“Marketa Lazarova” – A Film by Frantisek Vlácil
By David Paul Hellings
“Voted the best Czech film ever made, Marketa Lazarová is a powerful and passionate medieval epic set in the mid-13th Century. Based on avant-garde writer Vladislav Vancura’s novel, it follows the rivalry between two warring clans, the Kozlíks and the Lazars, and the doomed love affair of Mikolás Kozlík and Marketa Lazarová.
Re-creating an authentic world and as reminiscent of Tarkovsky and Kurosawa as it is of the rich tapestry of Czech fiction, this ambitious and multi-layered film is the crowning achievement of Vlácil’s career and one of the undiscovered cornerstones of world cinema.
This is the first-ever DVD release of Marketa Lazarová anywhere in the world”.
– Synopsis via Second Run DVD.
It is unsurprising that, over the last few years, “Game of Thrones” fans have been alerted to “Marketa Lazarová”, Czech director František Vláčil’s 1967 masterpiece. A grim, epic tale that may not have dragons, but does however present a world that must, in some way, have provided ideas for George RR Martin’s fantasy series. If not, more interested fans of HBO’s most successful series have still made a point of recommending what has been voted the best Czech film ever made to fellow watchers of the show. If “winter is coming” in “Game of Thrones”, in “Marketa Lazarova” it has already arrived and shows no sign of ever leaving.
Set in the 13th century, František Vláčil’s film, despite the acclaim it has received by critics, seems to have been overlooked previously by audiences, many of whom in the West still appear oblivious to its existence. This is beginning to change and rightly so. Those encountering it for the first time will not be disappointed.
Based on the novel by Vladislav Vančura, the tale of the struggle between two rival clans is a mirror on the battles between Christianity and paganism. It is a stark, haunting vision in black and white of a brutal and unforgiving world in which love can result in tragedy and death if it falls foul of the codes of loyalty and clan honour that still exist in remote places to this day. In his article “In the Shadow of the Werewolf”, Peter Hames says: “Dramatic scenes such as the attack on a Saxon count and his retinue, a battle filmed as hallucination, and scenes of sexual passion, contrast with rare episodes of repose. The story is complemented by powerful animal images—the raven, the snake, the deer, and the lamb—a poetic menagerie of hunters and hunted. The superstition of the werewolf, common at the time, hangs over the characters’ actions”(1).
Hames provides a fascinating essay on the film which appears in full within the accompanying booklet with the Second Run DVD. In it he mentions that: “With “Marketa Lazarová”, Vláčil approached a novel by Vladislav Vančura, which was first published in 1931. Vančura, one of the leading Czech novelists, was a member of most of the experimental art movements of the period and was the first chair of the avant garde Devětsil group. He was also a prolific author of (unfilmed) screenplays, and had directed or co-directed five feature films in the 1930s. In his film work, he aimed to take cinema in new formal directions, experimenting with both sound and montage in such films as “Na sluneční straně” (On the Sunnyside, 1933) and “Marijka nevěrnice” (Faithless Marijka, 1934), the last of which featured acclaimed composer Bohuslav Martinů’s only film score. Vančura’s novels emphasised the poetic and experimental use of language. As a result, it presented obvious problems for film adaptation, although Jiří Menzel successfully brought two of Vančura’s other novels to the screen as comedies: “Rozmarné léto” (Capricious Summer, 1967) and “Konec starých časů” (The End of Old Times, 1989).
While “Marketa Lazarová” was inspired by Vančura’s novel, it remains very different. A short text has been converted into a vast epic that bears comparison, in different ways with each, to Kurosawa’s “Shichinin no Samurai” (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Roublëv” (1966). It was also inspired by motifs from Vančura’s “Obrazy z dějin národa českého” (Pictures from the History of the Czech Nation, 1939-40). And if Vančura’s original novel provided no historical clues and was designed to be autonomous, Vláčil’s film was set very specifically in the mid-13th century, a time he attempted to evoke with the utmost accuracy”.
“Marketa Lazarova” is a stunning piece of work. Epic in scale, yet within it a simple story of opposing ideologies and needs. It is a brutal picture of an age in which rules were simple and people unforgiving if they were broken. The film is visually arresting and contains unforgettable images and performances that stay in the mind. Understandably considered the greatest Czech film ever made, the restored release from Second Run DVD looks excellent and is highly recommended. A marvellous film that has to be seen.
Josef Kemr – Old Kozlík
Frantisek Velecký – Mikolas
Magda Vásáryová – Marketa
Ivan Palúch – Adam
Pavla Polásková – Alexandra
Michal Kozuch – Lazar
Vladimír Mensík – Bernard
Zdenek Kryzánek – Pivo
Directed by Frantisek Vlácil
Screenplay – Frantisek Pavlícek and Frantisek Vlácil
Adapted from the novel by Vladislav Vancura
Cinematography – Bedrich Batka
Art Direction – Oldrich Okác
Music – Zdenek Liska
Editing – Miroslav Hájek
Sound – Frantisek Fabián
New digital transfer with restored image and sound.
Anamorphic 16:9 enhanced for widescreen televisions.
New and improved English subtitle translation.
Optimal quality dual layer disc.
Booklet featuring a new Essay on the film and Frantisek Vlácil by author/film programmer Peter Hames.
Length / Main Feature: 159 minutes
Sound: Original mono (restored)
Black & White
OAR: 2.35:1 16×9 Enhanced
Subtitles: English On/Off
Second Run DVD 017
This review originally appeared on SFFWorld: