Karel Anton’s 1930 masterpiece Tonka of the Gallows opens with a blast of steam. As the cloud dissipates, we make out a locomotive engine bearing our eponymous heroine through the pristine Czech countryside as she returns from the city to her rural childhood home. Once she arrives, the plot moves forward with the same inexorable force. She reunites with her mother, on whom she bestows a collection of lavish gifts, including a shawl and a coffee grinder, afforded by her apparently lucrative job in the city. Tonka also rekindles a budding romance with eminently eligible village bachelor Jan, and as spring moves relentlessly towards summer, the pair’s relationship seems to be nearing its joyful conclusion under her mother’s approvingly watchful gaze. But when Jan finally makes his move, everything quickly unravels. Tonka is unreceptive to her sweetheart’s touch, she cannot bare to look him in the eyes, Jan’s pleading question “when will we get married?” goes unanswered. The inevitable happy-ever-after is cast aside as Tonka escapes his embrace, reaches for her city clothes and returns to the metropolis alone.
The reason for her sudden departure becomes apparent as we are taken through Prague’s winding streets and into the smoky haze of a brothel – which, it turns out, is Tonka’s workplace. Amid the revelry, Tonka is a brooding presence. She brings a drink to the pianist and sings a melancholic song to his accompaniment, but when he offers a toast to her happiness, Tonka falls into a mire of regret at the potential future she has abandoned, which is only slightly alleviated when one of her clients, a travelling salesman, gifts her a clockwork gnome that Tonka operates with a curious fascination. Meanwhile across the city, different cogs are set in motion as a pair of jailors set out to fulfil the final wish of a man condemned to be hanged – a woman to share his final night.
The officers arrive at the brothel and convey their demand to the panic-stricken madame. What follows is one of the film’s most striking moments as all of the gathered women recede away in horror, leaving only Tonka, who moments before had been ruminating in the shadows, thrust into the spotlight and looking up with a mixture of timidity and determination as she volunteers herself for the unappetising task. It is moments like this that epitomise a shimmering performance from Ita Rina as Tonka.
But it is the following scene in which Rina truly comes into her own and we are presented with the most impressive passage of the film. In a Murnauesque opening, Tonka’s first glimpse of the condemned man is in silhouette, with the shadow of the cell’s rafters forming a premeditative noose around his neck. He proceeds to lurch forward and towards her like Nosferatu descending upon his prey, but when Tonka shrinks back in terror, he turns away in violent frustration. Resolved to provide him with some non-euphemistic comfort in his final hours, Tonka probes and consoles him on his desperate loneliness – for which it would seem his wild lust was but a cipher. Eventually his savage demeanour breaks down, and the pair share some innocent joy as they play together with the clockwork gnome in childlike delight. By the time morning comes and the hangman calls for his quarry, the condemned man has turned from a resigned brute into a whimpering child, and when the dreaded pronouncement comes that “Justice has been done” Tonka descends into a state of grief.
Returning from the prison, Tonka becomes a pariah, shunned by fellow sex workers and clients alike as she is branded with the moniker that forms the title of the film. She turns to drink, is ejected from the brothel and escapes destitution only thanks to the kindness of a street saleswoman. She stumbles upon a chance reunion with Jan, who reaffirms his proposal. Presented with a second chance at the happiness she had spurned, Tonka finally relents to Jan’s desire and returns to the village, where her delighted mother helps to prepare her for the wedding day. But it isn’t to be. Tonka’s erstwhile client, the travelling purveyor of clockwork figurines, arrives in the village and unintentionally reveals to Jan the truth about her past. A furious Jan confronts Tonka and breaks off their engagement in front of her distraught mother, who disowns her daughter by casting off her gifted shawl in recognition of its provenance. Tonka flees back to the city and falls into a spiral of alcoholism and despair, and while she does achieve a form of reconciliation with Jan, it is only at the ultimately tragic finale.
Tonka of the Gallows paints an incisive portrait of the situation for the unemancipated women of early twentieth century Europe. Tonka walks a tightrope between innocence and agency – constantly caught in a false dichotomy between an idealised pure life in the countryside and the promise of independence in the city, neither of which deliver on their respective promises. It is only by going to comfort the condemned man that she is able to truly exercise her agency, but this one act of spontaneous and unrewarded kindness proves to be her ultimate downfall. It is highly symbolic that when Jan spurns Tonka on discovering the truth about her past, he does so not because she had been a prostitute, but because of her night with the condemned man – echoing the reason for rejection of the workers and clientele of the brothel. Whether she chooses the country or the city, the life of the village housewife or the urban sex worker, Tonka is unable to escape the shackles of patriarchy that push down on her with the same mechanical precision as the clockwork in the toys with which she displays such an enduring fascination.
Watching the film in the appropriately art deco surrounds of East Finchley’s Phoenix cinema, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience Anton’s stunning use of lighting and contrast on the big screen. The cinematography accentuates a host of fine performances, with Rina, better known for her earlier lead turn in Gustav Machatý’s Erotikon, particularly impressive in the title role. Tonka of the Gallows is marked out in the history books as the first Czech film released with a synchronised soundtrack, but we were treated to a live accompaniment by multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne. Horne’s original score incorporated an impressive array of instruments, including keyboard, accordion, flute and mbira, adding a welcome contemporary twist to an overlooked classic of Czech cinema.