Jaromír Jireš's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a tyden divu, 1970), for example, presumably must have been presented to the authorities as a fairy tale and a literary adaptation (of a 1930s novel by Vitezslav Nezval). That Nezval had been a committed communist during the inter-war period undoubtedly helped. The result, though, goes far further than a film-of-the-book fairy tale. Part gothic horror film, part children's story, part soft porn, part political allegory, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is one of the most famous horror films that Czechoslovakia has produced.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
The plot is so labyrinthine that it would be impossible to describe it in any detail (and besides, the story is propelled by poetic mood rather than linear narrative). Suffice to say that it concerns the awakening sexuality of 13-year-old Valerie in a dream world filled with predatory vampires and wicked grandmothers. It may be uncomfortably close to child pornography for some viewers, but the perpetual references to the rape, the images of blood staining white clothes and the theme of the abuse of those who cannot defend themselves by those who should be their protectors could not have been mistaken by Czech audiences at the time.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders works because of the strength of the fairy tale tradition in Czechoslovakia. In literature, the genre is well-established, while in cinema, its big breakthrough was the 1950s, when actors, writers and poets who before the Second World War (and, therefore, before communism) had been major experimentalists were forced to find ways to express themselves that would not inflame the culturally repressive Stalinist authorities, who viewed such artists with great suspicion and a watchful eye. The result was a series of big budget fairy tales shot in color that shattered the dull years of post-war totalitarianism in the same way that Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939) livened up the gray years of the Depression in the US.
The 1970s was also a pinnacle in fairy tale production, as talented and free-spirited film professionals sought refuge in a genre that was popular, respected and had a fine pedigree for harboring artistic talent fleeing persecution. Probably the favorite Czech fairy tale of all time is Václav Vorlícek's Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tri oríšky pro Popelku, 1973), and again, its graced with star performances, including a song from the crooning heart-throb of all Czech housewives, Karel Gott. The film is regularly regurgitated on Czech television each Christmas in a prime-time slot and hardly anyone in the country has not seen it at some point.
The tradition lives on today and, although the quality and levels of interest have been more varied than previously, as recently as 2000, the highest number of box office admissions for the Czech Republic for the year went to a domestically produced fairy tale, and a sequel at that, beating out Hollywood hits such as Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000).
Jan Švankmajer: The Dark Side of the Fairy Tale
Whereas fairy tales such as Three Wishes for Cinderella bear bright positive messages, Czech cinema has long had an obsession with the Dark Side. The most brilliant and well-known exponent of this trend is Jan Švankmajer, whose grotesque and technically astounding animations have become internationally famous and inspired such homage as a short film by fellow animators the Brothers Quay, "The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer."
"Dimensions of Dialogue"
Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, Goethe and others, Švankmajer's films are voyages into interior worlds in which the abstract demons that haunt us are rendered with a disgusting physicality (the oversized animated tongues that flop around always get me). The word "surreal" is often bandied around so much that it almost means nothing now, but Švankmajer is a Surrealist in the proper sense of the term, being a key member of the Czech Surrealist Group and a dedicated prober of what lurks in humanity's lower layers of consciousness. He's often been evocatively described as an alchemist, a description that matches both his role as creator and some of the visual props of films such as Faust (Lekce Faust, 1994).
For the first twenty years of his career, from the 1960s to the 80s, Švankmajer made shorts, principally with stop motion animation but also using live action, live puppetry and other techniques. Needless to say, his philosophical approach to film infuriated the authorities, and he spent large portions of this time unable to work. A good selection of these disturbing and original works are available on the DVD series, The Collected Shorts of Jan Švankmajer, Volumes 1 and 2.
Since the late 1980s, he has increasingly concentrated on feature films that make use of live action with real actors. The first of these features was Alice (Neco z Alenky, 1988), a reworking of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. In the late 1970s, the authorities started forcing the director to work from literary classics, as they thought he couldn't cause as much trouble with adaptations. But while Alice generally follows the book's plot, Švankmajer adds a whole new level of meaning to it and the film certainly transcends adaptation in the usual sense of the term. The most morbid and textured of Švankmajer's features, it is also the most challenging.
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