Gulliver in Wonderland

Nate Dorr

Still from Case for a Rookie Hangman

Sometimes you hear about some amazing-sounding long-gone film, spend a few years watching for it, maybe even hunting for it, consider it lost or forgotten or buried, and just then it unexpectedly turns up in full on YouTube. So it was with long-unseen Czech New Wave surrealist adventure story Case for a Rookie Hangman.

And here it is.

Pavel Juracek is best known, where known at all, for his screenplays. Trained as a screenwriter, he contributed to an early Vera Chytilova short (“Ceiling”) while still studying at FAMU in Prague in the early 60s, and later helped sketch out the concepts reworked into her masterpiece, Daisies. His screenplay for space exploration story Ikarie XB-1: Journey to the End of the Universe foresaw Star Trek, while Late August at the Hotel Ozone offers a lastingly bleak vision of a post-apocalyse where the survivors have lost any sense of memory of empathy. But he also co-directed two shorts with Late August director Jan Schmidt, including a disquietingly absurd Kafka-influenced story of a cat rental gone wrong called Joseph Killian, and later directed two features of his own.

In many ways, Juracek's career parallels the development of the Czech New Wave as a whole. His time at FAMU was the incubation period for much of the movement, and Joseph Killian came out in 1963, the same year as the feature debuts of Milos Foreman, Jaromil Jires, and Chytilova, often referenced as the formal start of the New Wave. The subject of that film was in part the ongoing process of de-Stalinization that generally relaxed censorship and opened the door for the such liberalization and development in the arts, as well as specifically rehabilitated Kafka in Czech letters.

He developed his skills with his first solo-directing venture Every Young Man in 1965 and was placed in charge of an entire production unit at Barrandov Film Studios in 1968. This was the Prague Spring, the peak of liberalization in Czechoslovakia, with First Secretary Alexander Dubček decentralizing the economy and suggesting that, communism having served its purpose, the country might move to democratic socialism. The USSR was unsurprisingly unmoved by these arguments and rolled tanks into Prague in August, the political end of an era that didn't quite reach the arts until a year later.

With a final burst of creative intensity, the latter part of '68 saw the feverish production of some of the most strikingly inventive films of the new wave era, like Juraj Jakubisko's Birds, Orphans, Fools, and Juracek's Case for a Rookie Hangman, a black-humored picaresque rethinking of Jonathan Swift. The bold, inescapably political film was fleetingly released in 1969 before it was caught in the censorial backlash of 1970 and banned, Juracek himself was placed on a blacklist under ironically absurdist charges like “filling in forms arrogantly and offensively“. While many of his contemporaries managed eventual returns to filmmaking, Juracek never did, dying just before the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet influence in 1989, still only in his 50s.

With this kind of background, and my own interest in the more fantastic, surrealist/absurdist impulses of the Czech New Wave, Juracek's final feature was under quite a bit of pressure (from me, at least) to be a crowning achievement of the era. And it is. Despite its long lack of any kind of release, even as his contemporaries were coming into renown with new DVD releases by Criterion, Facets, and, in the UK, Second Run — and despite its long lack of acknowledgement, Case for a Rookie Hangman is gorgeously shot in black & white and consistently inventive. Both its insights and humor hold up well today, a sprawling interrogation of breakdown between ideals and reality, the (thwarted) desire for top-down order in the universe, a spectrum of socio-political undercurrents of its time, and seemingly plenty of highly personal themes and insights to which I can only have partial access but will undoubtedly persist in memory.

Taking the vague plot outline of the third book of Gulliver's Travels (with attendant apology to Jonathan Swift), Case for a Rookie Hangman (Czech title: Prípad pro zacínajícího kata) sees a modern Lemuel Gulliver confused and adrift in the countries of Balnibarbi and Laputa, the floating island of the latter extracting tribute from the former by blocking its sunlight. In Swift's hands, this was a criticism of unbridgeable class schisms, but despite the jabs at contemporary society and the end of the Prague Spring that did not escape the censors, Juracek's treatment actual seems to be aiming — like the most lasting art — for universals far beyond any specific historical or political context.

