Archive for the 'František Vláčil' Category

The Struggles of František Vláčil

Anyone who’s planning to visit Prague between now and the end of May might well be interested in the exhibition František Vláčil: Zápasy (or The Struggles of of František Vláčil), a multimedia tribute to the great Czech director of Marketa Lazarová (1967).

Those of us trapped elsewhere will have to make do with its bilingual (Czech-English) website, though at least that offers plenty to get your teeth into, including a series of stunning photogalleries.

Talking of Marketa Lazarová, it’s receiving two rare 35mm outings in Britain, at London’s Riverside Studios this Sunday (April 20) and at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on May 23. Anyone who goes will earn my undying jealousy - I still haven’t seen the film on the big screen yet, but the London show directly clashes with my niece’s christening.

Posted on 15th April 2008
Under: Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, František Vláčil | No Comments »


1969, colour, 99 mins

  • Director: František Vláčil
  • Producer: Věra Kadlecová
  • Screenplay: Vladimír Körner, František Vláčil, based on the novel by Vladimír Körner
  • Photography: František Uldrich
  • Editor: Miroslav Hájek
  • Design: Jindřich Goetz
  • Sound: František Fabián
  • Music: J.S.Bach, Johann Strauss, arranged by Zdeněk Liška
  • Cast: Petr Čepek (Viktor Chotovický); Emma Černá (Adelheid Heidenmannová); Jan Vostrčil (Hejna); Pavel Landovský (Jindra); Jana Krupičková (girl); Lubomír Tlalka (Karlík); Alžběta Frejková (Old German woman); Miloš Willig (staff captain); Karel Hábl (lieutenant); Zdeněk Mátl (young Heidenmann); Vlasta Petříková (woman); Josef Němeček (Slovak); Bohumil Vávra (priest)

Although František Vláčil’s directing career continued to 1987, Adelheid (1969) was the last of his films to get much exposure outside his native country. It also marked the end of his most creatively fertile period: in the years following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Communist authorities prevented him from making features until 1976.

Adelheid differs quite sharply from its predecessors. Firstly, it’s in colour, and eschews widescreen in favour of the Academy framing of his first films. Secondly, after three films set in the very distant past (The Devil’s Trap/Ďáblova past, 1961; Marketa Lazarová, 1967; The Valley of the Bees/Údolí včel, also 1967), he adapted material set during his lifetime, in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The largely German-speaking part of northern Moravia, formerly known as the Sudetenland, had been notoriously annexed by Hitler’s Germany in 1938, after which its Czech and Jewish inhabitants were persecuted. Not surprisingly, after the Allied victory of 1945, the tables were turned, and it was the Sudeten Germans who found themselves the victims. Since they were informally considered guilty of collusion with the former oppressors of Czechoslovakia unless they had an evidence-backed track record of anti-Nazi activity, reprisals were fierce and frequent.

A brief summary of Vláčil’s film, adapted from a novel by Vladimír Körner, his screenwriter on The Valley of the Bees, could make it sound like a straightforward, almost clichéd wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance between a Czech man and a German woman. Typically, though, he approaches this material far more obliquely. Though Czech-born and possessing the rank of lieutenant, Viktor Chotovický (Petr Čepek, also the lead in The Valley of the Bees) spent much of the war in Aberdeen, working in an RAF desk job. Adelheid Heidenmann (Emma Černá) is initially assumed to be an innocent victim of anti-German prejudice, but it transpires that she’s the daughter of one of the most notorious of the local Nazis, whose trial and inevitable execution occurs in the background to the main narrative (so much so that it’s only referred to in passing). And even if one accepts that the sins of the father shouldn’t be visited upon his offspring, Adelheid has a dark and ultimately murderous secret of her own - which, again, is riddled with moral ambiguity.

After a series of misunderstandings concerning his arrival that neatly sketch the dominant atmosphere of uncertainty and paranoia, Viktor makes himself known to Inspector Hejna (the avuncular Jan Vostrčil, familiar from several early Miloš Forman films), and is charged with the task of looking after Heidenmann’s large country house and draw up an inventory of its contents. It’s a job that suits him perfectly, as he doesn’t have to talk to too many people: it’s clear from the opening scenes that he’s badly out of sync with the prevailing mood, and welcomes the opportunity to ignore it altogether - at least as far as is possible.

