Eastern/Central European cinema has a strong identity, which can be seen in each and every independent movie which comes from the region. My taste in film was formed by Jakubisko, Svankmajer, Makavejev, Klimov and many other brilliant directors out there. But everything has to have a start, and for me the first film from the region, which blew my mind back in school, was Kytice (2000). It is based on folk tales, beautifully rhymed by Karel Jaromír Erben back in XIXth century and visualized by Frantisek A. Brabek. And it has nostalgic and dreamy, yet cruel, atmosphere, which leaves a weird aftertaste.
Nowadays, fairytales are transformed into lovable fables about love, friendship, bravery and any other positive thing. The very first fairy tales had no happy endings (hello, Charles Perrault, fuck you, Walt Disney:) ). As it is clearly stated in a Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre: … and Other Episodes in French Cultural History“, they were just educational stories from really harsh Middle Ages reality. The Red Riding Hood was eaten by wolves, and there were no huntsmen to save her. Hansel und Gretel were baked by some old lady, since times were hard and there was not that much meat around. Leaving your kids in a forest was a common practice, because, well, when you have 12 children and a poor harvest, kids were first to go. And anyway, you can always make more of them.
When you do not have a Constitution, 10 commandments or any other structure to keep the society in order, fear was the first and only way to remind people, that you have to behave good, or you will be dead. Well, most of the time acting nicely would bring you just more trouble. Let’s call it “behaving properly and trying to survive”. Evolution is a bitch, isn’t it?
Each story had a wide variety of versions, since they were distributed through oral tradition by local wisemen and women. But mostly men, because if a woman was wise enough to know how to cure diseases and lived alone on a brink of the village, she was a whore and a witch and, at some point, had to die painfully.
History was verbally recorded by people and shared by them. What happens now (like citizen journalism through social media websites, when anybody can be a reporter, and news portals just analyze the data and present the results) is in a way going back to Middle ages, when anybody could be a transmitter of information and have their own version. Of course, the amount of information was totally different.
Keeping that in mind, Kytice is more of a documentary than a horror story. :) It contains 7 beautifully rhymed stories, accompanied by great soundtrack of Jan Jirasek. Even though I do not know Czech language, the sound of the poetry there is charming. Words have power, even when you don’t know their meaning. At first I watched that movie without subtitles, but the language doesn’t matter, when it speaks through common images and values.
I am not afraid to spoil the movie by writing short summaries of the segments, since very much of the beauty there hides in cinematography, too. Movie opens with Kytice (“Wild flowers” in English) – a very short story about a woman, who is struck by lightening, and leaves 3 daughters all alone. It flows to Vodnik (“Merman”) segment. A young woman is seduced by waterman, living in a local lake. They start a family together, but she wants to go and visit her mother. This is where all of it goes wrong. Svatebni kosile (Wedding Shirts) are prepared by a young girl, who was supposed to get married. But her groom has died in a war. He visits her at night, and asks to go with him. They fly away together, but everything is not quite right, when your groom is, well, dead. You should be really careful for what you wish. And DO NOT, be any means, go out with strange looking men, even though they are your fiance-turned-to-flying-zombie. (And gosh, lady, loose that hat!:]).
Polednice (Midday witch, may be also called the Death) is a creature, with which elders scare their kids, when they doesn’t behave well. A busy mother is pissed by her whining little miracle because he just doesn’t know when to shut up. She curses him and asks Midday witch to come and take him, which she does. Zlatny kolovrat (The Golden Spinning Wheel) starts with nobleman, seeing a beautiful girl in the forest. He follows her home, and meets with her opium smoking stepmother, which is something like virgjinesha of the household – a woman who took the responsibilities of a man, because the man of the house is dead. The stepmom kills the girl and chops her to pieces, since she wants her own daughter to be the new queen. The guys cannot tell which girl was his, so he marries the imposter anyway. But there are more smart old people in the woods. Dcerina kletba (Another Curse) is about a not very bright young girl, who got involved with a wrong guy. She get’s pregnant, to her and her poor mother’s despair. On Stedrý den (Christmas Eve), a girl wonders, what will be her future husband.
Segments are connected by details – fluteboy, white robes, clocks and time – midday and midnight especially, the magic of number 3, processions for both funerals and weddings, seven blown up candles, which symbolize both the end of the story and the end of life. As far as circle of life goes, goes the circle of nature, too – from spring to summer to autumn to winter.
Overall, Kytice maches superstition and religion, life and death – going through all the rites de passage. It is a full collection of beliefs, seen in every pre-industrial society in any possible place on earth. The name Kytice reflects film’s main, mostly female, theme – various young girls can be seen as wild flowers, with their sometimes foolish wild ambition, beauty, and fragility.