I stumbled upon the extraordinary Marketa Lazarova, then waited expectantly for the release of Valley of the Bees and was not disappointed and now, finally, my copy of Adelheid has arrived. What a journey it's been, discovering this directors work, courtesy of the excellent revivals by Second Run. A journey from the widescreen of the former to the academy ratio frame that befits this subjects chamber piece sensibility. Vlacil's ability to render a particular atmosphere can be witnessed in the previous films but in Adelheid it reaches its zenith, to devastating affect, in these intimate settings rather than on the vast canvas of say, Marketa Lazarova.
Vlacil's film making moves from the expansive landscapes and visceral mediaeval experience of Marketa Lazarova [including the disorientating overlapping time structure], through The Valley of The Bees, another perfectly executed mediaeval narrative, [in which the two protagonists suffer a dichotomy of purpose], to the aftermath of WWII that is the setting of Adelheid. It is as if the sum total of that wars human carnage and despair is imploded into the almost imperceptible interactions between Viktor and Adelheid, within the confines of a large country house.
He is a returning airman, assigned to the German speaking Sudetenland to make an inventory of a house, she is the daughter of the Nazi official who ran his reign of terror from this family home. We can only imagine what either one of them has witnessed. He needs to shut himself off from the world, he sets his bed up in the smallest room, he bars the doors and closes the shutters; shutters and doors that she, on the other-hand seems compelled to open. And in time it is an open door that heralds the devastating endgame. She speaks no Czech she says, but this is something we later have reason to doubt, as we have reason to doubt her feelings toward him in the denouement. So the dichotomy of their position is established. Gradually, these two dislocated souls tentatively establish a rudimentary relationship, while the narrative elements, effortlessly controlled by Vlacil and co-writer Korner, seep into our consciousness.
Viktor observes Adelheid working at her chores. The frisson of pleasure he derives from a glimpse of her midriff as she chops wood or as he voyeuristically observes the curve of her backside is the first sign of the implacable facade of his face quietly beginning to crumble. As he allows his emotions to return as a welcome conscious function, Adelheid and her emotions remain more ambiguous. However, she exerts her sexual control over him, as expressed when from the position of scrubbing the floor, she looks at his bare feet and slowly her gaze traces up his legs to the tilt of his hip where he leans nonchalantly in a doorway. In this largely wordless narrative it is a moment of astonishing cinematic clarity and a shot charged with more visceral erotic force than Viktor's somewhat naive glances at her. The observation of the minutiae of their daily lives through the selection of framing, composition, shot duration and of sound achieves an utterly compelling rendering of atmosphere and the disclosure of suppressed emotions.
The performances are excellent. When in the denouement Emma Cerna playing Adelheid throws a single glance at Viktor, when he declares his feelings for her, it encompasses her sudden realisation of what it is she has lost, layered with despair, pain, fear and resignation; it is a magnificent acting achievement. Her fate lies in acceptance of what she has been, while his lies in what he has become.
I liked the quality of the colour but the film source isn't that good, but it doesn't matter, what counts is the searing trauma of these annihilated lives that comes seeping through every frame of this film.