The ‘courtship’ (if that’s not too strong a word) between Viktor and Adelheid, now working in the house as a servant, is initially marked by sidelong glances, hesitant signals and the occasional bout of flagrant voyeurism (when Viktor finds a pair of binoculars, he uses it to spy on Adelheid adjusting her clothes outside). Gesture is all they have when alone together, as they don’t speak each other’s language - Viktor doesn’t even find out her name until near the halfway mark, and has to piece together impressions of her past life through assorted clues in the form of old photographs and letters. When they finally talk directly to each other, near the very end of the film, any potential for intimacy is dashed both by the situation (an interrogation following a double murder) and the obtrusive presence of an interpreter.

As Viktor reluctantly discovers, it’s impossible to exist in a vacuum, especially at a time of national turbulence. Whatever his private feelings for Adelheid, it’s politically and socially impossible to express them in public, despite the film being set in a supposedly liberated country. Vláčil had already got into trouble with the authorities over The Valley of the Bees, and Adelheid was similarly suspect in that it raised awkward and troubling questions about a time that the Czechs would rather forget, as it shows them in a less than heroic light at a time when they were supposed to be the glorious (and, by implication, magnanimous) victors.

Perhaps appropriately for such a quiet, slow-burning piece, Adelheid is much less visually flamboyant than Vláčil’s other 1960s films. There are recurring motifs of a train (the camera adopting its viewpoint) entering and leaving a tunnel, and a painting of a nude woman mysteriously riddled with bullet holes (one of which has virtually obliterated her face), but these are exceptions. The soundtrack is similarly spartan by comparison with its ornate predecessors: Zdeněk Liška is again involved with the music, but only in terms of adapting existing pieces by J.S. Bach and Johann Strauss, perhaps as an abiding reminder that German-speaking culture will always have something worth preserving.

DVD Distribution: Facets (US), NTSC, no region code.

Picture: About halfway between The White Dove and The Valley of the Bees in quality terms, this is sourced from the Czech National Archive print, which is in reasonable physical condition (there are plenty of spots and scratches and the occasional jump-cut splice, but no really serious damage), but the colour fidelity varies, sometimes within the same shot. There’s also a slight texturing to the image, as though it was projected onto canvas, which leads to more obtrusive digital artefacting in the darker interior scenes. It’s all perfectly watchable, though, and superior to many of Facets’ Czech New Wave titles.

Sound: Although faint hiss and crackle are audible throughout, the original mono is otherwise perfectly listenable. The music comes across well.

Subtitles: As with Facets’ other František Vláčil DVDs, these are yellow, burned into the image, and slightly out of sync, typically appearing a second or two later than required. This was bearable with the earlier films, but Adelheid has more two-way conversational scenes, and the way that each line is accompanied by the previous subtitle rapidly becomes irritating. More trivially, the punctuation is somewhat eccentric (questions terminate with a full stop), and the surname that’s clearly enunciated as ‘Heidenmann’ is rendered ‘Heimann’ or ‘Heinemann’ for no apparent reason other than sloppy proofing, and I laughed out loud when the balding, overweight, distinctly unfeminine Inspector Hejna asked if anyone minded if he removed his blouse.

Extras: There are no extras on the DVD, but the sixteen-page booklet contains the same thorough Vláčil biography/filmography by Susan Doll that accompanies the other Facets discs, together with a useful essay on Adelheid by Alissa Simon that provides some valuable historical contextualisation.


Posted on 30th November 2007
Under: Reviews, Czechoslovakia, František Vláčil | No Comments »

The Valley of the Bees

Údolí včel
1967, black and white, 97 mins

  • Director: František Vláčil
  • Producer: Věra Kadlecová
  • Screenplay: Vladimír Körner, František Vláčil
  • Photography: František Uldrich
  • Editor: Miroslav Hájek
  • Design: Jindřich Goetz
  • Sound: František Fabián
  • Music: Zdeněk Liška
  • Cast: Petr Čepek (Ondřej); Jan Kačer (Armin); Věra Galatíková (Lenora); Zdeněk Kryzánek (Lord of Vlkov)); Miroslav Macháček (monk); Josef Somr (Rotgier); Václav Kotva (farmer); Jana Hlaváčková (blind girl); František Kovářík (shepherd); Josef Kotapiš, Petr Sedlák (colliers); Antonín Pražák, Ludvík Volf (hunters); Ladislav Gzela (Jakub); Pavel Štěpánek (Markvart); Michal Kožuch (Blasius); Jana Hájková (young Lenora); Zdeněk Sedláček (young Ondřej); Miloš Willig (commander); František Husák (grey monk)

