After three feature length triumphs mixing live-action with animation, Karel Zeman took a departure from sci-fi and fantasy missions implausible and instead engaged mockingly with terrible historical fact. With A Jester’s Tale, Zeman presented an entertaining spoof of the Thirty Years’ War, initially a Catholic-Protestant conflict which began in Prague and preoccupied much of Europe between 1618 and 1648, spilling over into the Ottoman Empire (1).
In order to realise this project, Zeman collaborated with a key player in the nascent Czechoslovak New Wave, Pavel Juráček, who would share screenwriting credits with him. While Zeman’s previous films had their satirical elements, the greater bite in this film is in part attributable to his one-off collaboration with this fellow Czech filmmaker of protean talents but a full generation younger and, it would transpire, on an inexorable collision course with the authorities.
Juráček had already racked up some impressive credits. With Jan Schmidt he co-directed 1963’s Postava k podpírání (Josef Kilian), a featurette concerning one man’s Kafkaesque quest to find the shop he hired a cat from, in order to return it. He also scripted the influential sci-fi film, Ikarie XB 1 (Icarus XB 1, Jindřich Polák, 1963). Later, he helped pen Věra Chytilová’s timeless Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) and directed the Swiftian, surrealist film, Případ pro začínajícího kata (A Case for the Young Hangman, 1969), banned upon its post-Prague Spring completion, ending his career.
Juráček’s work has a strong interest in the impersonal machinery of bureaucracy and power structures, and was a perfect match with Zeman’s anti-war position evident in his earlier and subsequent films. I think it can be argued though that there is a predeterministic flavour to the anti-war sentiment in A Jester’s Tale which is unique amongst Zeman’s work. Its narrator – a jester, but no fool, really – often refers to the station in life its characters were born to. Moreover, the film makes much of the intractable influence of chance, rendered on screen as the God of War, an anthropomorphised, moustachioed cloud blowing winds of change across Europe.
A more accurate translation of its Czech title, Bláznova kronika, would be “A Fool’s Chronicle”, indicating that it is a story told by a fool. In its opening scene, an old man in jester’s garb professing to be both a “fool” (blázen) and a “jester” (šašek) is shown, somewhat obscured, behind a weighty historical account he’s writing as he pontificates, in voiceover, about the futility of the warmongering actions he’s describing.
His view of these matters is irreverent, as he drops inkblots over the book’s pages and illustrations of personages within it. This scene carries more satirical heft than its surface mockery indicates, reinforced by a later scene when one such blot becomes animate and transforms into a silhouetted man on horseback who impossibly scales the exterior of a sheer vertical tower on a mission which proves duplicitous. Here I detect Juráček’s touch: cannot a chronicler’s ink blots and stray smudges rewrite and revise history? This is a subversive proposition to smuggle into a film from the Czechoslovakia of 1964!
Various opposing players in the Thirty Years’ War are introduced in comically combative, animated Catholic-Protestant pairings, not unlike mutually destructive antagonists from Jan Švankmajer’s Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982). Black clouds soon amass over a map of the Marquisate of Moravia, one of the regions which constitutes today’s Czech Republic and which was part of Czechoslovakia in 1964. Moravia was largely in the hands of a restive Protestant nobility when the Thirty Years’ War broke out.
Crossing to live-action, humble ploughboy Petr (Petr Kostka) is tilling a field when warned of the approach of mounted Recruiting Officers. If captured, Petr will be press-ganged into military servitude, becoming musket fodder for the Protestant cause.
He is indeed captured. One of his captors advises “You’ll march all over Europe under the banner of General Mansfeld! Or Duke Wallenstein. Or maybe even the King of Denmark. Or His Imperial Majesty.”
Mansfeld and the Danish King, however, are on one side of the conflict, and Wallenstein and the Holy Roman Emperor on quite the other. His captor, ostensibly one of Mansfeld’s men, is no man of honour but rather a soldier of fortune.
Petr escapes and is captured almost immediately by the opposition, who enlist him as a musketeer for the Emperor. Petr’s previous captor joins him, proving himself a turncoat (quite literally he possesses a coat with one set of arms on each side). Thus we are introduced to “Matěj of Babice.” (Miloslav Holub) (2).
