What do the tales of the ancient world have to tell us about ours? Where are the continuities? The differences, in which perhaps lie forgotten wisdom? Even intellectual titans like Aristotle believed in abhorrent things like natural slavery. Yet, such tales can refocus our otherwise obscure world.
Director Frantisek Vlacil, said that historical films must “depict the times in such a way that the viewer can really fall back that many centuries into the past”. Marketa Lazarova, hailed as the greatest Czech film ever made, is in one sense a historical drama. Based on the epic (although only 120 pages long) novel of the same title by Vladislav Vancura, the film follows three groups of people, trying to survive the brutality of what would have in the 13th century been called the Kingdom of Bohemia.
As Tom Gunning in his eloquent essay that comes with the new Criterion release states, the narrative of the film is almost completely overshadowed by its pictorial, musical and kinetic beauty. In a work as mysterious as this, though, it’s helpful to get one’s bearings in the narrative.
Embodying the barbaric culture and pagan mysticism are the Kozliks, a roving family of bandits led by a warrior-king, and counting among their ranks a dark, severely handsome soldier named Mikolas. The Kozliks waylay a caravan of German soldiers, capturing a noble youth named Christian. The boy’s father demands retribution against the Kozliks, which incites a captain and his regiment to find and dispatch of the bandits.
A third, politically neutral group y is commanded by a merchant, Lazar. His daughter Marketa is traveling with them, as Lazar has promised her to a convent. When Lazar insults the Kozliks and refuses to join with them against the king, the bandits attack Lazar’s clan and kidnap Marketa. Mikolas brutally rapes Marketa, crucifying the one man who attempts to save her to the back of a fortress door. Despite, or perhaps in the unsettling tone of the film, due to the violence of her treatment, Marketa falls in love with Mikolas.
Submission to violence and strength is the overarching ethos of this vision of 13th century Bohemia. Yet, it is not exactly nasty, brutish and short as it is in Thomas Hobbes’ imagination. God haunts this land and its people. Justice, sins, and evil are whispered in hushed voices and screeched in suffering moans in equal measure. Christianity and pagan religions vie for the hearts of these people. As the narrator says at the close of the film “Love fights with cruelty, certainty with doubt for these souls”.
The camera conveys a spiritual pathos that is beyond words. It moves constantly, hypnotically shaking, panning vast expanses and looming close. One feels that the camera is God’s perspective; a God that is haunted, fearful and maybe a bit drunk. You might need a drink, too, if you had to live with creating this barbaric world. Retribution and justice will be handed out, but perhaps not in an omniscient, ordered way.
Character, story, and even ideas are clearly subsidiary to the mesmerizing sensual experience of Marketa Lazarova. Vlacil expresses as much in an interview contained in the DVD. He worked under the Soviet regime; trained in unconventional circumstances. His first films were instructional ones for the military. The left criticized his work for being apolitical. Understandably so, once you hear his views on the matter. Vlacil is an artist for arts’ sake, trite as that saying may be. Pictures for him are the essence of cinema. Even sound for him takes on a representational quality, particularly when blended with compositional beauty on the screen.
Prepare to throw sense and sentimentality to the wind when diving into this film (and dive you must). At close to three hours, Marketa Lazarova does not coddle the viewer. Feel the terrifying beauty of being lost in an alien world and you will be rewarded with a grounding, perhaps even a comfort in the dystopian present.
While the thematic scope and artistic ambition of this work seem to demand many reels of film, the picture is unduly long. In no way does Vlacil ease this difficulty with his confusing plot and disregard for character development. What we have is a type of intellectual film that demands of the viewer, Take your medicine. It may be bitter but it’s good for you, dammit! You have to be up for the trance. As such, this is certainly not a film for everyone.
The Criterion release comes loaded with juicy extras. A short documentary, In the Web of Time gives us a portrait of director Vlacil that twirls us around his labyrinthine vision of history. He describes the at times unbearable amount of work that went into Marketa lazarova. His main focus is authenticity. A lofty goal that is reached through a painterly touch and a preference for emotional gravity over historical particularity. In this short, Vlacil reveals the two categories that his filmmaking is rooted in: architecture and music.
Antonin Liem, film critic, journalist and friend of Vlacil is interviewed. He discusses the difficulties and riches in translating a great novel to the screen. While I am wary of the possibility therein, Liem is illuminating. Also discussed is the desire to be faithful to Vancura’s original. Authenticity, or the striving towards it, permeated every level of this film’s inception.
There are interviews with actors Magda Vasaryova, Ivan Paluch and Vlastimil Harapes, who expound upon working with the gifted, if at times severe director. They speak to purity of method and how Vlacil helped them find their mythical characters.
Theodore Pistek, the costume designer, speaks of his career and the work he did on Marketa Lazarova. He worked with Vlacil on many films, but this was the apex of import in the costume design department. Tools, shelters and clothing were made in very primitive ways in order to reproduce the reality of the medieval world. Storyboards produced by Vlacil, which showcase his training as a visual artist and emphasize his imagistic directorial style, are presented in a slideshow.
Finally, the booklet that will accompany any Criterion release is superb. As I frequently feel, it is the most essential of the special features that this fine company puts out. Noted in the review above, the booklet contains a review by Professor Tom Gunning, an essay by translator Alex Zucker, and an interview from 1969 with Vlacil. Along with their sumptuous restoration, these essays make the set worth the purchase price.