film. One of her first films were ‘Diamonds of the Night’, directed by Jan Němec in 1964. Here is how he remembers their first meeting:
„I first met Ester maybe 50 years ago when I was preparing my first feature ‘Diamonds of the Night’ and I was looking for a costume designer. Ester was a well-known theatrical costume and set designer at that time. For me our meeting was something like a touch of destiny. I gave her the screenplay and she told me she’d never read anything as powerful as my script. So we met and started discussing the costumes. She also became the story editor and later, because she was a very attractive woman, we started to live together and finally I married her.”
Most of the film and theatre directors agree that Ester was exceptional in sharing other peoples’ vision and freely and spontaneously offering the best of her talents and abilities. As Tereza Brdečková says, she was extremely generous as an artist.
“She was really able and she even loved to put her art and talent in the services of others. Artists - film artists, writers, painters, mostly only think about themselves and about their work. This was absolutely unimportant to her. People often don’t realize it, but she really infused something of her own artistic style into all the films of the 1960s, and not only to the New Wave films.
“She was a very hard worker. The only problem was that she left everything until the very last minute. For example in the middle of the film she suddenly disappeared and no one could find her. Then we found out that she’d simply gone on holiday or whatever. She was out of energy. She felt totally free to give what she wanted and to stop when she wanted.”
Here is how Ester herself explained her approach to costume design in an interview for Czech Radio in 1995:
“Costume is not about clothing. Costume, both for the film and the theatre, is an event. Something from the story must happen in the costume. I myself have developed certain tricks. For example I would make one sleeve slightly shorter than the other. No one would really notice but there is a certain discord. Costume designers should understand that they are not dressing people in trousers or hats or shirts. They should see them as a way of modelling the character that is supposed to play in the film.”
Although she had enormous influence on other peoples’ work, Ester rarely worked on her own projects and the only film she directed, Murder of inženýr Čert, received mixed reactions. Tereza Brdečková again:
“I think that like many people with a great talent, she had a lot of problems with herself. She always had a great drive at the beginning of a project and enormous difficulties finishing something. It was always the same. That’s why people had problems making her deliver and when she was working on her own, it was a kind of disaster.”
Throughout the 1960s, Ester Krumbachová left her mark on a number of films, including ‘My Good Countrymen’ by Vojtěch Jasný or ‘Valerie and her Week of Wonders’ by Jaromil Jireš. At the peak of her career, however, she was officially banned from working as a film artist. The reason was a film called ‘The Party and the Guests’, a parable about the nature of authoritarian regimes. Jan Němec, who directed the film, had to bear the consequences as well.
"My meeting with Ester Krumbachová was my personal tragedy, that is, from one point of view. But you could also say that she saved my life. I was very young and very ambitious. I think I was talented but also career and money-oriented and she just completely changed my priorities. My way to success was destroyed by my second film ‘The Party and Guests’, which was very famous at that time. It was completely forbidden and I was kicked out of Barrandov film studios. That was the start of my political troubles in Czechoslovakia."
For someone like Ester, who lived for her work, it must have been extremely difficult, but she was a natural fighter and never allowed herself to complain or wallow in self-pity. Much later, she told Czech Radio how hard it was to give up her work:
“I really suffered and I thought I would die when I was not allowed to work. Honestly. I am not exaggerating. When I remembered the way the electric lights used to crack when you switched them off, and the typical smell of the dressing room, all these slightly shabby things, I really wanted to cry.”
Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, Ester went back to work with a vengeance. Her last film, Marian, by Petr Václav, was released in 1996, which was the year she died. It was only much later, when I watched all the great films of the 1960s, that I realized that Ester, my childhood friend and neighbour, was also one of the greatest Czech artists.