Something of an odd double-bill release for the excellent Second Run: two early films from heavyweight precursors of the Czech New Wave, which each hover indeterminately between the short and the feature film. While neither The White Dove (1960) nor Josef Kilián (1965) are masterpieces, both revel in the fluidity of camerawork and artistry of imagery that would later serve their directors through greater films. In debut feature The White Dove, František Vláčil (who would go on to make Marketa Lazarová, voted ‘the best Czech film ever made’ in 1998) takes a humanist plot and leaves itself open to interpretation.
A young woman waits insolently at the seaside for her white dove to come back, as the old and craggy fishing-men taunt her. The dove has been blown off-course to Prague, where a young boy Michal (Karel Smyczek) finds it and shoots it with an air gun. A bohemian artist living in the same apartment resuscitates the dove and together they nurse it back to life and eventual release. The film’s sparseness of dialogue (Vláčil claimed this was purposeful because he didn’t want to burden his young cast of inexperienced child actors with too many lines) and hard, square-framed shots partly contribute to the film’s aura of coldness.
This is clearly the work of a director more interested in shapes and visual imagery than straight narrative. Narrow buildings, claustrophobic glass walls and terse nets and barriers conjure up the literal barriers of the Iron curtain, from where the dove traverses. Stand-out moments of visual beauty seem to involve the symbolic use of paint and sculpture, reflecting the directors own artistic background, and helping to contribute to a film that seems to bridge the awkward gap between an experimental and an almost neorealist outlook. Comparisons to Ken Loach’s Kes (1963) and Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (1956) are inescapable, although The White Dove has its own very unique vision: think Kes in Bohemia.
Josef Kilián, on the other hand, is a Kafka-esque surrealist curio. With interiors reminiscent of Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) and a constricting 4:3 frame that pushes all the action firmly into the corners of the frame, this is a humorous and existential vision of a man wandering the streets of Prague in search of a cat rental shop. The absurd is instilled into the realm of the quotidian, as our hero – who looks alarmingly like a Czech Norman Bates – walks the Gothic spired streets of Prague looking for his Kafka namesake, Josef K. Vérité sequences of street figures is also reminiscent of the Nouvelle Vague, though this is a very singular vision of the bureaucracy of everyday life under the regime.
Both Vláčil’s The White Dove and Pavel Jurácek/Jan Schmidt’s Josef Kilián are early, beautiful indications of the mastery of form of two great European directors; an unusual, engaging pairing of works to say the least. An excellent booklet, with – as per usual – two expert essays from Czech cinema academic Peter Hames complete this recommended Second Run double-bill as doves, cats and the weird world of the everyday are brought to life with cold, claustrophobic precision.