Archive for the '100 Classics' Category

Red Psalm

Még kér a nép
Hungary, 1971, colour, 84 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Producer: József Bajusz
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi
  • Photography: János Kende
  • Production Design: Tamás Banovich
  • Costume Design: Zsuzsa Vicze
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: György Pintér
  • Music: Tamás Cseh
  • Cast: József Madaras; Tibor Orbán; Tibor Molnár; Jácint Juhász; Gyöngyi Bürös; Andrea Drahota; Erzsi Cserhalmi; Márk Zala; Gyula Piróth; János Koltai; Gábor Kiss; György Cserhalmi; László Horváth; František Velecký; Betalan Solti; Lajos Balázsovits; Elemér Ragályi; András Bálint; István Bujtor; Péter Haumann; József Vándor; Tamás Szentjóby; György Pintér; István Szendrő; Lajos Fazekas; Mari Csomós; Ilona Gurnik; Éva Spányik; Tamás Cseh; Ágnes Lipták; Ferenc Sebő; Ferenc Pesovár; Ágnes Music; László Nagy; Lajos Farkas; Zsuzsa Fábri; Tünde Terényi; Péter Éri; Zoltán Nagy; Zsuzsa Ferdinándy; Géza Ferdinándy; Gáspár Ferdinándy; András Szigeti; Andrea Ajtony; András Ambrus; György Gonda; Frigyes Gödrös; Béla Halmos; Pál Hetényi; Levente Hídvégi; Pál Keresztes; Anna Koós; Erzsi Kopácsi; Miklós Kovács; István Kún; András Mészáros; László Pelsőczy; Tamás Pintér; György Reinitz; Azucena Rodriguez; Éva Szendrei; András Széll; István Szilárdy; Gyula Szombathy; Balázs Tardy; Sándor Vajó; Tamás Varga; Gyöngyvér Végh


Current DVD availability makes it easy to trace Miklós Jancsó’s career from his second feature Cantata (Oldás és kötes, 1963) to his sixth Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás, 1967) inclusive. But then there’s a hiatus, with The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1968) and the Italian-made La Pacifista (1970) available in Hungarian-only and Italian-only editions respectively, and Winter Sirocco (Sirokkó, 1969) and Agnus Dei (Égi bárány, 1970) not released at all. The end result, as far as someone forced to make a four-year leap from Silence and Cry to Red Psalm is concerned, is the impression of a substantial stylistic and thematic shift in Jancsó’s cinema. Although he had already dehumanised his protagonists to the point of abstraction, he’s now mythologising them, an approach that began with The Confrontation and reached its apogee both here and in Electra My Love (Szerelmem Elektra, 1973).

Red Psalm (whose Hungarian title, sourced from a poem by the nationalist Sándor Petőfi, translates as ‘And The People Still Ask’) has no introduction or scene-setting, though it’s easy enough to date it to the 19th century from the combination of costumes (the film is set in the timeless Hungarian puszta, Jancsó’s favourite location) and explicitly Marxist rhetoric. In fact, it’s set in 1890, and concerns a group of farm labourers who have decided to go on strike. The leather-jacketed bailiff initially attempts to bribe them with grain, petulantly burning it when they refuse. Appalled by his cavalier attitude both to the fruits of their labour and their future well-being (without the grain they will starve), they kill him, and the army is summoned to suppress a potential revolt. But when a young soldier refuses to open fire on the workers, he is shot by his colleagues, only to be resurrected by a young woman’s kiss. Various other attempts are made to negotiate with the strikers, from the landowner himself (who spontaneously dies after stating his position) to a priest, whose church is burned down with him inside it. Finally, after delivering an ultimatum, the army massacres the strikers. A young female survivor picks up a gun and starts picking off the soldiers one by one…

Reducing Red Psalm to its basic narrative outline, as I’ve just done, makes it sound like a crude piece of socialist agitprop, and its considerable musical content (its messages are as likely to be sung as declaimed) suggests affinities with the Marxist musicals of Grigori Alexandrov (Circus/Цирк, 1936) or Ivan Pyriev (Tractor Drivers/Трактористы, 1939; Cossacks of the Kuban River/Кубанские казаки, 1949). But those are altogether jollier affairs than Jancsó’s stark political parable, and far more straightforward in their construction and mise-en-scène. Once again, Jancsó is clearly fascinated by the mechanisms of power and oppression, both in theory and practice, and even when his film appears to be at its most deceptively bucolic, one can usually see evidence of a military presence in the background, and often a large-scale one.

Although Red Psalm unambiguously takes sides - something unusual for Jancsó - he never lets us forget that the revolution that the film advocates is perpetually under threat from the vested interests of the ruling classes (the capitalist landowners, the church, the military), who will not hesitate to resort to violence if their hegemony is called into question. And they’ll do it without a qualm, unlike the soul-searching strikers after they burn down a church in protest at the priest’s patronising sermon (he calls them his “misguided flock”). This leads to the despairing but logically inescapable conclusion that violent revolution is the only solution - though Jancsó sweetens the pill by staging the climactic confrontation in such a stylised manner (a young woman in a plain red shift mowing down swathes of soldiers despite being armed with a single pistol) that it’s more stirring than bleak.

Although Jancsó’s signature is instantly recognisable (it’s hard to imagine anyone else even trying to make a film like this, much less succeeding), there are several marked changes between Red Psalm and his 1963-67 output. He has abandoned the wide screen for the squarish Academy frame of his first films, and is now shooting in colour. While individual shots are as lengthy as ever (just twenty-eight in total, most running several minutes), their staging is different - I don’t recall him ever using a zoom lens in his black and white films, but it’s constantly in evidence here. Previously, the deep-focus shots would ensure that the surrounding landscapes remained as sharp as the people in the foreground, but here the depth of field is constantly changing: whenever Jancsó fills the frame with just one or two individuals, the background becomes blurred and foreshortened. The effect is of cutting to a close-up, albeit here within the same shot.

The film’s formal virtuosity is often so astonishing (Jancsó won a richly deserved Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival) that it’s easy to appreciate the film without sympathising with or even processing its underlying message. The frequent zooming and foreshortening accentuates the impression, already suggested by The Red and the White ( Csillagosok, katonák, 1967), that Jancsó is merely filming an existing event that would have happened without the presence of the cameras - we know there’s a vast amount happening just outside any given frame as we’ve already seen it in an earlier part of the relevant shot.

There are impressive individual set-pieces throughout, but perhaps most spectacular is the large-scale massacre towards the end, shot from a single camera position in the far distance, with soldiers and peasants singing and dancing together in apparent unison before the soldiers regroup into a circle around the peasants, trapping them in a human stockade (encircled by a number of men on horseback) before bringing out the rifles. There were apparently 1,500 people appearing on camera, and the choreographic logistics alone take the breath away. The unexpected background appearance of a steam locomotive pulling a train laden with hundreds of soldiers is equally startling (as no tracks have been visible up to then), but so too is the way that Jancsó will often move from distant observation to extreme close-up in the same shot, picking out details in a constantly swirling human panorama. János Kende’s ceaselessly circling camerawork, reputedly requiring more assistance than usual just to keep things in focus, is beyond praise.

