Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970
By Levan Tskhovrebadze.
Most of the features of the period are meticulous representations of social wonders and miracles.”
In 1964, Czech critic Antonín J. Liehm described Czechoslovak New Wave as a “film miracle.”[i] Later, producer Carlo Ponti successfully introduced to western society cinema of this generation as a “film wonder.”[ii] Most of the features of the period are meticulous representations of social wonders and miracles. The most popular study of this type of relationship between cinema and spiritualism, Transcendental Cinema: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader, reveals the existence of metaphysical in a certain film form. One of the primary aspects of Schrader’s transcendental cinema is to link the representation of dull to the wholeness of everyday living while the act of description-observation transcends reality and grants the subjects with the fresh significance.[iii]
Schrader’s theory applies to František Vláčil’s Adelheid (1969) where the routine sets the psychological portrait of the protagonist. Adapted from the Vladimír Körner’s same-titled novel, Adelheid depicts lieutenant Viktor Chotovický (Petr Čepek) returning from WWII to step into solitude by staying in a ranch owned by the family of notorious German Nazi during the occupation. The remote residence is perfect for Viktor’s inner contemplation.
Before finding the location Victor runs into a cross with the inscription – “this is the end of the road” – yet he’s heading towards a slope full of farm workers pictured from a supernatural perspective (i.e, God’s eye). Suddenly the protagonist halts at the sound of a warning scream of a girl telling him the territory is mined with explosives.
The process of inspection and recognition of the house is a pure manifestation of transcendental style. Victor enters the room denoting the genesis of Spiritual Exercises (Pierre Hadot). The house is basically dim as Vláčil doesn’t light it. Consequently, Chotovický’s immersion into darkness portends the “conceptual darkness” which in apophatic mystical tradition is attained with denial. In the morning with the emergence of a young German woman, Adelheid (Emma Černá), doing housework, Victor contemplates the girl – her hands, naked belly or dirty shoes – and drags the spectator into that dominant gaze. That is followed by Adelheid’s gaze on the man from bare-foot to pocket where the gun is located. The sequence of alternating gazes reveals the unseen capacity on screen, a vague sort of spiritual space. The other day sergeant Hejna arrives to take Adelheid while Victor learns she’s a daughter of the above-mentioned, now-arrested Nazi. Victor asks the sergeant to leave the girl to him. The two don’t understand each other’s languages so the dialectic of their relationship becomes ascetic. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No.8 performed by acclaimed Czech composer Zdeněk Liška is overlapped by the diegetic sound of burning cigarettes delineating nonverbal basis of the beloved ones in an equivocal configuration of the love.
Later, after Adelheid commits suicide (the union broken), one of the police officers is reading an indictment of the suicide as the camera travels from Chotovický’s face to snowy surroundings from where he arrived before. Victor then departs beyond the cross – “the end of the road” – on mined explosives to have a mystical encounter with Adelheid.
Vláčil redefines the universal wholeness of the world as a miraculous phenomenon. While in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) the interpretation of tragedy of the mule proves the God’s love, Vláčil’s debut feature Holubice (The White Dove, 1960) portrays the odyssey of flying of a pigeon from Belgium to somewhere by the Baltic Sea, though with the cruelty of a storm, the journey has been displaced to the urban area of Prague. The physically disabled child Michal takes the pigeon to his own custody. With the recuperation of the bird Michal’s illness also starts to cleanse. In Marketa Lazarová (1967) Vláčil projects the experience into disastrous Middle Ages disclosing few archaic gangs where wolves are characterized as full-fledged commune as human beings.
Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970) displays one of the controversial embodiment of mysticism, of film and of a morbid gaze. Jireš’s picture attains a philosophical patronage from the Manichean mysticism with the doctrine of duality mandating the argument there’s no power-difference between good and evil. In this sex-driven mystical carnival the monster’s nutrition of immortality is an intercourse with juvenile virgins. The incoming ‘elixir’ is Valerie, whose naïve sexuality is observed from the standpoint of the monster. Cameras are situated like spy camera angles to provoke an unpleasant sense of a privileged gaze (by 1971 spy cams weren’t as widespread as they are today).
According to one of the prominent voices of Byzantine mysticism, Maximus the Confessor, every different thing has its purpose (the idea) and ideas of a separate things are united in a divine mind. Béla Balázs articulates on “physiognomic” character of cinema in his respective book Der sichtbare Mensch, oder die Kultur des Films (Visible Man, or the Culture of Film; 1924). “For Balázs […] silent film gives us something to see that has been obliterated by the hegemonic power of words, the violence imposed on things by words.”[iv] To paraphrase Balázs, cinema not only shows us the visible face of humans but also animals, landscapes, teacups and etc. “The images should not mean thoughts but forms that evoke thoughts – thoughts that emerge as consequences, not as symbols or ideograms, which have already taken shape in the image.”[v] Even words themselves appear in a new audibility in an acoustic environment of film. Reviewing the denoted Balázs’s book monumental figure of utopian essayism, Robert Musil writes that it is a striking spiritual study and compares filmic experience to mystical encounter: “In this vision film uncovers . . . the infinite and ineffable character of all beings – as if put under glass, so that we can watch it.”[vi]
For the maintenance of anthropomorphic discourse in Czechoslovak culture, the decade’s main Marxist philosopher, Karel Kosík’s important study Dialektika konkrétního (Dialectics of the Concrete; 1963) is the one to consider where auteur studies reinterpret Marxist ideology with Heideggerian values. According to Kosík the dialectic of history and nature are incorporated into the concrete while humanity is in both of them. “Kosík insists upon work as our chief possibility of self-realization, of ‘praxis,’ and urges the restoration of a Renaissance- era unity of work and creation”[vii]
One of the innovative pictures of the New Wave in terms of self-realization is the Slovak film Slnko v sieti (The Sun in a Net; Štefan Uher, 1963) where Fajolo (Marián Bielik) discovers the dialectics of nature during physical labor. However, the dialectics divulge different metaphysical values during his being in the city, Bratislava.
