Gustav Machatý (1901–1963) was the most ambitious "art" director of the period, and attracted attention with his Expressionist-influenced adaptation of Tolstoy's Kreutzerova sonáta ( The Kreutzer Sonata , 1926). He enjoyed a big success with Erotikon (1929), which was consolidated by his first two sound films, Ze soboty na neděli ( From Saturday to Sunday , 1931) and, especially, Extase ( Ecstasy , 1932), winner of the Best Direction Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1934, which introduced Hedy Kiesler (Lamarr) (1913–2000) to world audiences and was sold to over twenty-six countries. The success of Ecstasy was followed by an MGM contract and film work in Italy and Austria. However, he was able to complete only one Hollywood A-feature ( Jealousy , 1945), which was scripted by Dalton Trumbo, and was primarily employed on second unit work. The poetic lyricism of Machatý's style did much to establish the tradition of lyrical cinematography that continued through to the post–World War II period. One of his key collaborators was the photographer and avant-garde director Alexandr Hackenschmied (Alexander Hammid) (1907–2004), who directed the experimental Bezučelná procházka ( Aimless Walk , 1930), and later, in the United States, made documentaries, and co-directed films with Herbert Kline and Maya Deren.
The introduction of sound raised the question of the viability of Czech language production for a population of only 15 million. But while only eight features were produced in 1930, the average had risen to over forty by the end of the decade. The Barrandov film studios were built in 1932–1933 with the intention of attracting international production (which finally happened in the 1990s), but developed in the 1930s mainly as a center for national production, following growth in the domestic audience.
Martin (Mac) Frič, whose career extended from the 1920s to the 1960s, made some of his most important films in the 1930s, including work with such leading comic actors as Vlasta Burian (1891–1962), Hugo Haas (1901–1968), and Oldřich Nový. Perhaps most notable was his collaboration with the theatrical team of JiříVoskovec and Jan Werich (1905–1980), whose Osvobozené divadlo (The Liberated Theatre) was a cultural phenomenon. Their musical satires and parodies, described by the eminent linguist Roman Jakobson as "pure humour and semantic clowning," took a political turn in the face of economic depression and the rise of Nazism. After appearing in Paramount's all-star revue Paramount on Parade (1930), they made four feature films, including two by Frič— Hej-Rup! ( Heave Ho! , 1934) and Svět patřínám ( The World Belongs to Us , 1937). The former deals with the destruction of a corrupt capitalist at the hands of a workers collective while in the latter, Voskovec and Werich (V+W) defeat a Hitler-like demagogue and his big-business supporters with the help of the workers.
Both The World Belongs to Us and the film version of Karel Čapek's anti-Fascist play Bílá nemoc ( The White Sickness , 1937), directed by Haas, were the subject of Nazi protests and were suppressed following the German invasion of March 1939. Voskovec and Werich spent the war years in the United States, where Voskovec eventually settled and, as George Voskovec, became a successful Broadway actor as well as appearing in a number of Hollywood films. Hugo Haas also left for Hollywood, where he played cameo roles and directed a sequence of B features, three of them based on Czech sources.
Other Czech directors to attract attention during the 1930s included Josef Rovenský (1894–1937) ( Řeka [ The River , 1933]) and Otakar Vávra, who moved from experimental shorts to features in 1937. His 1938 film Cech panen kutnohorských ( The Guild of Kutna Hora Maidens ) won an award at Venice but was banned during the Occupation. Slovak feature film production was not to develop further until after the war, but Karel Plicka's Zem spieva ( The Earth Sings , 1933), a feature-length record of Slovak folk culture edited by Alexandr Hackenschmied, attracted international attention when it was screened at Venice in 1934.
Following the Western allies' capitulation to Hitler at the Munich conference over the Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia's German-speaking areas), the Germans invaded in March 1939 and the Czech lands became the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Under "clerico-Fascist" leadership, Slovakia declared independence immediately. The Germans took a controlling stake in the Barrandov studios and issued a list of prohibited subjects, eventually extending the studios as an alternative center for German production. Although Czech production declined from forty features in 1938 to nine in 1944, a number of leading directors, including Vávra and Martin Fric, continued to make films.
The Czech star Lída Baarová, who had been signed up by the German film studio Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft) in 1934 and had a well-known affair with Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, saw all of her films banned in Germany due to Hitler's anger at the scandal, but continued to work in Czech films. She finally returned to Czechoslovakia in 1938, making some of her best films in the late 1930s, including four for Vávra, who directed her in Panenství ( Virginity , 1937) and Dívka v modrém ( The Girl in Blue , 1939). The Nazis expelled her from the Czech studios in 1941 and she continued her career in Italy. A group including Vávra planned the nationalization of the film industry after the war, a goal achieved in 1945, along with the establishment of the Koliba studios in Bratislava (Slovakia), and the foundation of the Prague Film School (FAMU) in 1946. Czech films again attracted international attention when Karel Steklý's (1903–1987) Siréna ( The Strike , 1947) and JiříTrnka's feature-length puppet film Špalíček ( The Czech Year , 1947) won awards at Venice.
Following the Communist takeover in 1948, there was a fairly swift adherence to the moribund formulae of Stalinist cinema, particularly in the period 1951–1955, combined with another decline in production. However, as the novelist Josef Škvorecký (b. 1924) once put it, artistic common sense always gnawed at the formulae of Socialist Realism, and filmmakers sought ways of expanding beyond official limitations. It was at this time that the Czech cinema achieved international reputation in the field of animation. JiříTrnka, Karel Zeman (1910–1989), Hermina Týrlová, Břetislav Pojar, Jiří Brdečka, and many others led the way, with features from Trnka ( Staré pověsti české [ Old Czech Legends , 1953], Sen noci svatoja Brdećnske [ A Midsummer Night's Dream , 1959]) and from Zeman ( Cesta do pravěku / A Journey to Primeval Times , 1955, Vynález zkázy /, An Invention for Destruction , 1958), who eventually made nine feature animation films. Many early films with an explicit Left orientation were clearly honest and committed, particularly before 1948. The Strike , a collective statement by the pre-war Left avant-garde, was one example and Vávra's Němá barikáda ( Silent Barricade , 1949) about the Prague uprising, although simplified, was another. Vstanou novíbojovníci ( New Heroes Will Arise , 1950), by JiříWeiss, gave a committed account of the early years of the labor movement.
Weiss had started to make documentaries before the war and had spent the war years in Britain where, besides working with the British documentary school, he made his first fiction films. On his return, he made an impressive film about the Munich crisis, Uloupená hranice ( The Stolen Frontier , 1947) and won international awards with Vlčíjáma ( The Wolf Trap , 1957) and Romeo, Julie a tma ( Romeo, Juliet, and Darkness , 1960), notable for their psychological depth and dramatic visual style. Another director who began in pre-war documentary was Elmar Klos (1910–1993), who began a long-term collaboration with the Slovak Ján Kadár in 1952. A sequence of challenging films culminated in the first Czech (and Slovak) Oscar ® -winner, Obchod na korze ( The Shop on Main Street , 1965). After the Soviet invasion of 1968, Kadár emigrated to the United States, where his films included an adaptation of Bernard Malamud's The Angel Levine (1970) and the award-winning Canadian film Lies My Father Told Me (1975). Weiss also emigrated to the United States but made no films until the German-produced Martha und Ich ( Martha and I , 1990).