Some notes on Second Run's DVD release of The White Dove + Josef Kilián

23 October 2013

Second Run's latest DVD release includes two impressive early '60s films from Czechoslovakia...
The White Dove (Holubice, 1960) was František Vláčil's debut feature. Adapted by the director from a story by Otakar Kirchner, its ostensibly simple plot involves a disabled boy (Karel Smyczek) who shoots down a white dove with an air rifle, only to subsequently care for the bird with aid from his mother's neighbour (Václav Irmanov); meanwhile, the dove's owner Susanne (Kateřina Irmanovová) awaits the bird's return, flirting with a life guard at the local beach. Atop this basic set-up, however, is a bedazzling array of stylistic flourishes - some of which anticipate the associative narrative style for which Tarkovsky would become famous.

Bookended by what appear to be images set very much in the real world - a giant road sign on the road to Liège and a rightward pan across rooftops in Prague (the former to the dawn rumbles of a lorry, the latter to the dusk sounds of a sonically incongrous tide) - Vláčil's film sustains for its 67 minutes that intangibly sophisticated, almost hermetic editorial logic we have since come to describe, for better or worse, as "poetic". Themes of childhood, imagination, recovery, imprisonment, resilience and flight all meld together here for a headily interwoven tapestry of images. The film feels like the product of someone for whom the cinema's defining feature was its ability to synthesise: as noted by Peter Hames in the 24-page booklet accompanying this DVD set, to create a third meaning from the juxaposition of two otherwise disparate elements. One such element is Zděnek Liška's excellent score, which threatenes to overwhelm from the off before settling into its own comfort zone.

The decision to denote early ellipses with on-screen text lends a storybook quality. "That morning carrier pigeons flew from Belgium // they were also expected on a small island in the Baltic Sea // Susan's dove was driven away by a storm // and got lost". Cut to an interlude of eerie calm, and to the idiosyncratic shapes of Prague's roofs in the early morning fog. Though disorienting to begin with, the film establishes its own rhythm, and everything gradually seems interconnected - and double-edged. Indeed, the would-be menacing image of a sharp knife here turns into a creative flourish when the instrument is used instead to carve a sculpture (Nietzsche philosophised with a hammer, a tool that both demolishes and erects). A grisly undercurrent mounts with the image of a severed face. But characters maintain their creative energy, their almost telepathic bonds, their mutual needs. This is a world in which the will alone is enough to correct wrongs. The face returns - to revelatory effect.

The White Dove's release continues Second Run's ongoing commitment to Eastern European Cinema, and to Czechoslovakian Cinema in particular. I must confess these titles are a learn-as-you-go appreciation for me. That cinephiles and historians are seeing many of them for the first time reveals the importance of Second Run's curatorial remit - and that the sociopolitical conditions to which these films originally responded to might not be known to the same extent as, say, the Russian or Western European films of the same period, makes the films as challenging and exciting today as they were upon first release.

Included here is Josef Kilián (Postava k podpiráni, 1963), Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt's mid-length hilarious and ambiguous film about a man who has to assume full responsibility for a cat after he has difficulty finding the rental store from which he has borrowed it. Opening with a long shot of an empty street - down which we see the consecutive processions of a group of children one way, a group of soldiers the other, and then a horse-drawn funeral march - Juráček and Schmidt's tonally complex, delightfully atmospheric film is an absurdist nightmare.

Jan Herold (Karel Vašiček) proceeds down a dingy corridor of ditched protest placards such as "The Five Year Plan In One Year" and "Destroy the Colorado Beetle" before opening out onto the sunnier but equally fragmented street outside, in which various queries with passers-by result in as many communication breakdowns as freeze-frames. Jan rents a cat, and when he goes to return it the next day, finds the store from which he rented it has disappeared ("that rings a bell", one local remarks; "is this some kind of joke?" asks another).

Is this formally seductive curio warning against the empty political rhetoric of its day? More specifically, is it calling arms to go all the way (communism) against doomed half-measures (stalinism)? Whatever, there's something particularly pertinent about someone not knowing quite how to negotiate an escalating scenario after only tentatively committing to it in the first place. Fully commit, the film seems to be saying, or don't commit at all. Later in the film, two men exchange opinions on what differentiates men from animals. While one says "reasoning", the other says "obedience"; the worry is that the filmmakers don't intervene themselves. This is a film in some way conditioned by political subjugation.

Josef Kilián takes its title from an unseen character, a comrade who has seemingly gone missing. In its latter stages, the film shifts into tonally-cum-thematically darker (or Kafkaesque) territory, with a host of characters gathered to hear from their pal, surrounded by the oppressive walls of a waiting room defined by narrow corridors outside and shifty eyes within. A clock ticks, a window opens out onto a brick wall... But the most striking image of the film - besides the amusing opening - is that of a mysterious figure ascending a staircase in an apartment block. Looking up the centre of the staircase from the very bottom, we see the figure is a flight lower each time he reappears, despite the illusion of proceeding upward. The semblance to Escher is fitting for this formal hall of mirrors.