thu 18/07/2019

DVD/Blu-ray: A Case for a Rookie Hangman | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: A Case for a Rookie Hangman

DVD/Blu-ray: A Case for a Rookie Hangman

Satire with a Swiftian slant in late Czech New Wave exploration

Gulliver troubled: Lubomír Kostelka as the protagonist of 'A Case for a Rookie Hangman'

The excellent booklet essay by Michael Brooke that accompanies this Second Run release of Pavel Juráček’s second, and final feature (it’s presented in a fine 4K restoration) tells us much about the director’s importance for the Czech New Wave, that remarkable period of independent filmmaking that spanned the 1960s. It was brought to an end, of course, by the Soviet intervention in 1968. A Case for a Rookie Hangman intriguingly spans that crucial dividing line: written in 1966, it was filmed only in 1969 and released two years after that, albeit only on a very limited scale (for many observers, the fact that it was released at all came as a surprise).

Given that it’s a satire, the hesitations of the country's new cultural authorities look understandable: Juráček’s source is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, specifically its third book, in which voyager Lemuel Gulliver visits the flying island of Laputa and its supposedly vassal city Balnibarbi (in the other order, though, in the film). Its opening intertitle, “If Swift should turn in his grave on account of this film, I beg his compatriots for forgiveness”, has Juráček offering a surely tongue-in-cheek disclaimer, for the spirit of the Irish satirist is indisputably here, though it’s a film marked as much by disturbing absurdity as by any more direct political associations. There’s a subtle and rich sense of texture, too: designer Milan Nejedlý sets the piece in a recognisably modern environment, while enjoying the architectural glories of the Czech past as much as his director does the foibles of his contemporary subjects.

A Case for a Rookie HangmanThere’s more than a hint of Lewis Carroll too, first evident when the run-away car driven by Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) runs over a magic hare, complete with a mysteriously inscribed pocket watch. Venturing further into the story’s mysteries – the strange transition is defined architecturally as much by as anything else, all sorts of collapsing floors and other surreal visual elements – Gulliver enters Balnibarbi, whose allusions, while not over-stressed, to Communist-era Czechoslovakia would have been unmistakable to Juráček’s audience.

Gulliver is the outsider unable to appreciate the unexpected nuances of this new world – its strange national habits, its celebrations (complete with appearances from foreign dignitaries, from de Gaulle to Gagarin), its inventions, like the machine that will replace the need to think in the population. But with Gulliver’s recurrent interrogations and some very uneasy crowd scenes, this dark surrealism has an indisputably totalitarian flavour. Juráček divides the film into chapters, perhaps in an attempt to add format to a work that ultimately seems over-diffuse, more episodic than discernibly narrative.

Josef KilianWatching it alongside his 37-minute 1963 mini-masterpiece Josef Kilián (also presented here in a new 4K restoration), we may wonder whether the shorter form was Juráček’s metier. No surprise that this absurdist cri de coeur was banned after 1968, though it owes as much to that earlier Prague mystifier Franz Kafka (who had his own Josef K) as to the complexities of Communist-era relationships between the individual and the state. Karel Vašíček (pictured above left) plays an anonymous citizen who passes a shop offering “cats for hire” – complete with regulations, including “the misuse of rented cats is punishable by law” – and can’t resist. When he comes back the next day to return his feline, the shop has gone. A figment of his imagination (but the cat is very real), or the first step in an absurdist journey that takes him along a parade of bureaucratic corridors? The original Czech title, “A Figure Needing Support”, speaks of the film’s wider quandary, as the everyday downbeat world of Prague grapples with existential dilemmas.

Juráček co-directed Josef Kilián with his Prague Film School contemporary Jan Schmidt, who takes the directorial credits for the other two supporting pieces on this disc, one of which is their whimsical 1959 documentary Cars Without a Home, for which Juráček provides a distinctive voice-over. For a sharper dose of satire, their 1961 short Black and White Sylva is another treat. Its premise is simple – a heroic young woman bricklayer accidentally slips down off-screen from the Socialist Realist film Love amidst the Tower Blocks in which she's starring; the way subsequent events develop is irresistibly handled, with an agile sense of fun that’s being poked at the official Party structures and those who are in some way “responsible” for her (and more pressingly, what to with her). As in Josef Kilián, there’s some lovely use of jazz; cumulatively, it resounds with an inspired lightness of tone that is a demolishing antidote to dogma and ideology.

But with Gulliver’s recurrent interrogations and some very uneasy crowd scenes, this dark surrealism has an indisputably totalitarian flavour

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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