Case for a Rookie Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata)  –  Pavel Juráček, 1970

Starting off as a screenwriter for some of the most notable films in the Czech New Wave, Pavel Jurácek (Daisies) eventually transitioned into the role of director and went on to contribute to the movement by directing his own films. His last film, Case for a Rookie Hangman, was a surreal experience, to say the least.

From the start of the film, it’s no secret that Jurácek was inspired by the works of Jonathan Swift, specifically Gulliver’s Travels. He even apologizes beforehand in the film’s opening credits: “If Swift should turn in his grave on account of this film, I beg his compatriots for forgiveness.” This interpretation of the novel finds Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) in a strange place with bizarre customs that satirize life in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime…

Jurácek also channels the works of Franz Kafka and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is evident in the surreal nature of the film. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Mr Gulliver loses control of his car and ends up running over a hare dressed in tiny clothes, and even finds that it had a watch in its pocket. After this bizarre incident, he finds a house that resembles the one from his childhood. But once he’s inside, he’s bombarded with memories of his youth: a girl he once loved who drowned, an old friend who also died, a woman who had a part in his sexual awakening, and many more images from his past.

After this fever dream, he suddenly finds himself in a place called Balibarni, where he’s not allowed to speak (because it’s Monday), and the rest of the film revolves around him just trying to make sense of the situation he’s in — a task that seems impossible with all the weird rules and customs. He’s constantly out of the loop and inadvertently gets himself into trouble: he offends the citizens during their national dance; some of his acquaintances are held captive because of him, and he’s even mistaken for a hare because of the watch he took from the one he ran over earlier.

The film is intriguing enough to keep viewers invested in what is actually going on in Balibarni. There are weird rules, bizarre inventions, and even a city floating in the sky called Laputa. And while some elements of the film are taken from other works of fiction, it still manages to create its own identity by taking aspects from other properties and twisting them in new ways to explore interesting concepts. 

Having said that I’m not gonna lie, I often found myself confused as to what was actually going on in the narrative. A lot of time is focused on Mr Guliver wandering around and meeting characters as they go about their day. Just like Mr Gulliver, we’re observers of the everyday life of these people and some of the things they do aren’t always explained. This is understandable, but a lot of times the film just jumps from one scenario to the next, which makes the continuity a bit hard to follow. To apply some sort of structure, the film is divided into chapters, sort of like the books it was inspired by, with titles that describe the situations Mr Gulliver will face in that particular section of the film.

It’s hard not to see the film as anything but a scathing satire for the current regime. The fact that it’s prohibited to speak every Monday could be a reference to the lack of privacy that was experienced by citizens at the time, with house searches and bugs planted in their homes which prevented people from speaking freely. Or maybe it could represent the censorship found in various works of art that are deemed problematic by the government (like the very film itself). What’s remarkable is that this concept of silence adds so much to the eeriness of the film when Mr Gulliver first arrives at Balibarni. It immediately sets the tone for the film and lets the viewers know that there’s something off about this place. 

And that’s how allegories work best in works of fiction: they comment on real-world issues while also being incorporated in a way that adds to the overall story. It just works on so many levels. But political frustrations aside, the film works remarkably well as a standalone feature, too. Someone like myself, who isn’t too familiar with the specifics of the political climate at the time, can still enjoy the film for its imaginative world-building and disorienting presentation. And since the viewer is as much a foreigner in Balibarni as Mr Gulliver is, they can understand his confusion that much more. 

Like many titles released at the time, Case for a Rookie Hangman was banned by the government for satirizing the current regime. It’s a shame too since it marked the end of Juráček’s career as a filmmaker. It would’ve been interesting to see what other ideas he could’ve brought to life through film. It’s clear that he had an imaginative vision that explored real, social issues through the lens of filmmaking — and the medium is a perfect conduit for these types of discussions. But I’m glad I got to experience such a creative piece of social satire that truly showcases the power of film, and I’m sure Jonathan Swift would also agree.

Author: Kai-Ming Chow

Freelance writer and film critic. Mostly writes about film, TV, music, and video games. https://linktr.ee/dlightnin

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