Frantisek Vlacil


7.2 The White Dove (1960)
6.4 The Devil's Trap (1961)
7.4 Marketa Lazarova (1967)
7.0 The Valley of the Bees (1968)
6.9 Adelheid (1970)
6.0 Sirius (1975)
6.0 Smoke on the Potato Fields (1977)
6.9 Shadows of a Hot Summer (1978)
5.5 Concert at the End of Summer (1980)
7.0 Snake's Venom (1981)
6.0 The Little Shepherd Boy from the Valley (1983)
6.0 Albert (1985)
6.5 Shades of Fern (1986)
5.5 Magician (1988)
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Frantisek Vlacil (Czech, 1924) directed shorts like Sklenena Oblaka/ Clouds of Glass (1958) while he was in the military. His first full-length film after leaving the military was the one-hour long Holubice/ The White Dove (1960), based on Otakar Kirchner's short story "Bretanska Holubicka", a poetic allegory which was nearly dialogue-free. A decade older than the stars of the Czech new wave (Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel and Jan Nemec), he abandoned the dogmas of social realism years before that generation did. The film is notable for the surrealistic black-and-white images, for its penetrating close-ups, and for its poetic allegory of hope and cross-border fraternity. A young man is sitting on a giant billboard, eating an apple. At some point he gives the order to release the doves and a number of men release doves from cages. A girl tries to keep one of them but the man sees her and releases the animal. The girl cries. A subtitle informs us that this is Belgium. We see that the dove belongs to someone in Germany. A group of old German-speaking men are waiting and napping when the doves are sighted over their island. A girl, Susanne, gets excited. Most of the men rejoyce because their doves return to their homes. Susanne and an old man are the only ones disappointed by their doves. A subtitle informs us that Susanne's dove was caught in a storm and got lost. We see that it lands in Prague, on the roof of a man with a cat, and gets injured when someone shoots at it. The dove crashes through a piece of glass and the man walks down to rescue it. Then the man confronts a crippled boy, Michal, who has a gun but is confined in a wheelchair. The man brings the dove to the child. The dove is alive but unable to fly. The scene shifts back to the island where fishermen are organizing the fish. A young man, Ulli, who listens to jazz music, is told to fetch Susanne, who is still sitting in the cold wind with the old man, both waiting in vain for their doves. Ulli plays a cruel joke on the old man: Ulli places a plastic dove in a place where the old man can see it and then throws it away, so that the old man thinks it's his dove and goes crazy looking for it. Meanwhile, the man who found the dove finds an identification number tied to the leg of the dove. He tells the child that they should end the bird's pain and kill it. That night Susanne can't sleep and has a nightmare. The man who found the wounded dove is an artist who, inspired by the dove, works all night to create a hallucinated painting. Michal/Misa is a solitary boy who avoids the other children. Michal keeps the dove and refuses to let the artist kill it. A brief flashback shows how Michal broke his back falling from a net that he was trying to climb in the schoolyard, bullied by the other schoolchildren. Michal is now tenderly taking care of the dove, and we keep seeing images of a suffering Susanne. When the child calls the artist, we learn that the artist's name is Martin. Martin is visiting an office that has information about all the doves that are missing in various countries, each one identified by a number. Martin finds the number of the wounded dove and therefore the owner, Susanne. Michal's cure is working: the dove recovers and begins to walk. Meanwhile Ulli, moved by Susanne's sadness, buys her another white dove but the good Susanne gifts it to the old man. Michal is terrified when Martin's black cat, Satan, tries to catch the dove but the dove flies away to safety and Martin rescues it. Martin congratulates him. One day, as Ulli is selling lemonade at the beach, the mailman delivers a package that contains Martin's painting. Ulli takes it immediately to Susanne who finally smiles. Back in Prague, Martin creates a sculpture of Michal on a wheelchair but we see that Michal has recovered and is now walking. The statue's face is not completed yet. Michal is initially reluctant to release the dove but eventually he does so (leaving it on the faceless statue of himself) and the dove flies away (hopefully towards Susanne's island). Michal watches as a feather falls from the sky and he runs downstairs to catch it. The films ends with a 360-degree panorama of Prague that returns to the statue of Michal, which has now been completed.

