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Feb 2, 2011 12:00 AM - Feb 10, 2011 12:00 AM

The Fantastic World of František Vláčil

Film Series at the Walter Read Theater, organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Although duly celebrated for his 13th-century epic Marketa Lazarová—voted the greatest Czech film of all time in a 1998 poll of national critics—Vláčil made over a dozen additional features that run the gamut from lyrical children’s fables to incisive critiques of Czech politics and social mores in the aftermath of the Second World War. This major survey of Vláčil’s work - “The Czech New Wave's formalist, post-expressionist wrecking ball” (Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice) - features in-person appearances by actor Jan Kacer (Valley of the Bees) and critic Peter Hames (author of The Czechoslovak New Wave).


The Film Society of Lincoln Center

Walter Reade Theater

165 West 65th Street, upper level

between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave.

- Subways: 1 to 66th Street Lincoln Center

- Buses: M5 M7 M104

Special offer for the Czech Cenetr Club Members: Buy a ticket to any film screening in the Vlacil series & get a FREE ticket, to the 6pm screening of SENTIMENT on Saturday, Feb 5

Discount for members of the Czech Center Club:
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is delighted to offer members of the Czech Center Club a $3 discount off the general admission price to the screenings in The Fantastic World of František Vláčil, February 2-10, at the Walter Reade Theater. For any screening in the series, Czech Center Club members may purchase tickets at the $9 Affiliate price. Discount tickets may be purchased online by selecting the "Affiliate" ticket type, or in person at the Walter Reade Theater's box office.
Please present your Czech Center Club membership card at the Walter Reade Theater Box office to purchase tickets or redeem an online order for tickets at the discount price.
IMPORTANT: Czech Center Club Members may purchase $9 Affiliate tickets. You may purchase tickets online or at the Walter Reade Theater box office. The free ticket can only be picked up at the box office and is subject to availability. Refunds can not be issued for previously purchased tickets.

The Walter Reade Theater’s box office opens at 12:30 PM Monday-Friday, and one half hour before the first screening on Saturday/Sunday. It closes every day 15 minutes after the start of the last show. If there are no evening screenings, the box office closes at 6pm. For more information call 212-875-5601 during hours of operation. Location: West 65th Street, between Broadway & Amsterdam, Upper Level – Lincoln Center.




František Vláčil, 1969, Czechoslovakia; 99m

Vláčil’s first color film is a haunting romantic drama set in the post-WWII Sudetenland, where a former RAF airman is assigned to inventory the estate of a Nazi war criminal whose daughter now works in the house as a servant.

Sunday, February 6th at 6:00pm

Wednesday, February 9th at 2:00pm


The Devil’s Trap

Ďáblova past

František Vláčil, 1961, Czechoslovakia; 85m

The first of Vláčil’s visually stunning historical epics takes place in 16th-century Bohemia, where a small-town miller and his son find themselves under investigation by Inquisition authorities after daring to question the proposed site for a new barn. NOT ON DVD.

Friday, February 4th at 8:00pm

Sunday, February 6th at 4:00pm


The Little Shepherd Boy from the Valley

Pasáček z doliny

František Vláčil, 1983, Czechoslovakia; 80m

An ostensible children’s film about a young shepherd and his grandfather set in the Beskydy mountains in the summer of 1947, this striking adaptation of a Ladislav Fuks novel is in fact an unforgettable depiction of the clash of childhood innocence and cruel adult realities. NOT ON DVD.

Sunday, February 6th at 8:00pm

Wednesday, February 9th at 4:15pm


Marketa Lazarová

František Vláčil, 1967, Czechoslovakia; 163m

A must-see on the big screen, Vláčil’s medieval masterpiece has earned comparisons to Tarkovsky and Welles for its feverishly expressionistic portrait of a pious young woman caught in the crossfire of a violent internal clan rivalry.

Wednesday, February 2nd at 6:00pm

Saturday, February 5th at 8:00pm



Tomáš Hejtmánek, 2003, Czech Republic; 76m

Documentary filmmaker Tomáš Hejtmánek used his extensive interviews with Vláčil as the basis for this fascinating essay film, in which actor Jiří Kodet plays the role of the late filmmaker, intercut with location footage and appearances by key Vláčil actors.

Saturday, February 5th at 6:00pm – Followed by a conversation with actor Jan Kacer and critic Peter Hames.

