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Almost Famous

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Something’s not quite right about Frantisek Vlacil’s 1969 film Adelheid. Maybe it’s that this was his first color film. Maybe it was the Russian tanks parked in Prague. Maybe in making a modern film instead of one of his more successful medieval efforts, he was too close to the people and events depicted. Or maybe it’s because the film is about a man who is not quite right himself.

Whatever it was, Adelheid just isn’t as good a film as I know Vlacil was capable of making. I reviewed his 1967 Valley of the Bees earlier on Movie Habit and found its cinematography amazing, the story line clean without being simplistic, and the overall film engaging without being obtuse.

The excellent program notes that accompany this DVD state that in1998, one year before his death and 10 years after his last film, Vlacil was chosen by a group of his Czech peers has having made the best Czech film of all time (Market Lazarova). So although I can’t quite recommend Adelheid, a lesser director would have been proud to have made it. This DVD will nicely fill out your Vlacil collection, but if you are a first time viewer, don’t pre-judge his other work based on Adelheid.

Post-War Homecoming

Adelheid is a survivor of the war who knows to survive you play your cards close to your chest
Adelheid is a survivor of the war who knows to survive you play your cards close to your chest

The theme of Adelheid is the conflict between opposing nationalities and languages (a timely topic here in the United States because of the resurgence of the English Only movement). The film takes place in the part of Czechoslovakia known to the Germans as The Sudetenland, which was one of the first targets for annexation by Hitler. After WWII, the animosity and bitterness between the German- and Czech-speaking people was intense. There were reprisals against the Germans, killings, and forced expulsion of tens of thousands of people. Today we’d call it an “ethnic cleansing.”

The story begins with Viktor Chotovický (Petr Cepek) returning to Czechoslovakia shortly after the end of WWII. Chotovický had been in the British RAF for most of the war. (Rather than surrendering to the Germans, many soldiers in the overrun countries of Europe escaped to fight with the British, some in their own national battalions or squadrons.) He has returned to his homeland, which is still in a twilight of post-war confusion and danger. He has been assigned the job of conducting an inventory of an abandoned country mansion.

There is something amiss with Chotovický. Nothing seems to suit him. He is following his orders out of habit, not purpose, and he seems bent on going against the grain every chance he can get, seemingly just for the hell of it. Chotovický has spent the war in the relative safety of Scotland, and though war weary, he’s not been through what the locals have endured. While his friends, family, and country were suffering, he was warm and well fed in a foreign land. Is Chotovický’s problem survivor’s guilt? Perhaps.

Reversal of Fortune

In one of the brilliant sequences of the film, he ignorantly walks into a mine field after reading an ancient stone marker that announces ‘This Is The End Of The Road’ (prophetic, no?). On the hill above him, a small group of people stop to watch but make no effort to warn him of the danger. They are all dressed in black and are not much more than distant silhouettes bent on some drearily hellish task.

With out knowing anything about them, you do know that there is something wrong and dangerous about these people. As it turns out they are Germans from a local Displaced Persons camp — the same people who had, a few years before, owned Czechoslovakia and most of Europe, but who are now homeless, destitute, and reduced to grubbing in the dirt.

It is moments like this that the mastery of Vlacil shines through.

Love Shack

Chotovický survives the minefield through the intervention of another Czech and begins his task of managing the manor. The local police chief assigns a German woman to help him clean the house. The woman is Adelheid (Emma Cerná) and as we discover she is the daughter of the former German master of the house, a Herr Heldemann, the district’s most notorious Nazi. Chotovický falls for Adelheid, but we are not sure of her feelings. She may not be sure of them either, for she is a survivor of the war and like the police chief she knows that to survive you have to play your cards close to your chest. As the police chief advises Chotovický, “Don’t trust anyone.”

Chotovický is Czech and Adelheid is German and the two are not supposed to mix. You might think this is the ol’ Romeo and Juliet setup, but this Juliet is reluctant. Also Chotovický has Adelheid at a distinct disadvantage. Her father is in line for the gallows and she’s just a step away from being denounced as a war criminal herself. When Chotovický tells her to go to his bed and wait for him, she doesn’t really have much choice.

For most of the film, everybody behaves this badly. Was Vlacil’s intent in making the film to show his Czech audience that, sure the Germans were swine, but after the war the Czechs weren’t much better?

Spoiler alert in effect for this paragraph: Whatever his motive, Valcil gathers up the loose ends and makes a run at the finale with the surprise return from Russia of Adelhied’s brother. During the unavoidable fight between Chotovický and the brother, Adelheid says (without actually saying it) Enough! and beats them both into unconsciousness with a brass curtain rod. In the coda, Adelheid is arrested for harboring the brother but hangs herself before she can be hung by the Czechs. Chotovický has nothing left to live for and walks off into the snow-covered minefield that we saw at the beginning of the film. In the audio background a government official is still reading the official report of her suicide, a monotone list of what she wore when she died.... Fade to black.

It’s a sad ending to a tragic story and an uneven film. Perhaps in another time and place Frantisek Vlacil would have made it into a masterpiece. The potential for one is certainly there. But as the Zen monks say, “Occasionally even the Master makes mistakes.”

DVD Extras

English subtitles and scene selections are the only “extra features” on the disc. The printed liner notes are very good, a must-read for the historical background to the story.

Picture and Sound

The picture quality is uneven, particularly the color which seems not to have aged very well. The film is almost 40 years old and perhaps this was the best (or only) print available.

How to Use this DVD

Reading the program notes is recommended before watching the film. The fate of the real-life German-speaking Czechs after the war is a contentious subject, and you may not like what the booklet says, but I believe it to be consistent with the film’s point of view.