The work of Czech director Gustav Machatý (1901–1963) is enjoying a surprise renaissance. The 76th Venice Film Festival had as its pre-opening event a screening of a new digital restoration of Extase (Ecstasy), his 1932 film that was a grand succès de scandale at the festival’s second edition in 1934, where it won Machatý the Silver Lion for Best Director.
Ecstasy was the third film in a loose trilogy in which Machatý’s sympathies clearly lie with his sexual-fulfilment-seeking lead women characters, all “heroines moved by extreme emotions which led them to violate the established codes of behaviour.”1 It remains a wonderful, lyrical film that has been widely held to be ahead of its time in its foregrounding of female pleasure – both visually and thematically – yet it nonetheless represented a step backwards for its director.
In many respects, Ze soboty na neděli (From Saturday to Sunday, 1931), the film Machatý made immediately prior to Ecstasy, is the much more innovative, progressive work.2 While Ecstasy was a quasi-silent, bucolic melodrama, replete with allusions to the works of silent film masters of yesteryear to reinforce its silent-filmyness, From Saturday to Sunday was – per David Thomson – “a romance that says a lot about urban life and isolation and does so with a camera style that ignores the limitations of early sound.”3 Indeed, it was a film that spoke much more to its time than Ecstasy would two years later, in reflecting the technologically driven, city-based lives of its modern audience while utilising cinematic language not harking back to bygone glory years of cinema, but instead heralding future directions.
From Saturday to Sunday is a film high on the possibilities offered to cinema by the introduction of sound. Why, its narrative universe is even peopled by embodied analogs for intersections of sound and image; its protagonists, Nanny (Jiřina Šejbalová) and Mary (Magda Maděrová), are stenographers whose work, deskbound at their typewriters (which are heard for a full 15 seconds in the film’s opening montage before they’re seen), sees them transposing communications received over the phone into shorthand – a transposition from the aural order of communication to the visual and textual.
From Saturday to Sunday brims over with sophisticated interplay and interchange of sound, vision and the spoken (and sung) word. Consider this marvellously economical, witty exchange that sets the about-last-night narrative in motion, while also telegraphing the power dynamic that will permeate – and, for naïve Mary, sour – later proceedings:
– Hello, Nanny? Nice to hear your voice. Nanny, would you like to have dinner with me tonight?
– Of course. Who’s calling?
This is followed by two quick, precise cutaways, homing in on the Art Deco bonnet ornament of a Minerva limousine, before cutting back to Nanny in the office, who says, “I see” …
Later, in the wake of the ensuing eventful Saturday night out with her workmate, a soused, sodden, disenchanted Mary meets Karel (L. H. Struna), who, like her, works in a job that merges the aural with the visual – an encounter from which this exchange emerges:
– Are you a musician?
– I play the linotype solo.
– What’s that?
– It’s a large machine and you play it like a piano. It makes a huge racket and letters come out of it.
One might increasingly surmise that, for all that the film is a narrative feature, it’s no less an essay film on the manifold ways in which sound can produce meaning in the cinema.
One ingenious sequence has Mary and Karel being surprised at the breakfast table by the radio coming on in the latter’s apartment, out of shot, and wishing them a good morning. This is followed by a cutaway to, first, another couple somewhere else, acting out the radio announcer’s calisthenics instructions, and then to the armchair-seated, cigar-smoking announcer himself, before returning to the two amused new lovers, whereupon Karel scolds the radio to “leave us alone”.
As with Seduction, Machatý’s co-screenwriter was Vítězslav Nezval, a polymath central to the Czechoslovak avant-garde of the ‘20s and ‘30s, likely best known in Anglophone territories as the writer of Valerie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), adapted unforgettably for film by Jaromil Jireš in 1970.
It’s notable that Nezval is credited for his “libretto” rather than for a “screenplay”, thus equating his script with music. On that note, Nezval did write the lyrics for Jaroslav Ježek’s haunting tune that plays at intervals throughout the film, sometimes diegetically, sometimes not; sometimes the lyrics are sung, and at other times the piece is performed instrumentally. Aptly for a romantic film extending cinematic language, the song is “Slovník lásky” – in English, “Love Dictionary”.
