Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918 following the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. The Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia had been ruled from Vienna while Slovakia had formed part of Hungary. Despite close linguistic ties, this was the first time that the two nations had been linked for over a thousand years. Following the Munich conference of 1938, when the country was forced to cede its German-speaking areas to Germany, Hitler encouraged the secession of Slovakia, and Bohemia and Moravia were established as a Nazi protectorate following the German invasion of March 1939.

The country was reunited in 1945, and became part of the Eastern bloc after the Communist coup of 1948. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to move beyond the dogmatic Stalinism of the 1950s, culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968. This attempt to combine socialism and democracy was perceived as a threat to Soviet hegemony and resulted in the invasion of fellow Warsaw Pact countries in August of that year. This led to a repressive regime that was to last until the fall of Communism during the so-called "Velvet Revolution" of November 1989. The country split into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993 after decisions taken within the political leaderships. It did not reflect popular opinion, which favored maintaining the union.

Despite these political turmoils, the Czech cinema became an established part of the European mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s and has maintained a significant level of feature production throughout its subsequent development. Its history pre-dates the formation of the independent state of Czechoslovakia and there were also important precursors to the cinema. J. E. Purkyně (1787–1869) wrote on persistence of vision as early as 1818 and, together with Ferdinand Durst, created the Kinesiscope in 1850. The first film producer in Austria-Hungary was the Czech photographer Jan Kříženecký (1868–1921), who made his first films in 1898. His film Smích a plč ( Laughter and Tears , 1898), with the actor Josef Šváb-Malostranský miming the two emotions, could almost summarize international perceptions of the defining characteristics of Czech cinema (based on such films as the 1966 Ostře sledované vlaky [ Closely Watched Trains ]).

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