Old Czech Legends (Staré pověsti české) – Jiří Trnka, 1953

After a lean and troubled wartime era, Walt Disney started the 50s with a trio of the studio’s most beloved films – Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. This was the Silver Age of Disney, and it lasted until Uncle Walt passed away during the production of The Jungle Book in 1966.

Around the same time across the Iron Curtain, Jiří Trnka, a Czech film maker referred to as the “Walt Disney of the East” was creating a stunning series of hand-crafted animated features. After an early career illustrating children’s books and learning puppetry, he made his own animated shorts at the end of WWII. His first film with stop motion puppet animation was The Czech Year (Špalíček), which detailed the rites and customs of a small Czech village. It was well-received internationally, picking up prizes in Paris and Venice.

After two more features, The Emperor’s Nightingale and Prince Bayaya, his next major work was Old Czech Legends, based on Alois Jirásek’s novel. Divided into seven parts, it takes us way back to the mythological foundation of the Czech nation. It opens with a dramatic note of despair as a tribe is mourning the death of their kind and noble leader, Forefather Čech. In a flashback, we see how they came to the Vltava after a long and arduous journey and rested near Říp mountain. Čech scaled the mountain alone and saw the bounteous and beautiful land all around him, and declared that this was the place for his people. In gratitude, they insist on naming the country after him…

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Bathory: Countess of Blood – Juraj Jakubisko, 2008

Bathory bathing in virgin blood (allegedly)

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most prolific female murderer of all time was Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman. She is said to have murdered over 600 young women, practising vampirism and bathing in their blood to preserve her own youth and beauty.

Now I don’t know what the verification process is for the Guinness Book of records (it’s been a long time since my own unsuccessful attempt to build the world’s largest pyramid out of empty beer cans) but this seems like an iffy one to me. Many of the testimonies were based on hearsay from superstitious bumpkins or extracted from “witnesses” by torture. The exact kill count is thought to be greatly exaggerated.

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Going to bat for poor old Elizabeth is veteran Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko with Bathory: Countess of Blood, an expensively mounted Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and British co-production. Setting out its stall as a revisionist historical epic, the movie veers wildly between horror, political intrigue and bodice-ripping romance, with some wacky comic touches thrown in for good measure – monks on clockwork rollerskates, for example.

In short, it’s a pretty kooky way to try clearing someone’s name, as Jakubisko attempts to rescue Báthory from the naughty step of history by spinning his own unreliable yarn…

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The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil) – Karel Zeman, 1961

“Truth isn’t truth!” – Rudy Giuliani

“You’re fake news!” – Donald Trump

“Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts…” – Kellyanne Conway

I don’t wish to link every single movie I review to current events, but I was curious coming into Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil) to see how it would play in our post-truth world. Here is a beloved literary and cinematic character whose tall stories have enchanted people for over two centuries. But let’s face it, he’s a bullshitter, brazenly embellishing tales of his own amazing feats while deriding his rival as a fantasist – would Munchausen seem so charming in a world where Donald Trump constantly does the same thing, albeit with much less elan? Nowadays our social media feeds are bombarded with stories of people who, not liking the facts, make up their own and then vociferously rage at their opponents as liars. Against this backdrop, can we listen to any more bullshit on our free time?

Thankfully yes, but I’ll come to that later.

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Zeman starts by bringing the Munchausen tale right up to date with a moon landing, and astronaut Tony (Rudolf Jelínek) discovers that he’s not the first to arrive – footprints lead to an old gramophone and a bullet-shaped capsule straight out of Jules Verne’s From Earth to the Moon. He’s greeted by some gentlemen in 18th century clobber who don’t seem phased by lack of oxygen, along with Cyrano de Bergerac and Baron Munchausen. They mistake Tony for an inhabitant of the moon, and the Baron decides to take him to earth to show him how things are done down there. Travelling in a galleon drawn by flying horses, they splash down in 18th century Constantinople, where their fanciful journey begins…

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Marketa Lazarová – František Vláčil, 1967

There’s an underseen film called The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, where some English miners from the Middle Ages tunnel through the earth and emerge in modern-day New Zealand. Watching Marketa Lazarová feels a bit like that in reverse – you leave your comfortable 21st-century life behind for a few hours and pop up in medieval Bohemia.

Director František Vláčil (Adelheid, The White Dove) spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates and places, but of deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of the present day’s unsteady ship.

Marketa Lazarova Blu Ray

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Few films also match Marketa Lazarová‘s dazzling visuals with such authentic production values, so while the virtuosity of Vláčil’s film making often distracts from the story, the credibility of its setting is never in doubt.

Based on the novel by Vladislav Vančura, which in turn was based on an ancient Czech legend, the film declares itself a “Rhapsody” on the title card. That might seem a little precious, but Vláčil is a director who freely admits to valuing visuals over story, and by dispensing with most conventional narrative techniques creates a film that is both lyrical and rhapsodic. It is perhaps best enjoyed if you can forget the story and surrender yourself to it as a purely sensory experience…

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