The game is established. Petr and Matěj will be pawns repeatedly drawn together amidst a regular changing of allegiances indexed to fate and circumstance. Petr is lackadaisical, Matěj mercenary, but despite their differences, they manage to be the only survivors of a two-sided massacre. An animated sequence portrays processions of cardboard cut-out soldiers being decapitated by cannon fire on both sides, highlighting both the dreadful wastefulness of war but also (through cardboard representation) the dead men’s very expendability. The medium is the message indeed.
After Matěj has looted the spoils of war from a tent on the battlefield (Petr: “Whose camp is that?” Matěj, blithely: “Either theirs or ours.”), they traipse together across war-ravaged lands. They chance upon Lenka (Emília Vášáryová), a beautiful young woman who winds up in their party after a little derring-do, repelling some gormless King’s men, on Petr’s part (and with Lenka’s help), and after the attempted theft of Lenka’s donkey on Matěj’s. Things become complicated when the trio are surrounded and must adopt disguises. Fancying the men approaching to be the King’s (i.e., Protestants), and from clothes looted on the battlefield, Matěj helps Petr into the apparel of a Protestant noble, while he hastily dresses as his steward and Lenka, delightfully, dons drag, adopting the garb of a jester.
The men turn out to be the Emperor’s and the three are escorted by the unprepossessing Captain Varga (Karel Effa) to a grand castle. (Inscribed drolly above its gateway: “Loyalty is a virtue”). Varga is proud to present them to the court as his prisoners, and himself the architect of a massacre of the King’s forces, seeking acclaim. Thereupon umpteen misunderstandings and misadventures ensue, driven by the caprices of the God of War and enlivened by comical romantic manoeuvrings and swashbuckling. Petr and company alternate between being prisoners and honoured guests of the castle nobility, between being able to leave the castle and forbidden to. Through their antics, the two fools – one the narrator, revealed to be in the employ of the noble family of the castle, and the other Lenka – prove wiser and more talented than all the men and women of status around them.
Of course, no matter what changes should blow across Europe, everything must end happily ever after for the film’s beautiful romantic leads. It is predestined, if as much by genre expectations as anything else. The most interesting narrative arc in fact belongs to Matěj. Whilst in the castle he comes to tire of matching his opportunism to the caprices of the God of War and, casting aside his mercenary bad habits, redeems himself. Transformed into an honourable drunkard, he helps Petr and Lenka escape the castle through his clowning (and seismic hiccupping!) and even ensures their perfect fairytale ending by readying to sacrifice himself – if not before he’s had a skinful – before the Emperor’s army, such that the armada can’t catch up with Petr and Lenka, who have turned their backs on the war… at least until the wind changes direction again.
Note: An extended version of this annotation will be posted on the author’s website shortly
1. The war was notably precipitated by an event known as “The Second Defenestration of Prague” concerning the expulsion by Protestants of two Catholic Lords Regent and their secretary through a window of Prague Castle, the seat of power in Bohemia. A notable engraving of this was produced by Matthäus Merian the Elder, whose beautiful engravings of maps, town plans, mediaeval cityscapes, bird’s-eye views and landscapes in his 17th Century, 21-volume set of Topographia Germaniae inspired the look of A Jester’s Tale.
2. Babice is a name common to numerous villages across Bohemia and Moravia.
Bláznova kronika/A Jester’s Tale (1964 Czechoslovakia 82 mins)
Prod Co: Filmové studio Barrandov Prod: Bohumil Šmída, Ladislav Fikar Dir: Karel Zeman Scr: Karel Zeman, Pavel Juráček Phot: Václav Huňka, Zdeněk Prchlík Ed: Miroslav Hájek Art Dir: Zdeněk Rozkopal Anim: Arnošt Kupčík, František Krčmář Mus: Jan Novák Narr: František Smolík
Cast: Petr Kostka, Miloslav Holub, Emília Vášáryová, Valentina Thielová, Karel Effa, Eva Šenková, Vladimír Menšík