Cinema of the Wolf: The Mystery of Marketa Lazarová

Marketa Lazarová (1967) ambushes the viewer, emerging suddenly from obscurity to overwhelm with a rush of sensation, like a cinema bandit, like the primitive hordes that provide the film’s main characters. An unforgettable—but also largely unknown—work, it demands the broader audience this release will bring it. Most films lay out a journey for us, take us for a ride, exhilarate or charm us, but give us some idea of where we are going. Marketa Lazarová sweeps us up in a sort of rapture before we even get our feet on the ground. František Vláčil directs with a symphonic variation of tone and pace, moving with assurance from the frenetic to the contemplative, the horrific to the erotic. This may not be a film for everyone. It calls for stamina and for surrender to the wonder of vision and hearing, even when the way remains obscure and seems a bit dangerous. It forces us to rediscover the power of image and sound—and what happens when you bring them together.

I first came upon Marketa Lazarová with little preparation. I knew only its reputation for portraying a brutal and magical vision of the Middle Ages, an era around the thirteenth century, when Christianity still contended with pagan rituals of fertility, and pillage was a profession. Although it was rarely shown in the U.S., many Czech critics considered it their finest film (it was named the best Czech film of all time in a 1998 poll of Czech and Slovak critics and filmmakers). Like many film scholars, my sense of Czech cinema had come primarily from the more readily available films of the New Wave of the late 1960s. Marketa Lazarová emerged from the same tempestuous times, just before the first substantial tear in the Soviet iron curtain—the Prague Spring of 1968. This era of political reform, led by Alexander Dubček, introduced the ideal of “socialism with a human face.” Perceived as a challenge to Soviet authority, the reforms triggered an invasion by Warsaw Pact troops that placed Czechoslovakia under occupation. Both the era of reform and the resistance that followed the invasion found filmic expression in the ironic comedies and satires of Miloš Forman (Loves of a Blonde, 1965; The Firemen’s Ball, 1967) and Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, 1966) and the explosive anarchism of Věra Chytilová’s masterpiece Daisies (1966), among other works. These films directed subtle criticism at contemporary Czechoslovak life, couching revolt in devious terms.

As ironic and fresh as the New Wave films were, with their themes of naive and awkward, yet vital, youth betrayed by harsh realities, they struck a different tone than Marketa Lazarová. Its heroine’s initial wide-eyed purity, which is brutally transformed into an awakened passion and a final defiant independence, certainly recalls themes of the New Wave, but Vláčil treats it with unbridled rage and violence. Instead of the contemporary, everyday-life setting of the New Wave films, Marketa Lazarová summons up a mysterious, alien world, recalling both the Middle Ages and the Czech avant-garde of the twenties and thirties. The film’s dark tone looks back to the Gothic vision of Gustav Meyrink (author of The Golem), Franz Kafka’s nightmarish modernity, and, most directly, the surreal intensity of the writers and artists of the prewar Devětsil group, such as Vítězslav Nezval and the author of the film’s source novel, Vladislav Vančura. Vančura’s novel boldly portrays the Middle Ages through an avant-garde prism, plotting a collision between his modernist style and the archaic world and passions of his characters. Vláčil’s adaptation maintains a similar tension, as his cinematic style of an energized mobile camera and abrasive editing peers into a primitive era of human history, still close to the elements and bestial energies. If less well-known than the satires of Forman and Menzel, a still distinct strain of dark vision ran through sixties Czech and Slovak cinema, as seen in Jan Schmidt’s grim apocalyptic narrative of feral women wandering through a postnuclear world, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967), and the black humor of Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969)—but never more savagely than in Marketa Lazarová.

Vláčil was slightly older than Forman, Menzel, and Chytilová, and rather than coming through the state film school FAMU (as did most of the New Wave directors), he did his first work in the Czechoslovak Army Film Studio. As film scholar Alice Lovejoy has shown, this production unit, designed to create nonfiction films for the army, actually encouraged formal experimentation, and even ideological innovation. Rather than simple instructional films, the unit often produced poetic and avant-garde works (such as the extraordinary short film of the Moscow subway system Metrum, directed by Ivan Balaďa in 1967), and the short film Vláčil produced there, Glass Clouds (1958), follows this lyrical pattern. His first feature film, The White Dove, from 1960, is an allegory of world peace shot and edited with amazing originality. His three films of the Middle Ages—The Devil’s Trap (1961) and Valley of the Bees (1967) in addition to Marketa Lazarová—show his mastery of startling framing, editing juxtapositions, and symbolic landscape. These films reveal a consistent stylist, but Marketa Lazarová stands as Vláčil’s most radical film.

From its opening, Vláčil’s epic of medieval marauders challenges our attention and imagination, thrusting us into a world of watchful predators, poised to attack. Titles on a black background strike the tone of a traditional storyteller recalling ancient things. A narrator introduces the tale over a vast winter landscape, his voice moving from a distant, echoing reverberation to an intimate nearness. This change in sound is subtle but alerts us to the unique spatial role sound will play in this film, often rubbing against the image. Voices seem very near while speakers remain visually distant—or even invisible. The film constantly shifts our visual and aural orientation; we must figure out where we are, as locations change abruptly and frequently.

The cold and unfriendly opening landscape holds no human form. In the second shot, we can make out moving figures in the distance. Their loping gait reveals their animal nature—wolves running through the snow, as the camera tracks with them. We cut suddenly to a close-up of a bird, taken with a telephoto lens, which flattens out its dark figure, fusing it with bare winter branches. We then glimpse a human head, apparently a hunter holding this falcon, moving through a thicket in disorienting close-up. The scale switches abruptly to a distant view of another bleak landscape, as the film’s credits appear over a field of snow. At the top of the frame, a wagon and horses eventually enter, tiny figures on the horizon. Under these images, we hear a choral work combining saccadic modern rhythms with ethereal female voices that hauntingly recall liturgical music. Not the least of the beauties of this film is its innovative musical soundtrack by composer Zdeněk Liška, who worked frequently with Vláčil (as well as experimental filmmakers Karel Zeman, Jan Švankmajer, and the Brothers Quay). The power of his score recalls two other modernist pieces that evoke the pagan pulse that persisted into the Middle Ages: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

In less than two minutes, Vláčil creates a world tensed with potential violence yet interwoven with a harsh natural beauty. This is a world of hunters and victims, of watchers and the watched, of confined hiding places and vast emptiness. The camera self-consciously brings us either too close to things to see clearly or too far from them to make them out. Yet this obscurity never alienates us from this environment but rather sets it vibrating with threat. We are lost in an enigmatic place whose dangers must be figured out if we are to survive. Without setup or explanation, we watch the Kozlík brothers attack a small caravan of German knights. The bandits spy them from the thicket, attack stealthily, and kill mercilessly. The camera peers through branches, creeping along like a predator itself, hiding and observing at once. Action fragments the screen, and the death throes of the prey obscure our view as blood stains the snow. In an image that serves as an emblem for the film, Vláčil shows a motionless wolf pack watching in expectation and then leaping forward to devour the victims left by human violence. Violence comes suddenly but with a wild lyricism, as if fulfilling the desire of a sadistic Nature or God. Few films are as cruel as Marketa Lazarová, and yet it is so vital, as filled with life as it is full of death, evoking sensual pleasure as if to compensate for portraying suffering in all its forms.

Marketa Lazarová may be an aggressively avant-garde and experimental film, but it never becomes abstract or sublimated. It twists our ideas of how stories are told, how space and time interrelate, and what a film image looks like. Vláčil commands our senses, making us feel the dulling chill of winter, the searing pain of a sword thrust, or the urgency of sexual desire. A historical film, he claimed, must “depict the times in such a way that the viewer can really fall back that many centuries into the past”—so that we experience, for instance, the sensations of a knight lost in a snowstorm. To achieve this level of bodily immersion, he forced his cast to live for months in frigid forest locations, dressed in furs. Rather than restaging past events, he sought to capture the visceral inside of history.

I confess it took me four viewings before I figured out the incidents of Marketa Lazarová’s plot (I am still not sure I know the names of all the characters or can fully explain their family relations). But if elements that most films strive to make clear remain obscure here, it is not because something is lacking. This is a film of excess: so much to see and hear, so many textures and shapes crying out for our attention, that simply tracing the story line can seem a waste of time. We may not understand the motivation for every action or exactly how incidents fit together, but we never lose our involvement in this richly bizarre world. The presence of animals and plants, the textures of stone and tree bark, of snow and marsh water, cling to us as we watch, often overriding the narrative. Still, a brief summary of the plot may help viewers—even if our confusion in negotiating ambiguous motives and a jumbled time scheme actually contributes to the film’s dreamlike chaos, where characters act arbitrarily and visions and memories pierce through the surface of everyday life.

The film follows the interaction of three disparate groups, each representing a different mode of savagery. Most primitive are the Kozlíks, a horde of sons and daughters under the control of a tyrannical father, who live off raids on wayfarers. They include the oldest son, Mikoláš, described as a human wolf, and his brother Adam, the one-armed. The father chopped off Adam’s arm when he discovered him in an incestuous affair with his sister, Alexandra. The Kozlík brothers attack a band of German knights and kidnap a young German noble, whose father demands revenge from the king. A regiment headed by a local captain is dispatched to find and punish the Kozlíks. A slightly more civilized clan is commanded by the merchant Lazar and includes his daughter, Marketa, whom he has promised to the local convent. Lazar oscillates between the bandits and the nobles, willing to pick up spoils from the corpses left by the Kozlíks but unwilling to join with the marauders to defy the regiment sent by the king. Lazar beats Mikoláš when he comes to the Lazar clan’s stronghold asking them to join an attack on the regiment. As the regiment approaches, the Kozlíks leave their own stronghold to dwell in the forest, and raid Lazar’s clan in revenge for his treatment of Mikoláš, abducting Marketa in the process. Despite her brutal treatment, she falls in love with Mikoláš. Later, she returns to the convent, but when the nuns insist that she publicly repent her sins, she wanders off with Alexandra. While it may be too much to see this as the founding of a new community of women, the film’s ending does envision the destruction of the savage clans, with their patriarchal leaders, and perhaps the dawn of a different order.

