František Vláčil’s 1967 medieval epic has been widely dubbed “the greatest Czech film ever made,” which, unless you’re a big devotee to Czech cinema, is admittedly not a label that is going to mean all that much to the casual viewer. I will admit that my previous experience with films from the region can probably be counted on one hand, so consequently Vláčil’s film was never really on my radar before its announcement for the Criterion Collection. But after finally watching Marketa Lazarová, it’s easy to see why it has left such a lasting impression. The film follows the escalating clashes between the members of a savage clan and the slightly more civilized and enlightened world around them. When the leader of a neighboring village refuses to get involved in any confrontations, members of the clan kidnap his daughter, setting up an eventual violent confrontation. It’s a narrative that unfolds patiently, and one that requires some focus, with Vláčil devoting a good amount of time to building characters, of which there are quite a good number.
Helping matters somewhat is the film’s structure, divided into a series of acts and chapters with a summary before the start of each one providing a little foreshadowing on the directions the narrative will take. It reminded me of the way some Cormac McCarthy novels have chapters begin with bullet points that hint of what’s to come in the following pages, and it gives the film an almost-mythic quality. If some of the finer nuances of the film’s narrative can be lost on a first viewing, it’s only because Marketa Lazarová‘s visual and aural aesthetic completely commands the attention. Between the breathtaking visuals of blindingly-white, snowy landscapes (I’m struggling to think of another film that rivals the picture quality on the Criterion Bluray), the ominous rhythms of the soundtrack, and the more experimental flourishes of Vláčil’s filmmaking approach, you can be forgiven for getting lost in the film’s world. The film’s harsher content and length might turn away some potential viewers, but for those interested in the best of the 1960s New Wave it is an easy one to recommend. 9/10.
The defining image in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary is of trains moving along the European countryside. This is not just because of the train’s primary use to transport Jews to concentration camps; it also serves as a sort of connecting symbol, tying together the material that comprises the film, personal recollections of survivors and quiet tours of where camps once stood and where so many lives were lost. Lanzmann’s film doesn’t concern itself much with offering a comprehensive history. As an interviewer, he asks smaller questions, and through both the words of his interviewees and the walks around all the significant places, he gradually fills in the details. This extends outward from the camp survivors as well, through interviews with former Nazi officials (who were recorded and videotaped without their knowledge) and locals in the communities that surrounded the camps. An argument can be made here that Lanzmann spends too much time focusing on these locals, and how they justified carrying out their normal lives while so much horror was occurring so close to them. Polish anti-Semitism is an important issue, but one that seems to consume a little too much of the film’s first half.
Still, everything that is said in this film holds at least some significance. There are several faces and responses though that remain burned in the memory long after the film is over. There’s the man who constantly blinks to force back the tears, the man who survived as a youth mainly due to his singing voice, and, most heartbreakingly, the two former “special detail” workers who both relate their traumatic experiences and keep their composure for so long before the weight of everything finally causes them to break down in front of the camera. Rightfully, there are no aesthetic choices that would threaten to sentimentalize the material. Over the course of 9 1/2 hours, Lanzmann tries to make sense of the insensible, but there is really just no way. What he ends up with is just as important though. Late in the film, one of the “special detail” survivors talks about a moment when he wanted to join all of the people entering the gas chambers. After realizing what he was trying to do, they turned him back, telling him he needed to survive to “bear witness” to everything that had happened. His purpose was to live for those who couldn’t; Shoah‘s purpose is to keep the voices of the survivors alive long after they are all gone. 10/10.