I became inundated with the Czech New Wave soon after college thanks to The Criterion Collection. I was surprised at how little I had known or heard about this cinema movement, considering the few film courses I did take in college never failed to mention Italian, French, German and Soviet productions. It may be fair to say that the Czech New Wave did not have as indelible an affect on American or Western cinema to the extent that the more popular European movements did, but as far as I can tell, it certainly produced far more interesting films.
The Criterion Collection’s “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” set introduced me to a myriad of radical films like Vera Chytilova’s Daisies and Jirí Menzel’s Capricious Summer, which were unlike anything I had seen before. For the first time, I found myself actively questioning and self-analyzing my cinematic “tastes.” Why and how did these movies speak to me with such depth and resonance that the much more lauded giants of Western European cinema could not quite reach?
Chief among the daring and memorable discoveries of the Czech New Wave were František Vláçil’s Marketa Lazarová, widely regarded in Czech circles and around the world as the nation’s greatest movie, and Jaromil Jireš’Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a surrealist dream which immediately enraptured me with its delirious blend of visual magic and unforgettable music. It’s these two movies that remain with me as the greatest European films I have ever seen. Their proximity of release to each other, and their strange, almost ironic relationship to the Czech New Wave, have kept them inextricably linked in my mind.
Marketa Lazarova is not officially considered part of the Czech New Wave movement, but it still exudes the formal risk-taking and stylistic filmmaking of that era. The political connotations of the film are not overt and conscious, but they exist by the fact that it is a film deeply rooted in the social and spiritual history of the Bohemian people, and painstakingly so, I might add, due to Vláçil’s steadfast doctrine of authenticity through rigorous research that he demanded for all of his movies.
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On the surface, Marketa Lazarová tells the tale of two warring clans, one of whom (the Pagan Kozliks) captures the eponymous daughter of the other (the Christian Lazars). At its heart it is a alternatively bleak and hopeful look at a land and people tormented by the greed and power of unforgiving leaders. Marketa (Magda Vášáryová), the daughter of Lazar (Michal Kožuch), can be considered a symbolic stand-in for the oppressed and marginalized. She hardly speaks, and her journey is not unlike the tragic trek of the titular donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar — devoid of agency and at the mercy of the cruel. Marketa is captured, dragged, tied and raped; the main captor, Mikoláš (František Veleck), develops feelings for Marketa and protects her from his father’s ruthlessness.
Portrayed by Jaroslava Schallerová, the eponymous Valerie in Jaromil Jires’ fever-dream Valerie and Her Week of Wonders doesn’t suffer so much as glide through a veritable circus act of an equal helping of wonders and horrors. Valerie lives with her grandmother, Elsa (Helena Anýžová), and she’s stalked by a Constable known as “The Polecat” (Jiří Prýmek) who wants the girl for himself. In a deal with Elsa, he promises to give Valerie eternal life as a beautiful young woman if he can acquire both the family’s property and Valerie herself. The film begins and ends with Valerie sleeping, and symbolically incorporates puberty, sexuality, love, abuse, rape, death and, eventually, courage and independence.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders’ symbolism and surreal nature is a common method of reflection on the illusions created by governments to keep their citizens under control. The irony of Jires’ film, however, as Jana Prikryl notes in her Criterion essay, is that “it was made just as Czecheslovakia succumbed to the gray strictures of normalization” under newly elected leader Gustáv Husák. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, of course, is anything but normal. The ethereal, gothic landscape of the film (filled with brilliant color, sunlight and shining objects — all juxtaposed to the horrifying visage of The Polecat and his dark candle-lit layer underground) can be considered metaphors for the illusion of normalcy and something we have seen even in the United States recently – manufactured consent.
As Andrei Tarkovsky metaphorically alludes to in Stalker with “The Zone,” a political campaign of forced “normalcy” is inherently disorienting. As with any propaganda campaign, there is a constant effort to keep on a fake façade of happiness that drapes itself over the darker inner-workings of the system. Aside from politics, the visual allure of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is enhanced by brilliant cinematography from Jan Čurík, featuring point-of-view shots from Valerie’s perspective and heavy use of God’s (low-angle) and Devil’s eye (high-angle) shots, which give the movie an omnipresence and objectivity.
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Objectivity is an important aspect of Marketa Lazarová as well, one which is enhanced by Vláçil and cinematographer Beda Batka’s deliberate style involving multiple point-of-views of different characters throughout. The camera swings, imitating head and eye movements, give the movie both a surreal quality and a feeling of immersion in the discussions, plots and savagery of the era. As film historian Peter Hames suggests, the camerawork provides “a feeling of being picked up and dropped in the 13th century” — an aim of real authenticity that Vláçil incorporated in another of his historical epics, The Valley of the Bees, which he released mere months after Marketa Lazarová.
Even more prominent and mesmeric is the brilliant soundscape by Zdenék Liška. Heavily influenced by Eastern European pagan music, it’s quite reminiscent of the haunting opening sequences of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring featuring panpipe and flute elements. Echoes and reverberations feature heavily in the sound design of the film, both eliciting a dreamlike distortion of reality and a feeling of isolation in the vast deadness of the Bohemian winter. In contrast, the score forValerie and Her Week of Wonders is more in line with traditional melodic compositions, but so brilliantly composed by Lubos Fišer, who uses three separate themes, all evoking a vaguely medieval allure — celestial and haunting in equal measure.
Over time, it has become more clear to me why Marketa Lazarová and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders stand out as all-time masterpieces of the Czech New Wave. Vláçil and Jireš’ ability to form a symphonic coalescence of all of the separate elements that create each scene — and to allow these elements to play to feeling, place and time over plot — makes for much more interesting cinema. As much as I love a good story, the best movies always transport me, in an intangible sense, through the base elements. Just as cinema can be a place to escape from our political and social troubles, they can at the same time be transportive and entertaining meditations on sociopolitical issues. Marketa Lazarová and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders remain two of cinema’s greatest examples.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.