Mad about ‘Marketa’: A few words about the Czech classic

Widescreen visions: Magda Vášáryová in MARKETA LAZAROVA (1967). © Copyright The Criterion Collection.

The classic 1967 Czech film Marketa Lazarová is out now, beautifully restored on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray, so now everyone can see what a few devotees like me have been raving about for years. (Click here for my earlier post about the filmGame of Thrones fans, this is a movie for you!)

Criterion’s release of Marketa Lazarová comes with a short essay by critic Tom Gunning that’s also available on the Criterion website. Gunning makes an inspired observation in his piece:

“Marketa Lazarová also makes us realize that we need to reevaluate the international cinema of the Sixties, expanding beyond the acknowledged masterpieces of the New Wave to discover neglected genres and auteurs. … I feel our current cinema has retreated from the model of Sixties art cinema by focusing instead on either commercial genres or a detached, contemplative cinema of long takes and emotional distance, sacrificing the experimentation and excitement of the Sixties for a more rarefied formalism.

No film embodies the possibilities of the Sixties better than Marketa Lazarová. To my mind, it is not only a neglected masterpiece but exemplary of that mode of cinema that was at once passionate and thought-provoking, disturbing and exhilarating, and vital enough still to inspire viewers and filmmakers into the future. Rediscovering this extraordinary film should renew our sense of the possibilities of cinema today.″

I couldn’t agree more. In the past few years, as I’ve discovered Marketa Lazarová and other movies of the Czech New Wave (top of the list: Daisies) — as well as films like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Pitfall (Japan, 1962) or Miklós Janscó’s The Red and the White (Hungary, 1967) — I’ve often been struck by how the movies seem to lay down a challenge that somehow found disappointingly few takers in the ensuing decades.

These movies are sometimes classified as ‘modernist’ filmmaking; no one should let that tag scare them off. What it really means is that the movies abandon the standard editing practices of classic Hollywood for a more subjective, unpredictable technique. You get the impression that the directors arrived on set every day determined to test what their medium was capable of. The results are thrilling to watch, particularly if you’re a cineaste who thinks he’s seen it all.

Magda Vášáryová as Marketa. © Copyright the Criterion Collection.

It’s no exercise in movie snobbery to cite these movies: The films aren’t as well known as they should be, but that doesn’t mean they’re inaccessible. All of them are as gripping as they are boldly experimental with their storytelling. (And in the heady context of the 1960s, with New Waves all over the world seemingly spurring each other on, the movies may not have even struck viewers as experimental, but more like the latest breakthrough.)

They’re movies that deserve to be seen on a big screen — or on the lavish discs that Criterion puts out (and I hope, profits from, so that the company can keep surprising us with new finds for years to come).

To read Tom Gunning’s complete essay, click here.

Curious to see more? Check out the gallery “Marvelous Images from Marketa Lazarová” on the Criterion site.

Click here for a fascinating essay by translator Alex Zucker on Vladislav Vancura, author of the 1931 novel Marketa Lazarová.

Feel free to weigh in