Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Foolish Dreams of Juraj Herz

August 5 2019

The films of Czechoslovak director Juraj Herz are inhabited by characters mired in their illusions. In his retelling of Beauty and the Beast, called Panna a netvor, Herz twice summons one scene that’s emblematic of his work. A man carries a woman down a lambent corridor as doors open soundlessly before them. On the soundtrack saccharine strings swell deliriously. At first, we believe we’re witnessing the woman’s dream, conjured in an enchanted slumber. But when the beast’s filth-matted face mutates to reveal the man she imagined earlier, the scene recurs, as if the film has short-circuited. Is this our happy ending? Repetition riles our doubts. The monster himself once warned: “When you dream about my likeness, you create it.” Has he transformed, or is our heroine deluding herself, favoring fantasy over unreckonable truth? What we see, or believe we see, can beguile us, obscuring other, less luminous visions and rendering reality a trick of the light. No wonder Herz titled his memoir, yet untranslated into English, Autopsy, a medical procedure undertaken when an affliction is unseen, when the eyes alone cannot be trusted.

Herz refined his gaze without fretting over trends or movements. He was born in 1934, and from his early childhood, films were charged, illicit contraband. German-occupied Czechoslovakia banned Jews from cinemas even if they, like Herz and his parents, did not practice or believe. Some decades later, he was also barred from screenings at FAMU, the Prague film academy that fostered the careers of many Czechoslovak New Wave directors, because he was studying not filmmaking but puppetry at the associated performing arts school. He snuck in anyway and watched Western movies that were otherwise prohibited in the postwar period. As with any skilled modulator of moods and tones—grotesquerie, sweetness, irony, eerie erotics— he was fond of the electrifying excesses of directors such as Fellini, Buñuel, and Shindo, especially Onibaba.

Picturing Herz crouched in that classroom corner, I am reminded of his puckish secondary players and hapless charlatans. Take the velvet-robed astrologer in Sign of Cancer, or the mystic who ensnares the daffy damsel in The Ninth Heart, or the B-movie bloodsucker in the film-within-a-film that lightens Ferat Vampire with fun obviousness, spurning subtlety for the sake of genre glut. (The university commission quashed his acting aspirations because of his looks, but Herz performed the latter two roles himself.) He was always hanging around, asking questions with eyes open, slipping into filmmaking through the industry’s slight cracks. On the set of Every Penny Counts, in which he had a small part, Zbyněk Brynych noticed Herz idling behind the camera and hired him as an assistant director.

Traces of Herz are everywhere in Czechoslovak film of the 1960s, if you know where to look. Glimpse his aquiline profile as he deals cards in Lemonade Joe. Catch him as a Jewish man, wearing a stitched-on Star of David, through a sliver of store window in Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on Main Street. Forget his face: it hides behind a papier-mâché mask in Jan Švankmajer’s The Last Trick of Mr. Schwarcewallde and Mr. Edgar. In this playful hybrid of animation and theater, two magicians flaunt their illusions before one-upping each other in an absurd, internecine struggle. They crack open their heads; they shake hands so hard their limbs dislocate. Only a cockroach, that fabled survivor of nuclear winter, remains alive. Švankmajer and Herz were cosmic doubles: members of the same military troupe, school, and theater, born on the same day, month, and year. Both explored characters who lose sight of what’s in front of them and smash everything, including themselves.

Metrograph’s Juraj Herz retrospective—the most comprehensive ever mounted stateside—includes seven inventive features Herz directed in Czechoslovakia, before he moved to Germany just ahead of the Velvet Revolution. The series also showcases the film that, in some ways, de facto excised him from the Czechoslovak New Wave. Herz’s debut film, The Junk Shop, was cut for time from Pearls of the Deep, an omnibus feature designed as the nascent movement’s unofficial manifesto, for which filmmakers Věra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, and Jan Němec adapted stories by Bohumil Hrabal. Drawn from Hrabal’s own experiences and shot in his old workplace, The Junk Shop is about a rascally raconteur named Haňťa (played by folk storyteller Václav Halama) who labors in a paper-recycling facility where everything is judged according to weight, regardless of ascribed value: literature and love letters snag the same price as meat wrappings from the abattoir. The Junk Shop contains a scene which is key to Herz’s work: Haňťa is called to a church that is chucking their religious statues; with chaotic glee he chops them into pieces. His haughty, dandyish boss, who has some artistic pretensions, is aghast, and begins reassembling the icons as they were; but, in a stop-motion sequence, Haňťa imagines new, surreal combinations of the dismembered parts, fusing faces with legs and crowns with breasts in a mad array. For Herz, creativity is not sparked via classical forms but through experimentation and change, often spearheaded by roguish underdogs.

