The Valley of the Bees – František Vláčil tells a tale of obsessive horror.
In a survey of Czech film critics held in 1998 František Vláčil‘s film Marketa Lazarova (I’ll be watching this in the next 8 days) as teh best Czech film ever made and its director recieved a lifetime achievement awarded at the Karlovy Vary film festival in the same year. Údolí včel (The Valley of the Bees) was made in the same year – almost back to back with the other film. It’s odd that given the importance of this director, there is not more presence of him or his films in the history of cinema. František Vláčil was not a member of the New Wave of films made in and around the Prague Spring and he did not come from the Prague film School. His roots are in documentaries.
I own the second run DVD version of this film (pictured above) and that means I get a lot of the information for my review below from the brilliant essay by Peter Hames in the accompanying booklet to the film. I’m a fan of the second run DVD series. They’re worth checking out if you are a film buff and can’t always afford a Criterion version or if they haven ‘t released it.
The Valley of the BEes is from a script by Vladimír Körner. It is set in the thirteenth century in the time of the Teutonic Knights.
This film tells the story of the son of a Czech nobleman, Ondrej of Vlkov who is raised as a member of the Order of the Teutonic Knights. The film opens with a stirring scene of Ondrej rejecting his fathers second marriage to a teenage bride by presenting her with a basket of flowers hiding a nest of wriggling bats. In his anger, Ondrej’s father throws him against a wall seriously injuring him. IN fear and remorse his father offers him to the Virgin Mary if she spares his life.
This battle between Father and son will be an underlying theme throughout the film, when father is replaced by god-the-father. During this initial battle, it is clear to the viewer that Ondrej has sublimated love for his step-mother Lenora. As Ondjrej is moved from the home of this father to the castle of the knights on the Baltic, the background changes from one of summer seasonal celebrations to a bleak austere image of the castle and the dull seaside weather. The camera examines the formal perfection of the architecture as Ondrej’s voice takes his vows. He promises to renounce his Father and Mother, to harden his heart, and to never succumb to the temptation of man, woman or his own body.
Suppressed feelings re-emerge with his relationship later with the handsome Armin von Heide. This suppression is implied when Armin first finds Ondrej naked by the edge of the sea as a child, and Amin informs Ondrej they will be special friends. Later, when adults we see them laying by the edge of the sea on their backs, naked from the waist down, arms linked in an exercise designed to “numb the body for the sake of the spirit.” As Peter Hames ominously predicts in his notes, it is a bond that will destroy both of them.
We get a sense that Ondrej wants to be good because of his father, but that he is not there by choice and therefore wants to leave. This desire is strengthened when Rotgier, a fellow knight, is caught attempting to run away. In the first of several shocking scenes, Rotgier is pressured to walk backwards till he falls into a trap door that has him fall to the base of the highest tower. The camera follows him, and we peer through the trapdoor to see his body bounce against the outside walls of the tower, and the dogs ravage and tear him to pieces when he hits the bottom. This reminded me immediately of the Jezebel mythology from the book of Kings, as she was thrown from a tall tower to be ravaged by dogs at the base of it. The theme of dogs tearing at human flesh is recreated regularly throughout this extraordinary film.
Despite hearing the dogs tear his friend apart from his cell (Ondrej has been locked up for helping him) Ondrej still wants to leave the order. He flees and Armin obtains a special dispensation to go and get him back. IN a scene of incredible power, his helmeted figure kneels in the pouring rain, cutting a cross into the wood of an abandoned wreck by the seashore that had constituted their first meeting place. Later, when Armin reaches Vlkov castle, the scene is recalled as he approaches the door of the church, again in pouring rain, hammering on the door with the haft of his sword.
When Ondrej arrives back home, he discovers his father is dead (devoured by his own hunting dogs) while Lenora and her aged servants barely have enough to live on. Ondrej discovers that his father had cursed Lenora for what happened and had been trying to secure a release for him from the order.
When the passion between Ondrej and Lenora re-asserts itself, she begins a ritual flagellation in an attempt to rid herself of her desire. However a local Priest who is not as strict as he is on the outskirts of the reach of the church tells them their love is not incest and agrees to marry them. He likens their relationship to that of the bees, who immediately build a new house when the old one is destroyed.
however, their happiness is short-lived. Armin arrives at the wedding feast in a scene that parallels Ondrej’s own appearance at his fathers all those years before. Fatefully, Lenora’s generous suggestions that he join them in their celebration leads to a shocking scene where Armin will kill her before their wedding night by cutting her throat. In retaliation, Ondrej has Armin thrown to his own pack of hunting dogs who in another disturbing scene, rip the man apart and then feast on his face.
In the end however, Ondrej will accept his fate, and return to the order in accordance with Armin’s wishes.
What is especially interesting about this film is the corresponding struggles between Ondrej who has a simpler vision of life against Armin’s internal struggles between faith and doubt. While these oppositions are clearly drawn, the characters maintain a parallel complexity.
The details of the restrictions of the order only come out through the revelation of the narrative. The rejection of family, man woman and body is made clear from the beginning, but these grow more complex as Armin journeys to save Ondrej. The sea is to lift their bodies “above Wretchedness” and only through suffering can they reach god. When Armin seeks permission to retrieve Ondrej, it is to retrieve his soul. IN the same scene his superior remarks that man’s inherent weakness doesn’t leave his body till he is dead. In the scene with the blind girl we learn the Knights are not to touch a woman, and then even to look upon a woman.
Ondrej, who has no choice in his ordination, rarely makes any comments at the spiritual nature of the order. When Rotgier makes his escape and comes upon the pursuing Ondrej by the river the scene is deliberately ambiguous. Ondrej, although part of a posse out looking for Rotgier, is obviously not sure why he is there. Rotgier gives no reason for his desire to escape the order except that he has a family to return to and that he does not want to be “blinded by teir darkness.” It is not clear about Rotgier’s escape and capture, but we do see him accuse Ondrej of betraying him. Ondrej’s escape from the order happens off camera, but later when he is rescued by Armin in a violent encounter with the charcoal burners (the visuals of this scene are stunning) he knocks out Armin and steals his horse. This double betrayal is reflected in Lenora’s later comment that she fears that Ondrej will betray her just as he has betrayed the order.
The parallel is used again with the regular use of the dogs. Of the four deaths of the most important people in Ondrej’s life, three are at the mercy of packs of hunting dogs. In the scene where Ondrej actually does go hunting and is encouraging the dogs to bring down a deer they release especially so it can be torn apart, the deers throat is cut to put it out of its misery, mirroring the death at the end of Lenore at the hand of Armin.
The films broader themes extend to Czech / German and Christian / Pagan oppositions and the human passions lead to extreme situations. The references to werewolves and cannibalism, and the continuous presence of hunting dogs permeate the film. The knights bleak castle and the formal attire provide opportunities for striking compositions and the film is accompanied by a score by Zdenek Liska that gives it added power. Along side this, the buzzing of bees permeates the screen shots regularly – sound upon sound upon sound.
This is a complicated film. Not a happy film at all, and quite graphic in its violence. I enjoyed it a lot, for its dramatic narrative, but have to confess to being a tad relieved when it was over.