Thursday, February 10th at 4:15pm


Serpent’s Poison

Hadí jed

František Vláčil, 1981, Czechoslovakia; 80m

Following the death of her mother, a teenage girl sets off to meet her alcoholic father in this emotionally raw portrait of the ties that bind. “The scenes of his protagonist’s decline rank with Lost Weekend and Leaving Las Vegas in their despairing authenticity.”—Sight & Sound. NOT ON DVD.

Wednesday, February 9th at 6:15pm

Thursday, February 10th at 2:30pm


The Shadow of the Fern

Stín kapradiny

František Vláčil, 1985, Czechoslovakia; 90m

Two teenagers caught poaching a deer murder a gamekeeper and go on the lam in Vláčil’s hallucinatory, allegorical drama about the fine line between hunting and being hunted. NOT ON DVD.

Wednesday, February 2nd at 4:00pm

Thursday, February 10th at 9:00pm


Shadows of a Hot Summer

Stíny horkého léta

František Vláčil, 1977, Czechoslovakia; 99m

The specter of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs looms over this tense thriller about a Moravian farm occupied by Ukrainian resistance fighters at the end of World War II, and the farmer caught in the crossfire. NOT ON DVD.

Friday, February 4th at 2:00pm

Wednesday, February 9th at 8:00pm



František Vláčil, 1974, Czechoslovakia; 50m

A companion piece to The White Dove, this acclaimed children’s film tells of a 12-year-old boy and his loyal wolfhound whose idyllic life is threatened after the boy’s father commits an act of anti-Nazi sabotage. NOT ON DVD.

screening with

Art Nouveau in Prague

Praha secesní léta 1895-1914

František Vláčil, 1975, Czechoslovakia; 20m

A symphony in sound and image documenting the Paris art scene at the dawn of the 20th century.

Saturday, February 5th at 2:30pm


Smoke on the Potato Fields

Dým bramborové natě

František Vláčil, 1976, Czechoslovakia; 95m

Vláčil returned to feature filmmaking after a decade-long hiatus with this elegant psychological drama about a country doctor who shows compassion to a pregnant young woman tuned out by her own mother. NOT ON DVD.

Friday, February 4th at 4:00pm

Sunday, February 6th at 2:00pm


The Valley of the Bees

Údolí včel

František Vláčil, 1967, Czechoslovakia; 97m

Vláčil’s second foray into medieval mythology (shot, like Marketa Lazarová, in ravishing black-and-white Cinemascope) chronicles a young man’s efforts to break free from a puritanical order of Teutonic Knights, and his mentor’s efforts to convince him to stay.

Wednesday, February 2nd at 9:10pm

Saturday, February 5th at 4:00pm -indruduction by Jan Kacer (actor).


The White Dove


František Vláčil, 1960, Czechoslovakia; 76m

Vláčil’s poetic debut feature tells two parallel stories—one of a young girl on a Baltic island awaiting the arrival of a carrier pigeon, and the other of the wheelchair-bound Czech boy who injures the bird with his airgun and then nurses it back to health.

screening with

Glass Skies

Skleněná oblaka

František Vláčil, 1958, Czechoslovakia; 18m
Vláčil’s award-winning short uses abstract images reflected through glass to tell the story of a young boy and his pilot father.

Wednesday, February 2nd at 2:00pm

Friday, February 4th at 6:00pm

 “For nothing, for poetry’s sake…”

The Films of Frantisek Vlacil

Peter Hames

He has been compared to Orson Welles, Kurosawa, and Paradjanov and an exhibition was dedicated to his work at Prague Castle, yet the films of Czech director Frantisek Vlacil remain virtually unknown internationally. In 1998, in a survey of Czech film critics, his 1967 film Marketa Lazarova was voted the best Czech film ever made and was described by Film Quarterly on its release as the best historical film ever made anywhere.

Gaps in film history are more than most would like to imagine. While Hollywood has always been reasonably well covered – because it has been well publicised, there are many directors and even film producing nations that have fallen under the radar. Despite the 1960s New Wave of Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, and others, the Czech and Slovak Republics and the former Czechoslovakia probably qualify in both respects.

Frantisek Vlacil, unlike most of his colleagues, did not go to Film School but studied the History of Art and Aesthetics in the Moravian capital of Brno. However, at the same time, he was working as an animator and for a company producing educational and scientific films. When he was called up for the army, he joined the Czechoslovak Army Film Unit and worked on many instructional films. Although it may seem odd, the unit actually produced a number of feature films and he was entrusted with the battle sequences in a film about the 1944 Battle of the Dukla pass in Slovakia.

