KRAKATIT (Otakar Vávra, 1948)

 “The action takes place in the fancy of a feverish dream.” Thus begin the mental wanderings at night of Prokop, a young man at hospital deliriously roaming abandoned streets, making an effort to spare the world destruction brought on by atomic holocaust. Krakatit, the science-fiction novel by Karel Čapek on which Otakar Vávra’s Czech film is based, first appeared in the early 1920s, shortly after one world war, while the film appeared in the late ’40s, shortly after another world war—and one actually concluded by decisive atomic bombings. The threat of titanic explosions hangs over the film, sharpening the plea for peace that a convoluted and deliberately discontinuous plot might at any moment lose, in addition to losing the rest of the world. It is Prokop, a scientist, who has presumably developed the alarming prescription for Armageddon that foreign powers now covet.

 Gorgeously photographed by Václav Hanus in black and white, Krakatit  is largely a film of dark, blowy nights. Prokop’s resemblance to Orson Welles—the actor, Karel Höger, also resembles Richard Attenborough and Van Heflin—certifies the Kafkaesque nature of his (mis)adventures, where he sometimes collides with alternate versions of himself. (In effect, his mission is to stop himself from destroying the world.) Alas, there is none of the wit here of Čapek’s fabulous, late War with the Newts; but is the cause of the aridity the fact that the source is an early work, or that hopes for the salvation of the world banish humor and wit? Regardless, the shafts of wind-swept, mysterious poetry make this film a must-see—as does the transmutation of the songs of wild birds into various instances of mechanical noise: ironically, symbolically, the reduction of humanity that has rendered its slippage into atomic oblivion a fresh, persistent possibility.

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