MARTYRS OF LOVE (Mucedníci lásky) B+
Czechoslovakia (71 mi) 1967 d: Jan Němec
This is the third and final collaboration with Němec and cowriter Ester Krumbachová, who along with Němec was one of the instrumental figures of the Czech New Wave, both known for their distinct aesthetic sensibilities, which includes odes to Silent film comedy, Luis Buñuel surrealism, earlier European avant-garde of the 20’s and 30’s, especially Czechoslovak Poetism (a movement that died out with Fascism and Stalinism), basically redefining the boundaries between illusion and reality, or life and art. Krumbachová was married to the director for a brief period of time and cowrote three of his films, including this one, but her influence was even more widespread, as she also worked as an art director making costumes and production designs. She was a multicultural European with Jewish Hungarian roots, where her well rounded aesthetic had a large impact on New Wave films, studying at the Academy of Applied Arts and entering the Barrandov Studios in the early 1960’s to establish herself as a notable costume designer, but ended up working with Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Otakar Vávra, Karel Kachyňa, and Vojtěch Jasný, among others. MARTYRS OF LOVE is an example of uncontrolled desires, composed of three unrelated but comically interwoven stories of lovesick protagonists reflecting very different ideas about unattainable love, featuring awkward, melancholy souls, where songs often stand in for dialogue, given a modernist twist when each of the lead characters remains silent. Due to its whimsical, lighthearted style and its prominent use of wall-to-wall music, including Eva Olmerová, considered one of the best Czech jazz singers ever, the film is more along the lines of musical theater of the 30’s inspired by visions of the Czech Surrealist group and the streets of Prague themselves. Photographed by Miroslav Ondříček, Miloš Forman’s regular cameraman, it’s interesting that the Paris Surrealist group’s favorite Czech New Wave film was Věra Chytilová's highly experimental DAISIES (1966), while the Prague group, by contrast, preferred the documentary-style approach of Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer, while also extending their praise to the somewhat less realistic films of Jan Němec, but only insofar as their dreamlike sense of a raw reality.
While the film intentionally focuses upon the perils of love through the misadventures of three naively dreamy and inexperienced young romantics, they couldn’t be more opposite than the realist ideal of communist working class heroes. Post-war, the Czech Surrealists saw communist reality as inherently absurd, where they felt the need to satirize contemporary reality, developing a feeling for contemporary forms of aggressive humor. It should not be forgotten that Prague’s native son is Franz Kafka, where themes of alienation and persecution are present throughout his works, where Czech author Milan Kundera, who wrote the 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, suggests Kafka’s surrealist humor may have been an inversion of Dostoyevsky who presented characters who were punished for a crime, while Kafka’s modernist characters are punished for crimes they haven’t committed. This may truly reflect the Eastern Bloc mentality. Opening with “Temptations of a White Collar Worker,” featuring a timid young desk clerk (Petr Kopriva) who fends off the boredom and repetitious monotony of work by visiting night clubs in search of pleasure, but he’s too shy to approach anyone, finding himself in the middle of a 1920’s Jazz age vaudeville review, also featuring music from Marta Kubišová, one of the most popular Czech singers of the 60’s, who was married to Nĕmec for a brief period until he was exiled to the United States. In this opening segment only three lines are spoken, but it’s notable for the sheer absurdity of the images associated with the music, reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang’s THE HOLE (1998) which achieves a similar effect. Prominently featured is the sexual use of a bowler hat, used playfully in a bedroom sequence, shown to even greater effect by actress Lena Olin in Philip Kaufman’s film THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988), where Nĕmec served as an advisor on the film, also allowing original footage of the Soviet invasion from ORATORIO FOR PRAGUE (1968) to be integrated into the film. This section is perhaps most notable for its use of non-stop jazz music, culminating with the scat singing of Olmerová, where jazz was effectively banned by the communists in 1948, though musicians continued to play it throughout the 50’s and 60’s, where jazz became strongly associated with revolt in postwar Czechoslovakia. Look for brief cameos from Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, who reprise their roles from DAISIES, and British director Lindsay Anderson makes a small appearance as well.
Music also sets the tone for the second section, “Anastasia’s Reveries,” featuring the delightful sensuality of Hana Kuberová, whose rhapsodic daydreams comprise the material for this segment, seen initially lost in thought on a train, where she imagines herself to be little more than a chamber maid, seen dutifully cleaning up in the beginning, as this is a dress up occasion for a classy high society wedding. Holding a tray of drinks that nobody chooses, she finally drinks them herself and fantasizes falling in love with a rich noble, who turns out to be the wedding singer (popular Czech singer Karel Gott), whose singing stirs her passionate interest, eventually turning her attention to another man (composer Jan Klusák), a military officer seen arriving in a horse-drawn carriage with two nuns. While he instructs her to get dressed up for their lavish outdoor wedding, one recalls a similar scene with Catherine Deneuve in a surrealist fantasy outdoors in the country estate of a duke in Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR (1967). But here she runs away, where we see her back on the train where she hears the strumming of a guitar singer, following the sound to a gypsy singer (Vladimir Preclik), eventually teasing him by slowly removing various articles of clothing, drawing him to her. The final section cleverly features offscreen music in “The Adventures of Rudolph, the Orphan,” where we see our hero (Josef Koníček, a ballet dancer in real life) drunkenly stumble down the street when he hears the virtuoso sound of a violin, with rhythmic clapping, where he peers over a gate to see where it’s coming from, climbing over to get a better view, where he’s immediately recognized as Jakob, apparently one of their best friends, as they immediately invite him into their garden party, ply him with drinks, having him join in a conga line, treating him like he’s the life of the party. The chaotic mayhem seems entirely improvised, especially a rhythmic car sequence on the running boards of a series of cars, creating an original percussive musical sound that reminds one of the bizarre and wildly uninhibited humor of Ernie Kovacs. The afternoon is one drunken reverie, as his shabby clothes are quickly pulled off for more elegant attire, where he’s literally redressed as an aristocrat, where one of the alluring women has her eye on him, instructing him to return for her later that evening. But when he does, he can’t find the opening that led him over the gate, instead feeling lost and perplexed, where the entire film feels like a dreamlike journey down the rabbit hole. And while the slapstick comedic bits in the finale are often uneven, the surrealistic flourish suggests a missing dimension in our own drab lives, recalling the imaginative experimentation of Jacques Rivette’s euphoric fantasy world in Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau) (1974).