The year that Marketa Lazarová finally came to the end of its protracted five-year production schedule, František Vláčil wrote, shot and completed a second medieval film. This initially arose from an expedient plan to reuse the earlier film’s sets, though in the event these proved to be unusable following neglect and weather-damage. But before they discovered this, Vláčil and screenwriter Vladimir Körner had written The Valley of the Bees, which was then shot relatively (and uncharacteristically) rapidly in early 1967, even before Marketa had completed post-production.

But despite being shot back-to-back, it’s immediately apparent that while they both share resplendent black-and-white widescreen cinematography and a highly convincing recreation of the medieval era, they’re quite different in terms of style and tone. While Marketa Lazarová was chaotic and exhilarating, The Valley of the Bees is formal and restrained, its two protagonists bound by rigid codes of conduct that govern every action in both private and public spheres (in fact, precisely the kind of rules that Marketa so ardently sought as a means of escaping her own wretched existence). The crucial difference between Ondřej of Vlkov and his former mentor Armin von Heiden is that Armin is a true believer, while Ondřej was forced to join the Order of St Mary of Jerusalem as a by-product of his father’s overwhelming sense of guilt after nearly killing him for playing a practical joke during his wedding (to a woman far closer to Ondřej’s age than his own, an issue that will have serious repercussions later on).

As with Marketa, it’s a film of two distinct halves. In the first, Ondřej undergoes a process of extreme religious purification, renouncing all family connections, wordly goods and even physical contact with other human beings. A subplot in which a fellow member of the Order attempts to escape its stifling clutches is resolved quickly, murderously and all too visibly, pour encourager les autres. What complicates matters further for Ondřej is that Armin has taken a shine to him from the moment he joined the Order as a callow teenager, which means that he’s under constant observation - small wonder that Ondřej seems quite relaxed about the prospect of fasting in solitary confinement.

There’s more than a hint of repressed homosexuality in Armin’s attitude towards Ondřej, best depicted in the early scene where they lie naked on the shore, their arms locked, attempting to numb their lower bodies in the near-freezing waves. However, actually expressing this would have been unthinkable - not merely in terms of 1960s Czech cinema but Armin’s own stringent moral code. When he tells a blind woman (who bears a passing and possibly not coincidental resemblance to Marketa Lazarová) that if she touches him, she’ll pay with her hand, the line seems almost throwaway, but he clearly means every word. In his more reflective moments, he reminisces about his participation in what was presumably one of the Crusades, though his expectations of glory turned to ashes as his comrades were felled by the plague or their own moral failings, and he failed to reach Jerusalem.

In the second half, Ondřej successfully breaks free of Armin’s influence and returns home, only to discover that his father is long dead and that his long-buried feelings for his stepmother Lenora become hard to hold back. This is nowhere near as perversely Oedipal as I’ve made it sound, since they lack blood ties and are virtually the same age - but it’s inevitable from the start that their liaison will end tragically, exacerbated when Armin makes an eleventh-hour return from the dead. Counterintuitive casting works well here, with the dark, saturnine, faintly sinister Petr Čepek playing the supposedly more conventionally human Ondřej against Jan Kačer’s clean-cut, outwardly appealing Armin, whose inner fanaticism only emerges at times when it’s unavoidable (though his lack of human warmth is revealed in a somewhat over-literal scene early on, when the Commander of the Order shudders at the touch of his ice-cold hands).

