A great fairy tale from a great storyteller
26 May 2005 | by simon-bensasson (Greece)
This is the story of a woodcutter in Bohemia during a war between Austria and Turkey. Wandering in the forest he finds a golden fern whose seed turns into a beautiful young woman – they fall in love. After a village feast in which he gets drunk he gets to sign up to the army. The fairy gives him a shirt to wear and asks him to swear he will never part with it. At the war front he falls in love with the the colonels daughter; cold beauty who asks him to perform various feats in order to respond to his courting (bring her the horse of the grand-vizier, then the necklace of the grand-vizier’s wife and finally his nightingale). In performing these feats he proves invulnerable to bullets, swords and other calamities – protected by the fairy’s shirt. Before performing the last feat, however, the colonel’s daughter asks him to throw away his ugly shirt, which he does. He returns, wounded and disguised in Turkish clothes to escape from the enemy camp. He gets arrested as a spy and condemned to death by a thousand strikes. His comrades who are assigned to throw his body at the river discover he’s still alive and let him go. Returning to his village he does not find Sylvana (the fairy of the golden fern) and the film ends with him wandering in the forest shouting her name in a beautiful photograph in which the camera moves high up the trees.
This black and white film, with superb photography, is most engaging and of a unique lyricism and nearly invisible seams running across the plot The woodcutter and Sylvana dance a fast folk dance full of life at the village fair at the beginning of the film in a contest of endurance. Before the woodcutters hapless sortie to get the viziers nightingale, he finds himself in the company of officers and their women dancing an elegant and very slow minuet, all wearing identical golden masks. It is the same tune only this time it as much a herald of doom as the folk dance was the expression of love and life.
I saw this film twice about 40 years ago and did not manage to find again anywhere on any media (and lord knows I’ve looked). It is one of the few things whose every detail has remained vivid in my mind ever since.
The “Saragossa Manuscript” by Wojciech Has, whose plot is at about the same time, has some undertones of the “Golden Fern” but does not even begin to match either the latter’s lyricism, story line or its more visual aspects such as a superb, bold and expressive photography. The expressiveness of some of the characters, such as that of a fortune teller who warns our hero against the “iron rock” he is in love with and other characters are only comparable with some of Eisenstein’s or Bergman’s ‘designs’ though without the deliberate expressionist exaggeration of the former. In fact, the strongest point of the film is the way the plot, the acting, the photography and the music bind in tight whole.