In less than a minute, before the film’s opening titles even conclude, Marketa Lazarová has announced itself as something potentially unique, perhaps indefinable. The first line of a brief prologue declares, “This tale was cobbled together almost at random,” before a title card reiterates what we’re about to see as a “rhapsody in film,” one “freely adapted” by director František Vláčil and co-screenwriter František Pavlíček. That all these things are soon confirmed, even exceeded, is certainly the impetus behind Marketa Lazarová’s reputation as simultaneously one of the greatest and most difficult works of Czechoslovakian cinema. Though it emerged at the height of what came to be known as the Czech New Wave, this 1967 film stands as something rare not just amid the anarchic vulgarity of Daisies or the emotional naïveté of Loves of a Blonde, but also among the greater cinematic landscape of the period. What this film is—along with being, yes, random, free, and rhapsodic—is something stranger, something paradoxical and altogether original: an intimate epic, a tangible hallucination, a visceral symphony, and, perhaps most affectingly, a beautiful display of brutality.
As is frequently noted, the film’s only contemporary appears to be the early work of Andrei Tarkovsky. With both Ivan’s Childhood, in its wartime coming-of-age construct, and Andrei Rublev, in its historical pillaging, together with both films’ severe yet fluid aesthetic bravery, Tarkovsky seemed to map the coordinates by which Vláčil operates—though, importantly and unlike his Russian influence, Vláčil sacrifices narrative coherence for a more intuitive logic. As such, Marketa Lazarová is an at once vivid and disorienting parable. Adapted from Vladislav Vančura’s novel of the same name, outlined in two chapters, and further split into assorted tableau, the film uses time and spatial disorientation as a device for intrigue, if not always harmony. Pitting warring, medieval, familial clans against one another behind the wintry curtain of Czechoslovakia during the Middle Ages, Vláčil paints a world of rivalry, despair, lust, and revenge in restless brush strokes, his camera following characters, animals, and nature’s shifting currents with equal curiosity.
The film rarely lets up, piling events, characters, and visions atop each other with fierce abandon, Vláčil attempting to capture every moment, every action, every sensation, lest this story and these all but forgotten people fade from memory. It’s an ambitious undertaking, the logistical hurdles of the production and the dedication of its players never less than palpable, and yet the film never strains under such duress, instead emerging pure, uncompromised. In its restless energy, its tactile mise-en-scène, its internal logic, it’s easy to see its reverberations in likes of Emir Kustarica’s Underground, Alexei Guerman’s Khrustalyov, My Car, and, most recently, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust. But Marketa Lazarová is its own perfect storm. Amid the flurry of on-screen activity is the title character, in a sense both our guide through this tumultuous time and an approximation of our mindset as viewers as she’s kidnapped, raped, and sent emotionally reeling as the men in her life resemble both friend and foe alike. She has no one to trust, so she trusts herself; we have no one to trust, so we trust Marketa. In the end, we survive—but not as before, but as something new and revitalized.