While many of Jancsó’s previous films featured little or no music, Red Psalm is saturated with it, from the opening sequence in which the Marseillaise is sung with new lyrics that are more relevant to the situation at hand. Other songs range from traditional Hungarian folk tunes to Russian revolutionary ditties to, most surprisingly, ‘Charlie Is My Darling’ (in the more politicised American variant, whose protagonist is Johnny), all seamlessly sewn into the overall texture, singers, dancers and instrumentalists equally visible on screen. The men’s dances, their arms around each other’s shoulders, supplies a visual motif denoting brotherhood, solidarity and the importance of banding together, symbolically undermined towards the end when a guitarist stabs a singer in mid-delivery. There is no attempt at realism: a dead soldier is revived by a kiss, blood is initially shown but later replaced by symbolic red rosettes, and although three women (whom the critic Raymond Durgnat aptly called “the three graces”) strip naked and consort with hundreds of soldiers, there’s no hint of threat or violence: Jancsó seems far more interested in the contrast between their sun-kissed flesh and the pallid blue-grey of the soldier’s uniforms.

Red Psalm has inescapably dated: the early 1970s may have been the last time such overtly Marxist propaganda could be presented with a straight face outside east Asia, and it’s best viewed today as a historical parable on two levels, representing both the 1890s of its setting and the still flickering spirit of 1968 that clearly animated its creation. But, like Sergei Eisenstein’s not dissimilar Strike (Стачка, 1925) - Jancsó’s associative montages are no less intricate for being staged within the same shot - Red Psalm is such a formidable work of art on its own terms that it diffuses political criticism on those grounds alone. Even by Jancsó’s standards, it’s an extraordinary film, probably his most thoroughly thought-through achievement since The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965), and certainly his most immediately intoxicating.


DVD Distribution: Clavis Films (France), PAL, no region code

Picture: Aside from reel change marks and very occasional spots, the source print is in almost immaculate condition, and the transfer is superb - crucially, the colours ring true, especially those all-important reds. Although it’s hard to tell from the constantly moving camera, the 1.33:1 aspect ratio appears to be correct.

Sound: Aside from mild background hiss (which is easy enough to ignore), the mono soundtrack is very acceptable and probably closely reflects the original materials.

Subtitles: As usual with this label’s Jancsó releases, optional French and English subtitles are provided. Plus points: most of the song lyrics are translated, which is more than usually essential in a film like this. Minus points: there are loads of typos (some rendering the lines borderline incomprehensible), they’re sometimes cut off at the sides, and on at least one occasion the French subtitle appears by mistake. Oddly, the DVD Beaver review claims (with supporting evidence) that the subtitles are white, but the oned on my copy are definitely bright yellow.

Extras: Comfortably Clavis’s most generous Jancsó package to date, this includes a (French-language) director’s biography and filmography, short excerpts from Clavis’ other Jancsó releases, and the complete ‘Hegyalja’ episode from the 1994 Message of Stones TV series - thankfully, a different one from that featured on Second Run’s discs.


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Posted on 19th March 2008
Under: Hungary, 100 Classics, Miklós Jancsó | 2 Comments »

The Round-Up

Szegénylegények
Hungary, 1965, black and white, 87 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Production Manager: István Daubner
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi
  • Photography: Tamás Somló
  • Production Design: Tamás Banovich
  • Costume Design: Zsuzsa Vicze
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: Zoltán Toldy
  • Cast: János Görbe (János Gajdar); Zoltán Latinovits (Imre Veszelka, first militiaman); Tibor Molnár (Kabai senior); Gábor Agárdi (Torma); András Kozák (Kabai junior); Béla Barsi (third warden); József Madaras (man in Hungarian costume); János Koltai ( Béla Varju); István Avar (first interrogator); Lajos Öze (second interrogator); Rudolf Somogyvári; Attila Nagy; Zoltán Basilides; György Bárdy; Zsigmond Fülöp; László Csurka; Lõrinc G. Szabó; László György; József Horváth; László Horváth; Jácint Juhász; József Kautzky; József Konrád; Magda Schlehmann; Ida Siménfalvy; Sándor Siménfalvy; Gyula Szersén; Tibor Szilágyi; Endre Tallós; Géza Tordy; István Velenczei


It’s appropriate that Miklós Jancsó took inspiration for more than one film (Cantata, 1963; Allegro Barbaro, 1979) from the work of his great compatriot Béla Bartók, as in many ways he was attempting to achieve the same with Hungarian cinema as Bartók did with Hungarian music. Though both artists had a conventional training and spent long apprenticeships developing their craft in a way that wouldn’t frighten the horses (an apt metaphor in Jancsó’s case), they also had a strong sense that their work needed something not only distinctive but distinctively Hungarian before it could achieve full flower.

In Bartók’s case, the breakthrough was the discovery of folk music - the real thing, not the ersatz version diluted for the tourist trade. In Jancsó’s, it was the realisation that the great Hungarian puszta, those flat plains seemingly stretching out to infinity, could be as expressive a part of his film language as any of his human protagonists. This developing interest was already clear in Cantata (Oldás és kötés, 1963) and especially My Way Home (Így jöttem, 1964), but they are mere conceptual sketches compared with his breakthrough in The Round-Up, as remarkable in his artistic development as the Eroica symphony was in Beethoven’s, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in Picasso’s and The Waste Land in T.S. Eliot’s.

The film’s original title Szegénylegények translates as ‘the hopeless ones’ (its French title is Les Sans-espoir), and if that doesn’t already set a suitably grim and despairing tone, this is reinforced by the opening montage. Using simple illustrations and a deceptively informative voiceover (the original UK release print replaced this with a rather more detailed text scroll), Jancsó sets the scene in the late 1860s, the round-up of the English title involving the last holdouts from the 1848 Kossuth rebellion whom, one assumes, have been eking out a basic existence on the puszta ever since. But even here, images of buildings and landscapes are rapidly usurped by mechanisms of torture and oppression, made all the more unsettling for being presented as though they were items in a hardware catalogue. By the time we’re told that Count Gedeon Raday, the commissar ultimately responsible for the operation, “wasn’t particular about his methods”, that has already become abundantly clear, and one braces oneself for the worst.

What one gets, though, is a series of shots of such formal magnificence that they seem at first glance to work against the grim, oppressive, quasi-Kafkaesque scenario. Using every inch of the wide CinemaScope screen (a pan-and-scan version of this film would be criminal vandalism), Jancsó’s images recall Sergio Leone’s in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West - though Leone hadn’t reached anything like this level by 1965.

Groups of horsemen thunder past either side of the camera to join their companions on the horizon, creating a startling three-dimensional effect, and throughout the film Jancsó is careful to compose for every plane - the far distance is as likely to feature people and horses in intricate geometrical arrangements as the foreground. The film often has more in common with dance than cinema: a group of hooded prisoners shuffles around in a circle, soldiers form two parallel lines to repeatedly whip a naked girl, black-clad old women bring white bundles of provisions that are laid out in a perfectly straight line. Jancsó often shoots from a high vantage point, as if to emphasise the massive scale of his canvas, and in the many sequences featuring literally hundreds of people, one can only marvel at how long they must have taken to set up. The soundtrack is clearly post-dubbed, as Jancsó liked to give directions during his long takes, aping his silent-movie forebears of four or five decades earlier.

Five years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock had taken the then virtually unprecedented decision to kill off his female lead partway through Psycho (1960). In The Round-Up Jancsó does this with such regularity that it’s impossible to latch onto any single individual, despite the presence of recognisable actors such as Zoltán Latinovits and András Kozák, the leads in his two previous films. It rapidly becomes clear that every character, without exception, is a pawn in an exceptionally complex game of three-dimensional chess whose board lacks squares and whose rules change from minute to minute.

But, make no mistake, there are rules, and they’re certainly not arbitrary at the time they’re applied. No-one is immune from authority, not even those designated as authority figures (entire troops can be replaced at a moment’s notice), and a fatal bullet could hit at any moment, its origins an eternal mystery. The authorities’ main purpose is to track down the (real-life) bandit Sándor Rósza but, to continue the Hitchcock parallels, he’s the film’s McGuffin in two senses: he’s both a cipher used to entrap his former associates, and a convenient narrative hook on which to hang the material that Jancsó is really interested in, an almost forensic study of the psychological techniques used to disorientate and ultimately break prisoners into betraying their comrades.

