Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing.
— W. B. Yeats1
The Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko has been described by some critics as ‘the Fellini of the East.’ The comparison is indeed an odd one. The work of both directors may evoke “a universe in which the grotesque and the sublime, the divine and the human co-exist in a baroque delirium,”2 but any similarity is one of style, not substance. Since rising to prominence amid the ideological ferment of the Prague Spring in 1968, Jakubisko has made films about the healing power of madness. In his international breakthrough Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans and Fools, 1969) a character warns that “anything you rely on will one day turn into its opposite. Madness is the one thing that will save you from winding up unhappy.” Madness in a Jakubisko film is not a caprice or an affliction, but a basic existential need. It is, at once, the best means of escape from a violent and destructive world and the only known way to survive it.
The contrast with Fellini could not be starker or more extreme. What we call ‘madness’ in La dolce vita (1960) or Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965) is little more, in fact, than a flamboyant and highly theatrical strain of eccentricity. It does not exist in defiance of society. It grows naturally, almost organically, out of the society that surrounds it and does not in any way challenge its basic structures. Nor does the protagonist in a Fellini film stand out by virtue of being mad. Invariably he (Marcello Mastroianni) or she (Giulietta Masina) is eminently sane and ‘normal’ compared to the surrounding carnival of grotesques. Madness is extrinsic to a film by Fellini, but intrinsic and utterly essential to a film by Jakubisko. In one, it is a divertissement that takes place on the sidelines; in the other, it is a cataclysm that shakes the very depths of the soul.
So the result could not fail to be fascinating when Fellini’s wife and muse, Giulietta Masina, played the lead role in a Juraj Jakubisko film. Known variously in English as The Snow Fairy and The Feather Fairy — in this film, snow and feathers are one and the same — Perinbaba (1985) is an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “Frau Holle”, or “Mother Frost.” It tells of a human child who is saved from a black-robed, scythe-wielding Angel of Death and stolen away by the Snow Fairy to live in her castle on top of a high mountain. This is an enchanted and ethereal realm, sparkling with crystals and fluttering with white doves. The Snow Fairy (Masina) plays an organ to whip up the winds that bring the blizzards. She makes the snow by bouncing up and down on an enormous mattress stuffed with white feathers. The feathers drift down in thick white droves and carpet the earth as snow.
The story is a familiar one in children’s tales and adult fantasy of the 19th century. Hans Christian Andersen in The Snow Queen, Count Eric Stenbock in The Other Side and George MacDonald in Lilith all told stories about little boys — or even grown men — who got lured away from the real world by seductive and supernatural women. The cinematic legacy of such tales is a rich one. In the overt realm of cinéma fantastique, there is Maria Casarès as La Princesse in Orpheus (Orphée, Jean Cocteau, 1950) or Martine Beswicke as the Queen of Evil in Seizure (Oliver Stone, 1973). In the superficially more realistic realm of thrillers and films noir, Kim Novak in Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) or Gene Tierney in Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) fulfil very much the same function.
It is enough to think back to any of these other films or stories to see, at once, the great and essential difference. Giulietta Masina in Perinbaba is in no way an eroticised femme fatale. She is a homely and nurturing, even a maternal figure. She does not lure our young hero out of a world of dull safety and into one of darkness and danger. Rather, she saves him from a world in which death and grief and loss are omnipresent — shields him, in the words of W. B. Yeats, “from a world more full of weeping than he can understand.”3 This is not to say the boy does not rebel against her protection. He waits until a day when she is sleeping, steals her vast and voluminous bedspread and uses it as a balloon to drift down towards earth. He grows abruptly from childhood to manhood as he does so. But he lands as a man who has the power to defy Death.
In its shambolic and rather wacky way, Perinbaba reverses the direction that has prevailed in decades, even centuries of fantasy writing and films. The world that we know and inhabit is no longer the place of safety. The mysterious and supernatural ‘other’ world is no longer a place of danger. Our safety and even our survival depend on our ability to evade and escape and, ultimately, to transcend the world we see all around us. This is a process a great many people would call madness, but one that Jakubisko, paradoxically, might call hope. Thirty-five years on from the release of Perinbaba, he is putting the finishing touches to a sequel that is due out later this year. Once upon a time, escape may well have been an act of madness. But now, in 2020, it seems the best and perhaps the only thing to do.
• • •
Perinbaba (The Feather Fairy, 1985 Czechoslovakia/West Germany/Italy/Austria 90 mins)
Prod. Co: Slovenská Požičovňa Filmov, Omnia Film, ZDF, RAI 1, ORF, MR-Film Prod: Paul Altmayr Dir: Juraj Jakubisko Scr: Ľubomír Feldek, Juraj Jakubisko from the story Frau Holle by the Brothers Grimm Phot: Dodo Simončič Mus: Petr Hapka Ed: Patrik Pašš Art Dir: Viliam Gruska, Peter Manhardt
Cast: Giulietta Masina, Tobias Hoesl, Petra Vančíková, Soňa Valentová, Valerie Kaplanová, Pavol Mikulík
David Melville is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature for the Centre for Open Learning at the University of Edinburgh. A specialist on fairy tales, Gothic and melodrama, he is the author of a forthcoming book on Cinema and Queer Spectatorship.
- W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” in Poems, 80th Anniversary Collection, selected by Seamus Heaney (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), p. 42. ↩
- Jesús Palacios, “Juraj Jakubisko – The Virtues of Excess,” http://en.fic.gijon.es/noticias/show/17272-juraj-jakubisko-the-virtues-of-excess. ↩
- Yeats, “The Stolen Child,” ibid. p. 3. ↩