(director/writer: Frantisek Vlacil; screenwriter: Frantisek Pavlicek/from the novel by Vladislav Vancura; cinematographer: Bedrich Batka; editor: Miroslav Hajek; music: Zdenek Liska; cast: Josef Kemr (old Kozlík), Magda Vásáryová (Marketa Lazarova), Nada Hejna (Katerina), Jaroslav Moucka (Jan), Frantisek Velecký (Mikolás), Ivan Paluch (One-ArmedAdam), Michal Kozuch (Lazar), Pavla Polaskova (Alexandra), Harry Studt (old count Christian), Vlastimil Harapes (Young Christian), Zdenek Kryzánek (Captain Beer), Zdenek Rehor (Sovicka), Vladimír Mensík (Wandering Monk Bernard), Zdenek Stepanek (Narrator) ; Runtime: 165; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Josef Ouzky; The Criterion Collection; 1967-Czechoslovokia-in Czech and German, with English subtitles)

“A neglected masterpiece.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The symbolic-charged Czech drama is based on the 1931 novel by Vladislav Vancura, the great avant-garde author who was killed by the Gestapo during WWII. The epic historical Czech film, a neglected masterpiece, has been tabbed by many critics as the greatest Czech film ever and also one of cinema’s great films. It has a parallel theme to Tarkovsky’s masterpiece of Andrei Rublev (1966).

The innovative director Frantisek Vlacil(“Valley of the Bees”/”The White Dove”/”Adelheid”) co-writes his 3-hour black-and-white film with Frantisek Pavlicek and spares us no relief in its violent graphic depiction of events from the medieval period. It’s set some time in the Dark Ages of the thirteenth century when Christianity still contended with the pagans for control of the country, and the nobles operated as clans to do highway robberies, rapes, or kidnappings. It’s a rapturous lyrical atmospheric work, not concerned with plot as much as feelings that gets under your skin in an overwhelming sensational way and if you have the guts and smarts to surrender to its wonders you’re in for a powerful and unique film experience that might not always seem coherent and most likely will take several viewings before things become clearer. It recreates the fears, warring nature, and superstitions of a primitive people who are not that different from the beasts, and does so without preparing us for the onslaught of brutality that is relentless throughout. It includes a beheading, an arm chopped off and several other gruesome incidents. Human society was a struggle between animal savagery and repressive authority during this uncivilized period, and the filmmaker plainly prefers the thievery of the nobles over the hypocrisy of the church.

From the opening scene of marauders, sinister black wolves gathering in attack mode in the snowy field and a beautiful landscape marred by dangers from both man and beast, we are immediately brought into a threatening world. When the unseen narrator (Zdenek Stepanek) tells us “Folly is sown like seed scattered without rhyme or reason,” we are thrust into the Boleslav region at a time when the nobles acted like thieves and also took lives as part of their daily routines.

The tale centers around the fur-clad criminal pagan clan of the despotic leader Kozlik (Josef Kemr), in the territory of Rohacek, backed by the Boleslav residing king–who counts on the armor-wearing God-fearing German knights to settle disputes and police the area. Kozlik’s rival is the slightly more civilized neighboring clan of robbers, who prefer to act as scavengers picking up the spoils rather than initiating the attacks. They are led by the Christian spouting merchant Lazar (Michal Kozuch), who promises his beautiful virgin daughter Marketa (Magda Vásáryová) to the convent.

Kozlik’s oldest son is Mikolás (Frantisek Velecký), referred to as a “human wolf,” and his equally ruthless brother is named One-Armed Adam (Ivan Paluch), who got his nickname when his father cut off his left arm for having incest with his sister Alexandra (Pavla Polaskova). The wild brothers attack a group of German knights in the woods and kidnap a young German knight named Christian (Vlastimil Harapes). His anguished father (Harry Studt) gets the king to send his enforcer, Captain Beer (Zdenek Kryzánek), who earned his nickname because he was a former brewer, with a regiment to punish the Kozlik clan. When the nervy Mikolás approaches Lazar to join his attack on the regiment and thereby earn the booty he got as a scavenger from their raid, Lazar beats him to a pulp. Mikolás, in revenge, returns and takes Marketa captive and makes her pregnant after raping her. Things get resolved feudal style, as after Lazar rejects his violated daughter she refuses to return to the convent after they insist she publicly repent her sins and instead wanders off with the also violated Alexandra. The strange ending has Captain Beer marry Marketa to a dying captured Mikolás, as both are overcome with genuine love for each other after seeing how both are hurting. The unlikely marriage might signal that a lustful and brutal love is better than no love, and it marked the beginning of the end for the tyrannical patriarchal clans in that part of the world.

Marketa Lazarová (1967)