Saturday, November 24, 2007

Czech Gothic Retrospective 2004

Grim Fairy Tales for Adults: BIFF's Czech Gothic Retrospective

[Originally published in Rave magazine, Brisbane 28/07/04]

For lovers of the dark, the grotesque and the imaginative, this year’s most exciting retrospective at BIFF is Czech Gothic: Classic Horror and Fantasy Films, curated and hosted by visiting American author and film academic Steven Jay Schneider.

The name most familiar to Brisbane audiences is arch-surrealist Jan Svankmajer, creator of the wonderfully twisted animated takes on Alice In Wonderland (Alice, 1988) and Faust (1994). Schneider presents Svankmajer’s most obscure works, a series of short Gothic adaptations made after Czech authorities banned him from telling his own (admittedly hyper-critical) stories. Castle of Otrano (1977) and the Poe adaptations The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1980) and The Pit, The Pendulum and Hope (1983) show how, even in the most controlled of environments, a master storyteller’s subversive playfulness seeps through the cracks.

Along with fellow countrymen Svankmajer and Jiri Trnka, Jiri Bata is one of the leading visionaries of animation, and The Pied Piper (1985), with its eye-popping blend of 2D animation and stop-motion wood carvings, is a perfect introduction to the very adult world of Czech fantasy, of folk superstitions and dark horror tales filtered through half a century of totalitarian regimes.

The Czech New Wave of the 60s was a liberating force for young filmmakers, and yet the spectre of Nazi occupation still loomed large. ...And The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (1964) is a Kafka-esque tale of a Jewish doctor wandering through the nighmarish landscape of German-occupied Prague in search of “morphium”. At turns bleak and wildly absurd, the oppressive lighting and beautifully contorted black and white photography owes much to Orson Welles and The Third Man, Carol Reed’s own love letter to war-scarred Europe. Gallows humour also hangs low over The Cremator (1968) and its protagonist, a ruthlessly ambitious crematorium operator searching for the most efficient means of large-scale “waste management”.

A complete change of pace is the Pop Art explosion of Who Killed Jessie? (1966), a freewheeling take-no-prisoners romp through the comic strip Euro-excesses of Diabolik and Modesty Blaise. An unimaginative academic schlubb is transported into the world of superheroes, who then follow him into the “real” world. A then-revolutionary clash of live action and comic panels, Jessie has certainly aged but is still insanely addictive fun.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 saw a dramatic end to the freedom of ideas in the Czech artistic community, and signalled the twenty year policy of “Normalization” under which art was to solely function as a tool to glorify the Socialist revolution. Nevertheless, filmmakers like Svankmajer were able to slip quite radical political and universal themes into their work under the Soviet radar, as “fantasy” was regarded by the State Censors to be the sole domain of children.

Which still doesn’t quite explain Jaromil Jires’ Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970). The famous Czech surrealist tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening is layered with mystic symbols and its bizarre dreamlike scenario is maintained by a strong artistic grip, yet comes across as Alice In Wonderland rejigged by nudie horror specialist Jean Rollin. Another curio is from Cremator director Juraj Herz, the Poe-goes-psychedelic Morgiana (1971), based on a famous Russian gothic story of an evil sister who slowly poisons her beautiful sister and plots to steal her handsome soldier fiancee. The evil sister’s expressionless china doll face soon becomes cracked by guilt and madness, while her poisoned sister’s distorted view is filled with soundtrack shrieks and saturated colours, both observed by the creeping fish-eye lens of Morgiana the cat. Incredible.

Czech Gothic is nicely rounded by two films from after the fall of the Russian Empire, The Damned House Of Hajn (1988), described in the program as “experimental Gothic horror-noir”, and In The Flames Of Royal Love (1990), a more agressively stylistic blend of experimental techniques and grotesque imagery.

A rich and strange film culture, Czech Gothic runs from 29th July to 6th August.

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