As dramatic and compelling as this epic plot may be, in Marketa Lazarová style dominates over story. Few films have brought together such a thick portrayal of the look and feel of the world with such free play with film language. Vláčil manipulates space through an extreme range of lenses, flattening the surface of things one moment and stretching it to infinity the next, juxtaposing the depth of Orson Welles with the shallow patterning and close framing of Robert Bresson. Sound declares its independence from image as we hear voices from one scene over a totally different one, or try to sort out different sound levels and styles of miking that often contradict what we see on the screen. Images from different spaces and times are intercut, as fantasies and memories loom up in the midst of seemingly unrelated events. These wild violations of normal filmmaking open up a primitive style of cinema, visceral and immediate, as if these modernist gestures stripped away the conventions of historical narrative and brought us face-to-face with the Dark Ages, when humans and beasts closely resembled each other.

Marketa Lazarová also astonishes with its willingness to dive directly into taboo subjects. Working within a Communist state, Vláčil tackled incestuous passion, bestiality, pagan sexuality, and brutal violence, and portrayed human society as a contest between feral savagery and repressive authority. The film refuses to choose between the pagan rituals of sex and blood and the puritanical Christianity of the convent, or between the violence of the fur-clad Kozlík band and that of the armored German knights.

Vláčil redefined the genre of the historical film with this avant-garde attack. Historical epics had appeared in the cinema since at least The Birth of a Nation in 1915, celebrating national origins or identity, often, as in Griffith’s film, promoting conservative or reactionary viewpoints. Innovative filmmakers had also tackled such material, as in Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoléon or Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, but even they upheld national patriotism and portrayed great leaders. In the 1960s, historical epics gained a critical edge. Postwar films by Luchino Visconti, Ingmar Bergman, and Akira Kurosawa provided new models for filming history, culminating in such extraordinary films as Sergei Parajanov’s 1965 Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1966 Pharaoh, Bresson’s 1974 Lancelot of the Lake, Stanley Kubrick’s ironic Barry Lyndon, from 1975, and the film that scholar András Bálint Kovács has called Marketa Lazarová’s “parallel,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1969 Andrei Rublev.

Marketa Lazarová marked an artistic highpoint for Vláčil, where he balanced control of his medium with a will to experiment. But historical circumstances seem to have prevented widespread recogni­tion of this achievement. His next film, Valley of the Bees—which was actually shot before Marketa Lazarová was released—was another visionary historical epic. His first film made after the occupation, Adelheid (1969), dealt with one of the most controversial periods of recent Czechoslovak history, the denazification of Sudetenland after World War II. This complex drama about the psychological dimension of political history was not well received in the restrictive, Soviet-dominated atmosphere, while the historical dramas were either criticized as concealing anti-Soviet references or seen as oddly irrelevant to the contemporary crisis. It had been expected that Marketa Lazarová would receive the recognition it deserved from foreign film festivals and a wider international release, but in the midst of the political turmoil, foreign critics seemed unable to focus on its unique stylistic daring. After Adelheid, Vláčil did not make another feature for nearly a decade, only in the late seventies returning to a leading role in cinema production. Both Marketa Lazarová and his career received recognition belatedly in his native land, shortly before his death in 1999.

Marketa Lazarová also makes us realize that we need to reevaluate the international cinema of the sixties, expanding beyond the acknowledged masterpieces of the New Wave to discover neglected genres and auteurs. In his important book Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980, Kovács shows how the idea of a modern cinema emerged after World War II and developed, during the fifties and sixties, into the genre of the art film (initially described by scholar David Bordwell) through a renewed contact with modernism, but differing in many ways from the avant-garde cinema of the twenties. I feel our current cinema has retreated from the model of sixties art cinema by focusing instead on either commercial genres or a detached, contemplative cinema of long takes and emotional distance, sacrificing the experimentation and excitement of the sixties for a more rarefied formalism. No film embodies the possibilities of the sixties better than Marketa Lazarová. To my mind, it is not only a neglected masterpiece but exemplary of that mode of cinema that was at once passionate and thought-provoking, disturbing and exhilarating, and vital enough still to inspire viewers and filmmakers into the future. Rediscovering this extraordinary film should renew our sense of the possibilities of cinema today.

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