I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Herz Isn't Just the Cremator: Morgiana


by David Selden
Dec. 9, 2011

When Soviet tanks arrived in Prague on the 21st of August 1968, Alexander Dubček’s short lived experiment in the liberalization of the then-staunchly communist Czechoslovakia came to an abrupt end. Reforms had begun with Dubček’s election to the role of First Secretary of the Communist Party in January of that year and had been achieved, in part, with the support of progressive factions within the country’s intelligentsia that included writers such as Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera and students of the Film and TV School of the Academy of The Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), where Kundera lectured on world literature.

FAMU had produced directors such as Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová and Jiří Menzel who had received international recognition as The Czechoslovak New Wave. Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on Main Street (on which Juraj Herz had worked as an assistant director) had won an Academy award for best foreign language film in 1965 whilst Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1967) had, in addition to the Oscar, been garlanded with international awards.

Though the Czechoslovak New Wave had been dismissed as “bourgeois” by Jean Luc Godard, the consensus was that Czechoslovakian cinema had bloomed in the 60’s and the state run Barrandov Studios found an enthusiastic international audience for its films. After the events of the Prague Spring reached their tragic conclusion, Czechoslovakian cinema went into a steep decline under the draconian censorship imposed during the subsequent period of “normalization”.

Ironically Juraj Herz’s Morgiana, completed in 1971, is often referred to as the “the last film of the Czechoslovak New Wave” but the director himself felt little kinship with the group. Having studied puppetry (with his friend and contemporary, Jan Švankmajer) at the Academy he had found himself excluded from screenings at the film department.i Although the director had been asked to contribute to Pearls of the Deep (1965), a portmanteau adaptation of stories by Bohumil Hrabal which was regarded by the writer Josef Škvorecký as “the manifesto of the Czech new wave”, Herz’s contribution was dropped to reduce the running time.

Based on Jessie and Morgiana by the Russian writer Aleksandr Grin (1880-1932), Morgiana is the lurid and hallucinatory story of two sisters, Klára and Viktoria (both played by the actress Iva Janzurová). Following the death of their father, Viktoria grows jealous of her sister who has inherited the family house and enjoys the affections of the local men folk. Viktoria poisons Klára and the slow acting toxin drags her into a strange almost psychedelic reality.

The decadent look of the film, whose atmosphere owes much to Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha, is underscored by cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera’sii use of a wide angle lens to evoke a cat’s eye view of the unfolding drama (Klára’s cat, Morgiana bears silent witness to the events of the narrative).

The production was dogged by interference from state censors. In Grin’s original story (and in the initial version of the script) the sisters were revealed to be dual facets of a single personality but this had to be rewritten after incurring the displeasure of the authorities. On the film's release, the head dramaturge of Barrandov Studios, Ludvík Toman, deemed it to have a sadomasochistic subtext and called for it to be banned. As a result the authorities were to have banned Herz from making another film, a fate he was only saved from because the Russians were delighted that a Czech director had made a film based on the work of a Russian authoriii.

Morgiana, and Oil Lamps (1971), the movie which precedes it in Herz’s filmography, stand in marked contrast to The Cremator (1968), the film for which the director is perhaps best known. The Cremator is a scabrous, Kafkaesque black comedy about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, seen through the eyes of the titular protagonist as a business opportunity.

The shift from politically sensitive satire to lavish costume drama (albeit a highly idiosyncratic and somewhat grotesque take on the genre) was, for Herz, simply a matter of professional survival given the events of the Prague Spring. Like the protagonist of The Cremator, to a degree, he sought salvation in conformity. Morgiana was to receive a Gold Hugo in Chicago, a fact that the communist authorities concealed from the director for seven years. When the award was publicly announced the trophy was stolen from the studio a few weeks later, the thieves presumably believing it was made of real gold.

Sources

To excess. The grotesque in Juraj Herz's Czech films.

Kinoeye, New perspectives on European Film

Drowning the bad times Juraj Herz interviewed.

Kinoeye, New perspectives on European Film

Czech and Slovak Cinema.

Andrew James Horton. Greencine.com

Notes

i "I always went into the room when it was already dark so I could not be seen. But it was tricky because sometimes they switched on the lights when the film was already running and they kicked out people who shouldn't be there."

Drowning the bad times Juraj Herz interviewed. Kinoeye, New perspectives on European Film

ii Although Morgiana was his sole collaboration with Herz, Kucera was a pivotal figure in the Czech New Wave photographing many of its most renowned films including Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966)

iii This in itself was deeply ironic as Grin had suffered greatly under Stalin. His fantastical style having fallen out of step with the times the author died in obscurity, apparently reduced to living in a park and shooting crows with a bow and arrow for food.

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com