Krakatit is one of a few Otakar Vávra films I’ve seen of late. It immediately reminds of a far less hard-boiled Kiss Me Deadly. It’s 7 years prior to Aldrich’s film, and it doesn’t have the mean streak that makes Kiss Me Deadly so amazing, but Krakatit mixes film noir with “fear of the bomb” into something really atmospheric.
Karel Höger plays Prokop, a man who may or may not be hallucinating about some world’s end event. One of the great things about Krakatit is for how long it’s unclear whether Prokop is totally insane or not. He’s treated with kid gloves by a lot of people: the raving madman. When the full extent of the shady cabal behind him is revealed he seems like the only sane one on the planet.
But what’s probably best about the film is Prokop’s guilt. Very much unlike Kiss Me Deadly, Krakatit plays things less as a thriller and more as internal struggle. Prokop’s repressed memories stem from a dark place and for much of the film he tries to shut them out.
Here’s a clip from the film. It’s one of the best scenes and has slight SPOILERS. Very Metropolis. Sorry about the lack of subtitles.
That’s Florence Marly opposite Höger. It’s a great example of Prokop’s remorse that turns nearly violent (something played on throughout the film: is this man dangerous?). But I also love the contrast in their movements. She glides. He walks. The moment where they face off at 0:42 – she appears to have wings, he has antlers growing out of his head – just makes her so much more superior.
And the ending to that clip. It’s chilling. Not only in what actually happens, but the camera move is so sweeping. It feels like the ending to a film how it pulls away. The final image, just before the fade is totally black, is like his final image of her, burned onto his memory.
As much as I loved Krakatit, Joseph Kilian is far and away the best Czech film I’ve seen since moving to Prague. Like so many of the great New Wave entries it’s hilarious, scary, and absurdist at once. There’s some of the The Trial in here – even Welles’ version, perhaps – but this feels like a landmark film.
The plot revolves around a man searching for someone named Joseph Kilian, his “comrade,” who he wants to notify about a vague death. In the process the protagonist rents a cat and, upon attempting to return it, finds the cat shop is gone and no one knows what he’s talking about.
The film is so moody, and its opening frames – a shot that any filmmaker should study and aspire to – sets a standard. We peer down a long street and basically watch the cycles of life parade by in the distance, children, adults, eventually a funeral:
Finally, Harold emerges and walks towards us.
What a tone-setter. Harold leaves the oppressive march that moves only in wide shot and left to right or right to left and walks right towards the lens, meaningfully. Here’s a man who’s different from the rest of society. But in the end he gets caught up in it like everyone else.
The film is filled with set pieces both bureaucratic and eerie-
-and it goes a long way to play, like, I think films such as Report on the Party and the Guests will later, on the man vs. “mannered society” (i.e. Communist regime) theme.
Case For a Rookie Hangman
Pavel Jurácek made Case For a Rookie Hangman (the title of which reminds me, of course, of Death by Hanging, though the films are really different) 7 years after Joseph Kilian. The themes are largely the same, but the film feels so much more bloated. Based on “Gulliver’s Travels,” it uses much of the same tactic, but to lesser ultimate effect than his 1963 short.
The problem with Rookie Hangman is part of the strategy: Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) is caught in between three strange worlds and doesn’t know how to escape. His entrance into the first world – by car – is probably the best part of the film. The rest of it begins to feel a bit redundant. I realize that redundancy is part of the tactic, but it loses steam in its 100 minute runtime.
Still, like Joseph Kilian, the film is so imaginative. The frames are often absurd (first and third below), but all are beautifully composed: