Czech cinema gained international acclaim in the 1960s with films like Closely Watched Trains (1966) and The Fireman’s Ball (1967) – movies that conflated the political with the sexual in ways that were as innovative as they were subversive. Much of the fuel of this New Wave of Czech film was the utter absurdity of the Communist rule and the horrors inflicted by the Nazis. Yet beneath that, there’s something within Czech culture that seems naturally skeptical of authority. Franz Kafka was a native of Prague, after all. And one of the most beloved books in the Czech language is Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1923), a frequently hilarious satire on the idiocy of war.
The works of Czech filmmaker Gustav Machatý weren’t overtly political yet they were still very subversive. At a time when the battles for universal suffrage was still a recent memory, Machatý had the audacity to show women as sexually autonomous beings.
Born in Prague in 1901, Machatý went to Hollywood at a young age and reportedly apprenticed under D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim. When he returned to his home country, he started making movies.
Machatý’s third feature and final silent movie was Erotikon (1929), a story about a country girl seduced by an upper-class cad only to get pregnant and ostracized by her village. The film recalls F.W. Murnau in his emphasis on faces and his expressionistic use of the camera. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the scene above where the girl surrenders to her slick paramour and discovers sexual bliss. The camera spins around as she writhes on the bed. Showing female sexuality frankly was daring at that time. Women in movies by D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were chaste and pure. They received male appetites, perhaps, but were not subject to animalistic urges themselves.
Four years later, Machatý went even further with his movie Ekstase (1933). Early in the movie, we see the luminously beautiful Hedy Lamarr skinny-dipping in a pond. When her horse runs off with her clothes, she run naked over hill and dale to catch it. A bit later in the movie, in a scene that recalls Erotikon, she has an earth-shattering orgasm thanks to the strapping young worker who finds her horse. Ekstase might not be the first non-pornographic film to have nude scenes but it was certainly one of the first. And it was definitely the first film to clearly show a female orgasm.
The movie was an international sensation. It received raves at the Venice Film Festival only to be denied a prize because the Vatican objected. Worse, it couldn’t get a proper release in the US. First Ekstase was seized by U.S. Customs as pornography. Then, when it finally cleared that hurdle, the movie ran afoul of Hollywood’s self-censoring Hays Code. Ekstase only managed to screen in a handful of independent theaters in 1940, seven years after it first came out.
Nonetheless, the notoriety of the movie turned Hedy Lamarr into a star and soon she was starring opposite Hollywood icons like Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable. (And just in case you thought that Lamarr was just a pretty face, she also co-invented and patented technology during WWII that laid the groundwork for things like Wi-Fi.)
Machatý had less success. As the threat of Nazism loomed, he fled back to Hollywood and ended up being an uncredited director for such studio films as The Good Earth and Madame X. He spent the last part of his life teaching film at the Munich Film School before dying in 1963.
You can watch the entirety of Erotikon below:
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.