This atmosphere of uncertainty (the film’s timescale is impossible to establish: it could be hours, weeks, months or years) means that a singled-out prisoner never knows whether he’ll end up dead or given an unexpected military promotion - and, if the latter, whether this is all part of the same macabre game and shouldn’t be taken at face value. The appearance of a full-scale military band just as a triple execution seems about to take place is both incongruously amusing and a wry comment on the ritualised nature of power: the unseen authorities seem to view the entire round-up as least in part as a gigantic Gesamtkunstwerk, a piece of conceptual art whose aesthetic impact outweighs the fact that it involves real human sacrifices.

Although The Round-Up can certainly be reduced to an 87-minute parade of torture and killing, by the same token My Way Home becomes a wartime buddy movie, and anyone who’s seen that film will recognise the absurdity. What’s remarkable about The Round-Up is the way Jancsó’s style so perfectly matches the substance, so that every manipulation and atrocity becomes a comment on similar practices within a far wider political context. There was a widespread assumption on the film’s original release in 1966 that Jancsó had constructed an allegory of Hungary ten years earlier, when the Hungarian authorities did some post-rebellion rounding-up of their own.

This certainly stands up to scrutiny, but so too does a reading of the film as a representation of Bosnia, Rwanda or Iraq, which Jancsó obviously couldn’t have intended - and he clearly didn’t have September 11 in mind when staging the extraordinary sequence in which desperate prisoners fling themselves off the stockade to their deaths, or Guantánamo Bay (and Abu Ghraib) in the rigidly-defined groups of hooded prisoners who have no idea of their fate. But that’s one of the defining characteristics of a truly great work of art: it constantly reinvents itself for a new generation, and despite being over forty years old at the time of writing, Jancsó’s masterpiece has dated hardly at all.


DVD Distribution: The Round-Up is released by Second Run (UK) and Clavis Films (France), both offering PAL transfers with no region code and optional English subtitles. This review is of the Second Run disc.

Picture: Not as good as either Clavis’ Cantata or Second Run’s My Way Home, but for the most part very acceptable, this anamorphic transfer does at least get the basics right in that it’s sourced from a very clean-looking print and is framed in the correct CinemaScope aspect ratio. The image is certainly a lot sharper than Second Run’s disappointing The Red and the White, and less contrasty than their Marketa Lazarová, though there’s still a tendency for people to get lost in the shadows during the few night-time sequences. The transfer’s biggest problem is highlighted by the main title, which has telltale edge-enhancement haloes, and while nothing in the film itself is quite that blatant, there’s a fair amount of evidence of digital manipulation of a less than perfect source. But I must stress that the film is generally towards the upper end of the Second Run quality scale, and it’s certainly the best version currently out on DVD - the Clavis edition being apparently extremely dark and with yellow subtitles.

Sound: A marked improvement on both Clavis’ disappointing Cantata and Second Run’s better but still slightly distorted My Way Home, this soundtrack is to all intents and purposes flawless, perfectly reproducing the mono original. (And it’s only when one listens closely to it that one realises just how busy it is - there’s virtually no music, but a near constant accompaniment of birdsong, tramping feet and distant cries).

Subtitles: Although initial rumours that Second Run was authoring the disc so that the subtitles would appear outside the frame turned out to be untrue, there’s nothing wrong with them otherwise: they’re white, properly synchronised, typo-free and optional. The only disappointment is that the folksong that opens the film (to the tune of ‘Deutschland über alles’) has not been translated.

Extras: As usual for this label, there are two extras, both excellent. The real treat is a new 20-minute interview with Jancsó, who is in amazing physical and mental shape for someone in his mid-eighties (he would probably have been 86 when this was shot), and gives a delightfully candid and chatty self-portrait - the fact that it was filmed by his sons probably encouraged him to let his hair down. There’s one particularly delicious moment when he keeps breaking into fits of giggles as he tries to deliver a particular philosophical point - a more po-faced editor would have taken this out, but I’m glad it was left in. The other extra is a 16-page booklet showcasing a fine essay on Jancsó and the film by John Cunningham, author of the definitive English-language study Hungarian Cinema: From The Coffee-House to the Multiplex (2004).


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Posted on 14th March 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, 100 Classics, Miklós Jancsó | 3 Comments »

Marketa Lazarová

1967, black and white, 162 mins

  • Director: František Vláčil
  • Producer: Josef Ouzký
  • Screenplay: František Pavlíček, František Vláčil, based on the novel by Vladislav Vančura
  • Photography: Bedřich Baťka
  • Editor: Miroslav Hájek
  • Design: Oldřich Okáč
  • Sound: František Fabián
  • Music: Zdeněk Liška
  • Cast: Magda Vášáryová ()Marketa Lazarová); Josef Kemr (Old Kozlík); Naďa Hejná (Kateřina); Jaroslav Moučka (Jan); František Velecký (Mikoláš); Karel Vašíček (Jiří); Ivan Palúch (Adam-One-Armed); Martin Mrázek (Václav); Václav Sloup (Šimon); Pavla Polášková (Alexandra); Alena Pavlíková (Drahuše); Michal Kožuch (Lazar); Zdeněk Lipovčan (Jakub); Harry Studt (old Kristián); Vlastimil Harapes (young Kristián); Zdeněk Kutil (Reiner); František Nechyba (driver); Zdeněk Kryzánek (Captain Pivo, ‘Beer’); Zdeněk Řehoř (Sovička); Jan Pohan (Kornet); Otto Ševčík (monk); Vladimír Menšík (Bernard); Karla Chadimová (prioress); Pavel Landovský (Smil); Ladislav Považay (Burjan); Václav Kovařík (varlet Bohdan); Petr Sedlák (varlet Jakub); František Hlinovský, Jaroslav Mařán, Otto Lackovič (king’s soldiers)

First, the superlatives. While I’m not competent to judge whether Marketa Lazarová really is the greatest Czech film ever made (as asserted by a poll of 100 Czech film critics in 1998), after three viewings I’m certainly confident enough to rank it alongside Bergman’s Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960), Paradjanov’s Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors (Тени забытых предков, 1964) and Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966), its only serious rivals when it comes to uncannily convincing, unforgettably cinematic renditions of the medieval era. Its action scenes recall Kurosawa at his most exuberant, its sweeping deep-focus widescreen images have more than a hint of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублев), and Zdeněk Liška’s extraordinary score rivals anything in Ennio Morricone’s mid-1960s catalogue for its use of unexpected yet strangely appropriate vocal, percussive and electronic effects. Since none of the actors has any significant reputation outside their native countries (for all lead actress Magda Vašáryová’s current stature as a prominent Slovak politician and sometime Presidential candidate), they seem utterly authentic, as though František Vláčil simply dropped his camera into the middle of 13th-century Bohemia and just filmed what he saw.

The film starts with a series of white-shrouded landscapes, “frosts as passionate as the Christianity of that time”, says the faintly mocking narrator, who will later assume the role of God in a dialogue with one of his more hapless creations. A pack of wolves streaks across the screen, scavenging whatever they can, fresh human corpses an especial delicacy. The credits respect the family hierarchies so characteristic of the period, the principal dramatis personae highlighted by means of an ornate Germanic typeface against the plain sans-serif of the rest. In the film that bears her name, Marketa Lazarová herself appears somewhere near the bottom, as befitting the daughter of a man who himself is relatively low on the social scale. In a few deft shots, Vláčil has established one of his dominant themes: that of man’s relative insignificance in a landscape that’s unforgiving in both its weather and its fauna.