Once I’d got over my initial disappointment that The Valley of the Bees wasn’t going to be Marketa Lazarová 2, its own considerable virtues became much clearer, particularly on a second viewing. Combining the ascetic rigour of a Bresson with the pictorial sense of a Brueghel, Vláčil poses his characters a series of impossible moral conundra, forcing them to choose between their own desires and the codes that regulate their behaviour but which also suppress their humanity. As before, he makes brilliant use of sound, especially in the recurring aural motif of the bees that dominated Ondřej’s childhood (he’s first shown gingerly probing a hive with his bare hands) - the bees, of course, form another society govern by strictly-imposed hierarchical rules. Although Zdeněk Liška’s score lacks his usual fireworks, it’s appropriate that his evocation of medieval plainchant is as stark as the images.

Seemingly more straightforward than Marketa Lazarová - it’s certainly much more easily graspable on a first viewing - The Valley of the Bees is ultimately just as complex, raising questions about the conflict between human nature and codified ideology that couldn’t help but strike a chord with its original audience. Indeed, after its low-key premiere during the Prague Spring of early 1968, the film ran into trouble in the wake of the Soviet invasion that August, on the grounds that its depiction of a man forced to join a fanatically puritan religious order against its will had a clear allegorical message. And Vláčil’s refusal to provide neat answers made his film all the more potent as a (potential) instrument of subversion.

DVD Distribution: Facets (US), NTSC, no region code.

Picture: This is certainly the best of Facets’ three Vláčil DVDs by some distance, but it falls short of the standard set by Second Run with Marketa Lazarová. Although drawn from a surprisingly clean print (slightly cleaner than the source for the earlier film, in fact), the interlaced image is very soft, almost to the point where the opening credits look blurred. Some shots have very high contrast but, as with Marketa, this may well be characteristic of the original.

Sound: A marked improvement on Facets’ The White Dove, and broadly on a par with Marketa Lazarová, this respects the original mono recording and sounded fine to my ears, aside from some brief but pronounced dropouts at the reel changes.

Subtitles: As with the other Vláčil DVDs, the subtitles are yellow, burned into the image and slightly out of sync, appearing a second or two later than necessary. For the most part, this isn’t a problem, as spoken content is kept to a minimum, and two-way conversations are even rarer, though there are a couple of occasions when lines of dialogue are accompanied by the preceding subtitle. The translation is acceptable for the most part, though a number of typos betray a lack of quality control (”the holly walls of Jerusalem”).

Extras: There are no extras on the disc, but the 16-page booklet provides some helpful background, including statements by Vláčil and screenwriter Vladimir Körner, as well as an overview of Vláčil’s career by Susan Doll.


Posted on 29th November 2007
Under: Reviews, Czechoslovakia, František Vláčil | 2 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.


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

The White Dove

1960, black and white, 76 mins

  • Director: František Vláčil
  • Producer: Antonín Bedřich
  • Screenplay: František Vláčil, based on the story ‘Susanne’ by Otakar Kirchner
  • Photography: Jan Čuřík
  • Editor: Miroslav Hájek
  • Design: Theodor Pištěk, Jan Petrů
  • Sculptures: Jan Koblasa
  • Sound: František Fabián
  • Music: Zdeněk Liška
  • Cast: Kateřina Irmanovová (Susanne); Karel Smyczek (Michal); Václav (Vjačeslav) Irmanov (Martin, the painter); Gustav Püttjer (old Kohout); Hans Peter Reinecke (Ulli); František Kovářík (old pigeon fancier); Ladislav Fialka (fool); Jiří Patočka (French worker); Vladimír Erlebach (Pierre); Petr and Pavel Kocandové (Twins); Anna Pitašová (Michal’s mother)

František Vláčil’s debut feature, after a decade spent making shorts and documentaries, is a self-consciously poetic portrait of children and their relationship to the world around them.

It’s based around two parallel situations: young Susanne, living on an unnamed Baltic island, awaits the arrival of her racing pigeon, while wheelchair-bound Michal (Miša) shoots it down with his air rifle after it’s blown off course and ends up in Prague. This is observed by his artist neighbour Martin, who was sketching the pigeon just before the shooting, and who not only persuades Miša to accept the consequences of his actions and nurse it back to full health, but finds out where it was supposed to go, in between trying to express its essence across various media. (Theodor Pištěk and Jan Koblasa are credited with the actual works).

