Citizen Kane has long been referred to as “the greatest film ever made,” a view which was until recently corroborated by Sight & Sound‘s prestigious decennial poll of critics and filmmakers (it was displaced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the 2012 edition after 50 years in the top spot.) Regardless of whether this epithet is deserved, some argue that such rankings obfuscate the film’s artistic merits – in the words of Entertainment Weekly critic Christian Blauvelt: “turning Welles’ vital, alive work of art full of manifold pleasures into a museum piece.” František Vláčil’s magnum opus Marketa Lazarová is similarly burdened by the weight of cinematic expectation: a 90s poll of Czech and Slovak critics and directors found the 1967 film to be “the best Czech film of all time,” a fact that both Second Run and Criterion Collection, the film’s DVD distributors, are quick to point to in their marketing materials. Like Kane, Vláčil’s film only received this recognition many years after release and, revered as it is by some, continues to alienate many of its viewers.
Based on a 1931 novel by avant-garde writer Vladislav Vančura, Marketa Lazarová was filmed at the height of the Czechoslovak New Wave, the pre-1968 cinematic era generally defined by the absurdist social comedies of filmmakers such as Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová and Miloš Forman, but is light years away from the likes of Closely Observed Trains, Daisies and The Fireman’s Ball. Set in the late years of christianisation in the Czech lands, it is a brutal study of medieval barbarism and misdirected religious fervour, replete with references to incest, torture and bestiality.
The heavy subject matter and epic scale of the film (it took two years to shoot, and Vláčil’s intended edit was far longer than the 162 minutes of its cinematic release) clearly took their toll on those involved in its production. “I feel relieved that work on it is over.” wrote the director in the magazine Filmové a televizní noviny in 1967 “Earlier, before Marketa – you see, I divide my life into “before” and “after” – it was a joy to make films, Marketa was purgatory for me… years of preparation, two years of actual shooting, a dilapidated fortress far from civilisation, crew in the middle of mud volcanoes, the destruction of actors in the frozen, snow-covered landscape… I feel like a person who has lost a close relative, alongside whom he lived and whom, admittedly, he sometimes hated.”
The film opens with the ambush of a group of traveling German nobles by brothers Mikoláš and Adam Kozlík, who slaughter most of the party and take one of them captive. Their prisoner is revealed to be the son of a bishop, earning the Kozlíks the wrath of the church and king. On trying to form an alliance with their neighbour Lazar, Mikoláš is rebuked and brutalised. In retribution, the Kozlíks attack Lazar and kidnap his daughter, the eponymous Marketa, who, first by force and later by choice, becomes Mikoláš’s mistress, as the war between the Kozlíks, Lazars and the rest of the kingdom escalates.
With the action constantly switching between the film’s often indistinguishable locations, and frequently cantering off into flashbacks, the plot is quite impenetrable upon first viewing (personally I relied heavily on the thankfully quite comprehensive plot summary on Wikipedia for reference) and the film’s chief reason for its reputation as alienating esoterica. This can however be viewed as a strength – as Mark Atkinson wrote in Sight & Sound, “dropping us into the conflict among dozens of characters at seemingly indiscriminate intervals, [Vláčil] achieves a rampaging momentum – never has an impenetrably plotted movie been so riveting. Get distracted worrying about the narrative flow, and suddenly the wolves are standing at the dark forest’s edge, watching you.”
The wolves are a recurring image – and they are not alone – a host of wildlife can be seen meandering through the forest setting, reminding us of the untamed nature of the time, and providing no small contribution to the visual impact of the film, which is certainly its greatest asset; the sharp black and white cinematography, along with the snow covering the landscape for most of its duration, highlights the bleak situation of the warring clans and, much as one may argue with Atkinson about the incomprehensible plot, it’s difficult to refute his assertion that this is “the most convincing film about the Middle Ages made anywhere.”
As different as Marketa Lazarová may be from such films as Loves of a Blonde, Vláčil does seem to share with his New Wave contemporaries a focus on the corrupting influence of a society gripped by an ideology supposedly aimed at human betterment – be it communism or christianity. In large sections of the film it is easy to question the centrality of Marketa herself to the story, but by the end of the film, the heroine redeems herself as the only character capable of transcending this society, wandering off into the world constrained neither by man nor God. The question of whether it is the “best Czech film of all time” will of course remain unanswered but, in the myriad of questions that Marketa Lazarová poses, that one can seem rather insignificant.
František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarova is available from Second Run DVD at £12.99.