Marketa Lazarová is divided into two parts, titled ‘Straba’ and ‘The Lamb of God’. We learn towards the end of part one that Straba is a werewolf, not in the fantastical lycanthropic sense (the film has its supernatural elements, but they’re just as likely to be hallucinations on the part of the film’s more overwrought characters), but a man who has been condemned to live like a wolf as the worst conceivable punishment for his perceived sins. It’s a possibly tall tale, told by Kateřina, the Kozlík family matriarch, and it seems to refer to nothing in particular, aside from evoking an impression of bestial cruelty that pervades the film as a whole. With the exception of the nuns making up the holy order that Marketa wishes to join, the lives of these largely fur-clad people aren’t that far removed from animals, and to no-one’s surprise except its owner (the slow-witted holy fool Bernard), the lamb of the second half is quickly captured and eaten, its severed head bouncing unceremoniously down a hillside like a misshapen football.

The film is also subdivided into twelve “chapters”, each heralded by an opening title, in the same mock-heraldic typeface combination as the credits. On a first viewing, these might well prove essential for basic orientation, though their declamatory language is occasionally fuel for further head-scratching (”About the campaign which became a funeral, how the captain reflected on the death of his aide who fell at the hands of the sons of Kozlík before Oboriste. He is buried at Roháček.”).

At the start of the film, the camera assumes the same crouching position as Mikoláš Kozlík, lurking in the undergrowth as his younger brother Adam (nicknamed ‘Jednorucka’ or ‘One-Armed’ - we gradually discover how he lost his left arm in a series of cryptic flashbacks) deliberately sets himself up to be accosted by a procession of Saxon noblemen. Within minutes one is dead, two are kidnapped and the party scattered, vowing a bloody revenge. The Kozlíks’ neighbour Lazar strategically robs the corpses, which Mikoláš erroneously believes will make him an ally, a mistake that nearly costs him his life.

But the overarching revenge theme, though it supplies the narrative with its backbone, ultimately plays second fiddle to Vláčil’s phenomenally detailed evocation of a medieval environment. The product of years of research (he even persuaded his cast to live like their characters), he explores their lives from top to bottom: the search for and storage of food in winter, and the care of horses, falcons and other livestock are just as important as the wider-ranging clashes between tribes and religions.

The two central female characters, Marketa Lazarová and Alexandra Kozlíková, represent Christianity and paganism - Marketa yearns for the safety and sanctity of the church (whose formal symmetry and elaborate architecture represents order in a world of otherwise unbridled chaos), while Alexandra turns a gnarled tree into a personal shrine, performs ritual sacrifices and disports herself naked in startlingly erotic alfresco sequences that would undoubtedly have fallen foul of the British Board of Film Censors had the film been submitted to them in 1967 (they might well have baulked at some of the violence too). She’s also having an incestuous relationship with her brother Adam, before she takes a shine to Mikoláš’s chief captive, the Saxon count’s son Kristián, the nominated Bishop of Hennau.

But the primary conflict is between the two main patriarchal figures, old Kozlík, and Captain Pivo (’Beer’), the King’s representative charged with avenging the opening assault and kidnap by Kozlík’s sons. They both have considerable forces at their disposal: Pivo’s being made up of professional soldiers, while Kozlík’s comprise members of his vastly extended family. With a long scar bisecting his balding pate, probably due to a badly-aimed blade, Kozlík is clearly not a man to be trifled with: retreating from a violent confrontation with Pivo, he is set upon by wolves, but extricates himself by stabbing one to death and letting the others feast on the corpse. He’s equally practical when his sons present him with two horses that they seized from the Saxons: he has the stallion slaughtered (since it’s more productive to eat it than feed it) while keeping the mare (presumably as a potential breeder).

Against this harsh backdrop, where even the spring seems deep-frozen, one wouldn’t expect great romances to flourish. Accordingly, the one that blooms between Mikoláš and Marketa is marked by initial violence (dragged away from her father’s house by her hair, she is subsequently raped and kept in fetters, though Mikoláš does at least make a point of disposing of the leg-irons favoured by his cackling father) and uneasy understanding - despite spending much onscreen time together, they have just one proper conversation towards the end. Dialogue in general is in short supply in a film where gesture speaks volumes - at one point, Adam even feigns dumbness when captured, the better to survive interrogation. The most garrulous character, Bernard, mostly comes out with quasi-Biblical gibberish (”the soliloquy of madmen”, notes a chapter heading), while Kateřina’s fount of folk wisdom is characterised more by weird atmospherics than any immediate relevance to the situation at hand.

But who needs words when the pictures are so eloquent? Vláčil’s matchless eye, already much in evidence in The White Dove (Holubice, 1960), dominates almost every shot. Intricate compositions (Eisenstein and Welles seem the strongest visual influences) and camera choreography throw up one startling image after another, whether it’s the nuns symbolically releasing dozens of doves, Kristián walking unharmed through a pack of wolves, Pivo’s men bogged down in a swamp or Marketa’s silent yet potent encounter with a stag in the forest.

All this is enhanced by imaginative editing, with much use made of brief, sometimes near-abstract associative flashbacks, as well as conscious visual echoes - a pig is strung up for slaughter at an early stage, and we later glimpse, almost imperceptibly, a naked man awaiting the same fate. The densely layered soundtrack is particularly rich. Liška’s score, primarily consisting of a cappella vocals and complex percussion (he even built his own instruments, Harry Partch-style, to create the effect of a musical language developed centuries before the equal tempered scale), seems to arise organically out of a fusion of natural and artificial sounds: the cries of birds, animals and humans, the crackle of fire, the clash of metal against metal.

Vláčil’s thrillingly inventive film is a clear first choice for anyone wanting to explore either his work or Czech cinema outside the low-key humanism of the more familiar New Wave titles - or anyone who wants to discover a masterpiece that’s almost entirely unrecognised by the standard (Western) film history books. Marketa Lazarová is one of the most exciting rediscoveries in years - or rather discoveries, since it’s apparently had just three 35mm screenings in Britain to date, and the only way of seeing it legitimately on video has been via an unsubtitled VHS edition imported from the Czech Republic. Until now.


DVD Distribution: Second Run (UK), PAL, no region code. Interestingly, the DVD’s running time of 158 minutes translates to 165 minutes once PAL speedup is taken into account, making the film appear to be three minutes longer than the official theatrical running time. However, I have been unable to perform a direct comparison.

Picture: Despite minor quibbles, this is so much better than any of Facets’ Vláčil DVDs that there’s no comparison – and it’s currently the only English-subtitled DVD release anywhere in the world that does him justice. It would also be a shame if its very evident qualities were eclipsed by disappointment at the fact that it’s not a restoration from the original negative – this was mooted, but turned out to be unaffordable. By any reasonable standards, this is an excellent transfer: anamorphic, framed correctly in the original 2.35:1 Scope ratio, pin-sharp and with a pleasing dynamic range – the only issues on the debit side being some minor print damage on occasion (less noticeable with this film than many others because it’s so visually active), very occasional shimmer, and some shots seem a little too contrasty. However, as many other shots are perfectly lit this may have been intentional, and a friend who’s been lucky enough to see it in 35mm says that this was true of the big-screen version too. In terms of Second Run’s catalogue, this ranks alongside Intimate Lighting and The Party and the Guests as one of the very best transfers they’ve made of a 1960s film.

