BIRDIES, ORPHANS AND MADMEN (Juraj Jakubisko, 1969)

Beauteous, powerful, politically incendiary, Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni—its Slovak title is widely translated as Birds, Orphans and Fools—was made in Czechoslovakia, with French assistance, by writer-director Juraj Jakubisko, I believe, in the midst of the Soviet invasion of 1968. (Karol Sidon co-authored the script with Jakubisko.) The apocalyptic film was suppressed for more than twenty years.

The setting is an abandoned, bombed-out church (in hommage, perhaps, to the one in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, 1958), into which the current inhabitants, photographer Yurick and friend Andrej, bring in Marta, who is Jewish. All three are orphans. Yurick and Marta become lovers, but Yurick urges the girl to deflower his virginal comrade; once Marta and Andrej are a couple expecting a baby and he the odd man out, Yurick becomes vehemently jealous and the film slides from being a comical parable of freedom and possibility into much grimmer, closed-ended emotional territory.

Indeed, there were earlier double-meanings that predicted the darkening complexion of Jakubisko’s astounding (and astoundingly entertaining) film. The spirited “fun and games” in which Yurick and Marta initially engage are Lord of the Flies-regressive; their abundant nudity, a deceptive show of innocence despite their experience of war, which they are desperate to deny, and their sexual experience. Their material recklessness and destructiveness suggest the influence of two other films: from the Czech New Wave, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), and French New Waver Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou (1968). The birds that Yurick photographs appear to embody the essence of life, freedom and flight—all possibility; yet they are also described as “the souls of dead men.” One of the film’s most trenchant and unshakable images consists of a white bird trapped in an unattended open glass jar (only we see it), struggling to free itself.

A lament for the crushing of Czechoslovakia’s liberal hopes, including the crushing of the Czech New Wave, Jakubisko has made a devastating film. He was not permitted to make another film for fifteen years thereafter.

The gorgeous color cinematography, which on occasion slides into and out of black and white, is by Igor Luther.

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