In the hands of a lesser director, this could easily have ended up mawkish and manipulative. However, Vláčil’s eye for a striking image is so well developed, and his sensitivity to both natural and artificial environments so acute (even at this very early stage in his career) that the film remains weirdly compelling even when it’s at its most apparently didactic. There is little spoken dialogue, and several minutes can go by without a word being uttered - Vláčil said that this was partly because he didn’t want to burden his child actors with the necessity of learning too many lines and thereby risk false and unconvincing performances, but it also fits squarely into his aesthetic as a whole. (According to his future cinematographer František Uldrich, Vláčil painstakingly storyboarded his shots in advance, at least partly to establish just how little dialogue he could get away with).

Throughout, Susanne and Miša are defined by their environments. Hers is horizontal and open, consisting of sand and water stretching out to infinity. In one startling shot, she walks out through a door and then, Christ-like, across the surface of the sea outside - it’s only revealed later that the water at that part of the beach is only an inch deep. By contrast, Miša’s world is vertical and claustrophobic, a series of metal-and-glass boxes that are just as oppressive as his wheelchair.

Though they never meet, Vláčil establishes links between Susanne and Miša by framing them in similar visual situations: the shot mentioned above is echoed a few minutes later when Miša passes through a similar doorway and along stripes of light projected through the window onto the floor. Similarly, the chicken-wire of Susanne’s empty pigeon coop is paralleled by the wire fence that Miša climbs just before his accident. The shots are frequently in deep focus and framed at off-kilter angles, recalling Orson Welles in the muscularity of the compositions and the complex camera choreography underpinning them: cinematographer Jan Čuřík and his assistant Miroslav Ondříček would go on to become leading lights in the Czechoslovak New Wave that dominated the next decade.

Given the sparseness of the dialogue, sound becomes crucial. It often overlaps when cutting between sequences, carrying the aural impression of the waves lapping the Baltic coast over into landlocked Prague, and when Miša listens to the pigeon’s chest, it’s almost as though he’s trying to hear its natural environment. This film also marked the first collaboration between Vláčil and his near-contemporary Zdeněk Liška, who would go on to score all his films up to 1977’s Shadows of a Hot Summer (Stíny horkého léta, 1977). Liška’s fabled versatility is much in evidence here, with a plangent main theme for harpsichord interspersed with passages of quasi-Ligetian string harmonics and even a couple of finger-snapping jazz interludes for saxophone and vibraphone.

Aside from the Belgium-set opening when the pigeons are released en masse, a practical joke played by Susanne’s friend Ulli, and an unexpectedly thrilling sequence in which the pigeon is menaced by a black cat (named Satan!) in the flats’ service shaft, little happens in terms of straightforward dramatic action. Instead, Vláčil and his protagonists prefer to concentrate on tiny details: shadows cast on on rippling puddles; an empty birdcage dangling from the branch of a bare tree; the distorting potential of rain-splashed glass; a tiny spot of paint taking on an almost lifelike bloom when made to react with water. The most telling moments are charged with unmistakable symbolism, such as Martin’s climactic decision to slice the face off his sculpture of Miša and create a better visual impression of his essential insensitivity.

Although Vláčil was a decade older than Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec and the other New Wave luminaries, and he lacked their film school training (he learned his craft with the Czechoslovak Army Film Studio after being drafted in 1951), The White Dove’s elevation of metaphor over literalism, images over words and poetry over prose put him firmly in the same camp. However, Vláčil was several years ahead of them - by the time the New Wave had reached full strength, he had abandoned low-key humanist drama in favour of such wild, barbaric masterworks as Marketa Lazarová (1967).

DVD Distribution: Facets (US), NTSC, no region code. The running time is just 67 minutes, which is nearly ten minutes shorter than the official 76 minutes given by every database that lists the film, but I can’t confirm first-hand whether the latter is accurate. (PAL speedup isn’t an issue here, and even if it was, the reduction would only be to 73 minutes).

Picture: Clearly sourced from analogue tape (there are several telltale dropouts), the picture quality is roughly comparable to VHS, and further marred by pronounced ghosting and a contrasty image that lacks highlight and shadow detail. The source print has numerous surface blemishes. While it’s never completely unwatchable, an overwhelmingly visual film such as this deserves far better. Sadly, aside from an unsubtitled VHS edition in the Czech Republic (Filmexport Home Video) this seems to be the only option at present.