Sound: The soundtrack is presented in the original mono, and sounds fine – despite the unavoidable limitations of a 40-year-old recording, it copes well with a wide dynamic range, especially the soaring vocal highs and subterranean percussive rumblings of Zdeněk Liška’s score.

Subtitles: The white subtitles are clearly readable, idiomatic, typo-free and optional. Sensibly, they don’t obscure the original Czech intertitles, but present a well-paced line-by-line translation in the blank space at the bottom.

Extras: There are no extras on the disc (probably wisely, given the film’s length), but the booklet contains a substantial essay on the film and Vláčil’s career by Peter Hames, who has probably written more about both than anyone else in the English language.


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Posted on 28th November 2007
Under: Reviews, Czechoslovakia, František Vláčil, 100 Classics | No Comments »

The Hand

Ruka
1965, colour, 18 mins

  • Director: Jiří Trnka
  • Producer: Puppet Film Collective
  • Screenplay: Jiří Trnka
  • Photography: Jiří Šafář
  • Editor: Hana Walachová
  • Puppeteers: Bohuslav Šrámek, Jan Adam
  • Music: Václav Trojan

Universally recognised as both the founder and the supreme master of the Czech puppet cinema tradition (an accolade far less trivial within Czech culture than it might seem in the West, where puppetry has long been regarded almost exclusively as a children’s medium), Jiří Trnka (1912-1969) was generally renowned for his exquisite craftsmanship, best demonstrated in the widescreen feature-length adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sen noci svatojánské, 1959). An essentially gentle, sensitive artist, most of his 25-odd films are distinguished by their impeccable taste and almost complete lack of any apparent political message.

The remarkable thing about his last film, The Hand (Ruka, 1965) is that it both maintains the strengths of his earlier work while adding a heartfelt cri-de-coeur. Though it has a clear political purpose in highlighting the plight of the artist under a totalitarian cultural policy, it also comes across as deeply personal, as Trnka himself was all too conscious of the way he had personally benefited from a regime that he secretly despised. As a political parable, it has all the impact of the work of Jan Švankmajer (who had then just begun his film career and the following year would make the first of several films in Trnka’s own studio with technicians who worked on The Hand) but without the younger man’s naked aggression, and this quiet fatalism gives it much of its power.

The central situation in The Hand could hardly be simpler: a humble craftsman devotes his life to making clay flowerpots. Though his existence is basic, living in a one-room flat with minimal furniture and peeling wallpaper, he seems blissfully content with his existence, even to the point of bowing before the flowers growing out of his creations. And then, after being alerted by the sound of feet echoing down a corridor’s bare floor, he hears a knock at the door…

…which portends the first of many visits by a gigantic hand, which suggests (if that isn’t too subtle a word) that the potter divert his skills in the direction of making glorified statues of… well, hands. And this request goes well beyond mere narcissism on the hand’s part, as a virtuoso montage demonstrates the image’s potency as a political tool: hands hold scales of justice, the torch of the Statue of Liberty, Napoleon’s hand tucked into his waistcoat, a mailed fist, a boxing glove, the accusing finger, the clasped handshake, even the silhouetted rabbit trick.

Unmoved, the potter refuses, and reacts increasingly aggressively to further blandishments, even to the extent of disconnecting his phone and attacking the intruder with a sledgehammer to avoid the hand’s wheedling, bribery and “accidental” vandalism of his flowerpots. Eventually, thanks to the cunningly-disguised (and weirdly erotic) spectacle of a heavily dolled-up hand in a fishnet glove, he is lured and locked into an ornate birdcage, strings are tied to his limbs, a hammer and chisel is forced into his hands and he is compelled to comply - and, like Trnka in real life (and death: like the potter, he was given a full state funeral when he died four years later), is handsomely rewarded with medals and laurels for his apparent willingness to compromise.

It’s a bleak, despairing tale, rendered still more heart-rending by the fact that it’s so clearly a Trnka film: the little potter could have come straight out of one of his earlier, airier fantasies. As ever, Trnka’s use of lighting to convey the tiniest emotional nuances on an otherwise static face is little short of miraculous, as is his attention to detail: look at the potter’s boyish glee, conveyed purely through the way that he spins his wheel with his legs, as compared with the heavier, trudging body language as he’s forced to glorify the hand under pressure. Made to take advantage of the post-1964 political thaw, The Hand was banned in the wake of the 1968 Soviet invasion, and no wonder: no amount of spin can dilute the moral force of Trnka’s message - or his sly satire of mass popular culture: is it a coincidence that one of the hand’s vehicles of totalitarian control is a television set?


DVD Distribution: Included in the Image Entertainment compilation The Puppet Films of Jiří Trnka (US), NTSC, no region code. The other films on the DVD are the feature-length The Emperor’s Nightingale (Císařův slavík, 1948) and the shorts Story of the Bass Cello (Román s Basou, 1949), The Song of the Prairie (Arie Prerie, 1949), The Merry Circus (Veselý cirkus, 1951) and Břetislav Pojar’s A Drop Too Much (O skleničku víc, 1954).

Picture: Although it clearly hasn’t been restored and appears to be sourced from an analogue tape master, the source print is in reasonable condition, a few spots and scratches notwithstanding. The colours of the original were presumably more vivid, but the slightly faded look is not at all unpleasing, and the slightly soft picture also suits the material. It’s in the original 4:3, and appears to be framed correctly, though the NTSC transfer means that step-by-step examination of Trnka’s animation is hampered by additional blurred frames (though this isn’t apparent during normal viewing).

Sound: This is the original mono, which is fine, but the quality is dreadful, which isn’t. Alongside tape hiss, which may well be characteristic of the original materials, there’s also pronounced flutter on several occasions, which sounds as though it was introduced at some stage in the transfer. Fortunately, The Hand is not overly reliant on its soundtrack (there’s no dialogue, and both music and sound effects are relatively sparse), so this is less of an issue than it would be in most cases, but there’s still ample scope for improvement.

Subtitles: The onscreen title is given in five different languages (Czech, English, German, Spanish, French), and there is no spoken dialogue - hence no subtitles.

Extras: In addition to the five other films mentioned above (which will be reviewed separately in due course), the DVD offers a 12-minute documentary, Jiří Trnka: Puppet Animation Master. Narrated in English, but presumably sourced from a Czech original , it includes much fascinating footage of Trnka at work both at his desk and in his studio, as well as examples of his work outside the cinema, particularly his renowned children’s illustrations. In addition to extracts from the films elsewhere on the DVD, it also includes clips from his early work in 2-D cel animation, his puppet debut The Czech Year (Špalíček, 1947), Prince Bajaja (Bajaja, 1950), Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české, 1952) and The Good Soldier Svejk (Dobrý voják Švejk, 1955), before concluding with a brief account of the origins of The Hand.


