The Art of Interweaving: Martin Frič and Čapek’s Tales
One of the most eminent Czechoslovakian director Martin Frič dealt with adaptation of Karel Čapek’s works two times. For the first time in 1937 in the film Hordubal, adaptation of the first book of Čapek’s “noetic trilogy” Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life. He went back to the author of Dashenka, War with the Newts or Krakatit for the second time precisely ten years later. With writer Jaroslav Žák, they adapted into the screenplay stories drawn from Čapek’s Tales from Two Pockets.
Tales from Two Pockets (1929)1 is a combination of Čapek’s interest in “lower” literary genres –detective stories in this case – with philosophical overlay. None of the tales is just a simple detective story; in every one of them, there is a great space for the reader to contemplate about more general human problems like life, death, guilt, punishment or forgiveness. All, as typical for this author, given in very readable way. Čapek frequently used colloquial language, many of the tales are designed as “somebody’s” telling. As if the reader were sitting by the table with a group of people – experienced detectives, criminals, policemen or journalists, and listened to their stories. Sentences and passages, however, that would link or thematically connect the individual stories, that would create conversational framework for them, are absent from the text.
If we compare the three films based on “Čapek’s detective stories” we find out that the major difference between them is in how their authors dealt with unifying individual short texts on average length of five pages into larger, compact unit. Serial form, chosen for the latest adaptation of Capek’s Tales produced by Czech Television, is ideal choice, as is simple merging of two medium-length stories into one feature film. This way was taken by Jiří Krejčík in his 1964 film Cintamani & podvodník.
The screenwriting duo Frič & Žák went through the way most difficult. Together they created story line that served as linking base for individual short stories. The leading figure has become police commissioner Bartošek (Jaroslav Marvan), a passionate gardener (in whom we can sense the inspiration by Čapek’s text The Gardener’s Year) and hero of the tale The Case Involving the Baby. Bartošek ends his duty and packs for his long awaited holyday to Slovakia. His very departure should give him the clue that this won’t be just ordinary vacation. Silent hero of the first story (Released on Parole), paroled convict Záruba will end at his station. And of course there is the lost baby… The journey by the train gives space for narration so Bartošek hears up the story about remote mountain village (The Ballad of Juraj Cup) and in memoires goes back to Prague, to agent Pištora (Stolen Document 139/VII, Sect. C). The film in its end abandons the wounded commissioner and takes us to the heavenly Last Judgment.
The five stories were connected into a perfectly coherent whole. The individual mood of each text, however, remained. The scenes linking individual stories borrow sub-themes and conversational motifs from other Čapek’s works (e.g. already mentioned The Gardener’s Year; in dialogue scenes in the train, there are contemplations about human and God, or what happens after death, respectively, which is quite common Čapek’s theme). The motif of “Bartoška’s trip on vacation” in the role of a string onto which individual beads-stories are put, is surprisingly stimulating and brings another portion of humor into the stories. Authors were not seduced by simple putting the stories in a row; Bartošek (who we can take as leading character) show himself not sooner than in the thirteen minute of the film. Longer stories are disrupted by dialogues; the story about a stolen file is inserted on purely associative level thanks to the reference to the agent Pištora (František Filipovský) who flashed in the film earlier, in the segment with the lost baby. The themes of dialogues also intertwine, which creates the basis for later use as when the dialog (about forgetting things, also operating with association) starts with the forgotten baby in the train only to continue during the police inspection leading to the loss of ID. Seemingly simple flow of the story shows to be, when close examined, rather sophisticated network of tales and dialogues. Everything is working just fine, with no hitch. Individual short stories stay separated in the film, dialogues and associations help to link them on the mental level. The spectator is thus confronted with coherent story, a road movie in a way. But this compact unit can also be seen as separated into five parts, every one of them being absolutely self-contained and offering the viewer equally good experience.
After closer look at the stories can be discovered that they vary mainly in their overall conception of genre. The Released is pure-blooded drama, standing on the silent performance of Jaroslav Průcha. The second story organically combines the tragic impulse – the lost of a baby – with comical effort of the police investigators to find it. And The Ballad of Juraj Cup is almost thriller. Stolen Document is comic, refreshing relief, which gives plenty of space to its actors Theodor Pištěk and Antonie Nedošínská (( They appeared together for the first time in 1921, in comedy feature by Jan Just-Rozvoda Děvčata, vdávejte se! (Get Married, Girls!), and for the last time in the Čapek’s Tales. )) The last story leaves the realistic approach of the previous stories and leads us to the plane of allegory.
Camera work by Jan Roth is highlight of the film and gives the film specific atmosphere. There are often used the shadows of characters and objects – a clever way how to e.g. show hung Záruba without using the direct shot. Most of the film takes place in interiors; exterior shots (even those little bit cardboard looking, made in the studio) bring into the film unique audiovisual playfulness, already demonstrated by Frič in his previous films. The dramatic character of The Ballad of Juraj Cup (which can be taken as main story and an imaginary epic centre of the film) is accentuated by quite believable snow blizzard – even though it is shot in the studio. In yet another scene, the image is asymmetrically divided by sloped cross, strongly contrasting with white snow. In The Case Involving the Baby, Bartošek incapability to distinguish between individual infants in their prams (“But they look all alike!”) is expressed by cutting the same shot of a baby with very round face and regular facial features on changing prams and faces of mothers. Bartošek is confused, mothers don’t get it and the viewer is having fun from the very moment this simple trick starts, enjoying the gag.
The image can also be support for the sound track, as in the story of convict Záruba. The image emphasize precisely those features, those “miracles”, that the old man is so fascinated by – lots of women, cars, hustle… Everything in one, long camera travelling, when the camera follows Záruba walking down the street. In the soundtrack, there is cacophonic noise in which can very hardly be distinguished its individual components. The voice of Záruba, who is not used to talking, is disappearing for only the voiceover to remain.
The final, “heavenly tale” is in its depiction of God (František Smolík) partial concession to socialist thinking of Frič. In the way of thinking of the doctrines, the God is depicted as an old blacksmith, carrying also some agrarian attributes. In this symbolic combination of workers’ and peasants’ attributes, the biblical Creator becomes acceptable even for the regimes (and worldviews) who tries to push him on the edge of people’s interest.
For Čapek, the priority is the man – with imperfections, but understandable, living. The murderer from The Last Judgement can be seen in this way too (retrospections in this story visual draw from US 1930s gangster films). He was led by purely human and positive motives when committing the first crime (he wanted to bring his beloved a flower but he couldn’t find a better way than to steal it). The viewer’s thoughts are thus shifted onto the level of abstraction; he is gently pushed to contemplate about morality, truth, crime, punishment and “last things of man”.
Frič made a congenial adaptation. He found for every individual story corresponding form and also the way, how to create the compact whole. Contribution of both personalities – Mr. Writer Karel Čapek and Mr. Filmmaker Martin Frič – is absolutely balanced. The outcome is the adaptation – a successful transformation of the “Čapekian spirit” and of the inner power and intellectual depth of Čapek’s reader-friendly texts, into a film of analogous qualities.
Director: Martin Frič
Screenplay: Martin Frič, Jaroslav Žák
Photography: Jan Roth
Cast: Jaroslav Marvan. František Filipovský, Theodor Pištěk, František Smolík, Pal’o Bielik, Antonie Nedošínská, Jaroslav Vojta, Terezie Brzková, Vladimír Hlavatý, Jaroslav Průcha, Gustav Hilmar, Jiřina Stránská, František Kovářík
Czechoslovakia, 1947, 96 min.
From the Czech original translated by Marie Meixnerová
- translator’s note: English translation Catbird Press, 1994 [↩]