With The Cremator, Herz made his masterpiece, here presented in a corcuscating restoration. Adapted from a novel by Ladislav Fuks, the skin-prickling flick concerns a bourgeois family man, Karel Kopfrkingl, who finds a respectable veneer for his perversions in the dread charisma of 1930s fascism. An unctuous, overzealous crematorium employee, who considers his day job a holy calling, Kopfrkingl believes releasing souls in the flames reincarnates them into a higher plane. Later, when large-scale state violence looms, he considers early death a merciful gift. Everything unfolds as “The Party” prowls Czechoslovakia and storms the dinner table via Kopfrkingl’s war buddy Walter Reinke, a German devil SS-ing in his ear. Kopfrkingl doesn’t need much coaxing; half his dialogue echoes others’, their dictums automatically assimilated into his personal truth. Rudolf Hrušínský plays Kopfrkingl with placid menace: his voice drops to a lulling purr, he insistently grasps his half-Jewish wife and children, and his raised hand, in a seamless, untroubled gesture, becomes a salute. Creating operatic dread, Zdeněk Liška’s woozy waltzes, featuring a woman’s reverberant, wordless voice, wander from one scene to haunt the next. To show Kopfrkingl’s creeping lunacy, cinematographer Stanislav Milota disrupts the frame with dizzying distortions: fish-eye lenses, canted angles, and, most remarkably, sequences that blur sound and space into overlapping streams of action. One example: Kopfrkingl’s bug-eyed son turns as if to react to something the father has said; the camera zooms out on the same shot, and we see the son is gaping at a boxing match in a shifted location. Yet the film still gleams with black humor, such as when Kopfrkingl refuses to stuff a man and woman in the same coffin (too improper), or when he prattles on to a German officer about hyper-efficient cremation ovens, only to be implored to keep his voice down. Our laughter surfaces, unbidden, because his fascism can tolerate cruelty but not bad manners.

Few of Herz’s films are free of scarring compromises. The Czechoslovak New Wave flourished in part because national film funding coincided with a brief, fecund period of liberalized socialism. The reins on form and content tightened after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; The Cremator was shelved for decades and its original ending lost. Herz had filmed Kopfrkingl, returned from Germany, cruising into Prague astride a Soviet tank—a then-taboo link between the two unwelcome governments. Herz got the last laugh, however: In his first feature, Sign of Cancer, an atmospheric murder mystery which unspools in a state-run hospital, he cast Ilja Prachar, the German Reinke in The Cremator, as a communist toady who proves more scheming than the killer. Sign of Cancer also marked his premier collaboration with actress Iva Janzurová, who plays an anguished patient treated with bureaucratic disdain, her death reduced to a line item at a staff meeting.

Metrograph audiences will be able to watch Janzurová mature as an actress over time. She reunited with Herz for Oil Lamps, a melodrama about an heiress named Stepa Kilianova who looms toward spinsterdom because her bourgeois parents’ aspirant social-climbing clashes with her own stubborn improprieties. Stepa speaks in a faux-coquettish patter, traipses around her small Bohemian town in magenta gowns and overflowing hats, grabs pastries with pinching fingers and smears her mouth with cream, bowls better than her banker beau—and spits on her hands when grabbing the ball—and, most damning of all, performs in the local theater troupe. The film begins with her friends staging an uproarious burlesque of the romance to follow. A man in drag and a rapacious “officer” engage in a parodic game of seduction. Audience members chase down the officer, who is accidentally mixed up with Pavel, Stepa’s cousin, recently discharged from the military for murky reasons. Stepa seems to have nurtured a longtime love for him, but what at first seems like virginal idealization reveals itself as something thornier: She spies on Pavel assaulting the farm servant and punching bag, Magda, and watches with such intent erotic curiousity, she breaks a slat in the barn wall. Unlike in William Wyler’s The Heiress—an instructive comparison—Stepa’s tragedy is not that she believes in the sincerity of Pavel’s devotion. It is that her desperation for his love, and for a dynamic life outside her family, eclipses her spoken doubts.

Herz split actress Janzurová into two roles for Morgiana, perhaps her career-best performance: One, Klara, is radiant, with red Gibson Girl curls and spidery double eyelashes that make her gaze pop like a guileless cartoon. Viktoria, her sister, who from their late father inherited not the main house nor the money but a haunted, remote country estate, is shadowy and scheming, with a coiled dark bouffant, thinly arched eyebrows, and blood-red lips overdrawn and pulled taught. Janzurová slips into this dyad seamlessly, and in so doing uncovers femininity as a con, where wigs, powders, and men’s mercurial desires sever Klara and Viktoria far more than some rooted nature; even their names seem incidental, swappable. The original story ends when one wakes, delirious and alone, calling for a sister who was never there, because two were one, psychically bisected; but state censors found the conceit too grim. Herz had to tack on ill-fitting twists and reversals to graft a dopily happy conclusion—he described it as “like when a pianist does his finger exercises”—but what exercises! Morgiana features some of the most intriguing, elaborate cinematography of the New Wave, with point-of-view shots from the titular Siamese cat and dichroic filters that blur the sisters as Klara succumbs to Viktoria’s schemes. For this experiment, Herz was banned from directing for two years.