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Posted on 28th October 2007
Under: Reviews, Animation, Jiří Trnka, Czechoslovakia, 100 Classics | No Comments »

My Sweet Little Village

Vesničko má středisková
1985, colour, 100 mins

  • Director: Jiří Menzel
  • Producer: Jan Šuster
  • Screenplay: Zdeněk Svěrák
  • Photography: Jaromír Šofr
  • Editor: Jiří Brožek
  • Design: Zbynek Hloch
  • Music: Jiří Šust
  • Cast: János Bán (Otík); Marian Labuda (Pávek); Rudolf Hrušínský (Dr. Skružný); Petr Čepek (Turek); Libuše Šafránková (Jana); Jan Hartl (Kašpar); Miloslav Štibich (Kalina); Oldřich Vlach (Kunc); Stanislav Aubrecht (Járda); Zdeněk Svěrák (Evžen Ryba, the painter); Marie Šebestová (Věra Kousalová, the teacher); Július Satinský (Pilot Štefan); Josef Somr (Kovodřeva, the editor); František Vláčil (Adolf Ticháček); Milena Dvorská (Pávková); Milada Ježková (Hrabětová); Ladislav Županič (Rumlena); Jitka Asterová (Rumlenová); Jiří Lír (Rambousek, the landlord); Blanka Lormanová (Půlpánová); Rudolf Hrušínský Jr. (Drápalík); Evžen Jegorov (Brož, the sexton); Jiří Schmitzer (okrskář Tlamicha); Rudolf Hrušínský IV (Kalina ml.)Věra Vlková (nanny Pávková); Anna Vaňková (Kalinová); Petr Brukner (co-worker Duda); Míla Myslíková (Fialková); Jan Hraběta (combine harvester operator Žežulka); Jana “Paprika” Hanáková (saleswoman Echtnerová); Milan Šteindler (závozník Šesták); Vladimír Hrabánek (caretaker Pavlíček); Zuzana Burianová (Bohunka); Klára Pollertová (Majka Pávková); Vida Skalská (cook); Jan Kašpar (Ferda); Vlasta Jelínková (Ticháčková); D.Hajná (Hrušková); A.Fišerová.
  • Crew: Eva Horázná (assistant editor); Antonín Vaněk (boom operator); Jiří Kučera (stills photographer); Emil Sirotek, Gabriela Kerekešová (assistant producers); Pavel Nový, Jan Peterka (production supervisors); Antonín Mařík (camera assistant); Karel Hejsek (assistant cameraman); Hana Suchá (script supervisor); Petr Slabý, Jan Hraběta, Věra Pištěková (assistant directors); Josef Hrabušický (assistant architect); Bedřich Černák, Rudolf Beneš, Jaroslav Lehman, Stanislav Rovný (sets); Běla Suchá (costume design); Ludmila Ondráčková, Iva Bártová, Dana Chaloupková, Jana Soudná (costumes), Tomáš Kuchta, Šárka Šimůnková, Simona Marešová (make-up); Filmový symfonický orchestr (music performed by); Dr. Štěpán Koníček (conductor); František Černý, ing. Karel Jaroš (sound recording); Miloslav Vydra (5. dramaturgicko-výrobní skupina vedoucí skupiny); Filmové studio Barrandov (production company)

A gigantic box-office hit on its original release (5 million tickets sold in a country whose population wasn’t much more than double that), Jiří Menzel’s gently subversive comedy My Sweet Little Village is clearly regarded with immense and continuing affection in the Czech Republic, if online popularity polls are anything to go by.

As with many domestic comedy successes, though, it’s not immediately obvious to outsiders just why this particular film should have struck such a chord. Although it achieved some international exposure on the back of its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (it was the first Czech film to reach the last five in nearly twenty years), its Western critical reception was generally more muted, most writers noting that the film’s blend of gentle humour and broad slapstick might be less appealing outside its native country.

Certainly, on the surface, the film could hardly be more straightforward. Most of it is set in the village of the title (one of the characters is an amateur aviator, giving Menzel a perfect excuse for some lyrical aerial shots), and its economy seems to revolve around a large collective farm. All the characters are instantly recognisable: the bull-headed Turek (Petr Čepek), suspects that his wife Jana (Libuše Šafránková) is having an affair but unable, despite many angry accusations, to spot that the culprit is Václav Kašpar (Jan Hartl); mullet-haired teenager Járda (Stanislav Aubrecht), hopelessly in lust with his sister’s teacher Věra (Marie Šebestová), who prefers the older-man charms of itinerant painter Evžen Ryba (Zdeněk Svěrák); Doctor Skružný (Rudolf Hrušínský), whose medical skill is offset by his appalling driving; above all the self-consciously Laurel-and-Hardy duo of Járda’s father Karel Pávek (Marian Labuda), plump partner of the gangling near-imbecile Otík Rakosnik (János Bán).

There’s a plot of sorts - the Machiavellian machinations of a man much higher up the bureaucratic ladder to take over Otík’s house as a summer retreat, shipping him off to a crummy Prague flat and dead-end office job as a decidedly slanted exchange - and the development of this (and the associated bribery, corruption and, ultimately, victory on the part of the innocents at the bottom) is what gives the film its reputation for subversion. On the face of it, it’s hard to see how a Communist government could disapprove of a film whose ultimate message that life is only truly sweet if people look out for each other - were it not for the fact that it’s precisely those government officials who are depicted as the major obstructions to the achievement of this paradise on earth.

Admittedly, this is hardly biting satire, and doesn’t even have the edge of Menzel’s 1960s work, but under the circumstances this is understandable. Czech cultural policy in the 1970s and 1980s did not, to put it mildly, encourage anything that could be interpreted as a full-on attack on the status quo, and Menzel had already spent six years out of work in the 1970s as “punishment” for overstepping the line. As a result, My Sweet Little Village is a classic example of what Miloš Forman called “writing between the lines”, if only to allow Menzel to continue his career.

However, the film’s real strengths require no such historical context. While its numerous wry observations are never quite as quirky as that found in the films Menzel adapted from the work of the novelist Bohumil Hrabal (Closely Watched Trains/Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966; Larks on a String/Skřivánci na niti, 1969; Cutting It Short/Postřižiny, 1980; Snowdrop Festival/Slavnosti sněženek, 1983), there are plenty of delicious moments.

Chief amongst these are those that betray Menzel and writer Zdeněk Svěrák’s entirely genuine love of the countryside and its traditions, something they’d already demonstrated with their earlier collaboration Seclusion Near a Forest/Na samotě u lesa (1976). Dr Skružný’s appalling driving is exacerbated by his tendency to go into Stendhal Syndrome-like raptures when confronted with the beauty of the surrounding environment, while the painter Evžen Ryba (Svěrák himself) refuses to paint anything that doesn’t directly evoke his romanticised view of Czech country life. All this is counterpointed throughout by János Bán’s gentle-giant performance as Otík - a Hungarian actor (recently seen in Lajos Koltai’s Holocaust drama Fateless, 2006), Bán reputedly understood very little Czech, which adds extra weight to his general air of amiable befuddlement.

Typically for a popular Czech comedy, all of this is interspersed with rather earthier humour involving misplaced food (and beer), men distracted by women’s bottoms, cartoonish car accidents, and so on. Much of this could have been transplanted from the slapstick era, and Menzel is himself a fan of silent comedy, having paid direct tribute to it in his 1978 film Those Wonderful Movie Cranks/Báječní muži s klikou, and peppering his other films with obscure references (one of the characters in Cutting It Short keeps comparing his own disasters with Lupino Lane comedies) - but a little of this can generally go a pretty long way.

But, on the whole, it lives up to the promise of its title: it’s a sweet little village and a sweet little film. Expect no more, and you’ll get no less.


DVD Distribution: Centrum českého videa (Czech Republic), PAL, no region code

Picture: For all the film’s stature, this DVD only just passes muster. The source print has seen better days, which quite a few white dust spots on the image (though the timing of a nasty tramline suggests it was present on the original shot in question), and the encoding is somewhat basic, with particularly glaring digital artefacting present at the fog-shrouded start, and regular glitches thereafter, momentary picture freezes being typical - I double-checked on my laptop to make sure it wasn’t my player at fault.

None of which renders the film unwatchable by any means, and most of it is perfectly adequate, but it does seem odd that a Czech label (and one of the majors at that) should do such a sloppy job with such an iconic Czech title. The framing is 4:3, and there’s no indication from the picture compositions that it should be anything else (the Soviet Union and its satellite states carried on using 4:3 long after it went out of fashion in the US).

