In a recent article for CER, Peter Hames extolled the virtues of František Vláčil (1926-1999), noting that his 1967 film Markéta Lazarová is ranked by some as the best Czech film ever made. Indeed, many Czechs have an even higher opinion of the film, considering it one of the top ten films in the world. Why, then, does the world not agree?
Despite the high status Vláčil's films have in his homeland, they are hardly ever shown outside of the Czech Republic. Even taking into account the fact that Eastern European heavies are usually not a box-office success in English-speaking parts of the world, Vláčil has not fared well, and he cannot even command a dedicated cult following in the way that, say, Andrei Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr can.
True, the recent retrospective at the Riverside Studios in London saw its performance of Markéta Lazarová sell out, and other performances in the season had fair attendances (let us hope this encourages the Riverside in its adventurous programming that focuses on non-English language films). Nevertheless, a large part of the retrospective's success was probably due to the attendance of Czechs and Czech film fans, rather than of world cinema fans.
An impeccable source
Vláčil's masterpiece certainly has much to commend it on the grounds of its source material and conception. Vladislav Vančura, who wrote the 1931 novella of the same name on which the script is based, is—as claimed by David Chirico when introducing Markéta Lazarová at its Riverside screening—probably the best Czech author of the twentieth century. Vančura is dearly loved by the Czechs for his beautiful language, described as poetism in prose. So enamoured are they with his language, the Czechs have even managed to forgive him for being a Marxist—not a popular stance for a Czech author to have taken nowadays.
Vančura's style was based on plays on words: he combined the archaic with the innovative and created a totally artificial language, with no foreign words or clichés. Every sentence is a work of art and often a riddle which may take an unprecedented turn.
The innovativeness of his prose, however, has not prevented it from appealing to Czechs. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies in 1968, for instance, people repeatedly quoted a sentence from his novella Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer, 1926): "I find this manner of summertime to be somewhat inauspicious." ("Tento způsob léta zdá se mi poněkud nešťastným").
Vančura's reputation abroad has suffered due to the difficulty in translating his works, meaning that his work is unknown to Western readers, who otherwise have plenty of opportunities to read lesser Czech authors. Peter Hames claimed at a pre-screening talk at the Riverside that Vláčil succeeded where the translators failed. He replaced Vančura's poetic and stylized language with a poetic and stylized way of filming.
Two poetic pioneers
Vláčil's Markéta Lazarová, a medieval epic about rivalry between two clans, is as innovative in its way of telling a story as is Vančura's, Hames and Chirico stressed. Hames also pointed to the similarities between Vláčil's style and Vančura's own way of film-making. Very few people now associate Vančura's name with film production; yet in the 1930s he produced a number of avant-garde, dreamlike films which are highly rated by aficionados, although they achieved little popular success at the time.
Vláčil's film is likewise avant-garde and dreamlike, but the Czechoslovak viewers of the 1960s were more appreciative, and it was a hit. He depicted the atmosphere and the visual impact of Vančura's novella brilliantly. The result is a sensual feast, with its black and white photography, symbolic images, bleak scenery and atmospheric music. It was the most expensive film ever made in Czechoslovakia, taking three years to complete.
Vláčil was obsessive about getting the mood and detail of the period right. He chose the actors with great care to match Vančura's characters. Then, as Hames points out, he made them live for two years in a forest wearing animal skins in order to gain the authentic look described in the novella. He also consulted anthropological studies to gain greater insights into the psychology of the period.
The leading role of an innocent pious girl who falls in love with her rapist was played by a teenager, Magdalena Vášáryová, who was a Vláčil discovery. She is the embodiment of Vančura's Markéta, with her long blond hair, big innocent eyes, and full sensuous lips which hint at a passionate nature. Vášáryová went on to become one of the most popular Czechoslovak actresses before becoming a Czechoslovak ambassador to Austria, and later a candidate in the 1999 Slovak presidential elections.
However, in my opinion, the film still fails to do justice to the novella. Vančura's Markéta Lazarová is good fun; even where it speaks of death and suffering, it is all about zest for life. Vláčil's story is devoid of Vančura's light touch. It is gloomy and morbid. The only comic relief is provided by the character of a monk whom Vláčil added to the story. He is superfluous to the narrative, and his only role is to be the source of cheap laughter.
Furthermore, the narrative line of Vančura's story is clear. The film is a puzzling compilation of characters, like a telephone directory, and the viewer without any knowledge of the book gets lost, perhaps explaining why the film is not rated as highly by non-Czechs. This is not helped by the fact that the original four-hour film was edited down to two and a half hours.
Worse still, where Vančura's characters are well-rounded, Vláčil's lack depth. Vančura's Markéta is a outwardly passionate woman. Vláčil's Markéta, despite her perfect looks, is unlikeably passive in the film, almost reduced to a minor character given very few lines to speak, and only manages to roll her eyes.
Despite the film's visual strength and innovative narrative structure, I cannot agree with Hames that the world-renowned Czech cinematography has never produced a better film.
Zuzana Slobodová, 4 December 2000
Read Peter Hames's article on Markéta Lazarová, In the Shadow of the Werewolf
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