B&W, 1969, 106 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Pavel Jurácek
Starring Lubomír Kostelka, Klára Jerneková, Milena Zahrynowska
Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Showshank (Blu-ray) (Czech R0 HD), Facets (US R0 NTSC)
Satire has long been held as one of the most effective forms of making a political statement to the masses, and few did it better than Jonathan Swift, a razor-sharp essayist whose fantasy novel, Gulliver's Travels, has been a mainstay for adaptations and translations around the world. It seems inevitable that the basics of the story would find their way into a statement about Eastern Bloc Communism, and sure enough that came to pass in 1970 with the Czech film Case for a Rookie Hangman (Prípad pro zacínajícího kata), the second and last feature directed by noted screenwriter Pavel Jurácek (Daisies, Late August at the Hotel Ozone). Mashing in elements of Alice in Wonderland, it's a wild and paranoid vision that understandably upset authorities and led to the film's suppression for years.
While out on the road in the middle of the countryside, Lemuel Gulliver (Kostelka) sees a car overturn and crash off the road. While investigating he comes across a dead rabbit named Oscar dressed in pants and a jacket, along with a watch he decides to take. From there he enters a seemingly abandoned house and encounters people he thought to be dead or missing including former flame, Marketa, and a little girl named Judith. That watch ends up changing the course of his fate when he finds himself in a strange land called Balnibari, a totalitarian state where he's gagged with a scarf, interrogated, and left confounded by the random rules and mythologies including orders of silence and a strange history about a stone kingdom, Laputa, that rose into the sky. In a world that seems strangled by its laws and the line between life and death has no meaning, he's thrown into a series of picaresque adventures (divided into 12 chapters) as he tries to find his way back home.
Fascinating from start to finish, this film is loaded with memorable set pieces and manages to maintain a consistent air of quirky surrealism despite the inherently disturbing nature of the subject matter. It's also beautifully shot in black-and-white with plenty of moody lighting, frequent hand-held camerawork, and brief but jolting manipulations to the film speed including some frame-dropping effects. The satirical aspects are certainly not as fantastic as Swift's but still definitely there, particularly a wild, extended execution attempt in the final stretch that really has to be seen to be believed.
The amazing ongoing efforts by the Czech National Film Archive to preserve its heritage resulted in a painstaking 4K restoration of this film that first bowed on Czech Blu-ray (with English subtitles) with bonus features including Jurácek's short film Josef Kilian and five bonus Jurácek-penned shorts (Jan Schmidt's Cars without a Home (Auta bez domova) and Black and White Sylvia (Černobílá Sylva), Václav Sklenář's Krabice filmu, Vlastimil Venclík's Nezvaný host, and Věra Chytilová's Kočičina). The 2019 Blu-ray and DVD editions from Second Run are taken from the same excellent restoration, which stays true to the original nature of the film (including those stylized printing effects) with an impressive level of detail and natural film grain. The 24-bit LPCM Czech 2.0 mono audio is also immaculate and features a new English subtitle translation. The film can also be played with an episode of The Projection Booth broadcast devoted to the film, which runs for over an hour and a half with Miek White, Kat Ellinger, Kevin Heffernan, and Peter Hames diving full-force into the film and its connections to other European features. The most pertinent short films have been carried over here as well, fully restored, starting with 1963's Josef Kilian (39m30s), which Jurácek co-directed with Schmidt and also involves a subversive depiction of a man (Pavel Bartl) swirling in a bureaucratic netherworld-- albeit one more jazzy and mundane this time around. This one has also undergone a full-scale 4K restoration and looks fantastic. Even jazzier and more upbeat is 1959's free-form documentary Cars without a Home (6m38s), a quirky look at residents getting together to build a garage for all the vehicles around town, while 1961's Black and White Sylvia (28m34s) is a fanciful (and again somewhat political) depiction of a unique young cinematic girl's impact on the men around her including some irritable bricklayers. A rather grim reissue trailer is also included, and the package comes with excellent liner notes by Michael Brooke (cleverly divided into chapters like the main feature) covering Jurácek's career and the genesis of this film in admirable detail.
Reviewed on June 22, 2019.