Reality Czech

Tony Pipolo on František Vláčil

Left: František Vláčil, Adelheid, 1969, still frmo a color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Right: František Vláčil, Marketa Lazarová, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 163 minutes.

“THE FANTASTIC WORLD OF FRANTIŠEK VLÁČIL” is one of the most important retrospectives to hit New York in recent memory. Although Vláčil’s first feature, The White Dove (1960), drew considerable attention, and his medieval epic Marketa Lazarová (1967) was voted the best Czech film of all time in a poll of European critics, his work is virtually unknown in the US. Pressed to name the notable figures of the Czech New Wave, few critics would cite Vláčil among such better-known directors as Jiří Menzel, Milos Forman, Jan Němec, and Ivan Passer. Arguably, Vláčil approached life under communism less directly than his peers, preferring symbolic narratives set in the Middle Ages or in the more recent past under Nazi occupation. Nonetheless, his films reflect the complex cultural and linguistic tapestry of the country’s politically divided history and identity.

Both lyrical and naturalistic, his work is infused with moral conviction, viewing present evils as manifestations of eternal conflicts. In The Valley of the Bees (1967), the protagonist struggles between carnal desire for his stepmother and the severe code of the Teutonic religious order in which he was forcibly raised. A rigorous formal structure enforces the fatalism of the parable, its bleak landscapes and stark black-and-white cinematography evoking Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957). In Adelheid (1969), set at the end of World War II, a Czech officer is assigned to reclaim an estate of a Nazi collaborator sentenced to death. Later, he learns that Adelheid, his servant woman, is the collaborator’s daughter. Though neither speaks the other’s language, their interactions assume an affecting depth that makes the denouement all the more tragic. As in Shadows of a Hot Summer (1977), about a farm family held hostage by Ukrainian partisans at the end of World War II, Vláčil addresses big themes via narrowly focused, even domestic situations. In both films, he shuns the theatrical in favor of a more terrifying low-key realism.

Vláčil had a remarkable gift for creating child characters and directing the actors who played them. Among the must-sees in the series that demonstrate this magnificently are the aforementioned White Dove and Sirius (1974), which won the Grand Prix at the Tehran Children’s Film Festival. Though both films concern a relationship between a child and an animal, they avoid sentimentality. Each child makes a tough decision that wrenches him from a sheltered view of the world. In Sirius a boy’s father is seized by the Germans for rebellious activities. To avoid surrendering his dog Sirius, named after the Dog Star, to be trained to hunt and attack men like his father, the son opts to have the animal shot by the local forester. An afterword affirming the perpetual “return” of the Dog Star suggests that freedom, sacrificed or lost under tyranny, is always reborn. Unsurprisingly, communist officials suspected that Vláčil’s allegory, as well as the stern resolve of his young protagonist, were hardly restricted to the Nazi past.

Belying its debut status, The White Dove manifests a visual eloquence that testifies to Vláčil’s ability to narrate in purely filmic terms. Paralleling its tale of a quasi-crippled boy afraid of the outside world with that of a young girl who awaits the homing pigeon of the title, the film cuts between an apartment building in Prague and an island in the Baltics. Though the boy’s slingshot appears to have killed the bird, he is inspired by an artist neighbor to nurse it back to life, a miraculous rebirth that prefigures his own. When he frees the bird to fly home, the single feather it sheds prompts him to leave his apartment in order to retrieve it. With minimal dialogue and a consistently inventive framing and shooting style, the film achieves a poetic realism worthy of Dovzhenko.

The series includes Tomáš Hejtmánek’s Sentiment (2003), an uncanny portrait of Vláčil in the guise of a documentary, in which the director is played by Jiří Kodet, an actor of comparable gravity, thinly masked by old world charm and wit. More than one viewer will believe they have encountered Vláčil himself.

“The Fantastic World of František Vláčil” runs February 2–10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. For more details, click here.