Sound: Basic mono, and with a great deal of background crackle suggesting an optical source that needs a good clean. As with the picture, it’s listenable enough, but there’s vast scope for improvement.

Subtitles: Typical Facets, which means that they’re yellow, non-removable, set in an ugly rounded serif font, and slightly out of sync, in that they sometimes appear a second or two later than required (this is less of a problem here than it is with other Facets discs, as the verbal content is so minimal). The translation is idiomatic enough, but subtitler Eva Štíchová has a curious aversion to question marks.

Extras: There are no extras on the disc, but the package includes a twelve-page booklet with an informative essay on Vláčil by Susan Doll.


Posted on 27th November 2007
Under: Reviews, Czechoslovakia, František Vláčil | 1 Comment »

František Vláčil: an introduction

The recent retrospectives and DVD boxes of films by the long-neglected Japanese master Mikio Naruse serve to emphasise the wealth of important cinema that still remains to be discovered outside the established canons. František Vláčil (1924-1999) may be Naruse’s closest equivalent in Czech cinema, not because their aesthetic and thematic preoccupations have much in common, but because he’s an unquestionably major talent who has been almost entirely ignored outside his native country, except in the most specialist critical circles.

And yet the first few shots of Marketa Lazarová (1967) alone make it clear that here is an artist with a quite exceptional cinematic sensibility. Taking an overwhelmingly visual approach, Vláčil thrusts the viewer straight into an alarmingly convincing medieval environment without so much as a by-your-leave, from the opening dolly shot of a pack of wolves roaming the snowy wastes, through the early scenes in which the camera appears to crouch amongst the foliage as if trying to hide from both human and natural predators. It’s a disorientating experience, but also an exhilarating one, its sheer sweep and ambition and its intricate visual poetry amply compensating for any first-time bewilderment, and its elemental physicality made it unprecedented in both Czech and world cinema.

Born on 19 February 1924, Vláčil originally studied art history and aesthetics before spending the 1950s dabbling in various media (including puppet animation) before turning to live-action filmmaking. Initially seconded to the Czech Army Film Unit, for whom he made documentaries (and gained useful experience in working under difficult conditions), he first made his reputation with the Venice Film Festival prizewinner Glass Skies (Skleněná oblaka, 1957), a 20-minute short that tells a virtually wordless story of a young boy and an old man bonding through their shared love of flying. He then made Pursuit (Pronásledování), part of the portmanteau film No Admittance (Vstup zakázán, 1959).

Vláčil ’s feature debut came in 1960 with The White Dove (Holubice), which represented Czechoslovakia at that year’s Venice Film Festival and is considered one of the first films to be made in the spirit of what eventually became the Czechoslovak New Wave. A low-key fantasy, not dissimilar to Albert Lamorisse’s classic The Red Balloon (Le Ballon rouge, 1956), it crosscuts the experiences of a young girl in an unnamed Baltic country awaiting the arrival of the homing pigeon of the title, a wheelchair-bound boy in Prague who inadvertently intercepts it, and his neighbour, an artist who tries to teach him the importance of respecting living creatures through his preferred medium. As with many of Vláčil’s films, dialogue is kept to a barely functional minimum, as he prefers to explore his themes through a strikingly inventive use of landscape and architectural space. It also marked his first collaboration with the prodigiously inventive composer Zdeněk Liška, who would score all his films for the next seventeen years.

Vláčil then made the first of several trips into the distant past, turning to 16th-century Bohemia for The Devil’s Trap (Ďáblova past, 1961), a thinly veiled political allegory in which the Inquisition investigates a minor on suspicion of being in cahoots with the Devil, because of his seemingly supernatural knowledge of his local environment - which is actually a product of ancient family secrets passed through the generations.

Then came Marketa Lazarová, Vláčil’s third feature and his acknowledged masterpiece. It was shot on a huge budget over a two-year period, during which Vláčil immersed himself in the medieval era both in terms of study and physical reconstruction. He told the critic Antonín Liehm that “whenever I watch a historical film, I always felt as if I were seeing contemporary people all dressed up in historical costumes. I wanted to understand them, see through the eyes of their lives, their feelings, their desires - in short, I wanted to drop back seven centuries.” Largely ignored by the West, which tended to associate Czech cinema with low-key humanist dramas of Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel, it was voted the best Czech film of all time by a poll conducted in 1998.