Before emigrating from Czechoslovakia, Herz made two films about apathy in the face of evil. Ferat Vampire is about an enigmatic car that seems to deplete its racers, who nonetheless crave to remain in its thrall. Dr. Marek (Jiří Menzel, a stuttering cuckold) and an ambulance driver named Mima (Dagmar Havlová, later the first lady of Czechoslovakia) encounter a woman whose purplish contusions seem to be triggered by a strange mechanism in her gas pedal. Minutes afterward the driver crashes, and Mima clams up about the flawed part when prodded by a television reporter, a compelling analogue to government or secret-police cover-ups. Something of a hothead motorist herself, Mima subs in for the stricken driver, while Marek, nursing an unrequited crush and bristling from her trainers’ attentions, probes the scheme lurking under the hood. Of course, the joke of the film is how flagrant Herz has made the big reveal: Yes, the car is a vampire—it’s in the title. Marek knows soon enough, too; he’s accosted at work by a bespectacled conspiracy nut whose insistent explanations of his theories verge on slapstick.

Ferat Vampire is more of a genre-bound horror film any other Herz directed during his Czechoslovak era. Dream sequences (designed by Švankmajer and his artist wife, Eva) in which a blood-slicked, fleshlike car ingests Marek’s limbs recall David Cronenberg’s Videodrome or the auto-erotic rituals of Crash. More macabre than the hacked hot rod is a series of set pieces where Marek is at the mercy of combative consumer cars around him as callous voyeurs cruise by, their blank faces pressed against the glass. The Ferat’s parasitical design implies the existence of others. Marek lays bare, to the rapacious press, the blood oozing up from under the hood, but it only spikes sales. Speedsters for motorists with a death wish are but a mere wrinkle in the capitalist landscape; what Marek, a saver of lives, cannot understand is that some do not desire to keep theirs, especially if the pleasures offered are deep. In Kinoeye, Daniel Bird notes: “Herz’s outlook is…inflected by the sentiment that if the Western marketplace is based upon freedom, then that freedom often fails to provide talented producers, actors or scriptwriters.” Release from unchosen communism brings its own troubles. Ferat Vampire seems to anticipate the creeping horrors of a system yoked to market forces: the apathy and nihilism of the individual, and the atomization of communities into single, uncaring units.

Herz inscribed the true-to-life terrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp in Caught by Night. From the age of ten, he had been held there, separated from his parents, despite an eleventh-hour baptism arranged by his atheist-Jewish father “if only it would save my life.” (All three survived, miraculously, and were reunited.) Based on the life of communist activist Jožka Jabůrková, to spite state censors the film buries biographical details from an also-interned inamorata of Franz Kafka, Milena Jesenská, who defected during the blunt brutality of Stalinism. His soi-disant “greatest horror,” Caught by Night intermingles the real and the unreal, as if to say that facing such terror, unchanged, would be unthinkable: as Jožka reflects on her pre-internment existence, rows of illusory white-gowned angels toil over sewing machines on the appellplatz (her mother had been a seamstress), a red bloom plucked on the campgrounds carries her back to a childhood meadow, and shouts from the SS blur with past scoldings. Perhaps, too, the screen thrown up between fact and fiction satisfies Herz’s need for distance from what he filmed; he is just one of two directors detained in a concentration camp (with Wanda Jakubowska) to make a movie drawing on their experiences. But in interviews Herz spins tales of his imprisonment with bile-flecked black humor. Of a reunion of sorts in Israel, he once said, “We were telling stories from the concentration camp from morning till evening, and we laughed all the time.” For decades Herz spoke obsessively of the Holocaust film he wanted to direct: one told from the perspective of a boy like himself who, unable to understand the how or why of global conflict and its attendant horrors, coped with easing laughter. (Skittish producers and backers retreated from such a peculiar project.) What Herz longed for was to place the viewer within the subjectivity of someone who must fabricate reveries when reality becomes lethal. Such a scene surfaces in Caught by Night: in the concentration camp, a clown slaps on a forbidden red nose and, in front of her rapt bunkmates, mimes that a sponge on a string is a dog, whimpering for food. Her antics escalate, and she taunts the pretend pooch with more and more force, until Jožka perceives the breakdown behind her games and begs her to stop. But this is what Herz’s characters do: shut their eyes to what cannot be endured, drown themselves in mirages and apparitions. From the destructive delusions of Kopfrkingl and the hedged hopes of Stepa Kilianova to Klara and Viktoria’s psychic split, these seductive, foolish dreams are nothing other than the way we all live—through our own flawed, fantastic vision.

Courtney "Kit" Duckworth is a writer from western North Carolina living in Brooklyn.