Like many people, while I’m aware of Karel Čapek as the author of the 1920 play R.U.R. which introduced the word “robot” to the world in its modern sense, I’ve never read or seen the play, let alone had any real awareness of the rest of his creative output. The most recent Virtual Cinémathèque hosted by ACMI, Karel Čapek on Film, features a curated selection of films based on two Čapek adaptations hosted by the Czech Film Classics [Česká filmová klasika] YouTube channel.
Karel Čapek’s second novel Krakatit (1924) was inspired by his horror at a 1917 munitions factory explosion, killing hundreds of workers (including children) and witnessed by Čapek from 25 miles away through a chateau window. His prescient novel deals with a man who invents a new explosive compound which is effectively a chemical equivalent to the nuclear bomb, named “krakatite” in reference to the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. Čapek uses this invention to speculate about its impact on society and to explore a range of issues relating to the imperfect behaviour of humans on an individual and societal level. In the wake of World War 2, writer/director Otakar Vávra simplified the novel to focus more specifically on the impact of krakatite’s creation as an analogue for nuclear proliferation.
The narrative is formed from the fevered recollections/imaginations of Prokop (Karel Höger) as he receives emergency medical treatment for a combination of meningitis and pneumonia. He is initially seen stumbling through the street in full film noir Peter Lorre mode, barely keeping himself together physically or mentally, before collapsing in the arms of Tomes (Miroslav Homola), an old friend from his student days. He was working with a small quantity of his new discovery when it unexpectedly detonated in his face, triggered by the frequency of a late night pirate radio station broadcast. Tomes, who studied chemistry but is unemployed and desperate for money, pumps the delirious Prokop for information about his invention. Prokop wakes the next day to find himself alone and receives a visit from a mysterious veiled woman with a desperate message for Tomes. Still in a precarious state, he somehow makes his way to the house of Tomes’ father, who just happens to be a doctor.
After being nursed back to health by the doctor and his daughter (a nice girl with whom, of course, he falls in love), the chance discovery of a personals ad about krakatite in a discarded newspaper sheet drags him back into the plot – and further from reality. The view from the window of the doctor’s house is a film projection of Prokop climbing the hill to his own house, and suddenly we are inside the house with him as he encounters the person who placed the ad. After a night of drunken abandon, Prokop wakes up in another country, where he is forced to work on his invention. Although not very responsive to direct coercion, Prokop succumbs to the seductive overtures of Princess Wilhelmina Hagen (Florence Marly), who pulls out all of the femme fatale stops to wrap him around her finger. Their initial encounter, after she hides him from her men, is startlingly staged. Stating that she’s heard that he can judge a person’s character simply by holding their hand (a direct appeal to his sense of pride), she offers him her hand. The camera spends a great deal of time focused on their hands as they writhe together, becoming more frenzied, in a clear evocation of sexual congress, after which she pointedly observes that she is ready to explode in the arms of the right man. We next see her walking, seemingly oblivious to his warning cries, near the scene of the first test of his new explosive. When he tackles her to the ground to take cover, landing on top of her, she clutches him to her and bites his neck, leading him to begin kissing her shortly before a huge explosion leaves them both panting.
When Prokop eventually realises the extent to which he’s being manipulated, he escapes (in an increasingly unlikely sequence) with the aid of D’Hémon (Jirí Plachý), the ambassador, who reveals his true (rather unsubtle) name to be Daimon soon after we realise that is car is now travelling through the clouds. Daimon takes Prokop to meet an assembly of aristocrats and military leaders being charmed by an obvious analogue for Hitler, before whisking him away for a blatant “temptation of Christ in the desert” moment at the secret mountain base of the krakatite-triggering pirate radio station to offer him dominion over the Earth.
Far more didactic than the original novel, these elements of the movie are less irritating than they might be thanks to the way in which Vávra stages the material. The style of filming becomes more dream-like and openly expressionist, with perhaps the most effective sequence being the scene where Prokop confronts the Princess about her manipulation, only for her to freeze in place as her face fades away to a featureless mask. Frequent collaborator Jiří Srnka’s score is alternately bombastic, menacing, and gentle, with its experimental style foreshadowing the science fiction movies of the 1950s. Although the film ultimately turns out to be a moralising hallucination about the responsibility of the scientist to consider the repercussions of their inventions and their potential abuse by entrenched power structures, Vávra’s more imaginative sequences within this material create a more lasting impression.