Sound: Bafflingly, three soundtracks (all Czech) are on offer - Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1, and DTS 5.0. I say “bafflingly” because there’s no particular sign that much has been done to differentiate them - I listened to the DTS track, and it might as well have been mono for 99% of the time: aside from a few brief moments such as the arrival of a plane, my centre speaker seemed to be doing all the work. That said, since the film would have been mono to begin with, this isn’t a problem at all. While I’d guess that the Dolby 2.0 track is closer to the original, I found that the DTS track offered markedly better quality, so that’s what I’d recommend. There were no other issues worth noting - it’s hardly going to give your system a workout, but you wouldn’t expect that from a twenty-year-old Czech film in the first place.

Subtitles: The English subtitles are riddled with typos, and on two occasions the language switches momentarily to Czech (though only for one line apiece, and it’s obvious from the context what’s being said). The translation was also clearly not written by a native English speaker, though it’s more charming than jarring, and chimes surprisingly well with the feel of the film itself. The disc also offers Czech hard-of-hearing subtitles.

Extras: The strongest extras are the least useful for non-Czech speakers, consisting as they do of unsubtitled interviews with director Jiří Menzel, co-star Marian Labuda and writer/supporting actor Zdeněk Svěrák. The original theatrical trailer is also unsubtitled, and in exceptionally poor condition (the menu even apologises for this!), and the filmographies for the director and leading actors are naturally in Czech only. Slightly handier is a stills gallery, which is accompanied by Jiří Šust’s evocative music from the film, though purists might be annoyed at the way the images have been presented as though they’re projected onto a screen in the village cinema, with the back of Otík’s head protruding well into the frame.


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Posted on 28th October 2007
Under: Reviews, Czechoslovakia, Jiří Menzel, 100 Classics | 1 Comment »

Intimate Lighting

While looking for something quite different, I stumbled across this unexpected Financial Times eulogy (by Harry Eyres) to Ivan Passer’s marvellous Intimate Lighting, one of the very best films of the Czech New Wave (in fact, it’s probably the film I’d recommend as a first choice to anyone wanting to dip a toe in those particular waters).

Here’s my own take on it, ported over from my old blog:


Intimate Lighting
Intimní osvětlení
1965, black and white, 72 mins

  • Director: Ivan Passer
  • Writer: Jaroslav Papoušek, Ivan Passer, Václav Šašek
  • Camera: Miroslav Ondříček, Josef Střecha
  • Editing: Jiřina Lukešová
  • Design: Karel Černý
  • Music: Oldřich Korte, Josef Hart
  • Cast: Karel Blažek (Bambas); Zdeněk Bezušek (Petr); Věra Křesadlová (Štěpa); Jan Vostrčil (grandfather); Jaroslava Štědrá (Maruš); Vlastimila Vlková (grandmother); Karel Uhlík (chemist); Miroslav Cvrk (Kája); Dagmar Ředinová (young Maruš)

Although less famous than the Oscar-winning diptych of The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, 1965) and Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966) or the early work of Miloš Forman (which Ivan Passer co-scripted and worked on as assistant director), Intimate Lighting may well be the quintessential Czech New Wave film. Lasting an admirably tight 72 minutes, it invites us to share a weekend in the countryside with six couples and two small children, and in the course of a series of outwardly unexceptional events and conversations it unveils a great many truths that are no less profound for being slipped past so subtly that they might well be missed on a first viewing.

The opening sequence initially feels like a re-run of Forman’s If There Were No Music (Kdyby ty muziky nebyly, 1963), which Passer co-wrote. In it, a conductor attempts to wring a recognizable version of the Dvorak Cello Concerto out of a decidedly elderly provincial orchestra whose members prefer whispered asides and subversive muttering to musical concentration. Musical coaxing of various kinds will become one of the film’s recurring motifs, whether it’s a brief glimpse of a child’s violin lesson, an attempt to render the rhythm of the phrase “I love you” with a car horn or to make musical sense of Grandpa’s sonorous snoring, the mournful brass band accompanying the funeral procession, or the string quartet rehearsal that for the first time establishes common ground between the three leading men.

They are Petr (Zdeněk Bezušek), Bambas (Karel Blažek) and the latter’s unnamed father (Forman regular Jan Vostrčil), reuniting in their native village. Petr and his girlfriend Štěpa (Věra Křesadlová, Forman’s wife at the time) live in Prague, having moved there when Petr’s musical career took off, and Bambas (who was left behind to work as a school administrator) rarely lets us forget it, peppering his conversation with jealous, point-scoring asides that can usually be read in more than one way. For a non-professional actor, Blažek does an extraordinary job of conveying Bambas’ inner melancholy, though it turned out that part of the reason was that he was dying of leukaemia, succumbing just six weeks after shooting finished and never seeing the finished film.

Passer delicately counterpoints their low-level squabbling (which, as so often in real life, is never really resolved) with the altogether more down-to-earth attitudes of their womenfolk: in addition to Štěpa, there’s no-nonsense housewife and mother Maruš (Jaroslava Štědrá), and Bambas’ unnamed mother (Vlastimila Vlková), who turns out to have had the least predictable life of all, assuming her story of being abducted by a travelling circus is true. But much of the time is spent with Štěpa - I’m far from the only person to note her resemblance to Julie Christie, specifically Liz in Billy Liar (1963), and Štěpa has a similarly free-spirited, self-consciously Sixties attitude to life, instinctively favouring the children over the adults, and even innocently flirting with the local village idiot (according to Passer, this was the only improvised scene in an otherwise tightly-scripted production).

The lightness of Passer’s touch recalls Jean Renoir at his peak, and comparisons with the latter’s Partie de Campagne (1936) are by no means misplaced. Forman’s regular cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček (whose work was completed by Josef Střecha after Ondříček was poached by Lindsay Anderson mid-production) manages to make the lighting look both meticulous and deceptively casual, the slightly off-centre compositions giving an off-the-cuff feel that chimes perfectly with the film as a whole. The scenes with Bambas’ children are small miracles of choreography and cutting, especially Štěpa and little Kaja’s peek-a-boo game interweaving itself into an early conversation, or the dinner-table scene in which a chicken leg changes plate three times before being accidentally drenched.

In tandem with this, Passer has a wonderful eye for absurd but strangely congruous juxtaposition, with first a white then a black kitten held up outside the open window for the string quartet’s reluctant delectation, or the incident with the chickens and the car, its bloody conclusion rendered oddly poetic by a perfectly-formed egg rolling up to the corpse. The film’s final shot is too delicious to spoil, but Pauline Kael’s description of it as “a freeze-frame closing gag that’s so funny and so completely dotty that you’re not likely to forget it” is right on the money.

Aside from A Boring Afternoon (Fádní odpoledne), a short made for but cut from the 1965 anthology of Bohumil Hrabal adaptations Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně), Intimate Lighting was Ivan Passer’s only Czech film. He continued to collaborate with Forman, co-writing The Fireman’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko!) in 1967, and like him left the country for good in the late 1960s, though Passer struggled to fit his out-of-kilter sensibility into the far more commercialised American film industry. Cutter’s Way (1981) showed that this wasn’t always a losing battle, but it’s appropriate that the dominant mood of Intimate Lighting is one of regret for lost opportunities - on this evidence, Passer is at least as original as (and possibly even superior to) his younger compatriot Jiří Menzel when it comes to affectionately wistful observation of human folly, and it’s a shame that external circumstances meant he was never able to develop his gifts in his native culture.

