For this movie lover, the best news of the past week was that Criterion will be releasing the 1967 Czech film Marketa Lazarová on DVD and Blu-Ray in June. This masterpiece of savage barbarian action has never gotten any kind of official release in the U.S. — not theatrically, not on VHS or DVD, until now. This despite the fact that it was voted the best Czech film of all time in a 1998 Czech critics’ poll, over far better-known films by Milos Forman and Oscar winners such as Closely Watched Trains and Kolya (Best Foreign Language Films in 1968 and 1997, respectively).
Based on a novel by Vladislav Vancura, Marketa Lazarová is a sprawling widescreen epic about two rival clans in the Czech-speaking lands in the 13th century. The clans band together to attack a party of Saxons who have come to spread Christianity in the pagan East, and then fall out — and how — when the Germans demand retribution.
The two tribes find themselves warring in particular over one clan leader’s innocent daughter, Marketa (Magda Vášáryová), who seeks only to escape this brutish world by joining a convent. Things don’t go well for anyone; “harsh” and “grim” don’t begin to cover it. As with much of director František Vlácil’s work, the story is in keeping with how prominent a role martyrdom plays in Czech history.
Vlácil brought a visionary zeal to the material: he had his actors and crew live in a forest for a year before filming began, and approached every aspect of the production with an anthropological mindset. The result is stunning: at times the movie plays like cinema verité straight from the Middle Ages — or, to put it in George R.R. Martin terms, like a documentary shot in the muck and frost of Winterfell. (And here there are no cutaways to decadent, sun-dappled King’s Landing to relieve the northern gloom.)
At other moments Marketa Lazarová is like a bizarre hallucinatory vision of medieval times, with free-associative editing, flashbacks and flashforwards, and a subjective approach to the storytelling that transfers from character to character throughout the 162-minute running time. Criterion’s writeup for the DVD calls this “an experimental action film” with good reason: this isn’t like any historical costume drama you’ve ever seen.
A spectacular opening shot of black wolves racing across an icy field sets the tone of a pitiless milieu. The brutal, starkly pagan atmosphere is remarkably convincing; there are scenes where it’s actually a relief to cut back to the Germans, who represent the civilizing influence here. The relatively few critics who have written about Marketa Lazarová as its reputation has slowly grown have likened it to Andrei Tarkovsky; as in the Russian director’s films, Vlácil creates a soulful cinematic universe where 20th-century ironies may as well not exist.
Criterion releases Marketa Lazarová on June 18th, which conveniently enough is around the time the third season of Game of Thrones will be winding down on HBO. There are no dragons in Vlácil’s film, but Marketa Lazarová does not lack for eerie, animist intimations of the supernatural. Men of the North! You need to see this movie!