The Made in Prague Festival is currently celebrating Vojtěch Jasný’s 90th birthday. Hailed as a “film” hero for many Czech filmmakers and the “spiritual father of the Czech New Wave,” the Czech Centre and Goethe Institute are screening a series of his films as part of the Hommage to Vojtěch Jasný season from November 6th-26th.
In The Life of the Schizophrenic Poet Alexander März (1975), Jasný and German writer Heinar Kipphardt sought to capture the tragic circumstance of a man abused by his family and imprisoned in a mental asylum. Based on authentic testimonies and the real life of the Austrian poet Ernst Herbeck (1920-1991); Jasný’s film is a damning portrayal of both accepted family structure and psychiatric treatment.
We first encounter März dressed as a crucified Christ, beaming down at his psychiatrist – who’s come to fetch him back to the Lohberg Asylum where he’s an inmate – with a cigarette between his lips. The comic relief of März’s often absurdist actions is vital in such a tragic film: throughout, we watch him receiving shock therapy, the camera zooming in on his tortured face, or being yelled at by his father. These moments are broken up by shots of him wandering freely in a field or watching leaves fall, stressing the happiness that comes from such escape.
Though the film tells the story of his time at Lohberg, we also witness fragments of März’s childhood. Born with a cleft lip, he immediately becomes an outcast and a source of shame to his parents. In one scene, his mother arrives home with a hat that covers the lower half of his face. Shoving it over his head in front of the mirror she exclaims, “My, what a handsome boy you are now!” Later, we see März’s father attempting to correct his speech impediment, spliced with a scene of his mother force-feeding a goose. Though heavy-handed perhaps in its symbolism, these moments stress März’s observation that ‘family is the breeding ground for madness’.
The control imposed by the family structure extends to the mental institution where we see patients’ actions dictated every moment of the day. The director of Lohberg frequently appears, touring visitors through the facilities and boasting of the programs he’s instituted. Explaining the value of work therapy – for which, sadly, they ‘have not figured out the problem of remuneration’ – he goes on to extol the beauty and expressiveness of art produced by schizophrenics and the therapeutic nature of dancing. Though the director is comedic and over the top as a character, it’s hard to ignore the extent to which this man and the institution itself seem to benefit from others’ illness and the fact so many of his patients there are ‘forgotten’.
As the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly dark. We witness März become steadily more paranoid, culminating in a scene when he hurls his mother’s TV out the window because he’s afraid of people spying on him. März’s psychiatrist too begins to see the hospital as a prison, a place where not only the patients are sick but the doctors and nurses too. A particularly poignant scene is one of März ‘walking’ down the hall of the ward, placing one foot carefully in front of the other, as if cripplingly unsure of every movement. With the psychiatrist’s observations as a voiceover, one can’t help but compare this to the moments of the poet wandering freely in nature. März’s lack of control over his life and actions are underscored when he meets a young patient, Hanna, and embarks on a love affair with her. When the two are discovered and separated, it is more than März can bear.
Though palpably tragic, the film is compelling in its critique of the treatment and stigmatization of mental illness. Broadcast in Germany in 1975 on TV, The Life of the Schizophrenic Poet Alexander März met a strong public response and it’s easy to see why. Jasný weaves together memory, story-telling and true accounts to produce a touching and brutally honest portrayal of creativity and schizophrenia.
This year’s Made in Prague festival runs from November 6th to November 28th, and is organised by the Czech Centre, London. For details of the Festival, please click on the image below.