The White Dove (Holubice) / Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání)
Czechoslovakia (1960/1963) Dirs. Frantisek Vlácil / Pavel Jurácek & Jan Schmidt
We have a special offer for you today – two reviews for the price of one! This is because the Second Run label have coupled two films from the early days of the Czech New Wave cinema into one release, the latter film making its DVD debut.
First up is The White Dove, a simple tale told through the heavy use of symbolism and visual allusion. In Belgium a batch of doves are released, heading for the Baltic Islands where the owners await. But for Susanne (Katerina Irmanovová) hers gets lost in a sea storm and ends up in Prague instead, where it is shot down by a wheelchair bound young boy Michal (Karel Smyczek) with air gun. The dove found by bohemian artist Martin (Vjaceslav Irmanov) who nurses it back to health with Michal.
Imagine an Oscar Wilde short story in the same vein as The Happy Prince as directed by Ingmar Bergman and that gives you a very reductive idea of what to expect from this film. The Bergman comparisons are a found mostly in the shot composition and use of extreme close-ups for startling effects while the probing nature of the story’s message is less intense and certainly less verbose.
There are essentially two plots running concurrently – Susanne’s lamenting for her dove to return, for which her boyfriend Ulli (Hans-Peter Reinecke) teases her with model doves until he realises just how much she is hurting, and the saga of Michal and the dove. We don’t know if the shooting was an accident or an act of jealousy as the bird was able to fly free while he was confined to a wheelchair after an accident at school.
Quite why Martin gave the bird to Michal is also open to query as he thought it was dead but in true fairy tale fashion, the boy’s caring for the helpless dove sees a change in his own attitude as well as commensurate improvement in his own recovery. Similarly Martin finds himself inspired to create new art because of the dove, even creating a beguiling piece which he sends to the Baltics (how did he know the address?).
In this arc the themes of freedom are very much evident even to clueless viewers such as me but the message behind the Susanne arc is less obvious. The only thing I could come up with was that while the dove brings Michal happiness it is causing Susanne pain; or perhaps she has an undisclosed condition which the dove helps with.
Of the two plotlines, this one is the more surreal, with one scene in which Susanne walks out of her bedroom and walks out straight ONTO and across the sea. The Bergman comparison I suggested earlier are greater here, with a shot of Susanne clad in black, presumably in mourning, against the clear backdrop of the shimmering sands and bright sea skies.
Director Frantisek Vlácil deliberately kept the dialogue sparse as not to overburden the novice young actors. Karel Smyczek who had enough to contend with playing a crippled boy and interacting with the titular bird. On that front, the animal handlers deserve a huge kudos as the dove and the black cat are exceptionally well behaved, producing some superbly well timed moments on screen, together and individually.
Mainstream appreciation of this film isn’t expected and it might even go over the heads of more discerning film fans but the poetic visuals and vivid camerawork make this a unique viewing experience even if it is just the once.
The second film, Joseph Kilian, is a 38-minute short which has been described as “Kafka-esque” in just about every review written about it, largely for the absurd existentialist approach and the fact the Czech born writer wrote in German, and his works had just been translated into his native language.
After a Roy Andersson-esque opening involving different groups of people all marching in unison across a street, a lone man (Karel Vašíček) appears. He is trying to find a man of the film’s title to no avail then wanders into a pet rental shop on a whim and rents a cat. Keen to not incur any overdue charges the man takes the cat back the next day only to find the shop is gone, so he visits the local authorities to try to find the shop.
Much of the meaning and symbolism has deeper relevance for Czech audiences of time yet today, the opprobrium aimed at the communist bureaucracy of the time is palpably clear. The above mentioned opening scene was to demonstrate that all is well when one follows the same path as everyone else – break free and you risk trouble, as the man’s spontaneous hiring of the cat also illustrates.
In fact, the man is told this when berated by an unhelpful civil servant – everything has to be for a reason, and any sense of freethinking while not verboten is apparently frowned upon. From here things get really surreal and proves to be impenetrable if you are not on Pavel Jurácek & Jan Schmidt’s wavelength.
For example, the man arrives for an appointment at an office, joining a busy waiting room. A woman opens a window to reveal a brick wall behind it. The man picks up a newspaper (in Arabic) and is glared at with disgust until he puts it down again. The presentation is equally offbeat and rebellious, employing freeze frames, random and unrelated narration and obscure shot composition.
This is either as baffling as it sounds or act of surreal artistic genius, depending on how deep you are prepared to look into your films for symbolic political defiance, but it has enough cinematic charm, character and vibrancy to warrant a look.
Whether The White Dove and Joseph Kilian are classic or important films is open to debate for better people than I to argue, but cineastes who appreciate the art of cinema will find much reward here.