Color, 1969, 99 mins. 14 secs.
Directed by Miloš Makovec, Jiří Brdečka, Evald Schorm
Starring Miloš Kopecký, Milena Dvorská, Jan Klusák, Lucie Novotná, Teresa Tuszyńska, Josef Somr, Jirí Hrzán Jirí Hrzán
Deaf Crocodile (Blu-ray) (US RA HD)
Promoted now as a horror anthology in the vein of Black Sabbath but something a lot harder to pin down than that, the beguiling Czech triptych Prague Nights is one of those mysterious fantasy films that's mostly flown under the radar for decades. Recently restored and given its first North American home video release of any kind by Deaf Crocodile on Blu-ray in 2023, it's a real treat that will invite multiple viewings from anyone with a taste for European supernatural confections.
After night falls in modern downtown Prague, visiting German businessman Mr. Fabricius (Kopecký) blows off the rest of the evening with his coworkers saying he has to finish a project. Instead he starts hitting on any female in sight, which takes him down a dark road when he gets a lift to the old part of town. There he meets an enigmatic local woman, Zuzana (Dvorská), and her intrusive chauffeur, Václav (Hrzán), who spirit him to the nearby cemetery. There she identifies three key grave markers and spins tales of their occupants starting with "The Last Golem," directed by Jiří Brdečka, in which a pushy emperor tries to incite a rabbi to resurrect a golem that saved their community. After the rabbi refuses, the young and opportunistic Polish Rabbi Neftali Ben Chaim (composer Klusák of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) offers to take up the challenge. As he prepares a bigger golem for these shady political purposes, Chaim is attended to by a mute servant girl (Novotná) who becomes the object of his romantic obsession -- with ironic results as the elder rabbi desperately tries to avoid God's wrath. Then in "Bread Slippers," directed by Evald Schorm, a manipulative bisexual Countess (Tuszyńska) with a habit of driving men to their doom goes a step too far when she poses an impossible baker costume challenge to her latest suitor, leading to his suicide. The ball they intended to attend together materializes when a shoemaker fulfills her wish only too well, leading to a macabre party in an eerie house. Finally in the black comedy pop musical(!) "Poisoned Poisoner" by Milos Makovec (who also helmed the framing story), a medieval tavern owner (Dvorská again) and her attendant bump off a string of guests including a knight and a friar to pilfer their belongings. As the physical indulgences mount, so does the risk of karma coming back around.
There probably won't be too many people who disagree that the first tale is the best, given that it's visually stunning, clever, and has a haunting score by Zdenek Liska (The Cremator), who also handled song duties on the third story. (It's a real shame there's no soundtrack release as the music throughout is superb.) The variety of the stories and surprising imagination on display make them all worth watching, with the stylized, dialogue-free third one (which almost feels like Walerian Borowczyk at times) probably going to be the biggest challenge for some viewers. There's enough sinister material here for this to squeak by into the horror genre, though dark magical realism is probably a better way to approach the project as it also has a dreamy, whimsical attitude capped off by a wild flourish at the end.
Since this will be a first-time view for just about everyone who holds the Blu-ray in their hands, it's a good thing the restoration here is excellent and presumably reflects the intended peculiar look of the film with varying tints used for the wraparounds and delicate, spooky full color employed for the three tales. The Czech DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track is also clean and nicely restored, with optional English subtitles. A really endearing videoconference interview is conducted by Deaf Crocodile's Dennis Bartok with Czech film critic and screenwriter Tereza Brdečková (47m39s) on her father, Jiří Brdečka, covering his career as a screenwriter (with some of the very biggest Czech fantasy filmmakers), animator, live action director (including the "Last Golem" segment in this feature), and other artistic pursuits within and outside cinema that reflected his personality and cultural upbringing. An extensive new audio commentary by Tereza Brdečková and Czech film expert Irena Kovarova of Comeback Company touches on the many personalities at play in this film, the feature and TV works linked to it both before and after, and some of the art and history references here that could easily fly by most viewers. Two superb and haunting Jiří Brdečka animated short films are also included: Pomsta” (Revenge) (1968, 14m4s.), which starts off as a whimsical animated piece before going into very dark Coraline territory, and Jsouc na řece mlynář jeden (There Was A Miller On A River) (1971, 10m58s), a dark folklore tale done in the style of flat medieval painting and featuring some very macabre flourishes as well. Finally in the booklet you get a mew essay by Tereza Brdečková on the making of the feature, translated by Jonathan Owen
Reviewed on September 16, 2023