Dablova Past/ The Devil's Trap (1961), set in the 18th century and loosely based on Alfred Technik's novel "Mlyn na Ponorne Rece/ Mill on a Submerged River" (1956), was his first evocation of a cruel nihilistic medieval society, his first allegorical fresco of the conflict between Christian values and pagan values. Indirectly, the story is an allegory of the fight between religion and science (between the wise man who uses his brain to explain nature and the bigot who is afraid of such explanations because they lower God's importance). It is a far more conventional film than White Dove.

It is 1722. A miller visits the arrogant regent to tell him that he chose the wrong place for a new project and reminds him that five years earlier his drunk coachman fell into a pit The regent is angry but then tells his friend the story of how, decades earlier during a war against Sweden, a Swedish militia set the mill of the miller's grandfather on fire but the family didn't burn, a miracle that was credited to witchcraft. A mysterious, stately chaplain walks through a village. A young man, Filip, is flirting with a beautiful girl, but she rejects him. A crowd surrounds a public flogging but the chaplain intervenes to stop it. The chaplain then visits the regent and presents his credentials: he is actually the bishop in person, now disguised as a chaplain. The regent is shocked and intimidated, and tells him of the drought that afflicts the land. We see a nice young man bringing water to the women working in the fields and flirting with the beautiful girl. Escorted by Filip, the priest visits a giant pit that people believe is the entrance to hell. They then visit the mill, where the priest only finds the miller's son: the same young man who brought water to the women, Jan. Jan shows the priest the water that slows deep underground and moves the wheels of the mill. People believe that the devil moves those wheels. On the way back to the town, Filip and the priest run into the miller himself, the father, who survived the fire as a child. The miller is still searching for more water. He is digging in a spot where flowers bloom even in the middle of a drought. At night, the beautiful girl, Martina, makes love in a barn with the Miller's son Jan. Filip finds them and, jealous, hits Jan with a stone. Another day the priest leads a religious procession to the site where the miller has been digging. The whole village follows him, including Filip, Martina and Jan, everybody praying for water. When they see that the miller has found a spring, they all abandon the priest and rush to celebrate the water. The regent and the priest visit the regent's barn where people are celebrating with music and dance. Martina and Jan are dancing but are interrupted by the jealous Filip. Jan and Filip get into another fight and Jan humiliates Filip by hanging him upside down. Filip grabs a knife and the regent keeps people from stopping the fight while the priest sits by himself at a table, indifferent. The miller arrives and stops the fighting. He tells people that the party is over, but the regent orders them to keep dancing. People resume the dances but the barn literally implodes. The regent summons the miller and accuses him of witchcraft. The miller defends himself claiming that he simply listens to the voices of nature: he knew that the barn was going to crash because it was built in a place that never freezes in winter. The priest accuses him of being a heretic: he should listen only to the voice of God. The miller argues that he's doing it for the good of the people, but the priest accuses him of being used by the devil to lure people. The priest threatens to deliver the miller to the Inquisition and orders him to attend sunday's sermon. The regent would prefer to throw the miller in jail but the priest wants to avoid that the miller becomes a martyr. Martina and Jan meet in a church. Martina wants to flee the village with Jan, afraid that she'll be forced to marry Filip. The miller disappears. His hat is found near the giant pit. The priest thinks that the son knows where he is hiding. The priest doesn't even let him attend mass and kicks him out of his church. Back home the son finds a message hidden in a candle and then an ancient book with instructions on how to navigate the underground caves. The son enters the caves and calls his father but the echoes cause rocks to fall. The priest's sunday servmon is all about the miller, described as an agent of the devil. He encourages the villagers to hunt him down but only Filip volunteers. Martina runs to the mill to warn Jan, but Jan is exploring the caves. She enters the caves and finds that the priest and the regent have already found Jan. The priest, the regent and Filip search for the miller but their shouts cause echoes that collapse the caves. Martina and Jan survive and find a way out.

