In the Shadow of the Werewolf: František Vláčil's Markéta Lazarová
by Peter Hames
Central Europe Review
Dawn breaks against a black and white snowscape and a party of wolves makes its way obliquely towards the camera. A hawk hovers above the marsh reeds and we note that it is linked to the hand of its master. The sombre photography and the images of hunters, both animal and human, establish the context of a harsh and predatory world.
This is the opening to František Vláčil's 13th-century epic Markéta Lazarová . It's a film from the mid-1960s, and by no means a familiar title, yet some rank it as one of the best films ever made. In the Czech Republic, a poll of film professionals has ranked it as the best Czech film. That places it above the work of Miloš Forman, Jan Švankmajer, and Oscar-winning titles such as Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains) and Obchod na korze (A Shop on the High Street).
Adapted from a pre-war novel by the avant-garde writer, Vladislav Vančura, Vláčil's film deals with the conflicts between the rival clans of the Kozlíks and the Lazars, and the doomed love affair between Mikoláš Kozlík and Markéta Lazarová. Interwoven with all this is an evocation of the conflict between Christianity and paganism.
Revealing the essence
Vláčil's objectives run counter to the traditional historical film in which he felt he was "seeing contemporary people dressed up in historical costumes." He sought instead to penetrate the psychology of the times. "People then were much more instinctive in their actions, and hence much more consistent. The controlling emotion was fear, and that brought its pressure to bear mainly at night. That is why some pagan customs stayed with man for such a long time."
Not satisfied with a purely intellectual exercise, he took his cast and film team to the Šumava forest for two years. "There we lived like animals ...lacking food, and dressed in rags. I wanted my actors to live their parts. Finally they did. And they loved me, because I gave them the opportunity to live the way they always wanted."
While he was clearly influenced by models such as Ingmar Bergman's Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957) and Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954), Vláčil's ambitions reached further. Apart from authentic clothes, implements, and sets constructed by traditional methods, he drew on anthropological studies and used historical language. Like the original novel, he attempted to reveal the essence of human nature.
Despite its extended period of preparation and shooting, the film has the intensity of an almost instantaneous inspiration. The combination of an elliptical narrative with a visually rich and evocative style produces a powerful and fascinating film.
Rich and hallucinogenic
Dramatic scenes such as the attack on a Saxon count and his retinue, a battle filmed as hallucination, and scenes of sexual passion, contrast with rare episodes of repose. The story is complemented by powerful animal images—the raven, the snake, the deer, and the lamb—a poetic menagerie of hunters and hunted. The superstition of the werewolf, common at the time, hangs over the characters' actions.
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