Director: Pavel Jurácek
Screenplay: Pavel Jurácek
Based on a Novel by: Jonathan Swift
Starring: Lubomír Kostelka, Klára Jerneková, Milena Zahrynowska, Radovan Lukavský
Running Time: 107 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Pavel Jurácek was among the illustrious group of filmmakers who studied at FAMU (Prague’s main film school) and formed the Czech New Wave movement. He only directed two features and a few shorts (which were largely co-directed by his friend Jan Schmidt), but he was involved in a number of key titles through writing, producing and other general assistance. He co-wrote Ikarie XB 1 (reviewed here) and Daisies (also reviewed on the site) for instance. However, he’s never gained the reputation of some of his better-known peers, such as Milos Forman or Jirí Menzel. This was largely because his career was cut short depressingly early.
With some of the satirical content of his work, he rubbed the authorities up the wrong way and when he released A Case For a Rookie Hangman they felt enough was enough. They technically didn’t ban the film, but restricted its release to such a degree it only had about a dozen screenings then disappeared. Jurácek was then banned from making further films in Czechoslovakia and never managed to work elsewhere either, like many of his colleagues did, even when he was exiled to West-Germany for 6 years. He turned to drink and prescription drugs and died from cancer at only 53.
To further deepen this tragedy, his death occurred only six months before the Velvet Revolution, after which his work, like many other banned films and art, was promptly re-released and re-discovered by appreciative audiences. He is now quite well regarded in his home country and his few films, particularly A Case For a Rookie Hangman, are circulated among film enthusiasts still today. In the UK we are now being treated to a beautifully restored Blu-Ray of the film, released by Second Run.
I can’t describe the plot for A Case For a Rookie Hangman in too much detail, because it’s a rather surreal experience that I found difficult to follow at times. In general though, the story is a loose adaptation of part 3 of Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, particularly the tales of Laputa and Balnibarbi. There are also shades of Lewis Carol in the film’s set up, which sees our protagonist Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) lose control of his car after he takes a forced diversion. After crashing, he finds the body of a hare dressed in smart clothing and carrying a pocket watch. He takes the watch and wanders to a nearby house that reminds him of his childhood home, before being taken to Balnibarbi, a strange country that he is totally out of place in, where he regularly yet inadvertently offends people. He is questioned about the watch and harassed by many of the inhabitants, who are all in awe of the floating island of Laputa, which is currently parked above their country, blocking the sunlight. He is later called there too and finds himself still a confused outsider.
It’s a bizarre adventure that I must admit lost me on several occasions. It didn’t help matters that I was extremely tired at the time of watching, so perhaps a second viewing would be a much smoother ride. There is just enough of a clear narrative to keep the viewer from totally giving up though. Also holding the interest is a rich vein of surreal humour. There’s an amusing incident with the Balnibarbi governor sharing some walnuts with Gulliver that had me laughing out loud for instance.
The film’s chief strength, purpose and clearly the reason it was all-but banned though is its inherent satire. I must admit, I don’t know enough about Czech history and politics to have understood all the barbs in the film, but it’s not difficult to see how the film is skewering totalitarianism throughout its Kafka-esque story. There are also some clear attacks on governmental control over art, which might have been the final nails in the coffin for Jurácek’s career.
Also standing out is the film’s cinematography and visual style. It looks fantastic, shot by Jan Kalis who also did stunning work on Ikarie XB 1. Particularly notable is a lengthy dreamlike sequence near the start of the film, when Gulliver is in the house. It incorporates some fantastic lighting, optical and practical effects, such as an astonishing moment where the floorboards give way, but rather than break become almost flexible, allowing Gulliver to see underneath to the room below where he catches glimpses of a girl he believed had drowned when he was young. It’s a bravura opening to the film that personally I felt wasn’t quite matched later on.
In general, though I found much to admire in Rookie Hangman, I didn’t quite get on board with it. As mentioned, I was probably too tired to digest such a wild and unusual film at the time, but nevertheless I came away a bit too bewildered to fall in love with it. However, there’s enough impressive filmmaking on display, along with plenty of humour and surreal energy to happily recommend the film to anyone with an interest in Czechoslovakian cinema, as well as to those with a taste for surrealist films. The shorts included in the set make it worthwhile too – read below for more details.
A Case For a Rookie Hangman is out on 24th June on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Second Run. I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looks and sounds fantastic.
A few special features are included too:
– A Case for a Rookie Hangman (P ípad pro za ínajícího kata, 1969) presented from a brand new 4K restoration of the film from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive.
– Josef Kilián (Postava k podpírání, 1963): presented from a brand new 4K restoration of the film from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive.
– Two additional short films written by Pavel Jurácek and directed by Jan Schmidt:
– Cars Without a Home (Auta bez domova, 1959)
– Black and White Sylva (Cernobílá Sylva, 1961)
– The Projection Booth podcast with Mike White Kat Ellinger, Kevin Heffernan and Peter – Hames
– Booklet featuring new writing on the film by film historian Michael Brooke
– New and improved English subtitle translation.
– Region free Blu-ray
– Original soundtrack in 2.0 Dual Mono 24-bit LPCM audio
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
The podcast, which runs over the film like a commentary, delves into the work that influenced the film (particularly ‘Gulliver’s Travels’) and the careers of those involved, as well as discussing the film at hand. Unfortunately, the contributors didn’t make the film much clearer to me, though they propose that if a film doesn’t make complete sense when you watch it, it probably isn’t supposed to make sense.
The short films are a great addition. I must admit I often skip over shorts as I’m not a fan of the form, but most of these are great. Cars Without a Home (Auta bez domova, 1959) didn’t do much for me, but Josef Kilián (Postava k podpírání, 1963) is beautifully shot, quite amusing and a clear precursor to Rookie Hangman. Black and White Sylva (Cernobílá Sylva, 1961) was my favourite of the shorts though. It sees the lead female character of a Communist propaganda film accidentally fall out of her film and enter the real world. Much fun is then had as various levels and styles of filmmakers try to study and manipulate her for their own means/amusement. It’s a hilarious and clever early run of an idea Woody Allen used in his 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cario. These shorts were strong enough for me to keep my rating for the set fairly high in fact, even though the film went over my head a bit.
The booklet is excellent too. Michael Brooke provides a fairly detailed history of Jurácek’s troubled career, which makes for a fascinating read.