Vlacil’s last film for the Army was Glass Skies, which won an award in the experimental and avant-garde category at the Venice festival in 1958. A virtually abstract film documenting a fascination with flight, it exhibits a continuing fascination. The film led directly to Vlacil’s first feature film The White Dove which similarly demonstrates his commitment to film as a formal construction analogous to music or poetry. Here, he took a simple story about a young boy nursing an injured bird back to life and converted it into a complex poetic meditation. Only recently, in 2003, it was selected by the European Federation of Cinematographers (alongside titles ranging from The Red Shoes to The Shining) as one of 100 films representing the art of cinematography at its best.

But despite his obvious poetic flair, nothing prepared anyone of the achievement of Marketa Lazarova, a medieval epic that he filmed over a two year period in 1965-67.

It was based on a novel by the writer and film maker, Vladislav Vancura, who had been a leading figure in the Czech avant-garde between the wars. Hailed as the greatest exponent of the Czech language in prose, Vancura mixed literary, archaic, poetic, and vernacular modes. Milan Kundera once described his work as “recalling the pure language of the old Czech bibles and medieval texts”. But Vancura was also influenced by the avant-garde notion of ‘making strange’. He said that the key task of literature was ‘to tear a particular phenomenon out of convention, to disturb known, everyday relationships and contexts and present it in a new light’. This, I think, throws considerable light on Vlacil’s approach to the film.

Set in the 13th century, the film deals with the conflict between two clans, the Kozliks and the Lazars. It’s a film that contains some rather traditional ingredients – robbery, murder, family conflict, rape, love, incest, political rebellion, and a story involving at least eight major characters. The relationship between Marketa Lazarova and one of the Kozlik brothers only becomes a focus fairly late in the story. At the beginning of the film, an off screen narrator asks why we should listen to this tale and if there is sense in what was written. “For nothing, for poetry’s sake…and at the behest of a wandering echo, and because the oldest things lie in the present”.

The film is constructed from distinct episodes each of which is preceded, as in a picaresque novel, by a descriptive and sometimes poetic evocation of what we are about to see. Like Vancura, Vlacil also foregrounds the process of narration. Apart from the occasional use of a voiceover - in one scene it appears to be the voice of God, there are also stories and monologues. Sometimes offscreen dialogue overlaps with onscreen action, and in one scene, we see the action through the eyes of character with only his words participating.

The film has often been compared with Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev but the production and release schedules of the two films mean that neither can have influenced the other. Tarkovsky’s film dealt with a real character – albeit treated in an unorthodox manner, favoured the sequence shot, and sought a spiritual progression or journey. This is quite unlike Vlacil’s concern with dramatic editorial juxtapositions and attempt to penetrate a psychological reality based on instinct and fear.

Nonetheless, there are also significant parallels. Both are constructing historical realities about which little was known and, despite the use of historical advisors, were essentially creating imagined worlds. They are also concerned to create worlds which the audience ‘experiences’ as everyday reality, a context for what the film maker tries to communicate. Also, on a more superficial level, both films are in cinemascope and black and white.

Both films use the scope format to maximum effect, with a powerful use of landscape, multiple action, and composition in depth. They emphasise the tangibility of buildings, of wood and of stone, and compose collective scenes reminiscent of Dutch painting (explicitly so in the case of Tarkovsky’s evocation of Breughel’s Procession to Calvary). Given this shared awareness of the History of Art, there is a common concern with composition within the frame.

At a recent discussion of Vlacil’s work, his regular cinematographer, Frantisek Uldrich, noted that Vlacil always composed and drew his films in advance – their realisation was more of a replication of what had already been imagined. In this respect, one might note a parallel with Hitchcock – and Vlacil was once alleged to have produced a complete storyboard of Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. Given his early life in Brno, the centre of Janacek’s musical life, it is interesting that Vlacil likened the structure of his film to work by Janacek, describing it as a “film-opera”. Indeed, the music of Zdenek Liska plays a crucial role. While linked to the early traditions of church music, it combines this with the use of xylophone, electronic and percussive effects, and specially created instruments.

Overlapping with Marketa Lazarova, Vlacil shot another 13th century epic The Valley of the Bees, which was actually completed first. It tells the story of Ondrej of Vlkov, who is raised as a member of the Order of Teutonic Knights. On reaching maturity, he flees their castle in the Baltic to return to his home in Bohemia. There he plans to marry his father’s widow, Lenora, who had been a teenage bride at the time he was promised to the Order. However, he is pursued by an older knight and close friend, Armin von Heide, who is intent on saving his soul and returning him to the Order. Since the rules of the Order require the rejection of family, man, woman, and sexual instinct, the close links between Ondrej and Armin involve an implicit male bonding. When Armin slits the throat of Lenora, it is an act capable of various interpretations.

