Yesterday, a friend and I happened upon a tiny little Czech café in Hackney which, besides the excellent coffee, displayed a small collection of Czech films for sale. I picked up a copy of a film called Adelheid. The DVD was released by a company called Second Run, who restore eclectic and award-winning films from around the world. The cover looked vaguely intriguing; it was made by a director who, although well-known for the artistry of his films, has been largely overlooked. I’d never seen any Czech cinema before, and the DVD came with a little pamphlet with an essay by a Czech cinema expert talking about director František Vláčil’s emphasis on ‘film poetry’.
In a 1998 survey of Czech film critics, Vláčil’s film Marketa Lazarová was voted the best Czech film ever made. Vláčil even received a lifetime achievement award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival the same year. But the reason for Vláčil’s lack of presence in general histories of cinema is, according to Hames, because he was not a member of the famous Czech 1960s New Wave, nor a product of the Prague Film School. He was rather more concerned with making films focussed on visual imagery, and Adelheid is no doubt exemplary of this aim.
With Adelheid, it seems Vláčil broke away from his previous works in two different ways: firstly, the film is in colour, and secondly, it’s not a historical epic. Watching the film as someone in completely new territory, it seemed to me to be much more of a meditation on human nature – and all the complexities, dangers, and distortions that comprise it.
But the film has undeniable historical value, too. It caused quite a stir upon release, apparently, for being the first film to address the Czech treatment of Sudeten Germans during the expulsions of the mid-1940s. It’s set in the aftermath of World War II, and tells the story of Viktor, a Czech airman returned from service in the RAF, who is given the responsibility of managing a large estate on the Czech-German border, formerly owned by a Nazi. The daughter of the Nazi, the eponymous Adelheid, is assigned to him as a servant. Her grasp of Czech is limited (or perhaps she is pretending – we never truly know), as is Viktor’s command of German. Thus, the majority of the storytelling is done through the camera alone – through following the characters in their movements, and observing them in their stillness.
The slowness ceases to be tedious, and soon becomes poetic. Shut away from the outside world and confined to the dark, vast house (whose vastness we never really get a sense of, as the shots tend to be close-up, almost claustrophobic in their framing), we too are trapped with Viktor and Adelheid. I found the cinematography compelling. The lack of verbal communication means that the growing (and mostly wordless) attraction and romance between the two characters is expressed through seeing, and through looking. The film is obsessed with observation. At first, it’s mostly Viktor who observes. He watches Adelheid as she washes the floor, her waist slightly exposed. He spies on her through binoculars, chopping wood. But she too, returns his gaze. It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking – is it defiance, or desire? She seems to enjoy cooking and caring for him, but at other times she recoils from him. When a German woman brings the news that her father, the Nazi to whom the estate belonged to, has died, she breaks down and rebuffs Viktor’s attempts to comfort her.
It is these instances that remind us that outside of the internal, closed world of the huge estate, there are social and ideological forces at play. The faint hope that is conveyed through Viktor and Adelheid’s strange – yet somehow comforting – relationship, is shattered in these moments. Even the warm, languid scene where the two sit by the fire and Viktor talks of his childhood, seems comically simple now. We want for them to find solace in each other, but know that any affection that may subsist is doomed from the outset.
Indeed, when Adelheid’s brother returns, Viktor just about escapes death. But – despite Adelheid’s ‘betrayal’ (she was, undoubtedly, waiting for him), Viktor refuses to testify against her. “You’re all I have”, he tells her. Aided by a translator, he begs to know whether she ever truly cared for him or not. He asks: “Did you hate me all of the time?” She tells him no. She too, it turns out, was enamoured by little details she’d observed in him. He tells her she has no reason to worry, and that he’ll take care of her. This last display of hope, of vulnerability that Viktor exudes, makes the final act all the more heartbreaking. The darkness, remoteness, and relative safety of the mansion could not, ultimately, keep the wider context at bay.
It’s a complex film, no doubt. I’m not sure I’d quite use the term ‘love story’ to describe it. The romance aspect is never fully realised; it is quiet desperation, as opposed to burning desire, that for me, defined the relationship between the characters. They are both symbolic of the internal conflict between loyalty and the need for intimacy, and though the subtleties of their everyday interactions hint at the possibility for more, the characters are ultimately unable to move past their own walls and barriers. The score – music by Bach and Strauss – lends pathos to the caged, gloomy world of the mansion. The imagery, graceful and gentle, evokes a sense of longing, of silent despair; it is reflective of the minute, carefully observed instances that draw Viktor to Adelheid, the impulse to believe that amongst all the anguish and desolation of the war, there do, perhaps, exist small, modest moments of beauty and peace.