Adelheid – František Vláčil places all his hope in what goes on between two people. (film review)

František Vláčil is surely one of the greatest directors to have ever lived. For what it’s worth, he is certainly one of my favorites. I’m not alone in thinking highly of him, his film Marketa Lazarová was voted to be the greatest Czech film ever made (high praise indeed) and he was honored with a life time achievement award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival the same year. My review of Marketa Lazarová can be read by clicking on that link and I also reviewed here Valley of the Bees.  Both these films are among the greatest you will ever see, not matter who you are. These films were made in 1967 and the next František Vláčil would made is Adelheid in 1969.

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František Vláčil was not a film maker from the famed Czech new Wave even though he made his most brilliant films at the end of the 1960’s. he is not a product of the Prague film school, as instead he was studying art history and aesthetics and making documentaries for the Army film unit. His films stand apart from the collection of brilliant films of this era as not being social commentary on the current social issues – or at lest not directly confronting the social issues that rose out of the Prague Spring. They are often included in the list of films generated from the Prague Spring because of their beauty and their socially confronting nature.The White Dove (Vláčil’s first film) was selected by the European Federation of Cinematographers in 2003 as one of 100 films representing “the art of cinematography at its best.”

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Adelheid is a case in point as it is primarily about the treatment of German nationals at the close of the second world war by the Czech nationals inside Czechoslovakia. The screenplay is again adapted from a novel written in 1967 by Vladimír Körner, who wrote Valley of the Bees. The film is set in the aftermath of world war two in the Sudetenland in northern Moravia. Adelheid is the story of Viktor Chotovický (Petr Cepek) a Czech airman who has returned from service in the Royal Air Force, who is given the management of an enormous German estate.  Adelheid Heidenmannová (Emma Cerná) is the daughter of the former owner who is imprisoned for his crimes. She is assigned to be the servant to Viktor, living in a camp for German women who usually have to go and work the fields. The Germans wear armbands to identify them.  The estate was owned by Czech Jews prior to the war, and was commandeered by Adelheid’s father during the war.  In dealing with the Czech mistreatment and expulsion of the German community and the appropriation of property, Vláčil touched on a previously taboo subject that has only come to the fore again in recent years.

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The complexity of racial history and its impact on the individual is played out between the two main characters of Viktor and Adelheid in a way that only Vláčil can make visible. They don’t speak each others language – at least Viktor has very little German and Adelheid seems to be pretending she can’t understand any Czech. Therefore much of the film is tied up in the subtle interactions between Viktor and Adelheid  that we view from Viktor’s perspective.We know almost nothing about the two main characters.  In Viktors case we only know the little he reveals to others, and he is obviously hiding a great deal, and in Adelheid’s case we only know what others deem interesting or important enough to say about her. There is both opposition and attraction between Viktor and Adelheid. Initially Viktor is attracted to her physically, but over time this develops into an intense connection. We are never sure for Adelheid, because she is a servant, and therefore is bereft of free will. This is left deliberately ambiguous and open to interpretation.

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It is a male narrative. Adelheid is painted as the mystery to be solved, the gift to be unwrapped. She is also the embodiment of hope and unity.  It is Adelheid’s presence that makes Viktor’s subjectivity appear as if under a microscope (all done without words remember) and appear incomplete when it is revealed. According to my reading of the wonderful essay in the Second Run edition by Peter Hames, the ways in which power and domination are displayed between the couple are rare for their time. Viktor has the characteristics of a non-hero (not and anti-hero or a hero) and Adelheid’s role and all her actions are always provisional. The two spend a great deal of time alone in the great house, and while they are alone, the social demands tend to slip away. They are only enforced when outsiders come in and impose these on the pair.  The ‘outside world’ is always conveyed through words and actions and tends to be one-dimensional and reactionary. Contrast this with the ‘internal’ world of the two central characters is revealed through the ordinary day-to-day actions of doing up the looted house. Viktor and Adelheid observe each other, initially as voyeur and object, but gradually this gaze moves to far more complex levels. It is mostly in the gaze that the changing relationship is revealed, although it also shows up in the transformation of the house around them. As Viktor develops feelings for Adelheid he exhibits kindness that is often met with a defiance from Adelheid that still exudes warmth for the vulnerable Viktor.

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As Viktor puts the house back together, he discovers secrets, such as hidden cognac behind the library shelves, in tact, and beautiful paintings used by Czech officials for target practice. And yet, as he uncovers and reveals the mysteries of the house, he also discovers Adelheid who is the always already presence as the true owner of the home. He is trespassing really, and she has been made to be his servant in her own home.

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Despite Vladimír Körner beautiful book and screenplay, Hames suggests the fact that the narrative is contained in the silent visuals reflects Vláčil’s desire to reach an international audience. Like many other major directors there was a six year gap in his feature filmography following 1969. With a few others, he helped to keep Czech cinema alive in the barren years of ‘normalization’ that prevailed until 1989. At a time when films were heavily censured, his love of the poetic subject and his passion for oblique referencing allowed him a way through the system.

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Of course there is so much more to be said about Adelheid. A lot of what I have referenced here – especially in the Czech history comes from Hames essay and you can read an excerpt of that essay here. It is one of those films that calls forth silence (she says after writing over a thousand words), so strong is the visual imagery and so beautifully subtle the relationship between the two protagonists.  If there is one director, out of all my carry-on here that you pursue, I highly recommend it be František Vláčil.  Adelheid may not be a historical drama like his previous two films, but it has its own gentle quiet power and will still remain with you for a long time after you’ve finished watching.

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