Director: Juraj Herz
Screenplay: Vladimír Bor, Juraj Herz
Based on a Novel by: Aleksandr Grin
Starring: Iva Janžurová, Petr Čepek, Nina Divísková, Josef Abrhám, Jiří Kodet, Josef Somr
Country: Czechoslovakia
Running Time: 101 min
Year: 1972
BBFC Certificate: 15

The director, writer and actor Juraj Herz wasn’t as politically motivated as his contemporary Czech filmmakers of the late 60s and early 70s, instead having a taste for horror and fantasy. He also came into filmmaking from puppetry rather than being a FAMU graduate, which set him and his work aside from much of the rest of the New Wave.

Hertz still ran into some problems with censorship though, with his most famous film, The Cremator getting banned by the Communist state in Czechoslovakia after its premiere. It wasn’t screened there again until after the Velvet Revolution.

Other than that example though, Herz’s films rarely riled up the powers that be in terms of political content. The Soviet Union didn’t approve of horror films though, which prevented the director from working in the genre he most loved. However, the state was happy for filmmakers to make fairy tales. So Herz would often disguise his dark films as such.

One of these horror-sheltered-through-fairy-tale films was 1972’s Morgiana, which is being released on Blu-ray by Second Run. Based on a short story by Alexander Grin, the film is a fairy tale in the true Grimm form, with evil and murder very much in play. As such, despite approving the original script, the authorities were not happy with the end result and once again banned the film.

Herz himself wasn’t all that happy with Morgiana either, claiming he didn’t take the film too seriously. Due to his disinterest in the project, he reportedly treated the production as a form of filmmaking exercise. This makes for a film that’s no less admirable though, as Herz threw himself into experimenting with techniques and building atmosphere rather than putting much effort into story or character.

The film does have a clear central story though, focussing on a tale of sibling rivalry. The father of Klára and Viktoria (both played by Iva Janzurová) has died but, in his will, most of the man’s great wealth and estate has been left to Klára. Viktoria is seethingly jealous of her sister for this, not helped by the fact that Klára is deemed more beautiful and has caught the eye of a man her sister loves.

To get revenge, Viktoria poisons her sister with a concoction that will very slowly kill her and leave no trace, leading the unaware to believe she died of a mysterious illness. As the poison does its thing, Viktoria waits impatiently and suffers from occasional pangs of guilt.

In the commentary included on the disc, the Projection Booth team describe the film as chaotic, discussing how much of it doesn’t quite make sense. I didn’t feel particularly confused by it all, though the film does have a few unusual sequences that aren’t clearly queued up. Overall though, the crux of the narrative is very simple, as described above.

There is an intriguing theme of split personality between the sisters, largely through the use of the same actress in the two roles (which I didn’t actually realise until watching the extra features!) Originally the film was supposed to end halfway through with Klára discovering Viktoria didn’t exist but the authorities didn’t like what Herz had planned so it had to be changed late in the day. As such, the split personality idea is now only nodded towards, adding an extra layer you can lean into if you wish.

I think Morgiana can be very much enjoyed simply at face value though. It has a grotesque quality in the exaggerated makeup and costumes. These, on top of Lubos Fiser’s sumptuous, thematically rich score, add to a thick gothic atmosphere that the film basks in. Herz makes great use of some striking locations too, such as the turbulent cliffside waters and the opulent but notably differing grounds of the two women’s homes.

There’s also some gorgeous photography that aids the dreamlike atmosphere, often using unusual angles and movement. The fish-eye lens Herz utilised frequently in The Cremator plays a part again here, in the ‘cat-cam’ shots that occasionally give us the titular feline’s perspective. Also stylistically impressive are Klára’s psychedelic hallucination sequences, where Herz uses offset split colours to disorientate and bewitch.

Back in 1965, Herz had been snubbed by Morgiana’s DOP, Jaroslav Kucera, when the director asked him to shoot his debut short film, The Junk Shop (which was meant to be part of the Pearls of the Deep anthology before being cut out for length). As mentioned, Hertz wasn’t a FAMU graduate, which was likely a key reason why Kucera had little faith in the director back then. Nevertheless, Herz asked the respected cinematographer to shoot Morgiana 5 years later as he knew the man would deliver what he wanted and Kucera knew, after seeing Herz’s work in between, that he would be allowed to experiment and properly express himself, so this time agreed.

I’m glad he did, as Kucera and Herz work hand-in-hand to create a stylistically bold film that may be narratively simple but enthrals as an intoxicatingly trippy, atmospheric treat.

Morgiana is out on 1st May on region-free Blu-ray, released by Second Run. It’s not a flawless print, with a fair number of flecks present throughout. There’s a slightly green, murky hue to it too and blacks are very heavy, leading to a loss of detail in some shots, though this may well be intentional. It remains a detailed, fairly pleasing image overall though. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review, though these have been compressed. I found no issues with the audio.

BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

– Morgiana (1972) presented from a new HD transfer from the best existing original materials created by the Czech National Film Archive.
– An exclusive filmed interview with director Juraj Herz (2010).
– A Projection Booth audio commentary with Mike White, Kat Ellinger and Ben Buckingham.
– Booklet featuring essay by Daniel Bird and Dr Ian Conrich.
– New and improved English subtitle translation.
– UK premiere on Blu-ray.
– Region Free (A/B/C) Blu-ray.

I always enjoy the Projection Booth commentaries and this one is as informative and likeable as ever. It’s interesting to hear differing views here too, with Ben Buckingham digging deep for hidden meaning whilst Kat Ellinger seems to appreciate the film more on surface value. I think I side with the latter, as Buckingham does feel like he’s reaching at times and Herz himself has professed to caring little about the film but treating it as a filmmaking exercise. Both commentators have valid arguments though.

The Juraj Herz interview covers a fair amount of ground in its 15 mins, discussing, among other things, what drew him to the source material, his relationship with the DOP and how the production and the rest of his output at the time were affected by the Party.

The booklet is as strong as ever, offering an illuminating essay by Daniel Bird on Herz and the film, as well as an interesting look at how Morgiana and some of Herz’s other films fit within the gothic genre, courtesy of Dr Ian Conrich.

As such, Morgiana continues Second Run’s trend of adding fairly modest but valuable extras to excellent films that have been under-represented on Blu-ray. Long may they continue to do so.

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Morgiana - Second Run
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