One of the most inspired subjects for a metro-retro in years (BAMcinématek, June 7 through 28), Frantisek Vlácil was, with just a handful of films to prove it, the Czech New Wave’s formalist, post-expressionist wrecking ball. In the modest window between Moscow’s Twentieth Congress in ’56 and the tanks of ’68, Forman, Passer, and Menzel made Bohemia safe for the Oscars, Juraj Jakubisko pursued his orgiastic apocalypses, and Jan Nemec crystallized the Kafkaesque suffocation of extra-Soviet life. But briefly, Vlácil was the idiosyncrat and the image master, first trumping his compatriots’ notions of nouvelle-ness with 1960’s The White Dove.
Vlácil is known for having pursued what he termed “pure film,” and his best movies display a lackadaisical attitude toward narrative clarity and a hypnotic plastic originality. An abstracted tale about modern civilization visited by and visiting upon a symbolic flock of doves, The White Dove bristles with startling iconography: a junk heap emitting crowds of white birds, a cat-dove duel in a multi-story outdoor elevator shaft, a life-size clay boy without a face that acts, somehow, as a vehicle for the doves’ liberation. Pure is one word for it—The White Dove is a Rorschach blot, but visually, it’s also as beautifully conceived as any European movie of the ’60s.
After the gothic trip-out The Devil’s Trap (1961)—his only film to be released here, but not included in the BAM series—Vlácil spent some five years adapting Vladislav Vancura’s complex novel Marketa Lazarová. Recently voted the greatest Czech film of all time, this crazed musk ox of a movie (1967), a nightmare epic about warring medieval tribes, brands you with images of one-of-a-kind pagan muscularity. The least that could be said is that it’s the most convincing film about the Middle Ages made anywhere. Lyrically eliding bloody hunks of plot, and dropping us down into the historical current at seemingly indiscriminate intervals, Vlácil achieves a rampaging forward momentum—never has an impenetrably plotted movie been so riveting.
Outside of a rapidly made sequel—the gorgeous if slight Valley of the Bees (1967)—Vlácil had already run out of luck. Once Soviet cultural enforcement began in earnest at the end of 1969, many of the Czech director-stars emigrated, and Vlácil’s films became small-boned and cinematographically pedestrian. His first color film, Adelheid (1969), typified his perspective from then on—a small story about the uneasy ghosts lingering in the days after World War II. Likewise, Hot Summer Shadows (1977) is a non-thriller about a post-war gang of escaped SS holding a farm family hostage. Smoke on the Potato Fields (1976) and Serpent’s Poison (1981) are less dependent on WWII’s sociological turmoil, but the filmmaking is just as garden-variety. Who knows if the Soviets squashed Vlácil, or if the extraordinary labor of Marketa Lazarová cleaned him out by itself. He kept working under various degrees of governmental control for another 18 years, and died in 1999. Among cinema history’s many crash-and-burn biographies, Vlácil’s requires an international reawakening, if only for Marketa Lazarová, and that watchful wolf pack standing in the snowy wastes.