The White Lady

English Title: The White Lady

Original Title: Bílá paní

Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia

Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov

Director: Zdeněk Podskalský

Producer(s): Filmové Studio Barrandov

Screenplay: Zdeněk Podskalský, Karel Michal

Cinematographer: František Valert

Editor: Zdeněk Stehlík

Runtime: 92 minutes

Genre: Comedy/Satire

Language: Czech

Starring/Cast: Miloš Kopecký, Rudolf Hrušínský, Vlastimil Brodský

Year: 1965

Volume: East European

Synopsis:

In a small Czech town, a mediaeval ghost known as the White Lady of Komonice comes out of a castle painting when there is a full moon and helps the local population. In response to a request from an old age pensioner, she installs a water tap in her cottage and provides the local town with a number of other amenities which the local council has patently failed to organise. The ruling communist officials are horrified, but eventually they come to terms with the existence of the ghost and try to incorporate her into the town´s economic plan, seeking to give the White Lady major building projects to accomplish. However, the castle warden, a ‘lover of truth’, reports the existence of the ghost to the Prague authorities (to the horror of his despairing wife), and thus is launched an official investigation. The central authorities remove the painting to a depository in Prague at the same time as the celebrations that are organised in the town to mark the building of a new bridge.


Critique:

Although Bílá paní/The White Lady is a hilarious comedy, the film nonetheless functions as an incisive social commentary. It is a precise sociological study of the mechanism of a totalitarian regime, with its main feature being the shoring up of power to the exclusion of all else. Marxist totalitarianism in East Central Europe always prided itself on controlling the natural environment. In this respect, it was the product of nineteenth century historical optimism (‘history is developing towards ever better ends. Man will always be ever richer, happier and more in control’), and which culminate in the slogan of the Stalinist 1950s: ‘We shall control even the wind and the rain.’ This is why it is ironic that a regime that prides itself on mastering everything – from every individual to all natural phenomena – is suddenly at a loss when confronted with a manifestation of natural reality in the appearance of a mediaeval ghost. In its outcome, the film argues that the regime actually does not control anything and is locked within the fantasy of its own virtual world.

 

The town is run by two communist officials who are extremely ineffectual. Nothing in the town works. When the White Lady ‘installs’ a water tap into the house of the old age pensioner, the power machinery of the town almost grinds to a halt. The two communist officials decide to solve the ‘problem’ bureaucratically: the water tap hasn’t been recorded in any paperwork; it is a ‘bad’ water tap and will be dug out.  The town rebels and the officials are forced to backtrack. But the central authorities from Prague cannot cope with the phenomenon of the ghostly White Lady either.

 

The film is primarily a parody of official communist, bureaucratic ‘newspeak’, something that is clearly apparent when one of the Prague officials tries to telephone his superior to inform him that the White Lady really does exist. The ideological language that officials use makes it impossible for them to communicate meaningfully. The regime´s newspeak does not allow its representatives to talk about real things, and the film argues that the communist system controls society by means of an ideological meta-language through which it tries to subjugate natural reality. Everyone in the film knows that whatever is being said in public is untrue, but everyone goes along with it, even to the point of absurdity. However, the film warns that natural reality is not controllable by language and eventually the regime will collapse. Even in the Prague depository the White Lady will not be controlled.

 

The White Lady is also a satire on the conformity of ordinary citizens, principally (like Jan Němec’s O slavnosti a hostech/The Party and the Guests [1966]) on the ways in which they can participate in their own subjugation. However, to a certain degree it sympathises with their predicament. They have been pushed about so brutally for so long that it is now no wonder that they ignore the authorities and simply go through the motions of what is ritually required of them, and otherwise attend to their own interests. The narrative of the film culminates in a famous scene, when the White Lady is supposed to create a new bridge but cannot as the Prague officials remove the painting of her in the castle. This does not prevent the population of the whole town from plunging enthusiastically into the river, chanting happily ‘Long Live the New Bridge’. When Pupenec, the ‘lover of truth’, complains in the middle of the river that there is no bridge, his wife snaps: ‘shut up and swim’. This scene illustrates rather persuasively that the enthusiasm of the participants of the May Day parades in Eastern Europe under communism – and by extension the enthusiasm of the participants of any official rallies in dictatorships – is hypocritical and artificial.

Author of this review: Jan Čulík