Vladislav Vančura cleared the path for Marketa Lazarová (Frantisek Vlácil, 1967). Modernist, playwright, filmmaker, resistance figure, and author of the original novel (1931); Vančura was murdered by the Nazis as part of their reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. In postwar Communist Czechoslovakia this imbued his work with power, creating a nexus between immense state funding, adaptation and experimentation that permitted Vlácil’s creation of the great shambling Marketa Lazarová.
State funding enabled not a film but an environment to be lived in.1 Multiple meticulously-researched settlements, costumes and artifacts were developed to be explored over the film’s 548 day shoot, creating one of the few films to evoke the medieval period’s primal alienness.2 The story is there, straightforward: a thieving family overextends itself and is punished in return, but awash with the environment. One winter, two sons of brigand nobleman Kozlík (Josef Kemr, clad in goat-skin), the armed Mikoláś (Frantisek Velecký) and the one-armed Adam (Ivan Palúch), raid a caravan and take the German-tongued noble Kristian (Vlastimil Harapes) hostage. After an attempt to seek assistance from the conniving Lazar (Michal Kozuch) and parlay with Captain ‘Beer’ (Zdenek Kryzánek) fails, Kozlík leads his people to a hideout where, in spring, they are found, slaughtered, and Kozlík captured.
Engulfed by sensation, the film lies at the edge of comprehensibility. Rather than provide the typical mass of redundant cues that alert the viewer to location, character and purpose, Marketa Lazarová only provides the slimmest of suggestions. It’s there, but brief, scattered and hidden. Characters pass through to be identified much later. Relationships are established through glances. Passing comments capture core details and major events are elided. Failing to infer, appraise and then re-appraise, is to become lost.
This is filtered through Vlácil’s overwhelming design. Scenes are introduced by ironic chapter descriptions that warp our expectations, and framed from disorientating perspectives. Asynchronous sound sets aural reports against visual incidents, on point, in counterpoint, and elsewhere as flashbacks or ambiguous visions. To follow the branching of the plot, whether the interlocking affairs between Mikoláś and Lazar’s kidnapped daughter Marketa (Magda Vásáryová), and Kristian and Kozlík’s pagan daughter Alexandra (Pavla Polaskova), or to absorb the characters’ animalistic backstories, relies on an exhaustingly alert viewer.
Alternatively, one can surrender to the aesthetic, become lost in its enveloping environment. What marks the film is its sodden but abrasive sense of texture: matted fur, twigs, mud, slush, metal, and flesh. Compositions fold the characters into the landscape, dwarfing them, rhyming their gnarled limbs with the trees’ or isolating them with telephoto-crush lensing that meld dirt-streaked skin and branch as one. The sound design holds true to this: word and sound are wrapped in a thicket of delay but glinting though it, like the story, is Zdeněk Liška’s alien choral and treated percussion score.
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And yet Marketa Lazarová made way for Vančura. Translations require the meticulous appraisal of literal and aesthetic equivalence; subtitles negotiate one minor aspect of a film’s sensibility and can be quickly produced. Films go forth into the world, existing as both book and response. These sensuous gestalts are how many texts internationally circulate, whether the grotesqueries of Edogawa Ranpo or Jerzy Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe (1903).3 While Marketa Lazarová as film has circulated for forty-nine years, an English translation only became available in 2016.4 These flickering sensations change the world; prepare us for the book glimpsed within.
In the middle of Marketa Lazarová, there is a flash. Part Two opens with a sundappled shot of the sky and a narrator musing to himself on the joys of spring. A second shot introduces a mumbling itinerant monk wandering through muddy fields, and when his mumblings become more tangible, the narrator grows impatient, interjects: engaging him in conversation, and abrading him for his dim mutterings and love of sheep. The voice, its mocking tone and acknowledgement of the audience, is the moment when the voice of Vančura is at its most apparent.
Now that Marketa Lazarová is available as an English translation, we can discover that the book is far wryer than the movie, closer in spirit to Capricious Summer (Jiří Menzel, 1968), another Czech New Wave adaptation of Vančura. The itinerant monk, Bernard (Vladimír Mensík) is a conceit of the movie. Where adaptations often streamline a bewildering array of minor characters into a major composite character, here a protagonist has been introduced to represent the author’s singular tone. The monk’s muttered declamations and bitter comic counterplot captures the sense of Vančura’s writing: its rippling mixture of vernacular and arch-antiquities, hyperbole and deadpan, its interjections. And though the film does not replicate the film’s tonal interplay, it parallels this interplay through its ambiguous camera patterning, with shots seemingly starting off as untethered landscape shots, before, as with our introduction to Bernard, voicing, staging and other suggestions tie the shot to a distinct point of view.
Marketa Lazarová, book and film, is a brutally wry story of the birth of the Czech nation: the internecine squabbles of Czech tribes fused through their varying relationship with the coming of the Germans and Christianity. As an adaptation, it is also a birthplace for a different cinematic experience: its lessons learned by such directors as Aleksei German and Andrei Żuławski, particularly in their own adaptations of anachronistic, medieval epics, Hard to Be a God (2013) and On the Silver Globe (1988). This is an environmental cinema, a cinema of attrition and exhaustion, which sees elsewise lucid narratives swamped by nature, human or otherwise, and disorientating camera movements suggest a confounding presence.
Marketa Lazarová (1967 Czechoslovakia 165 mins)
Prod. Co: Filmové studio Barrandov Prod: Josek Ouzky Dir: František Vláčil Scr: Frantisek Pavlícek, Frantisek Vlácil from a story by Vladislav Vančura Phot: Bedrich Batka Mus: Zdeněk Liška Ed: Miroslav Hájek Art Dir: Oldrich Okác
Cast: Josef Kemr, Frantisek Velecký, Ivan Palúch, Magda Vásáryová, Pavla Polaskova, Vladimír Mensík, Vlastimil Harapes, Michal Kozuch, Zdenek Kryzánek
- Peter Hames. The Czechoslovak New Wave. Second Edition (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), pp. 55-56. ↩
- Surrounding peers, Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky 1966) and Dragon’s Return (Eduard Grečner, 1968) are some of the scant few that also suggest this presence. ↩
- Which works are available varies from language to language, neighbour to neigbour, but the core practice is unvaried. ↩
- Vladislav Vančura, Marketa Lazarova. Translation by Carleton Bulkin (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2016). Twisted Spoon is an important press dedicated to making English translations of Eastern European writing available in inexpensive but exquisite editions. ↩