ONE of the big hits in Prague this spring is a movie that was in production before last fall's ``velvet revolution'' swept the Communists from power - but probably would have been consigned to the vaults had the revolution not taken place. The film, ``Extraordinary Beings'' by director Fero Fenio, symbolically depicts 40 years of totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia, including the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 - the Prague Spring - which crushed the last major wave of Czech creativity.
The film's premiere March 22 was a gala event emblematic of the exuberant liberation of Czechoslovak culture unleashed by the revolution, many of whose main protagonists, from playwright-President Vaclav Havel on down, were writers, actors, and musicians.
Parliament chairman Alexander Dubcek, the liberal Communist chief ousted by the 1968 invasion, was the guest of honor at the gala; outside, various former underground groups staged performances and an exuberant street theater ``happening'' included the demolition of a Communist monument.
The repression and controls imposed by the Communists after 1968 in Czechoslovakia created what West German writer Heinrich B"oll once called a ``cemetery of culture,'' and another European writer termed a ``Biafra of the spirit.''
It drove many cultural figures into exile, many others into the underground - or jail. Today, Czechoslovaks are reveling in their new freedom of expression.
Dozens of new publishing companies have started up since November. Once-banned books by authors such as Ivan Klims and Milan Kundera are now on sale.
Once-banned films, such as Karel Kachyna's ``The Ear,'' Jiri Menzel's ``Larks on a String'' (recently shown at the Berlin Film Festival), Evald Schorm's ``Seventh Day, Eighth Night,'' and ``The Joke'' by Jaromel Jires, are in the movie houses and on TV.
Plays by once-banned authors - including Mr. Havel himself - are now in production.
``There was a hunger for this type of culture,'' says Jiri Rulf, cultural editor of Lidovy Novine, once Prague's leading underground newspaper and now one of the major independent dailies.
Everything seems wide open, but the exhilaration is increasingly tempered by concern for the future as the slashing of subsidies once provided by the state raises fears that new, free markets may cut into the quality of new productions and publications.
``There's no money,'' says Mr. Rulf. ``It's the problem of the entire society, and especially culture. Culture today must be economically independent.
``Many publishing houses have started up, but only one in 10 will be able to last more than a year. There's the same problem with films,'' he says.
The Communists tightly censored the style and content of books, movies, plays, and even music. There was little concept of aiming entertainment at a mass market; except for underground works, people had to make do with what they were provided.
Only in the last year or two were Czech filmmakers allowed to touch on controversial subjects such as AIDS and black marketeers, producing a few films with great popular success.
Ironically, some cultural figures now seem to fear that the end of political censorship might lead to a form of financial censorship in which mass market appeal will determine what gets produced. They fear that financial constraints could foster a flood of schlock - rather than a full flowering of unfettered creativity.
``Freedom brings commercialization,'' says Jiri Bartoska, a well-known stage and screen actor - and the man who nominated Vaclav Havel for president.
``It will be a bad factor for Czechoslovak culture,'' he says, echoing the concerns of many people involved in cultural affairs. They worry that the necessity to seek funds will lower standards, close theaters, and throw actors, directors, and other personnel out of work.
``We are a very small country. It would be very easy for American films to trap us,'' Mr. Bartoska says. ``I don't want to see our culture spoiled.''
Bartoska spoke in his dressing room at the Na Zabradli theater during rehearsals for the premiere of Havel's autobiographical play ``Largo Desolato,'' a black comedy about a dissident waiting in his apartment for the police to come and arrest him.
The play, which opened last month, marked the triumphant return of Havel's work to a major Prague stage after 21 years, and epitomized the high hopes of cultural activists.
Josef Hromadka, the deputy prime minister for cultural, educational, and religious affairs, said Czechoslovakia had to fight to make sure the new quest for cultural funding didn't undercut the artistic level of productions. For him and others, ``commercial'' almost seems a dirty word.
``We want to avoid technical perfection at the risk of ideas,'' he says in an interview. He expresses fear of cultural dominance by the United States.
``Europe has deeper roots of cultural identity than the United States,'' he says. ``The US has top technical development, but does not have deep values - commercialism and success are [religions].
``We are a small state in central Europe and understand that life is much deeper than technical perfection and success,'' he says. ``We will defend our culture.''
He adds, ``I don't think the US culture will have too much influence here. This influence would be paid for by losing our own identity.''
Jan Jurke, a spokesman for Barrandov Studios, Prague's famous filmmaking center once supported by state subsidies, says cutbacks and other major changes can be expected as the film industry is decentralized to allow for independent producers, distributors, and movie-house operators.
At Barrandov, he says, funding for newly created production units will be based on whether their films are box office, as well as artistic, successes. Still, he says, he hopes that some state funds will be allotted to culture, to balance strictly commercial ventures.
``We must do something to save our national production,'' Mr. Jurke says. ``We are afraid to lose our Czech film identity. We're afraid that a lot of commercial films will flood the movie houses ... we want interesting, important films and books as well as simply amusing ones.''
He puts the problem, however, in a broader context. ``People wanted freedom, but we don't know how to use it.''
Half a year ago,'' Jurke says, ``we thought totalitarianism was the biggest problem. Now totalitarianism is gone - but other problems have arrived.''