Machatý’s collaboration on From Saturday to Sunday with another key Czechoslovak avant-gardist was probably even more significant. Its art design was provided by Alexander Hackenschmied, later better known as Alexander Hammid, co-director with Maya Deren of the immortal American experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), which Hackenschmied’s 1930 short Bezúčelná procházka (Aimless Walk) – an unromantic nine-minute long traipse about Prague – anticipates in its mirroring and splitting of its meandering protagonist.4 Hackenschmied’s art direction is most notable for the nightclub scene in which a clown sings and dances behind jiggling streamers and beneath a strange, minimally animated night sky in which a bewigged, six-pointed star rolls her eyes back and forth; a cutaway to the girls finds them singing merrily along at their table, flanking a tuxedoed figure whose head is wholly subsumed by what looks like a round sky lantern and who has an arm around each of them. Intriguingly, there are echoes of this surrealistic scene – and of From Saturday to Sunday more broadly – in a short, office-set fantasia directed by Elmar Klos for the Baťa Company, Kolem dokola (Round and Round) in 1937. Its cinematographer: Alexander Hackenschmied.
Hackenschmied was a theorist and event organiser as well as a filmmaker. He organised the First Week of Avant-Garde Film in Prague in 1930, and a further two such weeks in 1931; as Peter Hames has noted, “Hackenschmied’s work with Machatý, the promotion of the first three avant-garde film weeks and the production of Aimless Walk all occurred within the same time frame.”5 Music’s place within cinema was increasingly a preoccupation of Hackenschmied’s, so much so that his 1931 short Na pražském hradě (At the Prague Castle) was conceived under the working title of “The Music of Architecture” and “argued the case for films in which image and music would be composed at the same time”6 – something one could plausibly believe had occurred on the set of some scenes of From Saturday to Sunday.
At the very least, Hackenschmied’s involvement was doubtless instrumental in the visionary interplay of sound, images and dialogue in From Saturday to Sunday. Curiously, he is credited as assistant director on Ecstasy, where any such innovations are minimal, but perhaps that more reflects the combined absence of Machatý’s other key collaborators from his previous film – neither Nezval nor Ježek nor the excellent cinematographer Václav Vích were involved, leaving From Saturday to Sunday as the innovative pinnacle of Machatý’s career, even if it’s not the film for which he is, over 50 years since his death, once more remembered.
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Ze soboty na neděli (From Saturday to Sunday, 1931 Czechoslovakia 69 min)
Prod Co: AB Dir: Gustav Machatý Scr: Vítězslav Nezval, Gustav Machatý Phot: Václav Vích Ed: Gustav Machatý Mus: Jaroslav Ježek Art Dir: Alexander Hackenschmied
Cast: Magda Maděrová, Jiřina Šejbalová, L. H. Struna, Karel Jičínský, Rudolf Dvorský
- Jiří Anger, “Ecstasy: Sensual Revolt Against the Man’s World”, booklet enclosed within the Národní filmový archive DVD release of the Czech version of Ecstasy, 2016. ↩
- Likewise, as Colette de Castro has noted, Erotikon (Seduction, 1929), the first film of the trilogy, “contains a similar orgasmic performance” from Ita Rina to that of Hedy Lamarr’s which conferred upon Ecstasy its notoriety and lasting, heightened reputation; see Colette de Castro, “The Destruction of Bliss” in East European Film Bulletin, vol. 78 (October 2017), at https://eefb.org/retrospectives/gustav-machatys-erotikon-1929-and-ecstasy-ekstase-1933/. Accessed 1 September 2019. ↩
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003, p. 546. ↩
- See Peter Hames, citing Jaroslav Anděl in Alexandr Hackenschmied (2000), in Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, p. 146. ↩
- Hames, ibid., p. 146. ↩
- ibid., p. 147. ↩