Film director

Born: July 10, 1933;

Died: January 9, 2020.

IVAN Passer, who has died aged 86, was a Czech film director who was one of the leading figures of the Czechoslovakian New Wave of cinema which emerged in the 1960s. His first film, Intimate Lighting (1965), was also arguably his most significant. A light and humorous piece in black and white about friends who come together in a country house to live life and play music, it was made with an infectious naturalism which made it a hit with cineastes.

In Czechoslovakia, Passer was also one of the co-writers of three films by Milos Forman, his old schoolfriend and, later, the nation’s most internationally renowned director; Konkurs (1963), Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman’s Ball (1967), the latter two both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Following his self-imposed exile from his home country, Passer worked in America, directing the 1971 New York drug drama Born to Win starring George Segal; the cult noir thriller, Cutter’s Way (1981) with Jeff Bridges, and John Heard; and the Golden Globe-winning 1992 TV drama Stalin, starring Robert Duvall.

A glowing US review described Intimate Lighting as “one of those very special movies that does not so much reveal new secrets each time you see it as confirm a justness and good humour that was never hidden”. Yet there was another dimension to the timing of its success, and of the Czechoslovakian New Wave as a whole.

In the years leading up to the Prague Spring of 1968, this period of more liberal filmmaking in Communist Czechoslovakia was a significant moment in the artistic history of Cold War Europe. “Intimate Lightning is considered a film about nothing, but… I hope it is about many things (which) are hidden,” said Passer at the Fribourg Festival in 2012. “When we left [Czechoslovakia], the Communist Party banned the film for twenty years... [they] would even tolerate if the filmmakers argue with them about politics, but they really hated when you ignored them.”

Following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, Passer and Forman escaped by road into Austria in 1969 with, according to Passer, the help of a border guard who recognised Forman and ignored their lack of exit visas. Passer went first to the UK and then joined Forman in America, although he expected his lack of English to end his film career, and took a job labouring on the docks.

Meeting and befriending the playwright David Scott Milton at a party, he helped him write the script for Born to Win and talked him into showing it to United Artists, where Segal read it and agreed to star. The film included both an early part for Robert De Niro and the debut credited film role for the future Rocky star, Burt Young.

His other films gave him an impressive repertoire of collaborators, including Ernest Borgnine (Law and Disorder, 1974), Omar Sharif (Crime and Passion, 1976), Michael Caine (Silver Bears, 1978), Peter O’Toole (Creator, 1985) and Laura Dern (Haunted Summer, 1988). Passer was also in charge of a 1995 television adaptation of R.L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and finally the most expensive Kazakh film ever made, 2005’s historical epic Nomad, a project on which he was ultimately replaced.

He died in Reno, Nevada, and is survived by his wife, Anne, and son, Ivan.