The historical epic Marketa Lazarova (1967), based on Vancura's novel (1931) and six years in the making, is a hallucinated three-hour visual poem, set in 13th-century Bohemia. The plot mostly follows Vancura's novel but the focus on the experimental narrative method. The film is mostly a series of tableaux that represent the moral and physical misery of that universe, but tells us very little of what goes on inside the putative protagonist. Much is left out of Vancura's novel: the goal is clearly not to be a word by word adaptation of the novel. In particular, omitted in the film is Alexandra's trial and suicide, and, in general, the ending is just a mood piece where we hardly understand why what happens happens (unless we have read the novel).

During a bitter winter a German bishop, a count, and his son and heir are traveling through the snowy Bohemian landscape with their servants and escort. They run into a one-armed man who behaves like an idiot but suddenly attacks the escort. Another man attacks the servants. While the attackers are busy chasing the young count, the bishop escapes and a gang of scavengers robs the corpses. The attackers return and almost kill the leader of the gang, Lazar, but he prays god for his daughter Marketa and a light shines through the clouds, and the attackers let him go. We also see nuns walking in the snowy landscape. The attackers are Mikolas and Adam (the one-armed man), two sons of Kozlik, who has a total of eight sons and nine daughters. They return to the family's stronghold carrying the two prisoners they didn't kill: the young count, who speaks Czech, and an old servant. Adam hands a crucifix to Alexandra as a gift but someone takes it away. Kozlik is angry at Mikolas, who is the eldest son, for letting Lazar get away and sparing the lives of two people. We see a dreamy scene in which a naked woman makes love to a man who kills a serpent. Later, Kozlik walks through the snowy forest chased by wolves and tells his wife Katerina how the royal captain tried to arrest him for his crimes. Kozlik sends his son Mikolas to offer an alliance with Lazar against the royal army. Mikolas spared Lazar's life and now it's Lazar who spares Mikolas' life when his thugs attack him. Meanwhile, Marketa prays god, ashamed of her father's thieving and killing ways. Mikolas returns home bloodied, and Kozlik's men swear revenge against Lazar, but the royal regiment is closing in. Adam sees Alexandra knock at the door of the hut where Kristian is confined and guesses that Alexandra is attracted to the prisoner. And Alexandra also protects the German prisoners from Mikolas. Kozlik dispatches seven men to Lazar's place and demands to take him alive. The royal regiment led by captain advances in the snow towards Lazar's place. The seven Kozlik men arrive and kill the captain's most beloved soldier. The captain now swears revenge against Kozlik. Lazar delivers his daughter to a convent but the mother superior refuses her because Lazar didn't bring a dowry. Marketa is heartbroken to return to Lazar's place. Lazar feels miserable because he doesn't have a heir, only has a mentally disabled son. Their place has been taken over by Mikolas, Adam and their men who have killed everybody, including Lazar's son. Lazar begs for his life but they crucify him to the gate and ride away with Marketa. Kozlik's gang has retreated to the woods. Kozlik's wife then tells the story of Straba the werewolf while we see Alexandra free Kristian and have sex with him and we see Mikolas tempted by Marketa and then decisively raping her. Kozlik tells his wife to shut up. His wife says that the curse of the werewolf cannot touch the seventh son Kozlik is now angry that Mikolas was distracted by Marketa while the royal regiment is marching on them and that he didn't bring Lazar alive. Kozlik orders Mikolas to torture Marketa. Kristian tries to save her, but is killed. Alexandra is furious. Mikolas throws away the torture chains. Marketa is left alone in the snow.
