Sunday, 13 October 2013

The spirit of Slovakia… Jánošík (1921), Barbican with Vladimir Merta quintet

Jánošík is notable for being Slovakia’s first feature-length film and ensuring that the country became only the tenth to make one. Produced in Slovakia, the film was financed from America with various Slovak émigrés securing backing for this tale of their own Robin Hood who was rather more genuine than the British version…

Born in 1688, when Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, Jánošík was a soldier who became an outlaw. Whilst it is highly likely that his generosity was somewhat exaggerated by nineteenth century writers looking for a folk symbol in the face of oppression,  he apparently never killed his victims and did indeed target the rich, sharing his loot with the peasantry.

Whatever the actuality, Jánošík’s legend endured, with one of groups in the anti-Nazi Slovak National Uprising bearing his name. He is an important part of the national identity of a country that had to wait centuries for independence. This film, no doubt, helped propagate the myth and such a major figure was a compelling choice for a Slovakian first.

Directed by Jaroslav Jerry Siakel,  who also co-wrote the screenplay (he had to, the final part only arrived after shooting…), Jánošík was based on a novel by Gustáv Maršall-Petrovský and a subsequent play by  Jiří Mahen.

Showing as part of the Czech Centre’s 17th Made in Prague film festival the film was believed lost until the 1970s and the restored version on screen is clearly missing some footage. This made for a slightly dis-jointed affair albeit one held together superbly by the musicians, of which more later.

Theodor Pištěk and Mária Fábryová
The film is built within a framing sequence in which a young couple of hiker’s are ragiled with the story of the legend. The couple are played by the same actors who play Juraj Jánošík and his lover Anička: Theodor Pištěk and Mária Fábryová.

This version of the tale ignores Jánošík’s military background and has him returning to his home village after two years at a seminary. He walks through some stunning poplar-tree lined tracks encountering a group of peasants working in seeming idyll. One of them is his old sweetheart Anička and after he leaves them he sits by the roadside and remembers their chaste flirtations in a sweet flashback involving a kissing dog…

But, what he hasn’t seen is the guard overseeing the peasant’s work: things have changed since he left…

Jozef Chylo looks on whilst Theodor Pištěk grabs Vladimír Šrámek

Worse is to come as Jánošík is greeted by his distraught father: his mother has just died and that’s not the half of it. The regional land-owner Count Šándor (Vladimír Šrámek – clearly relishing his role and with the film’s best hair), has been sweating the local assets a little too hard… Refusing to accept his wife’s death as an excuse for not working he has Jánošík’s father canned… the old man expires before his son can intervene and Jánošík begins his rebellion.

Knocking the evil count to the ground he is chased off by soldiers who peruse him into the woods. Jánošík is strong and cunning and is able to fight off the men earning him the instant respect of an on-looking outlaw, Ilčík (L. Hušek) who invites him to join his merry band.

Jánošík instils new rules which see the men only take from the rich, distribute to the poor and pledge themselves to avoid killing.

The story moves on apace and I could have done with a bit more daring-do but there’s a nice scene in which the gang arrive at a masked ball and relieve the gathered gentry of their jewellery in front of the anguished Count and his superior Baron Révay (Miloslav Schmidt). Almost certainly there was originally more.

The end arrives far too quickly as Jánošík is caught and trips on some dried peas thrown under his feet by a duplicitous old woman - true to the legend! His end is assured but his memory will live on.

Steals from the rich...
Whilst Jánošík may have been made in Slovakia but it shows the experience its makers had gained from the US and these outlaws from North-Western Slovakia could easily have been from further west a century or two later on.

The tale of Jánošík would be as familiar as Robin Hood to Slovakians and they would anticipate every key moment being ticked off which the film dutifully does. Theodor Pištěk was a big star at the time and brings a camp authority to the lead role with a touch of Fairbanks. Mária Fábryová was an amateur actress but does well in her dual roles.

The cinematography from Daniel Siakeľ and Oldřich Beneš is very polished, dealing with the sometimes frenetic action and locations that are used to stunning affect – if you’ve never thought of holidaying in Slovakia, Jánošík makes a compelling case and you’d also be within commuting distance of Vienna and Budapest!

In her introduction, Tereza Porybna, the Czech Centre Director, described the accompanying score as having been “comprovised” – composed and improvised - a new word that I may very well use again. It was certainly very spirited and sympathetic, played by a mix of Slovak and Czech musicians.

The quintet featured Vladimir Merta (vocals, guitar, lute, harmonica, pipe, fujara), Jana Lewitova (vocals, violin), Julo Fujak (vocals, piano, percussion), Samo Smetana (violin)  and Jan Kavan (vocals, violoncello). Mr Merta was especially impressive on the fujara which is a Slovakian fipple flute standing some almost as high as the players: the sound of the High Tatra mountains?

Vladimír Šrámek and nobility outraged...
Vladimir Merta is one of the pre-eminent folk musicians in Slovakia with a career dating back to the 1960’s; a number of his albums are available on eMusic as are some from his band-mates. There are a couple of snippets of the film featuring the quintet’s music on YouTube.

Their energetic gypsy phrasings bought this romp to life and they were particularly appreciated by my teenage son whose presence was traded for a trip to Forbidden Planet… never-the-less, he enjoyed himself and he loved the music!

The film is still available on DVD in Slovakia but the English version seems to be out of print. It’s worth seeking out for further evidence, if it were still needed, that cinema was truly international from the very beginnings.

Dedicated to Martin Škrtel – Liverpool FC’s first Slovakian player and a very fine centre back!

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