Birds, Orphans and Fools
English Title: Birds, Orphans and Fools
Original Title: Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni
Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia
Studio: Como Film, Studio Hraných Filmov Bratislava
Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Cinematographer: Igor Luther
Runtime: 78 minutes
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Art Cinema
Volume: East European
After a drunken, sexually ambiguous escapade, errant friends and ardent photographers Yorick and Andrej find themselves in the company of the much younger Marta. She takes up residence with them in a crumbling ruin of a building, which they rent from an old man and share with birds. All three are orphans: Yorick purports to be the son of General Štefánik, Slovakia’s eminent historical figure; Marta’s Jewish parents perished in a concentration camp; while Andrej says that Jews were responsible for his parents’ death. Polyamorous Yorick becomes involved with Marta and tries unsuccessfully to entice her into having sex with Andrej, who is still a virgin. During a panoptic ride in a car with two steering wheels, Yorick gives himself up to the police without any obvious citation, claiming it would protect Marta and Andrej. When he returns from prison a year later, he is confronted with a scene that will lead to drastic action on his part and have far-reaching personal consequences for his friends.
In Juraj Jakubisko’s Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni/Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969), the clichéd story of a love triangle whose protagonists fail to live up to their apparent liberal acceptance of a multi-partnered relationship becomes lost in a virulent, disjunctive mise-en-scène, burlesque, offbeat dialogue, and experimental, self-reflexive narrative construction and exposition. On the one hand, recurrent images of Slovakia’s national symbols (previously banned under communist rule) abound throughout the story. The characters’ chronological references to obsessive commemorations of General Štefánik’s air crash after World War I, and latterly to the World War II resistance effort, anchor it in Czechoslovakia’s period of political relaxation in the late 1960s, the time when the film was conceived (it was shot after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and remained banned until the collapse of communism in 1989). On the other hand, the film’s parallel dimensions – a commentary on people’s capacity to disentangle their conscience from the realities that affect them, and a direct discourse with the viewer about the role of film-making and about how we invest in and relate to stories and myths – overlie this concrete historical context.
An illustrative verbal parallel to the film’s self-reflexive experimentation is the opening voice-over, which starts with a child stating ‘I, Juraj Jakubisko […] will speak to you […],’ and cross-fades into a woman’s voice, which continues with the semantically complex, even obtuse, ‘how both necessary and futile it is to look for a way to deliver oneself from a life that does not know love of hatred, madness without true insanity, happiness without sadness, and death without ordinariness.’ With regard to his visual style, Jakubisko manipulates the frame size, inserts monochrome sequences with alternating hues, and has Marta speak to the camera (but not obviously to the viewers), before keeping the aural continuity of the characters’ dialogue whilst cutting between different locations. Costumes range from a landlord’s beggar outfits, men in nuns’ habits, children in carnival garb (who populate several scenes), women in folk costumes firing machine guns around a church, the main characters’ clothes – which are styled as those of medieval jesters – and ultimately, and ironically, the suit and tie worn by Yorick when he is involved in a murder. Equally heterodox are the film’s other components among them: a gang rape scene; the soundtrack of a nationalist song about burning for truth with images of the landlord’s impromptu cremation; dinner served on a woman’s naked body; the three main characters staging a likeness of the Laocoön Group while struggling with yards of exposed film, which they eventually burn.
The effect of this giddy, almost parodic art cinema treatise, ranked among the five best Slovak films by Slovak and Czech experts in 1997, is to foreground the impossibility of removing oneself from the world; the illusory nature of the belief that a community can create a spiritually pure world in and of itself. At the root of the difficulty is not the world out there but its opposite: destruction will lie in wait on the inside, in human nature. Jakubisko was inspired by what he believed to be a Biblical phrase (actually a folk saying) that God takes care of birds, orphans and fools. The film asks what would result if those taken care of do not get along, but the screenplay in fact undermines the parallel among the three classes of ‘God’s children’ right from the start. Should it turn out that a retreat to inventive, stupefying tomfoolery does not engender security in the event of God’s death (as the landlord puts it in a drunken quasi-sermon ridiculed by Andrej), an orphan in body then becomes an orphan in spirit.
Author of this review: Martin Votruba