The second part opens with a wandering monk walking in a landscape and discussing with god. The snow is melting and he is accompanied by a lamb. He walks into Lazar's place and is attacked by a man who steals his lamb. We see that Lazar survived. The monk then wanders away in the forest mumbling madly. He stumbles into dead people but doesn't even realize it: he's looking for his lamb. Adam sees him. Just then the royal regiment rides by and Adam falls in a trap. Adam is captured by the regiment. The old count, recognizing him as the man who attacked them, demands his head, but the captain wants to find the rest of the Kozlik gang. Adam pretends to be mute so he doesn't have to answer their questions, but the captain forces him to lead them to Kozlik. Meanwhile, Kozlik has chained the two couples on a nearby hill: Mikolas and Marketa, Kristian and Alexandra. A flashback shows that young Adam was punished for sleeping with his sister Alexandra: his own father chopped his arm off with an axe. Adam drags the regiment into a swamp. The mad wandering monk stumbles into Kozlik's camp. Kozlik's men laugh at his delirious story of the lamb sent by god to him. They offer him wine and he gets drunk while Kozlik's wife predicts Kozlik's downfall. In the morning they comically let him have a sheep's head. The regiment has surrounded the camp. Kozlik orders the two couples freed. The captain demands that Kozlik surrenders the kidnapped boy Kristian and that he himself surrenders. A defiant Kozlik challenges the professional army with his ragtag army of fools and thieves. The old count demands that the captain trade Adam for his son Kristian but the captain refuses. Adam tries to escape but is killed by a swarm of arrows before he can reach his father Kozlik. The captain orders the assault but Kozlik's men succeed in repulsing the better armed attackers. The monk watches the carnage in disbelief. The old count spots his son Kristian and Alexandra and shouts to kill the woman. Kristian is torn between his father and his lover. He tells his father that she is pregnant. The regiment prevails over Kozlik's men killing scores. A delirious Kristian wanders among the ruins and the corpses looking for her. He finds only one person still alive: the monk, who has taken shelter in Lazar's place. While Kristian collapses and it starts snowing again, the monk roasts a piece of meat, eats and talks to himself. Kristian wakes up and walks out of the ruins. The place is surrounded by wolves but they let him walk by. We see that Kozlik is being carried away unconscious by the captain's regiment. The women and only two adult men flee to the swamp, where they live of fish. Eventually Mikolas returns alive. His mother Katerina is happy to see him. She is resigned that Kozlik will be killed by the captain but Mikolas wants to storm the prison where the captain is probably holding his father. Marketa never speaks, but now behaves like she belongs there. When Mikolas releases her, Marketa curses him for kidnapping and raping her, but then they make love. He tells her a story of him and his father hunting a deer. He calls her his wife and claims that God made him do it. Alexandra is walking nearby and finds Kristian crawling like a wild animal. She takes a big stone and crushes his head (not clear why). Marketa walks back to her father's place. The wandering monk opens the gate and warns her that she's come back at a bad time. Lazar accuses her of having enjoyed the rape and expels her. Somehow the old count (the bishop) is there and somehow Marketa leads him to where Kristian was killed. Marketa finds shelter in the convent. While Marketa joins the mother superior in prayer, we see that Mikolas and the two adult men are storming the prison. Mikolas is hit by incendiary arrows and finally stabbed by a mob of the captain's soldiers. A child leads Marketa out of the convent to the prison, where she is delivered the dying Mikolas. The captain, moved to compassion by her grief, marries Mikolas and Marketa in front of Kozlik before taking Kozlik back to the prison. She lies down alone in a landscape of skeletons. The monk, who is now wandering with a goat, finds her and invites her to join his (senseless) pilgrimage, but his goat runs away and Marketa walks in the opposite direction, smiling. The narrating voice informs us that Alexandra and Marketa both had sons and nursed them together.

