You may not think of the Czech Republic as a destination for those seeking exotic wildlife.
But you would be wrong, as exemplified in one early scene in the Czech nature documentary Planeta Česko (which translates to Planet Czechia, though the onscreen English title is Wilder Than Wilderness), a new feature crafted in the vein of BBC’s Planet Earth series and focusing on local Czech wildlife.
In one of the first sequences of Planeta Česko, writer-director-cinematographer Marián Polák turns the camera on a Japanese TV crew, who have come to the Czech Republic to capture a rare species during a rare event: Czech moor frogs in mating season, during the one day of the year that they turn bright blue.
It’s a spectacular sight, but one that many residents of the Czech Republic have likely never seen despite it occurring in their own backyard.
If you live in Prague, or other major cities across the world, you may think the world of rare and endangered creatures begins and ends at the zoo. But Planeta Česko sheds some vivid light on the kind of wonderful creatures we take for granted, or don’t even know exist.
Polák actually visits Prague Zoo in one scene, but stays outside the premises in Prague 6 on the banks the Vltava. Here, he captures hundreds of grass snakes slithering through the man-made concrete barriers by the river, which have inadvertently become an ideal mating ground.
How Czech nature adapts to a changing landscape is a constant theme throughout the movie. In another sequence, the snakes patrol the area beneath dams when the river flow is halted to prey on defenseless fish.
At military bases in the Czech countryside, areas where tanks once churned up dirt have became the ideal locale for tadpole shrimp, ancient creatures that live for a single day before their mud puddle home dries up. The tanks would transport their eggs to other locations; today, dirt bikers patrolling the areas accomplish the same job.
European ground squirrels (pictured at top) have found the perfect city home in an abandoned lot once designated as a construction site for an apartment complex. The completely flat surface of the area is the ideal location for the squirrels, who pop out from underground burrows to survey their surroundings.
And a busy train station has become an optimal home for barn swallows, who have learned to trigger the automatic doors in the front of the station to enter and leave while keeping their nests safe for predators.
Other colorful creatures across the Czech countryside light up scenes throughout Planeta Česko (Wilder Than Wilderness): the Eurasian pygmy owl, smallest in Europe; hulking European bison; the extremely rare and colorful Alpine longhorn beetle; Eurasian otters; European green lizards; and many, many others.
As a document of Czech wildlife, Planeta Česko is an invaluable resource, especially for those who live in (or are interested in) the Czech Republic. But the film truly shines as a narrative of how these creatures have not only adapted, but even thrived across a rapidly changing Czech landscape.
Crafted as a message for Polák’s daughters – a document of the current state of the Czech wilderness that is likely to change within the next generation – Planeta Česko is narrated by actor Kryštof Hádek filling in for the writer-director.
But Polák is frequently captured onscreen himself, waiting for hours inside of a homemade camouflage tent for that rare opportunity to film a shy beaver at night. As a showcase of a nearly one-man operation that captures the local Czech landscape in gorgeous detail to rival the Planet Earth series, Planeta Česko is even more impressive.
Note to distributors: the bland English-language title of Wilder Than Wilderness does the movie no favors; a direct translation to Planet Czechia would have been preferable.