He is considered a founder of Slovak film education and film making. He helped establish the genre of ethnographic film in Czechoslovakia.
Following Karel Plicka’s graduation at the Teachers Institute in Hradec Králové (1909–1913), Plicka studied violin and music theory privately in Prague and Berlin.
His early interest in music resulted in founding various choirs in Úpice and Nové Město nad Metují, and most importantly he co-founded the choir of the Czech Philharmonic, together with conductor Václav Talich and composer Jaroslav Křička. He was the artistic director of the choir from 1920 to 1924.
During World War I, he was engaged as a singer in the Court Opera in Vienna. Additionally, Plicka focused his interest on collecting Slovak folk songs.
The man solely responsible for preserving Czech/Slovak folk history!
From 1919 to 1938 he managed to collect 64,000 melodies and about 100,000 texts of folk songs. His ethnographic works made during that period include over 22,000 photographs and 30 km of film material.
During his travels, Plicka also visited exiled Slovaks in Romania, Austria, Yugoslavia and the USA. His stays were arranged by Matica slovenská in Martin.
In the late 1920s, Plicka began using a camera on his travels. He created his first silent films in 1928 (Za Slovenským ludom) and in 1929 (Po horách, po dolách). The latter received a Gold Medal at the 1st Venice International Film Festival, held in 1932.
In 1932, he met and befriended the photographer and filmmaker Alexandr Hackenschmied, with whom he co-created the “film poem” Zem spieva (The Earth Sings), a documentary about Slovak village traditions which is now considered a magnum opus of Czechoslovak documentary film.
An interesting side note: The film was made with the support of then President T. G. Masaryk.
After the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918, ethnographic activities of the League for the Advancement of the Slovak Nation (Matica slovenská) extended its ethnographic activities to include film.
Karel Plicka worked for Matica since 1923 as a music scientist, ie: a collector of folk songs, and he was sent to record them in Slovakia. In addition to writing down the songs and photographing the village people in their folk costumes, he also began filming folk festivals and customs with the Pathé camera.
In Plicka’s film debut Za Slovenským ludom (Beyond the Slovak People, 1928), an interest was shown in preserving these folk traditions. In his second feature, Po horách, po dolách (Over Hill and Dale, 1929), he did not stray beyond the technical documentation framework.
Plicka finally succeeded in acquiring a sound camera in the early 1930s, and immediately created his pivotal work, Zem spieva (The Earth Sings, Released September 20, 1933), in which the interested folklorist demonstrated not only the knowledge and the feeling of the people displayed, but also brought with it a deeper touch and new aesthetic elements.
Called a “moving and poetic documentary”, Zem spieva summarized his existing body of work, of song and traditional village life. These sketches captured on film and then supplemented with idyllic village scenes created a living film poem which draws on the rich well of folk culture of the Slovak nation.
Filming took place in locations: Bratislava, Devín Castle, Danube, High Tatras, Liptovská Lúžna, Ganič, Iza, Heľpa, Štôla, Jasiňa, Košecké Rovné, Zliechov, Štrba, Telgárt, Polomka, Abelová, Levoča, Čajkov.
Plicka brought together loosely based outlines of ideas and his existing footage, and rounded them out with new scenes, thereby creating a film poem drawing on the richness of Slovak folk culture.
The basic plot line focuses on rural country life: the perpetual natural cycle beginning with the end of winter and the rise of spring, continuing on to autumn with its grape harvest as the last of the sun’s gifts.
The filmmaker chose a particular poetics for the individual scenes as they occur in the various seasons of the year.
Shots of Prague and Bratislava represent a prologue to the film, while children playing in the open air create an epilogue.
The ordered material became the basis for the creation of the musical accompaniment; As a result, Alexander Hackenschmied, a Czechoslovakian documentary filmmaker, inspired by the experience of film avant-garde, played a significant role in the final shape of the film.
Despite the fact that Zem spieva is comprised of singing in a sound (talking) film, Plicka used poetic inter-titles written by the well-known Slovak poet Ján Smrek. Music was also performed by the Singing Association of Prague Teachers.
The film came about without a script, based on the filmmaker’s imagination of the whole, working it and making it more and more concrete as he went along until he realized this “flow”. In this way, it seems to take on a poetry of its own, in effect, it tells its own story.
Tragically, the original negative of the film burned down in 1944 during the fire of film studios in Zlín. Two double negatives were made from the preserved incomplete copy in 1945, and in 1983, under the responsibility of director Martin Slivka, the film was again completed with a new recording of original music.
Sadly, at the time the film was made, it did not receive the acclaim it deserved with the domestic audience. However, the rare and special qualities of this poignant film were awarded abroad, where it, along with the films Řeka, Extase a Bouře nad Tatrami, won the City of Venice Cup for Best Direction in the Czechoslovak Film Collection at the 2nd Biennial of Venice 1934.
Initial release: September 20, 1933
Director: Karel Plicka
Screenplay: Karel Plicka
Music composed by: František Škvor
Cinematography: Karel Plicka
Editor: Alexandr Hackenschmied
Even after seventy years, when the development of documentary film, cinematic talk of major changes, this pioneering work has lost nothing of its artistic appeal.
You can watch the entire 1 hour, 3 minute production here – – you may have to scroll down a bit.
In the 1930s and 40s, he collaborated as an expert assistant in production of Slovak and Soviet films (e.g. Jánošík (1935) by Martin Frič and films by Ilya Kopalin and Vasily Belyayev).
In 1938, he founded the courses of photography and cinematography at the Škola umeleckých remesiel (School of Applied Arts) in Bratislava. It was the first attempt at film education in Czechoslovakia. Later, in 1946, he co-founded the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), of which he became the first dean.
However, in 1950 Plicka left FAMU due to health issues, and devoted himself mainly to landscape and architectural photography. His photographic and ethnographic work was published in many books and was highly regarded both by public and experts. In his books, Plicka concentrated on documenting folk traditions, Slovak landscape, and Prague.
During his life, Plicka received the highest state awards, such as Řád práce (Order of Work) (1954), National Artist (1968), Prize for the Best Book of the Year (1971), National Prize of the Slovak Socialist Republic (1975) and Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (in memoriam, 1991).
Karel Plicka died in 1987 in Prague. He is buried in the Slovak town of Martin. Since 1988 there has been a museum dedicated to his work in the Slovak village of Blatnica.
If you are in a hurry and don’t have an hour to watch the complete film (above), here is a 2 1/2 minute snippet dedicated to the memory of Jozef Majerčík.
I think Karel Plicka would smile, knowing how much we are enjoying his works today.
Don’t you agree?
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