Saturday, 27 October 2018

Svatý Václav (St Wenceslaus) Czech icon in film

At the Barbican, Sunday 28th October, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the Czech Republic, a rare screening of the film Svatý Václav (St Wenceslaus), patron saint of Bohemia.  The film was a grand scale spectacular, planned to mark the 1000th anniversary of the assassination of the King on 28th September 935. Hence two national holidays 28th September and 28th October.  Given that the saintly King Vaclav symbolizes Czech identity in so many ways why did the film fall into obscurity, only to be revived fairly recently ? It's not easily available to buy, so catch the 2010 screening in Prague  (no translation -you have to pay attention !) with the original orchestral score by Oskar Nedbal and Jaroslav Křička,or go to the Barbican where it will be accompanied by singers and musicians from Cappella Mariana, the Prague-based early-music ensemble specialising in medieval polyphony.  

Directed by Jan Stanislav Kolár, Svatý Václav is made in a cinematic style similar to Fritz Lang's saga Die Nibelung (1924) (Please read my summary here) so expect stylized acting and costumes, which in fact have their own non-naturalistic charm.  This suits the treatment, part based on historical fact, part on legend, which, given what Vaclav means to the Czech nation, is even more potent.  The film opens with a shot of a fortified castle on a hill : the home of King Bořivoj (played by the director himself) and Queen Ludmily who are baptised as Christians in 873.  As we know from Lohengrin, Christianity was by no means a given in that era.  While hunting in a forest, Prince Vratislav meets Drahomíra, who rides horses like a knight and throws spears like a hero. She's not a Christian but converts to marry him. When their son Vaclav is born, grandmother Ludmila snatches him away at birth and brings him up properly devout.  Vaclav and his brother Boleslav and sister Přibyslava grow up happily in the castle, built like a stockade from whole logs from the surrounding forests.  People dance, sing and trade with foreign merchants, but Vaclav likes praying before a cross of stone.  Even when he's helping in the kitchen, the boy prays so fervently that he burns dinner.  Not surprisngly Drahomíra, estranged from her children, plots revenge, and Ludmily is strangled to death, with her own scarf.  When he hears of his grandmother's death, Vaclav goes into action against the pagans, banging a giant cymbal as a call to arms. Panoramic shots of knights lined up on ridges above the plains, scores of footsoldiers running through valleys, trumpeters blowing horns that look like mammoth tusks.   

Vaclav also has to battle with Germans, led  by Heinrich der Vogler, whose helmet is emblazoned  with the black wings of an eagle, a metre high.  The Germans are fomidable - proper chainmail, bigger horses, but the Czechs hold their own.  Vaclav is injured, but survives. Eventually he captures Heinrich's son (rather effeminate, in this film) but instead of killing him, restores him to his father in exchange for peace.  The Czech knights are welcomed into the German court and presented with holy Christian relics.  Meanwhile Boleslav is plotting, aided by sympathisers of the old order and Drahomíra's old friend, the giant Košvan.  At a feast in the castle, pipers pipe and dancers make merry. Mead is poured from goblets, but Boleslaw plans to poison his brother. A blind harpist sings a ballad about a King showing his sons that a sheaf of staves cannot be broken, though each staff on its own can break.  When the King dies, the brothers fight and are themselves killed by enemies   Boleslav listens and pours away the poison.  Vaclav raises his chalice and prays.  He embraces Boleslav and leaves.  On the battlements, Vaclav stands alone, in th night breeze. Radmilo, Košvan's daughter, realizes that’s how saintly Vaclav might be. Boleslav is racked with anguish but doesn't stop Košvan's assassins from cornering Vaclav at the gate of the castle and killing him.  A storm blows up, so fierce that the killers are driven away. Vaclav's body rests in state.  Suddenly, the Drahomíra appears and weeps over the martyred Vaclav.  Boleslav is declared King but she blocks his path. "Matko!" he says (mother).  A glowing crucifix appears, like a miracle,  over Vaclav's corpse. Boleslav cries for forgiveness. (I think, I don't read Czech)  Svatý Václav is actually a very good movie, even without  the patriotic and religious context.  Definitely recommended.  

Please also see my other posts on cinema in this period, Czech and Weimar. For example:
 Erotikon - the drama Janacek didn't write
The White Plague - Hugo and Pavel Haas
and lots more on Hugo Haas's later work

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