While Ondrej is the film’s nominal hero, it is Armin (Jan Kacer) who has the more orthodox good looks. It is even possible to regard them as representing different sides of a single character – and Lenora wonders if Ondrej will betray her just as he has betrayed the knights. It is a film constructed in terms of oppositions and ambiguity.

The film’s formal composition and the costumes of the knights inevitably recall Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, and the film has a similar sense of formal composition. When Armin leans over in the church towards the end of the film, the image recalls Nikolai Cherkasov in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Much more orthodox in form than Marketa Lazarova, its stylistic innovations are more obviously linked to dream and delirium.

The structure of Adelheid (1969) differs yet again. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, it tells the story of Viktor Chotovicky, who returns from service in the British RAF (Royal Air Force) and is given the task of administering a former German estate in the Sudetenland. Adelheid, daughter of its former Nazi owner is assigned to him as a servant while German women wearing white armbands are shown working in the fields. Viktor and Adelheid are gradually attracted to each other although they cannot or pretend not to speak each other’s language. The absence of language means that their relationship is conveyed almost entirely in visual terms.

The subject matter bears the imprint of the liberal atmosphere of the Prague Spring, with its mentioning of two taboo subjects – Czech service in the RAF and the expulsion of the German population from the Sudetenland after the war. Many of those who fought for their country in the RAF had been rewarded with imprisonment under the Communists. The expulsion of the German population, while part of the post-war settlement, was also a revenge on the Sudeten German party for encouraging Hitler’s annexation of the territories in 1938. It has been estimated that 3 million were expelled and that 20,000 died in the process. Of course, the film does not deal explicitly with these issues, but the implications remain.

When I first visited Czechoslovakia in 1973, I was allowed to see only The White Dove. It is a little known fact that the post invasion government banned over 100 feature films from the 1960s, and the screening of others was actively discouraged. One could argue that the government’s explicit aim was to destroy the culture that had flourished in the 1960s, to remove films liable to be interpreted politically, and for the country to become a forgotten province of the Soviet Empire.

In these circumstances, Vlacil found it impossible to make feature films again until 1976 and ambitious plans to examine the origins of the Prague Spring and to make a film about the Thirty Years War had to be abandoned. He was again forced to return to oblique subject matter that allowed him to exercise his particular poetic gifts and promote wider reflection. More films set in the aftermath of the Second World War and biographies of Dvorak and the Romantic poet Macha were to follow but the regime deliberately refused international promotion for anything likely to prove interesting or attract attention, and no one was ever allowed to pursue the radical course set by Marketa Lazarova. Vlacil, who died in 1999, nonetheless lived to see his achievement recognised.

© Peter Hames, 2011


Peter Hames is Honorary Research Associate and former subject leader in Film and Media Studies at Staffordshire University and a programme advisor to the London Film Festival. His books include The Czechoslovak New Wave (second edition, Wallflower Press, 2005, Czech translation, 2008, Polish translation, 2010) and Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition (Edinburgh University Press, 2009, paperback 2010), and as editor, The Cinema of Central Europe (Wallflower Press, 2004) and The Cinema of Jan Švankmajer: Dark Alchemy (Wallflower Press, 2008). He recently contributed to Marketa Lazarová: Studie a dokumenty, edited by Petr Gajdošík (Casablanca Publishers, Prague, 2009) and is currently co-editing, with Catherine Portuges, Cinemas in Transition (Temple University Press), a study of Central and Eastern European cinemas since 1989. His articles have appeared in Sight and Sound, Vertigo, KinoKultura and Kinoeye and he has been a member of festival juries at Karlovy Vary, Bratislava, Plzeň, Sochi, and Ivanovo. He is a member of the editorial board of Studies in Eastern European Cinema.



POSTERS - Vlacil's Films

Special thanks to National Film Archive, Prague; Bionaut Films; British Film Institute/Geoff Andrew and Julie Pearce; Czech Centre London/Renata Clark; Czech Center New York/Pavla Niklova; and Irena Kovarova.


Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, upper level


From: Feb 2, 2011 12:00 AM
To: Feb 10, 2011 12:00 AM


Czech Center is a coorganizer of the event

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