Marketa Lazarová

English Title: Marketa Lazarová

Original Title: Marketa Lazarová

Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia

Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov

Director: František Vláčil

Producer(s): Josef Ouzký

Screenplay: František Pavlíček, František Vláčil, Vladislav Vančura

Cinematographer: Bedřich Baťka

Art Director: Oldrich Okác

Editor: Miroslav Hájek

Runtime: 162 minutes

Genre: Drama/History

Language: Slovak

Starring/Cast: Josef Kemr, Naďa Hejná, Magda Vášáryová, Jaroslav Moučka, František Velecký, Karel Vašíček

Year: 1967

Volume: East European


The middle of the thirteenth century: robber knight Kozlík lives with his sons and daughters at the fortress Roháček. During a harsh winter, the sons attack the entourage of a Saxon count and kidnap his son. The youth, named Christian, and Kozlík´s daughter Alexandra fall in love. A unit of the King´s army is sent to pacify Kozlík´s family of thieves. Another robber knight, Lazar, living at the nearby fortress of Obořiště, refuses to help the Kozlíks, and Kozlík´s sons take revenge on Lazar´s family for not helping them. Mikoláš Kozlík rapes Lazar´s daughter Marketa, who was to become a nun. Marketa succumbs to erotic pleasure and becomes Mikuláš´s loyal wife; whilst both Roháček and Obořiště are ravaged by the King´s army. Old Lazar is crucified on Obořiště´s main gate, and the King´s army attacks the Kozlík family in the forest and kills many of its members. Subsequently, amid more murder and vengeance, Mikuláš and his men then mount an attack on the royal military fortress to free his imprisoned father.


Marketa Lazarová is a short, experimental novel by Czech avant-garde writer Vladislav Vančura (1891-1942). Vančura was a communist, and had a rather critical attitude to what he saw as degenerate twentieth century middle-class societies. The message of his novel Marketa Lazarová is to show his affluent contemporary readership that life in the middle-ages may have been cruel and brutal, but it was also authentic. Love was real love and killing was real killing. Vančura (two of whose other novels have been adapted by Jiří Menzel) is well-known for his original use of language. His text is highly lyrical, and consists of an extraordinarily potent mixture of neologisms and archaisms. It would be a challenge for any film-maker to create a visual idiom equivalent to this multi-layered literary work, but František Vláčil succeeded in rising to that challenge. In the 1960s, and then again in 1998, Czech film critics voted Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil, 1967) the best Czech film ever made.


While Vančura´s novel takes place in Bohemia in the fifteenth century, Vláčil has moved the story back two hundred years to the mid-thirteenth century, when remnants of paganism would have still been competing with Christianity (which was then on the ascendency in Bohemia). Vláčil´s Marketa Lazarová is also a highly lyrical, psychological account of rivalry between two thirteenth century Czech noble families. The Kozlík family still practises paganism, with all its cruelty and ruthlessness, while the Lazar family has embraced the new religion, Christianity, with both its humanising and de-humanising characteristics. Lazar does not hesitate to sell out to the new Christian powers-that-be, and to conclude underhand deals with them. His daughter, Marketa, is the ultimate epitome of Christian kindness and humanity, although within her the conflict of paganism and Christianity still rages. She no longer wishes to become a nun after she has been raped by Mikoláš Kozlík. She is carried away by the sexual bond that has arisen between her and Mikoláš and becomes his faithful wife. Similar conflict between Christianity and paganism is highlighted in the sexual relationship between the highly civilised young Saxon nobleman, Christian, and the heathen Czech woman, Alexandra Kozlík. Paradoxically, as Vláčil argued at the time, the heathen attitudes in the new thirteenth century Christians in his film are closely related to the behaviour of people in the twentieth century. The film seems to argue that the atavistic, instinctual behaviour of Vláčil´s thirteenth century protagonists is actually close to the behaviour of people today, and this is why the story of their lives continues to speak to us.


On a political and administrative level, the conflict between Christianity and paganism is paralleled by the conflict of centralist rule and anarchy. The Lazars and the Kozlíks would dearly like to continue to pillage and rape, and their desire for freedom is linked to the basic instincts of man. But civilisation overcomes their wild nature, though it is not suppressed forever, because new Kozlíks and Lazars will rise, as the film suggests at its conclusion.


Visually and structurally, Vláčil´s Marketa Lazarová is extremely unorthodox. As Peter Hames has pointed out, it is much closer to films such as Tarkovsky´s Andrei Rublev (1966) or Kurosawa´s Shichinin no samurai/Seven Samurai (1954) than to mainstream Hollywood or European historical films. In this sense, it creates its own filmic frame of reference, something that Vláčil would refine in his subsequent work, the similarly medieval-set Údolí včel/The Valley of the Bees (1968). 


 Marketa Lazarová has no ideology. Its evocation of mediaeval life, raw and drastic, is highly original. The film is shot in dramatic black-and-white cinemascope (as if to stress the stark conflict of oppositional forces within the narrative) and consists of two separate parts: ‘Straba the Werewolf’ and ‘The Lamb of God’. The ‘Lamb of God’ of the second part accompanies a simple-minded wandering monk, Bernard, who provides a kind of antique chorus to complement the narrative, just as Vančura used his authorial voice to comment on the story in the literary work. Vláčil deliberately uses the techniques of estrangement and distanciation, so that although the film has a very strong atmosphere, it must be viewed more than once in order to be fully understood.

Author of this review: Jan Čulík