Josef Kemr, Magda Vásáryová, Nada Hejna, Jaroslav Moucka, Frantisek Velecký, Karel Vasicek, Ivan Palúch, Martin Mrazek, Václav Sloup, Pavla Polaskova, Alena Pavlíková, Michal Kozuch, Zdenek Lipovcan
We know very little about the way people lived in the 12th Century, and what is “known” likely suffers form a few centuries of bias, hearsay, lying, and speculation becoming mistaken for verified fact. Doing its best to create a convincing version of a world about which we know very little, Marketa Lazarová takes full advantage of the situation by constructing its narrative as if you are stranger who has been dropped without explanation into the middle of a place, culture, and set of circumstances about which you known nothing. The result is as exhilarating as it is alienating, equal parts mesmerizing and frustrating. Stripped of the style in which it is constructed, the central story of the film is simple enough. But anyone who has found themselves trying to complete even the most mundane of tasks in a thoroughly alien culture can tell you, simplicity can be every bit as confusing as quantum mechanics.
At its core, Marketa Lazarová is the story of two rival clans in early 13th century Bohemia: the primitive Pagan raiders the Kozlíks, lorded over by a brutal patriarch (Josef Kemr, who starred in another great Czech film dealing with Paganism, 1970s’ Witchhammer); and the slightly more civilized Lazars, led by an opportunistic father (Michal Kozuch, Valley of the Bees) who, while unwilling to participate in the bloody raids perpetrated by the Kozlíks, is more than happy to swoop in after the fact and scavenge for anything he might think could be of value. The film opens during one such raid, with two of Kozlík’s many sons – the wolfish Mikolás (Frantisek Velecký) and one-armed Adam (Ivan Palúch) – ambushing a caravan of German knights, slaughtering many and kidnapping a young man whose father, a German noble, manages to escape, swearing revenge on the clan. Lazar shows up after the fact to pick through the remains, something that sits poorly with the Kozlík brothers, who see themselves as having taken all the risk and done all the work. Thus in short, bloody order is the central conflict of the story that plays out over the next three hours established, as Lazars, Kozlíks, and a punitive expedition from the King led by a barrel-chested captain and part-time brewer clash continuously with one another over the span of a bleak, snowy winter and stark, muddy spring.
The film’s opening ambush is practically a symbol for director Frantisek Vlácil’s style of filmmaking. Although working concurrently with the luminaries of the Czech New Wave forged during and because of the Prague Spring, Vlácil never considered himself among them. He was not a student of film theory. He did not go to film school. Instead, he learned the old-fashioned way: on the job, after he was assigned to the surprisingly experimental and avant-garde filmmaking division of the Czechoslovakian Army. Marketa Lazarová also looks to have been influenced by recent films from the Soviet Union – specifically, Andrei Tarkovsky’s sprawling, challenging medieval epic Andrei Rublev (1966) – and controversial Georgian/Soviet filmmaker Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), as well as films by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, whose medieval films The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960) dwell in the same sort of existential gloom and natural bleakness, and stunning black and white cinematography as Marketa Lazarová.
Marketa Lazarová begins with a long shot of a seemingly endless snowy expanse dotted by the gnarled scraggle of dead trees and tangles bushes. The first living things we see are a pack of lean, hungry wolves stalking through the brush and snow. When humans finally enter into the frame, the pace of the film leaps from the slow and meditative into a flurry of shocking violence and hectic camera work during which things become difficult to decipher. And so the film remains for the rest of its run-time, a sometimes confusing series of events all connected but presented in somewhat disconnected triptych fashion separated by text introductions. The film is composed largely of long shots that express the vast, sinister landscape and the minuscule size of the humans moving against it, and claustrophobic close-ups that thrust you directly into someone’s face or into the midst of some act of cruelty or passion. Acts of cruelty and passion are almost all that comprise the film, populated as it is by people who, on their best days, teeter on the edge of being wild animals. In fact, one of them is even rumored to be a werewolf of sorts.
It can be overwhelming in spots, both on a sensory level as well as emotionally. But amid the chaos is a truly hypnotic film. Immersive cinema often isn’t, with the techniques filmmakers think put you into the action actually serving to take you out of it. Marketa Lazarová, however, really does drop you into the deep end, and for the next three hours you struggle desperately to stay afloat and decipher what terrible fate has befallen you. This is not, mind you, a case of sound and fury signifying nothing. Beneath the turbulent surface is a film that, like Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring, looks at everything from the clash of Pagan tradition versus expanding Christianity; and the cyclical and generally pointless act of vengeance, as well as analyzing the tyranny of patriarchs and the abuse of women in these near-feral societies.
The film’s title is derived from the character Marketa (Magda Vásáryová), Lazar’s daughter who is kidnapped by the Kozlíks during one of the many raids that occur in the film – this particular one launched in retaliation for the Lazars severely beating Mikolás when the latter went to them to propose a united front against the coming royal forces. Mikolás becomes smitten with Marketa, or as smitten as a beast can, even interrupting his own attempted rape of the poor girl in a rare moment of compassion. Marketa, though apparently loved by her father in his way, has been treated her whole life as little more than a bargaining chip. Before the raid in which she is kidnapped, she was promised to the church as a nun. After, she is just one more piece int he pointless game between the warring clans. Even her eventual reunion with her father brings little happiness, and in the end the only hope for Marketa is to turn her back on everything society offers her and hope that she can find a new way somewhere over the horizon.
Her opposite number among the Kozlíks is Alexandra (Pavla Polaskova), the wild-haired only daughter who once got one of her brothers severely punished when, in a fit of Pagan ecstasy during some ritual, the two siblings made love – a taboo even among the earthy Kozlíks. Alexandra falls in love with the captured son of the German noble, a romance that he returns and that the family seems to regard with alternate amusement and violent opposition. As is the case for Marketa as well, there is little future for Alexandra within the confines of this brutal existence, and where as the men of the two clans seemed locked into their ways, the women are enlightened enough to entertain the thought that there might be a way to break the endless cycle of violence, even if that way requires you to abandon all that you’ve ever known.
It is a film of terrifying beauty; a storm of mud and blood, horror and confusion and bleak desolate nature. It is breathtakingly realistic and intensely poetic at the same time. To achieve the illusion of authenticity, the cast (almost none of whom were professional actors) and crew lived and labored under conditions nearly as harrowing as they look onscreen. Cinematographer Bedrich Batka shoots the film in remarkable fashion, drawing every ounce of beauty that can be had from these vast, unforgiving locations and using light and shadow to great advantage. Its avant-garde approach to narrative was, according to director Frantisek Vlácil, his best attempt to remain faithful to the film’s source material, a similarly avant-garde novel written in 1931 by Vladislav Vancura. Set in a harsh, unkind world, Marketa Lazarová is itself not a harsh, unkind film. It does not handle the viewer gingerly, but it does offer a ray of hope beneath all the matted hair and clashing swords. The lamb may be led to the slaughter, but the lamb may also be smart enough to keep on walking. It takes concentration, and it might even take multiple viewings, to unpack all that Marketa Lazarová contains. But that concentration, those prospective multiple viewings, render a staggering number of rewards.