I love old dark house movies, to the point where whenever a discussion comes up with family or friends about the prospect of building a house, I can’t help railroading the conversation into talk of secret passages, secret doors (bookcase or fireplace, I’m not picky), and of course large paintings where I can remove the portrait’s eyes and peek into the room below.
Due to this, Oldřich Lipský’s silly-funny, endlessly inventive spoof Tajemství hradu v Karpatech was a source of absolute delight for me. It’s basically like a Czech version of Murder by Death, a star-studded mystery set in – yes, an old dark house – peppered with jokes so hoary and dumb that they go all the way around the dial to becoming hilarious again. What The Mysterious Castle has over Neil Simon’s groaner-fest and other pastiches of the genre is some genuinely inspired proto-steampunk design work by legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, and a visual style all of its own…
It was a full house at Kino Art for a Friday night screening of Julius Ševčík’s Masaryk (aka A Prominent Patient), and it made uncomfortable viewing. I was about the last one in and had to sit on the front row, one English guy watching a film about how my country sold out Czechoslovakia with a room full of Czechs.
I grew up thinking that we were unconditionally the good guys. In history class we learnt a little about the Munich Agreement, saw pictures of Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper and his infamous “Peace for our time” speech. Our teacher never really got into the human consequences of it – who cared about Czechoslovakia anyway? He just wanted to get to the fun stuff, and it was just a prologue before Winston Churchill sparked up a big cigar and guided us to our Finest Hour.
Every now and then two films come out around the same time covering the same topic – Twilight and Let the Right One In; Deep Impact and Armageddon; Hitchcock and The Girl. A few years ago, there was a mesmerising, beautifully erotic examination of a couple involved in a kinky sub-dom relationship. It was called The Duke of Burgundy, and Jamie Dornan wasn’t in it. He was in the other one, Fifty Shades of something.
Then we had two films released within a few months of each other about the valiant Czechoslovak parachutists who assassinated Hitler’s third in command, Reinhard Heydrich. First out of the gate was Anthropoid, starring Dornan alongside Cillian Murphy, followed by HHhH, an adaptation of Laurent Binet’s well-received novel. Would Dornan be in the better movie of the two this time round?
I hate to say it without seeing both, but probably not. Any film on this subject is bound to be compared to Binet’s terrific book, which managed the tricky task of making a historic event genuinely suspenseful and exciting. The book had scope, compassion and a lightness of touch, and the chapters covering the assassination and the parachutist’s last stand in a Prague cathedral flew past so quick that I left burn marks on the pages. It’s a fantastic story that deserves a modern re-telling (although maybe not twice in the space of a year), and I dearly hoped that Anthropoid would do justice to the tale.
I was excited to see Já, Olga Hepnarová as part of a full house crowd on its first release. Often when I watch Czech movies at the cinema the audience is me, the projectionist and his dog, so it was pleasing to see people resisting the lure of the multiplex to support a film as resolutely un-popcorn as this. It’s a sombre arthouse character study of the the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.
We meet Hepnarová (Michalina Olszanska) recovering from a failed suicide attempt, and after a spell in a psychiatric hospital she shuns her comfy middle-class family to take work as a truck driver. Bitter and alienated, she lives in semi-squalor in the family’s summer cottage, drinking, smoking and seducing local women. As her mental health deteriorates, she imagines herself the victim of a bullying society, and plots callous revenge.
Up and coming Polish actress Olszanska puts in a fantastic performance as Hepnarová. She never asks for the audience’s sympathy and is immensely watchable despite her permanently glowering countenance.
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 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.