the film Marketa Lazarová (and the art of idiomatic personae)


Czech, 1967, František Vlácil director

Magda Vášáryová as Marketa



Marketa Lazarová has finally been given the Criterion Collection treatment:

“New, restored 4K digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.”


Many Czech critics consider this film to be the best Czech film. I’ve seen the earlier, unrestored version. This Criterion DVD is going to the top of my wish list.

Marketa Lazarová is the story of a feudal lord’s daughter who is kidnapped by robber knights. She becomes the mistress of one of them. The historical background has to do with aspects of the conflict between Christianity and Paganism. The foreground has to do with rival clans in conflict with the regional king and his captain, who seeks to bring those clans under firm control.

With this film, the suspension of disbelief is immediate, thorough, and hypnotic. Even the landscapes (mostly snowscapes) strike the viewer with a mesmerizing power: it’s as if similar barren fields, reedy marshes, and ancient forests could not be found today anywhere. The scenic elements are imbued with a terrible sublimity, a harsh yet somehow mystical significance. The characters’ costumes are so wild-and-woolly that authenticity appears to have been woven into them by some texture god with an excellent memory. The musical soundtrack is alternately evocative, stirring, and disconcerting.

The film opens with a voice-over to set the stage, to set the feel. It’s wonderfully poetic, like only Eastern Europeans can be. Then, we must wend our way through the action and the dialog that is, at least for me, nonlinear and bizarre. Told in vignettes, the narrative hop-skips between cause and effect. I could discern a vague story flow, but the events seem more impressionistic than logical.

Watching this film, I sense its greatness, although I’m barely able to follow the narrative. No…”although” is not right. I sense its greatness because I have such difficulty with the narrative. By that, do I mean a film must be obscurant per se in order to be impressive high art? That’s not what I mean.

What I’m trying to get at has to do with this historical film’s remarkable transmission to the present of idiomatic Medieval personae. Since idiomatic people are happening in this film, it follows that the narrative itself (the unfolding of what they’re up to) should also be peculiar. That’s how it seems to me. I’m sure you’ve observed great actors disappearing into their roles. But have you ever seen great actors realizing another time?

During the whole thing, I had the sense that my dreams are less strange than Marketa Lazarová land. If I showed up there, even knowing the Czech language, I would be hopelessly lost. I wouldn’t know how to carry on a significant conversation with any of those people back then. In the film, grunts, grimaces, tilts of the eye, and crazy guffaws carry as much semantic material and vital information as words. Yet those hysterical campfire belly laughs don’t seem connected to the dialog for which they are the ostensible reactions! We are dealing here with actors inhabiting 750-year-old minds. Marvelous and head spinning.

The 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, was impressive. I enjoyed it, thought it was interesting and well done. But when I think more about it, I realize how little imagination went into the acting. Apparently, little or no effort went into creating weirdness for viewers who are eavesdropping on a different, alien era. With John Adams, present types are plucked from Hollywood normality and plopped into cool costumes and recorded events. We aren’t presented with roles inhabiting the odd brain waves of those from a distant time. The gestures, glances, and expressions in this miniseries aren’t conveyed with an adequate temporal eccentricity, with an imagined semblance to late 18th-century and early 19th-century mindspace.

And think about real life. If you’re my age, you can zoom back just 40 years, to high school. You’d have no problem with the conversations, but wouldn’t the general ambiance seem different than now? Perhaps even dreamlike? That kind of thing is what the director and actors excel in during Marketa Lazarová. They went way back, and the oddness got wonderfully odder.

We can read translations of Homer and Goethe. We can read the English, of course, of Shakespeare. We can understand what is on the page, more or less. But what if we were transported back in time? Would the face-to-face encounters allow us to completely “get” what is being said to us by those far souls? Would we read, with subtle perspicacity, the body language and significant looks of a previous era? Or would many of those conversations, conveyed with unfamiliar gestures, strike us as bordering on the non sequitur?

What I’m trying to describe is similar to culture shock, but it’s less about a geographical than a temporal dislocation. Not only a given culture’s sense of where, but also a culture’s sense of when. The shared innate forms of meaning and how they’re projected to other minds constitutes (I surmise with unwarranted gusto) a quasi-telepathic phenomenon. If you get plopped down into a Medieval Czech village, you’re not going to know the proper winks and nods, the unspoken codes.

The investment of imagination by the director and actors of Marketa Lazarová is astounding. Their creation of idiomatic personae is as close as we’re going to get to time travel.

I’ll leave you with a couple choice dialogue exchanges:

“Where did you see the regiment?”
“Half a day away.”
“What do you mean?”

“The marshes are frozen.”
“Butterbur is a healer.”






 The Criterion Collection page for this film



Posted by Tim Buck



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