Unfolding in eleven parts that impose order on what might otherwise become an indigestible string of absurdist episodes, the story opens with Gulliver finding his route blocked while driving across the countryside, losing control of his car in an unusually literal manner, borrowing a pocket watch from a rabbit in a coat and trousers, and finding himself drawn through an abandoned church shaped by his dreams and memories into a foreign land. Interrogated by school children, threatened with execution, and struggling to grasp how things are done in a strange place where no one will speak on certain days, the national dance has unexpected pitfalls, and thinking may be delegated to a machine to conserve effort, Gulliver moves through a series of picaresque vignettes towards the floating island above, with its much-admired king and government. While budgetary or technological constraints appear to have kept the floating island itself mostly off-screen, the adventures unfold across an impressive series of huge, lavish sets that aptly balance the familiar and mundane with the otherworldly. The film is shot in crisp black and white cinematography by Jan Kalis (Ikarie XB-1).

This is all going to get a little more interpretational from here. Though I'll try to avoid direct spoilers, some amount of thematic description in necessary — so if you'd like your viewing to be unsullied by my synopsizing and analysis, go watch the film now.

Besides being a visual tour-de-force, the abandoned church sequence near the start establishes the film's most marked ties to surrealism: Gulliver's passage through the building is a subjective one, its contents defined by the portents and ambiguous significance of subconscious suggestion and personal memory, a series of recollections, odd encounters, lost objects, lost people all described in a disjointed voiceover that suggests the impossibility of conveying the elusive meaning of a dream to another. Among the people seen are a younger Gulliver, a Mrs. Miller, that universal neighbor glimpsed in the bath in adolescence, a friend dead in the war. We also see Marketa, a lost love who drowned, in Gulliver's recollection, because she stole money from its hiding place in a particular tea cup in his youth, one of those inextricable linkings of arbitrary events that end up informing so much of our lives, at least if we listen to Freud (as the surrealists certainly did). All of this cast of personal history will recur, as in Oz, throughout the film in new roles once Gulliver falls through a doorway into a doctor's office in Balnibarbi — the foreignest lands are always those of the dark recesses of our own minds.

Marketa, especially, seems to have particular importance, both to Gulliver and to the overall movement of the film (perhaps to Juracek himself — who was she?). Marketa appears in Balnibarbi not once but over and over in new guises — she has seemingly become not so much a person as a symbol, an idealized form that Gulliver can't help but project onto all the women he meets, and to which no actual reality can live up. Each night, Gulliver pursues her, only to awaken each morning with another women, the ideal remaining removed from, and unsullied by, the possibility of real connection, physical or emotional. One late Marketa even seems to realize this futile system, cornering Gulliver in an eerie castle interior: “Marketa is just how you always wanted her — dead!” She suggests that Gulliver has killed her in memory to freeze the ideal that traps him, while the real Marketa lived on in some ordinary but less romantically satisfying reality. (See other idealizations that get in the way of real need in Stefan Uher's similarly unjustly forgotten The Miraculous Virgin a couple years before).

Broadening this personal stripping back of idealized forms to a national scope, throughout the film there's always that perfect Laputa hovering overhead. The Balnibarbians revere the unseen leadership that blocks their sunlight, grill Gulliver on the details about the Prince Munodi they think he's met, and worship the king. But, echoing a major theme of Joseph Killian, things at the top are not at all what they seem. Stretching the premise to its furthest scope, the universe stubbornly defies conformation to top-down order and meaning — political, religious, again personal — but no one, even those subjugated by the assumption of central order, want to hear that it's not there.

While the political implications here go far beyond any specific Czech of Soviet context, there are some likely much more specific jabs as well. The usefulness of confessions extracted too willingly are called into question and national resource conservation measures in are imposed to dubious effect. In the most pointed bit, a poet is condemned to die for writing about a hare in clothing, on the reasoning that no one has seen such a thing. This is a clear reference to the long-running Soviet stricture of “socialist realism” as the only allowable concern of the arts, but also suggests the inability of strict socialist realism to capture all of reality: in fact, dressed hares recur throughout the film.

In fact, all of this only touches upon the full course of the film. So much happens, and so much is left skillfully open to interpretation, that it'd take far less time to watch than to fully dissect. And a full dissection of its complex mechanics would take untold viewings. This task which would be made utterly enjoyable by the brisk, engaging storytelling, deft dry humor, and vivid imagery. Another recurring theme: if only Juracek had been able to keep making work like this after 1970. At least now, with the re-emergence of A Case for a Rookie Hangman, it's easier to remember all that he did accomplish.

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