Shot in wintry hues and set against a tumultuous backdrop of the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War II, František Vláčil’s Adelheid is a tragic drama about two shellshocked, fatally star-crossed lovers who find each other amid the psychic fallout from the conflict.
The story opens in 1945. The war may be over but it’s still a dangerous time, with lawlessness and banditry as the liberated country tries to find its feet again. Troubled Lieutenant Viktor Chotovick (Petr Čepek) arrives in a small town after spending the war moving from place to place, longing to return to his home country. He is treated with initial suspicion by Sergeant Hejna (Jan Vostrcil, a familiar face from Miloš Forman’s New Wave stuff, including Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball). Turns out Viktor is in town with a job to do – he’s been assigned to catalogue and manage a large isolated mansion.
The assignment suits Viktor because he’s just trying to get his head together after the war. The mansion was formerly the home of a wealthy Jewish family before it was commandeered by a local Nazi party member, Heidenmann, who has been captured and taken to Olomouc to await execution. What Viktor isn’t told is that the mansion comes with a cleaner and a cook – Heidenmann’s daughter, Adelheid (Emma Černá), who is sent by Hejna to serve Viktor…
Viktor has stomach ulcers and needs regular warm meals. Adelheid returns to the work camp every evening with the other Germans awaiting expulsion. She speaks no Czech (or at least, pretends not to) and Viktor speaks only a few words of German. They are distrustful of one another, but both are alone in the world and an intense emotional bond grows between them.
Tragedy stalks the two uneasy lovers from the outset. Hejna wants Adelheid to get shipped off with the other German exiles, but Viktor wants her to stay at the house with him, essentially buying her as a slave for a few bottles of cognac. Adelheid appears to grow in loyalty towards Viktor, but there is the suspicion that she’s only playing along in her humiliating role while her father is still alive with a chance of reprieve. There is also the small matter of Adelheid’s brother, who supposedly died fighting in Russia – but might not be quite as dead as the authorities thought now the war is over.
Working for the first time in colour and brilliantly assisted by his Valley of the Bees cinematographer František Uldrich, Vláčil imbues every frame with a deep sense of sadness and loss. After the stark high contrast black and white photography of his earlier films (The White Dove, Marketa Lazarova) it initially feels like an odd choice, starting with an earthy palette of dark greens, browns, greys and blacks that almost seems monochrome in its muddiness. It’s as if his traumatized characters are so diminished by their experience and their suspicion of one another that they’re almost lost in the frame.
Later, as Viktor puts aside his misgivings about Adelheid’s motives and his need for her grows, more contrast is introduced – he sees clearly now and there are fewer grey areas in the film’s colour scheme. Late on there is a startlingly beautiful and revelatory shot of her, dressed in the black coat of the German refugees, making her way through a snow-covered avenue of trees, that could’ve been lifted straight out of one of Vláčil’s earlier black and white masterpieces.
The film is based on Vladimír Körner’s novel of the same name, and the story builds with the unhurried narrative and thematic heft of a great literary adaptation. Initially, it’s all about Viktor’s gaze as he notices Adelheid’s feminity and his arousal grows, spying on her as she goes about her duties. But once Adelheid has become aware of him watching her, she starts watching him too and trying to decipher her unreadable gaze is key to the fascination of her character. There are times when she looks at Viktor in a way that could be interpreted just as easily as hatred or desire, and we, along with Viktor, are never fully sure about how she feels towards him, even in the devastating closing moments.
Čepek and newcomer Černá are outstanding as Viktor and Adelheid respectively, with weighty support from Vostrcil in a far darker, more complex role than his work for Forman. Čepek and Černá develop the growing bond between their characters through lengthy, almost wordless scenes, told through a series of glances which convey a wide range of feelings – sorrow, anger, despondency, arousal, trust, suspicion, and so on. It’s breathtaking work, and the tension between them – not only sexual – is palpable.
Adelheid may leave some viewers cold with its funereal pace and mournful tone, and there is barely a moment of levity or humour in the entire film. These people are deeply traumatized and lonely individuals who have survived the war, albeit at a massive cost to their souls. However, those who buy into Vláčil’s pessimistic yet impassioned vision will likely find it a powerful and challenging tale, one that will reward repeat viewings as they try to unravel the strange mystery of its eponymous heroine.