Udoli Vcel/ The Valley of the Bees (1968), Vlacil's first collaboration with cinematographer Frantisek Uldrich and writer Vladimir Korner, is another historical epic set in the Middle Ages. The film has two protagonists, who represent two different views of life, a secular one and a spiritual one, reality vs fantasy. One has no doubt, no crisis of conscience. The other one lives constantly in doubt. The film is a bit slow and lacks the fantastic imagery of his masterpieces.

In the 13th century an old man, the lord of Vlkov, marries the much younger Lenora. The man's son, Ondrej, is asked to give her a wedding gift: he hands her a basket full of flower petals, but hidden inside are bats, a cruel joke. His angry father throws him against a wall of rock but then prays God that the boy didn't die and vows to the Virgin Mary that Ondrej will join the monks of an order devoted to the Virgin Mary if he survives. The boy recovers and is dispatched to the monastery where he swears to lead a pure monk-like life. The monastery is located on the Baltic Sea and Ondrej experiences the beach and the salty water for the first time in his life. He is befriended by the monk Armin. Years go by and the monastery's order (the Teutonic Knights) becomes more influential. Armin and Ondrej are still best friends. Armin is a veteran of the failed Crusades and is ready to any sacrifice in the name of his religion. He influences Ondrej to live a spartan and pious life. One day one of the monks/knights, Rotgier, escapes. A posse chases him. Ondrej stops to let his horse drink from a pond. The escaped monk approaches Ondrej asking for his horse: he wants to return to his estate, and asks Ondrej to elope with him. Ondrej refuses, Rotgiers attacks him and steals his horse. Armin finds Ondrej unconscious and blames him for his weakness. The others find Rotgier who is executed as a traitor (he is thrown down a tower to hounds who devour his body). Ondrej is locked in a dark cell, punishment for his weakness. One day Armin discovers that Ondrej has escaped and feels doubly betrayed. Armin demands permission from the abbot to leave the monastery and bring Ondrej back. Armin rides a long way towards Ondrej's land, Bohemia. He meets a blind woman alone at home while the men are hunting. She offers him sheep's milk (but he refuses to drink it) and tells him that something in his voice scares him. Armin continues his journey and meets a group of peasants who talk about a man who passed by, barefoot, with a sword like his. Armin finds Ondrej but Ondrej, now a very destitute man, refuses to follow him. The peasants attack Ondrej and Armin comes to his rescue, saving his life. The two monk-knights kill all the peasants. At the end of the fight Ondrej's sword is damaged and Armin forces him to travel back with him, Armin on the hourse and Ondrej on foot. Ondrej seizes the first opportunity and, while Armin is drinking from a creek, hits him in the head with a stone and runs away with his horse and sword. When Ondrej reaches the fortress of his father, he learns that his father died and Lenora is the new lady of the land. Ondrej is recognizes by his old servant Jakub. He takes care of his father's business, but feels remorse about what he did to Armin Ondrej falls in love with Lenora and convinces a local priest to marry them When they are getting married, Armin shows up Ondrej invites him to the wedding but tension between them runs out Ondrej convinces Armin to spend the night in Vlkov During the night, Armin gets to Lenora's chambers and murders her He gets caught and Ondrej decides to execute him in a similar manner as Rotgier was killed Armin begs Ondrej to return to the order before his death. The film concludes with Ondrej's return to Teutonic Order. Ondrej immediately starts to give orders like a master. Lenora guesses that he's afraid of someone. He calls her "mother". She tells him that they are ruined. Lenora is a pious woman too: she prays to God before going to sleep, attends mass every morning, and self-flagellates. A boy brings a wolf cub that has been orphaned after they killed the she-wolf. Ondrej resumes taking care of his bees. He is visited by a priest, Blasius, who heard that he left a religious order. Ondrej trains dogs to hunt and kill a deer. At the end of the hunt Jakub tells him that his father was killed by dogs. Ondrej finds Lenora half-naked and whipping herself. He tries to have sex with her but she rejects him. Later, however, we see that they are riding together happily in the forest. Meanwhile, Armin has resumed his march and is approaching. He reaches the poor church of Blasius and tells the priest that he is disgusted by the stories that Ondrej and his mother live in sin. The priest tells Armin of the famine and plague that ravaged the place, leading people even to cannibalism, but Armin is not interested: he is obsessed with restoring purity with not a hint of forgiveness in his heart. His words scare the priest. The priest officiates the wedding of Ondrej and Lenora without warning them. Arnim shows up at the banquet. Ondrej tells him to leave but Lenora instead invites him to join the banquet. Ondrej smiles and welcomes him too. Ondrej offers his friendship again but Armin is still tormented by his conscience. Lenora even gives him a friendly kiss. Arnim prays God with the words that Jesus uttered on the cross, then walks towards Lenora and slits her throat. Arnim is beaten by the servants and thrown in the courtyard. Ondrej orders the servants to unleash the hounds, and Arnim is eaten alive by them (the punishment inflicted by the knights to traitors). The film ends with Ondrej dressed like a monk-knight, riding his horse towards the seaside monastery. We hear the monks singing. Ondrej stops and kneels in front of the waves. (Even if dead, Arnim has won: he has succeeded in bringing Ondrej back).