Vláčil stayed in the medieval era for Valley of the Bees (Údolí včel, 1967), though stylistically it was quite different. Whereas Marketa was wild and untamed, Valley is formal and rigorous, appropriate for its theme of a young man (Petr Čepek) forcibly raised as a member of the Teutonic Order of St Mary of Jerusalem and required to dedicate every fibre of his being to their cause, renouncing family and earthly pleasures alike. He eventually escapes and returns to his old home, where he falls in love with his stepmother - technically incest, despite their lack of blood ties. There’s also a thinly veiled gay subtext of a kind that was highly unusual for 1960s cinema generally, never mind from a Communist country.

The last of Vláčil’s films that’s reasonably accessible to English speakers is the 1969 Adelheid. Shot in colour for the first time since his 1950s shorts, it was set at the end of World War II, at a time when Germans were declared second-class citizens and expelled from Czechoslovakia, regardless of whether they’d lived there all their lives. Petr Čepek again stars as a Czech airman who returns to his native country to reclaim an estate formerly held by a Nazi collaborator. He discovers that the German’s daughter Adelheid is working as a general dogsbody, and the two begin a wary relationship, hampered by their lack of knowledge of each other’s languages and a secret that she withholds from him until the film is nearly over.

After Adelheid, Vláčil found his career hampered by state opposition. After a few years’ making short films for children (one of which, the 50-minute Sirius, 1974, won the Grand Prix at the Tehran Children’s Film Festival) and a documentary on Prague’s Art Noveau history, he returned to fiction features with Smoke on the Potato Fields (Dým bramborové natě, 1976), a simple, lyrical story about a lonely doctor who copes with his wife’s permanent emigration by relocating to a small provincial town that reminds him of his childhood. This was followed in quick succession by Shadows of a Hot Summer (Stíny horkého léta, 1977), a kind of Moravian Straw Dogs in which a man is forced to draw on his darkest impulses to protect his family from a gang of bandits. It shared the Grand Prix at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

Vláčil’s final films have barely been seen outside his native country. Concert at the End of Summer (Koncert na konci léta, 1979) was a biography of the composer Antonín Dvořák, made to mark the 75th anniversary of his death. Serpent’s Poison (Hadí jed, 1981) examined the relationship of a young woman and her increasingly alcoholic father. A Little Shepherd Boy from the Valley (Pasáček z doliny, 1983) portrayed a young boy being forced to live with strangers at the end of the war, while Shadow of a Fern (Stín kapradiny, 1985) was a hallucinatory, uncharacteristically talky study of two men on the run after killing both a deer and a gamekeeper. Finally, The Magus (Mág, 1987) portrayed the last years of the Czech poet Karel Hynek Mácha. Vláčil lived long enough to see Marketa Lazarová acclaimed as the best Czech film of all time, and to receive a lifetime achievement award at the 1998 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, just months before his death on 28 January 1999.

At the time of writing, four of Vláčil’s 1960s films are available on English-subtitled DVDs of varying quality. The best by miles, and a clear first choice for Vláčil beginners, is Second Run’s new release of Marketa Lazarová (Region 0 PAL). The other three are on the Facets label (Region 0 NTSC), and range from flawed but adequate (Valley of the Bees, Adelheid) to VHS quality at best (The White Dove). Over the next few days, I’ll be discussing all these discs in more detail.

Further reading

Peter Hames has written extensively about František Vláčil in the books The Czechoslovak New Wave and The Cinema of Central Europe (both Wallflower Press), the booklet accompanying Second Run’s DVD of Marketa Lazarová and one-off articles such as ‘In the Shadow of the Werewolf‘ (Kinoeye, 16 October 2000). Facets’ Vláčil DVD releases are accompanied by 12-page booklets with an informative essay by Susan Doll. Czech speakers have far more material to draw on, starting with this extensive tribute website hosted by - with plenty of illustrations on offer for those who can’t read the text.

Posted on 26th November 2007
Under: Czechoslovakia, František Vláčil | 3 Comments »

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