Dawn breaks against a black and white snowscape and a party of wolves makes its way obliquely towards the camera. A hawk hovers above the marsh reeds and we note that it is linked to the hand of its master. The sombre photography and the images of hunters, both animal and human, establish the context of a harsh and predatory world.
This is the opening to František Vláčil's 13th-century epic Markéta Lazarová . It's a film from the mid-1960s, and by no means a familiar title, yet some rank it as one of the best films ever made. In the Czech Republic, a poll of film professionals has ranked it as the best Czech film. That places it above the work of Miloš Forman, Jan Švankmajer, and Oscar-winning titles such as Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains) and Obchod na korze (A Shop on the High Street).
Adapted from a pre-war novel by the avant-garde writer, Vladislav Vančura, Vláčil's film deals with the conflicts between the rival clans of the Kozlíks and the Lazars, and the doomed love affair between Mikoláš Kozlík and Markéta Lazarová. Interwoven with all this is an evocation of the conflict between Christianity and paganism.
Revealing the essence
Vláčil's objectives run counter to the traditional historical film in which he felt he was "seeing contemporary people dressed up in historical costumes." He sought instead to penetrate the psychology of the times. "People then were much more instinctive in their actions, and hence much more consistent. The controlling emotion was fear, and that brought its pressure to bear mainly at night. That is why some pagan customs stayed with man for such a long time."
Not satisfied with a purely intellectual exercise, he took his cast and film team to the Šumava forest for two years. "There we lived like animals ...lacking food, and dressed in rags. I wanted my actors to live their parts. Finally they did. And they loved me, because I gave them the opportunity to live the way they always wanted."
While he was clearly influenced by models such as Ingmar Bergman's Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957) and Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954), Vláčil's ambitions reached further. Apart from authentic clothes, implements, and sets constructed by traditional methods, he drew on anthropological studies and used historical language. Like the original novel, he attempted to reveal the essence of human nature.
Despite its extended period of preparation and shooting, the film has the intensity of an almost instantaneous inspiration. The combination of an elliptical narrative with a visually rich and evocative style produces a powerful and fascinating film.
The part of Markéta Lazarová is played by the strikingly beautiful Slovak actress, Magda Vášáryová, who was once slated to play the lead role in Sophie's Choice, but lost out to the better-known Meryl Streep. More recently, she has been Czechoslovak ambassador to Austria (1990-1992) and a candidate for the Slovak presidency (May 1999).
History and genre
Markéta Lazarová, finished in 1967, was Vláčil's second historical film and he was soon to become a specialist in the genre. Ďáblova past (The Devil's Trap)(1961), set during the counter-Reformation, dealt with the Jesuit persecutions and had already created a sense of history as present. The theme of Christianity vs paganism and the distorting effects of organised religion is again the subject of Údolí včel (Valley of the Bees, 1967), where the Czech hero is raised as a member of the Order of St Mary of Jerusalem (the Teutonic Knights).
In Adelheid (1969), he treats the subject of a Czech who inherits German property after the expulsions from the Sudetenland after the Second World War. The almost silent examination of his relationship with Adelheid, daughter of the former German owner and now his servant, provides a profound analysis of the human distortions caused by ideology.
Vláčil, who originally studied art history and aesthetics, reveals an intense interest in the power of the poetic image and, in this respect, his work has been compared with Tarkovsky. But Vláčil's approach focuses on drama rather than reflection. As a student, he apparently drew Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potëmkin (The Battleship Potemkin, 1925) frame by frame, and maintained this storyboarding technique in his own work.
The present seen through the past
His taste for composition—horses against landscape, castles against the sea—often attains a Wellesian epic grandeur. Yet, in Markéta Lazarová the wide screen composition is complemented by a battery of poetic, associational, and disruptive effects. The bardic titles that break up the film give it the epic quality of the picaresque novel and the violence of the film's rapid forward tracking movements, flashbacks and flashforwards disturb both narrative and visual convention.
Although Vláčil was temperamentally drawn to historical reconstruction, his films were always intended, he said, as a dialogue with his own times. His
While he was initially unable to work in features immediately after 1968, Vláčil returned with Dým bramborové natě (Smoke on the Potato Fields, 1976), a reflective and elegiac study of a country doctor and his relations with a young pregnant girl. By holding to simple (but resonant) themes, he was able to maintain the integrity of his work in the difficult years that followed.
He inevitably projected his own and his society's preoccupations into the past. But his attempts to see historical periods, including the post-war years, in terms of their own values and contradictions, is still rarely attempted.
Few of his films have been publicly screened in the UK, and forthcoming seasons of his films at the Leeds International Film Festival and the Riverside Studios in London provide a unique opportunity to discover the work of one of the cinema's most distinctive poets.
Peter Hames, 16 October 2000
For further details of the UK Vláčil retrospective seasons and details of other Czech film and cultural events in Britian, visit the London Czech Centre's Website
Also by the author:
- The Sound of Silents
A 1920s Czech masterpiece gets a new score
- Finále Makes a Good Opening Act
New Czech film at the Plzeň film festival
- Dark Alchemy: The films of Jan Švankmajer
(from Amazon.com), (from Amazon.co.uk)
- The Czechoslovak New Wave
(from Amazon.com), (from Amazon.co.uk)
- The Kinoeye Archive of articles on Central and East European cinema
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and East European cinema through CER
- Return to CER front page