Bell, Book and Broomstick

in 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Peter Kremski

For many years, it has been a great tradition in Karlovy Vary to distribute honorary awards to actors, directors or producers who “have contributed in a fundamental way to the development of film”. This year, a lifetime achievement award went to noted Czech film director and screen writer Václav Vorlicek for being one of the most distinguished figures in the history of Czech cinema. This particular distinction aligns him with such great film directors as Milos Forman, Vera Chytilová, Jirí Menzel and Vojtech Jasný who have been honored earlier in Karlovy Vary in acknowledgement of “their outstanding contribution to world cinema” and their “artistic contribution to Czech films”.

“I’m proud and happy, this prize has finally come to me”, Vorlicek said with a certain twinkle in his eyes and in his voice. The much beloved filmmaker, 87 years old by now, has directed almost half a hundred films over a period of seven decades. Many of his films are immensely popular in his homeland, and so it was hardly surprising that he got standing ovations by the whole audience at the award ceremony. But when he saw a run through his films in a clip presented during the ceremony, he commented this ironically by telling the audience that he noticed some films he should not have done.

Vorlicek started his career as a student at Prague’s famous film school FAMU in the early 1950s. One of his fellow-students was Milos Forman, two years younger than him. While Forman gave his feature length debut in 1964 with Black Peter (Cerný Petr), Vorlicek had already started four years earlier with The Lupinek Case (Prípad Lupínek), a children’s film, which at that time did not yet have a great tradition in the CSSR. Both Forman and Vorlicek developed as great comedy directors, but whereas Forman with his biting social satires gave considerable shape to the style of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, Vorlicek ventured into farcical genre comedies with a science fiction or fantasy touch, laying the ground for children’s films and fairytale films, which made him famous in the early 1970s and since then have become a trademark of Czech cinema and television. Finally, Forman left the CSSR for political reasons in 1968, found his path to Hollywood and made a world career, whereas Vorlicek stayed home and turned into one of the most prolific film directors of the Barrandov Film Studios in Prague.

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival showed two of his films as a tribute to his career. The first film chosen was Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Kdo che zabit Jessii?), shot in 1966, one of Vorlicek’s great achievements of his early years as a film director. At the time of its release the film had even aroused the interest of Hollywood because of its extraordinary commercial success in the CSSR and other Eastern European countries and because of the comic book kind of story told in the film. An American remake had been in planning and Vorlicek was already collaborating on a script, when Russian tanks invading Prague terminated such ideas in 1968. Otherwise, maybe, Vorlicek with his special sense for fantastic comedy would have conquered Hollywood right away.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is a science fiction comedy, marvellously shot in black & white and scope. It tells of a scientific project to gain control of dreams in order to make them softer – maybe with the secretly intended effect to produce peaceful citizens adjusted to the demands of society. But the experiment goes wrong. Characters of the dream world are set free and invade the real world. A blonde dream girl (played by Olga Schoberová) emerges from the dreams and links herself romantically with the dreamer but is frantically chased by a gun slinging cowboy and a physically vigorous superman, also rising from the dream world and creating chaotic situations in a destructive way. All these dream creatures are fashioned after American comic book characters and do not speak by voice but in comic strip bubbles. Who Wants to Kill Jessie? was Vorlicek’s first collaboration with his congenial co-writer Milos Macourek. The two of them worked together on more than twenty films creating a fantasy-based comedy cosmos quite their own and always tongue-in-cheek. The second film chosen by the festival once again was a collaboration of Vorlicek and Macourek. The Girl on a Broomstick (Dívka na kosteti), a fantasy comedy from 1972, still highly popular in the Czech Republic, served as the festival’s closing film after the award ceremony.

The Girl on a Broomstick is a further investigation into narrative structures first outlined in Who Wants to Kill Jessie? Once more, we meet a film that tells a fantastic story where characters from a fantasy world enter the real world creating a never-ending series of hilariously absurd situations. This time, the heroine is a rather unable young witch leaving her unsatisfying surroundings by escaping to the human world. With his last film to date, Little Witch on a Broomstick (Saxána a Lexikon kouzel), released in 2011, Vorlicek tried to present a sequel to this peerless classic. Here, the little daughter of the former witch, now living in the human world, returns to the realm of fantasy by the help of a magical book of charms.

It is this exchange between the real world and a world of imagination which became Vorlicek’s and, of course, Macourek’s trademark. Their greatest achievement in this kind of fantastic comedy was Arabela (also known under its German title Die Märchenbraut), a Czech-German co-production, conceived as a serial for television in 1979, divided into thirteen episodes and extended to a length of 370 minutes. This utterly ingenious meta-film about the crude absurdity of fairy tales was also a highly sophisticated satire on the failures of modern society. Here, the characters permanently move between the two worlds. Fairytale characters easily enter reality and, vice versa, characters from reality dive deeply into the fairytale world using magic bells, rings and cloaks or flying trunks.

Vorlicek’s most celebrated film, however, is the subtly told fairytale romance Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tri orísky pro Popelku), written by Frantisek Pavlícek, author of the bizarrely poetic epic Marketa Lazarová. This beautifully worked-out gem has become Vorlicek’s most successful film and a cult-classic in many countries. Shot in 1973, it still is regularly shown on worldwide television every year at Christmas time. This, of course, is the film that made Vorlicek internationally famous as an unequalled master of the fairytale film. It is a film almost known by everybody, even if many viewers will probably not know the name of the man who made it.

Edited by Steven Yates