The first sight of Coach to Vienna for 1960s audiences must have been surreal. For the Czechoslovak authorities, who essentially had final say on whether a film could pass into the public realm or not, it was a step too far. Even in the slightly more liberal atmosphere of mid-60s, pre-Soviet invasion Czechoslovakia, the film was met with a hostile, aggressive response from domestic critics at its premiere at Karlovy Vary. Coach to Vienna was never given a proper release in its home country (to the best of my knowledge) and was banned outright after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
It’s easy to see why Coach to Vienna was viewed with such hostility. The central plot (as bare bones as it is, featuring just three characters for much of its 78-minute running time) simply tells the story of two Austrian soldiers in the final days of WWII who force a widow, Krista (Iva Janžurová — more commonly associated with comedies for local audiences), to carry them by horse carriage to the border to safety. The opening text reveals that the two men have killed Krista’s husband, and at first the camera makes clear that she is on a mission of revenge, but over time a burgeoning Stockholm Syndrome-esque relationship develops between the widow and Hans (Jaromír Hanzlík), the younger of the two soldiers. In just depicting a German/Austrian soldier as anything other than pure evil, Coach to Vienna took a huge risk in Eastern European cinema, as Hans is revealed to be a genial, baby-ish, even naive character, in contrast to the mortally wounded Gunter (Luděk Munzar), a much more hardened Nazi.
Even more dangerously, Coach to Vienna dared to depict partisans as something other than heroes. Appearing at the end, the partisans arrive as murderers and rapists. Compared to the vast majority of Communist Bloc filmmaking of the time, it’s hard to imagine how much of a shock this might have been to audiences. In the thaw of the 60s, and the great cultural splurge that emerged from Eastern European filmmaking during that time, there were plenty of films that depicted partisans and communists as more complex than the one-note heroes they were so often shown as. In Yugoslavia, Aleksandar Petrović’s Tri (1965) depicted the partisan struggle as distinctly unheroic and messy, and perhaps most recognizably to Western audiences, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) shows the use of child soldiers. These films did stand against the big-budget, heroic partisan war spectacles, but they still essentially showed the partisan struggle as a necessary means to an end, even at its ugliest. Coach to Vienna stands apart from that, and I struggle to think of another film that actively depicts the actions of partisans as evil and unnecessarily cruel.
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And there is a basis in truth for these actions in Coach to Vienna. As Soviet forces charged westwards towards Berlin, many accounts exist of mass rapes by Soviet soldiers, looting and murder, as well as retributive actions taken by local populations. That a film was willing to acknowledge or even face up to these facts at the time is quite impressive. But the power of Coach to Vienna today rests in its mythic quality. The crux of the story may well be placed in the “real,” but the affect of the mise-en-scène is that of a murderous fable.
Regardless of the historical context, there’s a simple, sinister pleasure in responding to Coach to Vienna in a purely elemental way. This is a film that feels utterly out of time. If one were to strip away any period detail, the story could take place at any point in the past millennia. And director Karel Kachyňa, alongside screenwriter Jan Procházka (who had friends in high places at the time, perhaps allowing Coach to Vienna to be made in the first place) go to great efforts to create the feeling of the film taking place in some kind of purgatorial netherworld.
The entirety of Coach to Vienna is set in a seemingly endless forest, with tall, imposing trees and the fog perpetually shrouding the horizon. As night falls, the background of white darkens into pitch black. Whenever other figures are seen in the woods, they’re almost always seen at a distance, half-glimpsed and half-heard. At the beginning and ending of Coach to Vienna, Krista passes through the same gate, into and out of the forest, accentuating the idea that this is some kind of spirit world. Perhaps Krista is Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology, who transports departed souls to the underworld of Hades.
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Such a reading is deepened by the mise-en-scène and careful frame composition of Coach to Vienna’s first half. Kachyňa breaks Krista apart from Hans and Gunter (one shot has her riding crop literally splitting the two actors, creating an in-frame shot/reverse shot). Her careful sabotage of the pair’s weapons is depicted silently and visually; Krista stays almost entirely mute for the entire film, except during a strange call she uses to stop the horses, with Kachyňa depicting her transformation in purely visual terms. The widow wears a black shroud that creates a barrier between her and the rest of the world, like a wraith.
The shift away from that towards Krista’s burgeoning relationship with Hans is similarly shown in purely visual terms. Given the complexity of that shift from a psychological perspective, its remarkable that Kachyňa finds a way to depict it all, but depict it he does. Krista loses her shroud. Hans sheds his military insignia. Gunter’s wounds get the better of him (and there’s a suggestion that his paternal, fascistic grip on the young boy is extinguished with his passing). When the two characters finally come together, there is a touching humanism to it, rooted against the notion that war warps all people towards hate and agony. But, as Coach to Vienna’s final scenes reveal, love and empathy provide no real solace, for these too are bastardized in the process and met with hostility (Kachyňa’s humanist streak annihilated by nihilism). Even stripped of historical context, it’s a remarkably hard and ugly idea to swallow, but one which the film insists we must.
Coach to Vienna received a region-free Blu-ray release via Second Run in March 2022.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.