Adelheid (1970), his first color film, a continuation of the previous film's collaboration with cinematographer Frantisek Uldrich, writer Vladimir Korner and actor Petr Cepek, is an adaptation of Korner's novel (1967) which deals with the mistreatment by the Czech people of the ethnic German community after the defeat of Germany in World War II.

After two short movies and the war drama Sirius (1975), an allegory whose protagonist is a child, Vlacil adapted Bohumil Riha's novel "Doktor Meluzin" as Dym Bramborove/ Smoke on the Potato Fields (1977).

Stiny Horkeho Leta/ Shadows of a Hot Summer (1978) is similar to Adelheid (1970) in being a harrowing sociopolitical drama that emerges out of a domestic situation immersed in a desolate, quasi-existentialist atmosphere.

Working with screenwriter Zdenek Mahler, Vlacil directed his last films, starting with the biopic Koncert na Konci Leta/ Concert at the End of Summer (1980) about the composer Dvorak.

The black-and-white Hadi Jed/ Snake's Venom (1981) is a bitter, pessimistic character study about an alcoholic, but also a hopeful character study about a girl who never met her father and, when her mother dies, decides to find him and to redeem him. Vlacil was an alcoholic and this film is in a sense an allegory of himself as he depicts a drunkard who can't succeed in life.

Family and friends are celebrating Martin's 25th birthday. Over dinner Martin's family pities his girlfriend Vladka/Vladenka, a high-school student, who is an orphan. The following day Martin and Vladenka drive towards the mountains in a snowy landscape. He is giving a ride to something that she wants to handle her own way by herself. She enters a cafe alone and tells the owner that she's waiting for engineer Jan, whom she has never met before. When he walks in with coworkers, she approaches him. He is not friendly at all. She has a message for him from a man called Neckar. He replies that he doesn't know any Neckar. The others explain that the man is no engineer: they just call him that way. He's a failed drunkard who lives in a trailer. She takes a room at the inn. The following morning she visits him at his workplace swept by a cold wind. She reveals that she is the daughter of a woman who died, a woman to whom he was sending money. He realizes she is his daughter but doesn't show any emotion. She tells him that she plans to stay with him for the winter holidays, 14 days. She tells him about her boyfriend Martin. He tells her that her mother was so ashamed of him that she never let him see her as a baby. He has been saving money and offers all his savings to her. The work is hard and the location is far from town and very cold. It even snows. The father, Honza, has a lover in town, Blanka, who comes to look for him. She thinks that Vladenka is his lover and tells her that Honza has had many lovers. She cleans up the trailer, does the laundry and cooks for Honza and his two coworkers and housemates. Honza's young coworker Peta falls in love with Vladenka but Honza threatens to beat him up if he touches her. Before falling asleep in the trailer, father and daughter chat. She tries to figure out why he condemned himself to loneliness. During the day they take a walk in the snow and she invites him to move to the city with her. He shows her how to fish in an icy lake. He tells her that he found his dog tied to a tree and now the dog follows him everywhere. The dog has no name. But Honza can't resist getting drunk, even when Vladenka is waiting for him after cooking dinner. She is heartbroken when the two coworkers carry him home. Peta tells her that there is nothing she can do to redeem her father but she insists on staying. The following day her sweet talk convinces him to promise that he will try to stop drinking. But she catches him drinking again at the inn with friends. She reminds him of his promise and waits in vain outside, crying. She returns to the trailer and locks her father out. He begs her to open the door and eventually she comes out but only to tell him that she doesn't want to see him ever again. He gets in a car and tries to drive after her but his coworkers stop him. He puts up a fight and Peta has to beat him up. Alone in the trailer, he stares at the pictures that Peta took of Vladenka and posted on the wall. And he drinks staring at them until he falls asleep. When he wakes up, even his coworkers are gone. He walks outside drunk, still drinking, and for the first time he ties the dog to the trailer, afraid that even the dog will abandon him.

Then came Pasacek z Doliny/ The Little Shepherd Boy from the Valley (1983), an adaptation of Antonin Fuks' novella, Albert (1985), an adaptation of a short story by Leo Tolstoy, Stin Kapradiny/ Shades of Fern (1986), an adaptation of Josef Capek's novella, and another biopic, Mag/ Magician (1988).

Vlacil died in 1999.

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