DVD Distribution: Second Run DVD (UK), PAL, no region code

Picture: No complaints about the picture - a few white dust spots and the occasional faint scratch aside, the print is in surprisingly good condition for its age, and the transfer does full justice to Miroslav Ondříček ’s high-contrast black-and-white lighting. The framing is 4:3, which is what I’d have expected for a Czech film of this period - certainly, there’s no indication of any cropping or excessive headroom.

Sound: This is the original mono, and has all the faults that one would expect from a mid-1960s track from a relatively low-budget Czech film - the music in particular could have done with something fuller-bodied. None of which is remotely Second Run’s fault, and I have no difficulty believing that the DVD reproduces exactly what’s on the original prints.

Subtitles: Up to Second Run’s usual high standards, the optional English subtitles were clearly written and proofread by native speakers and while I can’t judge the accuracy of the translation, I never felt I was being short-changed.

Extras: The major extra is a recent (December 2005) interview with Ivan Passer, conducted in English. Running 19 minutes, he covers the film’s entire history from inception to release, focusing on such topics as working with non-professional actors (when casting, Passer considered musical ability to be more important), discovering Karel Blažek (who was reluctant to appear in the film until he read the script and realized that it could have been describing his own life story), political difficulties involving the choice of Ondříček as cinematographer (not least when Lindsay Anderson poached him mid-shoot), and the disadvantages - and advantages - of shooting in a communist country (it was subsequently banned for twenty years not for being critical but for completely ignoring the regime). An accompanying booklet includes an essay on the film by Phillip Bergson.


Links

Posted on 8th June 2007
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The Cold Summer of 1953

Холодное лето пятьдесят третьего
Mosfilm, USSR, 1988, colour, 100 mins

  • Director: Alexander Proshkin
  • Writer: Edgar Dubrovsky
  • Camera: Boris Brozhovsky
  • Editing: Yelena Mikhailova
  • Design: Valery Filippov
  • Music: Vladimir Martynov
  • Cast: Valery Priyomykhov (Sergei Basargin, ‘Chaff’), Anatoly Papanov (Nikolai Starobogatov, ‘Spade’), Victor Stepanov (Mankov), Nina Usatova (Lydia), Zoya Buryak (Shura), Yuri Kuznetsov (Sotov), Vladimir Kashpur (Fadeyich), Boris Plotnikov (Starobogatov, Spade’s son), Vladimir Golovin (Baron)

A huge hit on its original release, voted best film of 1988 by the journal Sovetskii Ekran and second only to Vassily Pichul’s raunchy phenomenon Little Vera (Маленькая Вера) at the box office, The Cold Summer of 1953 simultaneously depicts two pivotal periods of Soviet history. Set in the months immediately following Stalin’s death and produced and released in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s late 1980s reforms, it implicitly criticises the Soviet system to a degree that must have been unimaginable even a few months before it went into production in June 1987.

Indeed, director Alexander Proshkin acknowledged that if the film had been shot not that much earlier, it would probably have ended up as the unexceptional thriller approved by state film body Goskino on the basis of a script called The Dance of the Ephemera. Those ignorant of or uninterested in the underlying politics should still find the film perfectly watchable as a smaller-scale Russian version of Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven, as assorted misfits band together to save their remote village from marauding bandits - it’s nowhere near the class of those two, but it delivers enough generic thrills to hold the attention.

But it’s the elements added during production that gave the film its considerable lasting value. The summer of the title saw Stalin’s rivals jockeying for power in the wake of his death the previous March. An amnesty engineered by his right-hand man Lavrenti Beria gave prison governors a heaven-sent opportunity to get rid of their worst troublemakers, though the amnesty didn’t affect exiled “enemies of the people”. Proshkin and his scriptwriter Edgar Dubrovsky had a great many discussions with lawyers and criminologists while preparing the film, as they wanted to make sure its primary message came through loud and clear - which is that the term ‘criminal’ has multiple meanings depending on who’s applying it, and in a totalitarian situation it can often become so distorted as to be essentially meaningless - much like the phrase ‘enemy of the people’, which is uttered at least three times in different contexts.

Chaff (Valery Priyomykhov) and Spade (Anatoly Papanov) have spent years in Stalin’s gulags on trumped-up charges (Spade’s ‘crime’ was to have travelled abroad, Chaff’s was to have been captured by the Nazis during the war), the prime of their lives irretrievably lost: when the film opens they still live under huge restrictions, forced to live in a remote northern village as they’re banned from travelling. They’re still serving their sentence, while the violent marauders who invade the village have a clean record. And all these events are set in train by the actions of people at the highest levels who are later denounced as criminals - Beria is the one repeatedly named, but the clear implication is that he’s just one of many rotten apples.

This theme is explored further through the village’s three authority figures: the slavishly lickspittle Fadeyich (Vladimir Kashpur), unquestioningly accepting everything state-sanctioned and rejecting all ‘unofficial’ suggestions, the increasingly embittered Mankov (Victor Stepanov), too intelligent and observant not to realise what’s really going on, and the weaselly opportunistic Sotov (Yuri Kuznetsov), who’s even prepared to throw his lot in with the bandits, not least as he’s worried about an ongoing investigation digging up aspects of what seems to be a dubious past. With all due respect to the actors, this trio is not depicted with any especial subtlety, and it’s safe to assume that even the most slow-witted audience member would have drawn numerous parallels with events and people in their own lives.

Even less subtle is the depiction of Lydia (Nina Usatova) as a literally mute slave of whichever master happens to be a part of her life at the time (past lovers, present bandits): she’s as much a prisoner of events as any of the others, and the sequence where she wordlessly gestures with increasing desperation at a boat filled with dancing revellers clearly represents the plight of the ordinary Soviet citizen, powerless to attract any kind of attention other than one entailing brutal exploitation. In turn, she takes her frustration out on her daughter Shura (Zoya Buryak), cutting short a potentially romantic conversation between her and Chaff by pouring cold water over them. Shura has dreams of studying in Moscow: had she achieved them, what would have been the chances of her ever returning? And how many people watching her in the cinema had similar ambitions?

What runs throughout the film is a sense of futility, a lament for wasted years and lives and not so much anger as resigned fatalism towards a system that not only permits such things to occur but also actively encourages and exacerbates them. Chaff pointedly refuses to do any more than the bare minimum of work, arguing that he owes nothing to anybody any more, while Spade still holds out hope that he’ll rejoin his family after his exile is over (though they took his advice to forget him, not so much to preserve their safety as their sanity). And the final shot, where Chaff briefly makes eye contact with a white-bearded professorial type, hints that former exiles come from all walks of life, and are so numerous that it’s all too easy just to bump into one.

Though the film was primarily intended hold the past up as a mirror to the then present, it also turned out to offer a grimly accurate portent of the future. No less an authority than the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko made a point of screening it in courses that he taught at American universities in the 1990s, as for him the film symbolised the agonising decision that Russians faced throughout their history: either submit to brutal totalitarian rule or allow crime to flourish unfettered. And by positing the latter as the logical consequence of removing the former, The Cold Summer of 1953 turned out to prophesy the period following the collapse of the USSR just three years after its release. As a thriller, it’s watchable but pretty standard-issue, but as a historical document it’s fascinating.

The DVD

The Cold Summer of 1953 is available on region-free DVD from the Russian Cinema Council in either PAL or NTSC video formats (though the NTSC version is almost certainly a conversion from the PAL original). The package includes a twenty-minute interview with Alexander Proshkin, short documentaries about Beria’s trial, Stalin’s funeral and Anatoly Papanov’s career, filmographies, a stills gallery, soundtracks in Russian, English and French and subtitles in those languages.

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Posted on 7th June 2007
Under: Soviet Union, Russia, Alexander Proshkin, 100 Classics | No Comments »

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