Marketa Lazarová – The greatest Czech film of all time

Marketa Lazarová is a 1967 Czechoslovak historical film directed by František Vláčil. It is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Vladislav Vančura. Although, it is my understanding that it is not a particularly close representation of the book, but rather draws heavily on one small aspect and expands this into a film. I’ve leaned heavily on the essay in the Second Run DVD by Peter Hames for this review.

This is, without any doubt, the most complicated film I have ever seen. Vláčil is a master film maker who took great pride in accurately portraying the era he was working in. This attention to detail included leaving the viewer with the same level of confusion as if they were plucked out of context, traveled through time and landed in the period the film is set in. There is very little attention to narrative or character development. Vláčil intends for us to feel lost and confused, despite the strength of the story we find ourselves in, and he succeeds very well.

In a survey of Czech film critics held in 1998, Marketa Lazarová was voted the best Czech film ever made. In the same year František Vláčil was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival – both very prestigious awards.  It is a surprise that Marketa Lazarová and its director do not feature more prominently in general histories of cinema. This is an outstanding film. If you can get your hands on a copy of it, you must have a look if you have not already seen it. It is not an easy film to watch – there is no hand holding here – but it is perfectly made and well worth the 159 minute view.

Vláčil wanted the times in this film (it takes place in the middle ages) as though they were present, portraying characters as though they were our contemporaries while showing the world they inhabit through their beliefs and feelings. He studied tribes living at the same “level” of social development , ensured that weapons and implements were made according to the original methods, and forced his cast to ‘live’ their parts in a location shoot lasting over two years. Vláčil’s approach to history was in stark contrast to the Hollywood romantic epic, but neither was he seduced by the idea of making history the slave of ideology. Marketa Lazarová is also a very experimental film with an unorthodox structure that sits in marked contrast to the attention to detail used in the recreation of the historical setting. As I said above, the film is as confusing as it would be to suddenly land in such an alien culture.

the narrative is centred on a series of short episodes which Vláčil has likened to the chapters of a romanesque novel, or the movements of a musical work. He described the completed work as “Film-Opera.”

The film is divided into two major sections: Straba (Straba the werewolf) and Beranek Bozi ( The Holy Lamb / Angus Dei).  In Straba the werewolf, as we introduced to the two Kozlik brothers, Mikoláš (František Velecký) and Adam (Ivan Palúch), who launch a merciless attack on a Saxon count and his followers. We also meet the treacherous and obsequious head of the rival Lazar clan, who robs their corpses in their absence.

After the Koxliks have brought the nobel’s son, young Kristian and his servant to their camp, there is a major conflict between Old Kozlik (Josef Kemr) and Mikoláš, his eldest son for allowing the escape of Old Kristian, and for sparing young Kristian. We are also here introduced to Alexandra (Pavla Polášková), sister of Mikoláš and Adam. In a highly stylised flashback, she is shown making love to a man in a pagan sanctuary – he is her brother Adam, although this is not at all clear at this stage.  The sexual tension between the two is there from the start however. The mutual attraction between Alexandra and the captured  young Kristian also becomes apparent. Pivo, commander of the Kings army, comes to arrest Old Kozlik for his crimes, but Kozlik escapes and a proclamation is issued calling for the pursuit of the clan.

When Mikoláš goes to Lazar (Michal Kožuch) in search of an alliance against the king, he is savagely beaten under the watchful (and reproachful) eyes of Marketa (Magda Vášáryová). In retaliation, the Kozliks attack the Lazar stronghold and Mikoláš kidnaps Marketa, leaving Lazar nailed to the gates of his burning fortress. At a secret hideout in the woods, Marketa is raped by Mikoláš.  Old Kozlik’s wife then tells the story of Straba the werewolf, who is “from the line of men.”

In The Holy Lamb, we are introduced  to a simple-minded monk called Bernard (Vladimír Menšík)  who travels everywhere with his pet lamb. He introduces a (much-needed – MAN this film is dark) comic element to the story and serves as a narrative link between the films increasingly diverse plot elements, which include the death of Adam at the hands of the King’s troops and a horrific, very graphic battle with the Kozliks that ends with the young Kristian going insane.

In the films final selection, the relationship between Mikoláš and Marketa ripens into one of love, while Alexandra kills the mad Kristian.  Marketa returns to her father, only to be rejected by him.  She enters a convent, but as she takes her vows she recognises the hypocrisy of the institution. On hearing that Mikoláš has attacked the prison where his father is now held captive, Marketa joins him, becoming his wife shortly before he dies from his battle wounds.

From this complex narrative two main themes emerge: the struggle between central authority and the clans, and between Christianity and Paganism. The old men (Kozlik and Pivo) show little weakness in their relentless struggles for dominance. Mikoláš the film’s ‘conventional’ hero, only appears less extreme in the context of the films unrelenting violence. Christianity and paganism are presented as parallel forces, with scenes that suggest that organised religion stands in opposition to natural freedom. Toward the end, the closing door of the convent to which Marketa has been consigned by her father is contrasted with the startled flight of a deer.

The film is not “anti-religious” in a way that reflects Communist propaganda. In fact it is a stretch to remember what was going on in Czechoslovakia at all during the time this film was made. If there are any parallels Vláčil suggests one with the dogmas of socialism.

However the films most distinctive qualities lie in its formal originality and aesthetic impact. There is attention to detail rarely seen on the big screen, and apparently the storyboarding for Marketa Lazarová reflects this. Despite being a wide-screen historical epic, this glorious film can be seen as an avant garde work. It may not be immediately obvious as radical but he approach to narrative is highly unconventional and, together with his use of mise-en-scene, promotes a very unusual relationship with the viewer.

Recounting the ‘story’ or narration in the conventional sense is not the films primary point of interest and the plot development is often obscure, certainly on the first viewing – which is my only experience of the film. Vláčil is much more interested in the reaction and interplay of character and on the subjective and psychological world. The use of inter-titles, which function much like chapters of an old chronicle or picaresque novel, provide succinct summaries of what is to follow, occasionally offering only explanatory clues. However, Vláčil also uses other forms of narration, including the voice of a narrator, stories and monologues.  Dialogue and dramatic exchange off-screen frequently interact or overlap with the staging of quite separate action. The distinction between flashback and parallel action is sometimes deliberately confused. The film’s conventional narrative interest – the changing relationship between Marketa and Mikoláš – is anything but central., reinforced by the fact that there is only one dialogue exchange between them. Battles and action sequences are fragmented and incomplete, having been designed mostly to reflect the psychological impact and response of the combatants. Vláčil makes striking use of composition within the frame, freely admitting to the influence of painting. he also makes extensive use of deep space (and depth of field) to achieve some of the most forceful uses of the CinemaScope format, extending to extreme close-up composition and contradictory images or parallel actions within the frame. Subjective camera work is also used extensively and, despite the concern with composition, the camera is almost never still. In one scene, where Pivo is staying with the Lazars, he is not seen at all, with only his voice participating in the action.

Its been argued that Vláčil’s narrative is very much a response to Vančura’s original work, where the narrator is an active participant in the action. the multiplicity of narrative approaches helps to re-create the immediacy of a story where “the whole” remains hidden.  Similarly Vláčil’s emphasis on the expressive power of the image  – direct experience – communicates through a poetic power that mirrors  Vančura’s concern for the emotional significance of words.

Despite a number of international awards, the radicalism of   Vláčil’s film was not recognized at the time. There could be many reasons for this – coming out the year after the Czech new wave films, its complicated narrative structure and its being so completely different from other films made at the time (or since) – however it is easily identifiable as enormously important and one of the greatest films ever made. If you’ve seen this film, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.