[14 October 2010]
The work of Czech director Frantisek Vlacil is not well known internationally, at least not when compared either to Czech New Wave directors such as Jiri Menzel or to filmmakers like Milos Forman who successfully made the transition to Hollywood. Yet in a 1998 poll of Czech film professionals Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarova was named the greatest Czech film of all time, so the man must have been doing something right.
Facets Multimedia recently released a two-disk set of Vlacil’s The White Dove and Adelheid. both of which merit close study from anyone interested in cinema as an art form. Above all these two films display a highly individual approach to filmmaking which deliberately draws attention to the created nature of its product and is far-removed from the seamless style of storytelling developed during Hollywood’s golden era and which still dominates much commercial filmmaking today.
Vlacil originally sought a career in art and came to filmmaking only gradually, skipping film school in favor of working in animation and attending lectures on the cinema. He learned the practical skills of filmmaking and made many documentary and educational films at the Czechoslovak Army Film Studio as well as a few artistic shorts including Glass Clouds and Pursuit before directing his first feature film, The White Dove, in 1960. Its striking visual style recalls the great films of the silent era, an effect heightened by lengthy dialogue-free sequences and an extensive soundtrack by Zdenek Liska (sometimes only a harpsichord, sometimes a full orchestra) which underlines and heightens the film’s shifting moods.
The plot is based on a chance intersection in the lives of two children from different worlds. Susanne (Katerina Irmanovova) lives in the open, free environment of an unidentified Baltic island while Michal (the haunting Karel Smyczek) lives in the crowded environs of Prague. He’s further separated from his environment by a childhood accident which has left him frail and is more an observer of life than a participant, spending time alone or with adults rather than playing with other children.
Although Susanne and Michal never meet, they are connected through a coincidence. Susanne’s carrier pigeon goes off course on its return from Belgium and flies over Michal’s building where he shoots it down with an air rifle, leaving it injured but alive. Michal’s neighbor Martin, an artist who frequently works on his roof, observes this event and convinces Michal that he should nurse the bird back to health and then set it free. This slight story assumes monumental proportions in Vlacil’s treatment and demonstrates his ability not only to find visual poetry in the most ordinary things (a flock of birds, the ocean’s waves, the spires and rooftops of Prague) but also to draw sensitive performances from his child actors.
Still of Adelheid courtesy of Facets
Adelheid (1969), Vlacil’s first color film, tells a more politically-charged story (adapted from a novel by Vladimir Korner) set in the countryside near the German-Czech border immediately World War II. Although Vlacil’s sharp eye for composition is evident the emphasis in this film is far more on straightforward storytelling than on visuals chosen for their abstract artistic and symbolic qualities.
Viktor Chotovicky (Petr Cepek) returns home after serving in the RAF and is assigned to look after a rambling home formerly occupied by a local Nazi (and which previously belonged to a Jewish family). One other person is living in the house: the German-speaking Adelheid Heidenmann (Emma Cerna), daughter of said Nazi, who is now working as a servant. The two haven’t a language in common and initially regard each other with suspicion but living in close proximity and in isolation from the rest of the world threatens to break down those barriers.
Worse, a drunken evening with his superior (the house seems to have been a repository for black market goods) brings Viktor’s political loyalties into question: he’s certainly not a Nazi sympathizer but doesn’t feel comfortable in postwar Czech culture, either. The film has a stunning conclusion which I won’t spoil here except to say that it delves even further into the ambiguities of personal and political loyalties.
Adelheid so offended Czechoslovakia’s Russian occupiers that Vlacil was banned from making feature films until 1976. Many Czechs also disliked the film for its reminder of the less-than-admirable behavior of many of their countrymen in the recent past. Interestingly, the director may have been making a statement by using a soundtrack drawing heavily on compositions from German masters including Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Strauss: there are evil Germans, but not everything German is evil.
There are no extras on either disk, but each film comes with an informative booklet discussing Vlacil’s career as well as the film in question. The quality of the visual and audio transfer is acceptable if viewed with a generous eye (an insert for the Adelheid disk notes that it was created from a damaged print) and both films have yellow English subtitles which have the disconcerting habit of appearing slightly late on screen. Despite these flaws both films are eminently worth your while and represent fine work from a director who deserves to be better known.