Birds, Orphans and Fools, released in 1969, is both a prime example of the Czechoslovak New Wave and a product of the slackening of government censorship during the Prague Spring of 1968. The months of the Prague Spring had provided Juraj Jakubisko and directors like him with the ideal environment in which to create radical and unconventional films. Following the arrival of Soviet forces into the country in the late summer of 1968, the political climate became unwelcoming tp such films and, despite its premiere the following year at the Sorrento Film Festival, ‘Birds, orphans and fools’ was not shown in Czechoslovakia until 1990.
The storyline follows three young Slovaks who are all orphans as a result of political violence. Now in their twenties, Yorick, Andrej and Marta end up living in a neglected and run-down flat, where most of the action takes place. Together they live a chaotic and order-less life, largely consisting of play and imagination, where they dress up, drink alcohol, sing, dance, and make believe.
There are many scenes where viewers can be forgiven for not knowing what is going on – the lack of order and direction throughout is apparently a deliberate choice by the director to throw his viewers into the confusion and disarray surrounding the three main characters. The persistent pandemonium and erratic behaviour of the characters throughout are not unlike scenes from Moulin Rouge; there is a constant theatre and festival feel to the storyline which keeps the viewer engaged, if somewhat confused at times.
The reason for this is poignant – the characters have been drawn together by the history of their country and families which has marred them all. For Yorick, Andrej and Marta, real life is so painful to face that they have chosen to turn their backs completely on society and responsibility – it is their way of coping with the trauma which has marked their lives. Life is a party and they are the ‘fools’, and this is the only way they feel they can find true freedom and happiness. They are often seen in dressing-up clothes, temporarily assuming the identity of another person; this escapist mind-set is perhaps what Jakubisko most wanted to portray here. Through this, though, he also poses the question of what true freedom is – though the three friends find liberty in their imaginative play and outrageous exploits, the majority of this takes place within the confines of their apartment which for the viewer casts doubt on the depth of their freedom. Birds living in the apartment with them are a moving metaphor and agonizing reminder of the fact that they are not experiencing an authentic freedom.
Yorick is central to the plot throughout – his confusion surrounding his own identity and sense of purpose is striking, and the complexities of this are demonstrated by scenes of commotion which at times turn almost into hallucinations. As much as the plot follows Yorick’s attempts to reconcile himself with his past, it is also a nod to how much someone’s past can have a permanent, indelible influence on their present. What’s more, this striving of an individual to pin down his identity can be understood as a metaphor of the Czechoslovak nation – by the late 1960s, Czechoslovakia had undergone so much turbulence and change that, perhaps, Jakubisko was trying to acknowledge their struggle for a firm national identity. The last part of the film sees two of the characters’ attempts to bring order and hope to their lives, but will their efforts pay off?
Birds, Orphans and Fools is Jakubisko’s significant contribution to the Czechoslovak New Wave, an important era in cinema which explored new avenues and opened minds. Its clever double narrative comments on the insecurities of nations and individuals, taking the viewer on a whirlwind journey of love, fun, fantasy, jealousy, pain and death. It is perplexing and puzzling, but if you take a moment to sift through the surface level chaos and commotion, you will find at its core questions that mankind has grappled with for centuries – who am I and what am I doing here? The film does not answer these questions, but it does offer a new way of exploring these, releasing not only the main characters and the viewers into a new freedom of thought and understanding.
Juraj Jakubisko’s Birds, Orphans and Fools is available from Second Run DVD at £12.99.