Initially, The Sun in a Net explores a complex loving affair of Fajolo and Bela (Jana Beláková). Their meeting point is a roof of a high building jammed with Soviet antennas emulating an industrial forest. The lad is forced to go to the countryside to work in a brigade while Bela stays in Bratislava. This informal separation helps them build new relationships. “The Sun in a Net is still fresh and young, complex and rewarding. It has the vivacity and love of life that we found in the early films of Truffaut, for example.”[viii]
In his emblematic study Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel aims to estimate that the
subversion in cinema starts when the theatre darkens and the screen lights up. For the cinema is a place of magic where psychological and environmental factors combine to create an openness to wonder and suggestion, an unlocking of the unconscious.[ix]
In Uher’s picture solar eclipse foretells the spiritual radiance where the urban atmosphere is transcended into a magical look and collective unconscious starts to unfold. Thus the quality of contemplation is duplicated here – foremost when the theatre darkens, and then the moon takes the place of the sun – creating a metaphysical room in the unconscious.
The transcendental text The Sun in a Net features a sequence of perspectives where the spectators self-identify with each character’s face (animals, landscapes, teacups, etc.). People observe the solar eclipse from different angles like sunglasses or even a plain piece of glass. The visually impaired mother of Bela is unable to see the miracle, so her son describes the mystical experience: “It’s dark when the sun used to be. Only a small part is left, so it is not warm.” With this act Uher identifies with the gaze of the blind woman.
As Fajolo is obsessed with photographing hands, the choreography of hand-palms evolves to be the central aspect of world-recognition just like in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). The lake visited by the protagonist in Bratislava works as a type of Balázs’s definition of “face” as people are often seen from underwater, thus phrasing the contemplation from one world (water) to another. Environment in the reflection of mirrors, sunglasses, or water evokes thoughts emerged as “consequences, not as symbols or ideograms.”
Aside from mystical experience in The Sun in a Net, the issues of working class and egalitarianism are brought together to redefine the conception of labor. This, in turns, elicits a manner of social contradictions. But fundamentally Uher’s picture is a vision that uncovers “the infinite and ineffable character of all beings – as if put under glass, so that we can watch it.”
[i] Atoning J. Liehm (2015). “Argument,” Literární noviny 17 (April 25, 1964): 3, quoted in Alice Lovejoy, Army Film and the Avant Garde: Cinema and Experiment in the Czechoslovak Military (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 161.
[ii] Blahova, ‘Exporting Czech Kisses: Distribution and Reception of Closely Watched Trains (1966) in the US and Western Europe’, 17.
[iii] ‘The everyday celebrates the bare threshold of existence, those banal occurrences which separate the living from the dead, the physical from the material, those occurrences which so many people equate with life itself. The everyday meticulously sets up the straw man of day-to-day reality (the illusion that the mountain is only a mountain materially), so that it may be knocked down later.’ Paul Schrader (2018), Transcendental Style in Film. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 67.
[iv] Niklaus Largier (2008) A ‘‘Sense of Possibility’’ – Robert Musil, Meister Eckhart, and the ‘‘Culture of Film’’) From anthology ‘Religion: Beyond Concept’ edited by Hent de Vries; Fordham University Press, 746.
[v] Balázs, Der Geist des Films (1930), quoted in Helmut H. Diederich’s Afterword to Bala´zs, Der sichtbare Mensch, 129, Largier’s translation.
[vi] Robert Musil, ‘‘Ansa¨tze zu neuer A¨sthetik: Bemerkungen u¨ber eine Dramaturgie des Films,’’ in Bala´zs, Der sichtbare Mensch, 161, Largier’s translation.
[vii] Jonathan Owen. “Heroes of the Working Class”? Work in Czechoslovak Films of the New-Wave and Postcommunist Years.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media: Vol. 53 : Iss. 1 , Article 13. 191.
[ix] Amos Vogel, Film as Subversive Art, 10.
Levan Tskhovrebadze is a Georgian-based film critic who has written for Senses of Cinema and Film New Europe. He served on the FIPRESCI jury at the 35th edition of Warsaw Film Festival and has participated in the FIPRESCI Warsaw Critics Project.