Otakar Vávra worked in a range of styles throughout his career and would later become a mentor to prominent members of the Czech New Wave such as Miloš Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Věra Chytilová (Daisies) and the recently deceased Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains). He began his career as a director in a more avant-garde mode with this paean to electricity, frantically scored on piano by Joachin Bärenz, an abstract exploration of the relationship between light and dark which is at the core of black & white cinematography.
Just as Krakatit is haunted by the aftermath of World War 2, The White Disease is infected with the pestilential atmosphere heralding the war’s imminent outbreak. Karel Čapek’s play, starring Hugo Haas, debuted in Prague in 1937. Haas wrote and directed this movie adaptation, featuring most of the original cast, for release in December. Before the expiration of another year, Nazi Germany had annexed the Sudetenland, leading to the complete occupation of Czechoslovakia five months later.
The White Disease opens with a nationalistic rallying cry for military expansion into the territory of the unknown country’s “inferior” neighbours, presided over by The Marshal (Zdenek Stepánek) in full-on Hitler mode. We first meet Doctor Galén (Hugo Haas) – named in tribute to the ancient Greek physician Galen – in the middle of the crowd at this rally, appalled at the populace’s eager response to the Marshal’s warmongering.
While the nation prepares for war, it is also suffering from the increasing encroachment of the disease morbus chengi, a new form of leprosy which initially manifests as a white spot on the neck, is only infectious to those over 45 years old, and has no known cure. Professor Sigelius (Bedrich Karen), the self-important doctor in charge of the hospital, is complacently content to shunt the patients off into wards segregated according to social standing – the poor are treated with potash, while the wealthy are treated with Peruvian Balsam. Rather than being of any medical benefit, these “treatments” simply act to reduced the smell of their wounds – the final stage of treatment is the administration of morphine while the patients are left to die.
Dr Galén, a general practitioner who works with the less well off members of society, has a great deal of difficulty in convincing Prof Sigelius to allow him to implement a potential cure that has shown some promise among his patients. Sigelius is extremely resistant, insisting at first that he will only allow tried and true procedures in his hospital, and since the current course of treatment is (to his mind) proving effective (i.e. proceeding smoothly and hiding the problem without curing it), there is no reason to change. When he is convinced, after great persistence, to consider that the new treatment might actually work, he is only concerned with the prestige of discovery, refusing to implement the cure unless he is given the complete solution and allowed to test it himself. Only after the possibility is raised that he himself might one day be infected will he allow Dr Galén to conduct a clinical trial to confirm the cure’s success on the hospital’s “charity cases”.
Although Sigelius tries to crowd Galén out of the picture after the cure is proven to be effective, Galén (an ex-military doctor who was horrified by the waste of life he saw in the trenches of World War 1) announces to the press that he is the only one who knows the cure’s secret, and that until the wealthy and powerful exert their influence to end war and commit to peace, he will only administer the cure to the poor. Rather than negotiate with Galén, Sigelius kicks him out of the hospital, and Galén makes good on his promise.
Much of the rest of the film involves the attempts of those in positions of privilege to convince Galén to treat them. People with varying levels of societal influence are encouraged to do what they can to encourage peace, such as quitting their job in the munitions factory or using their monetary/political influence to campaign for peace in the press. None of them, however, are willing to give up what they have in the cause of peace, even though it will mean their death.
No sooner has Sigelius received approval to set up concentration camps for the infected than the disease begins to become apparent in those further up the national hierarchy. The climactic confrontation between Galén and the Marshal exposes the arrogant self-absorption of the man at the top, who portrays himself as merely being a conduit for the will of the people despite having consciously worked to rile up his countrymen’s aggression, orchestrating faked diplomatic incidents over a period of months and planning for a sneak bombing raid on the enemy prior to the declaration of war, all for the sake of the military glory which he believes his country should want. His ego-driven feelings of divine authority even lead him to deliberately expose himself to the disease by shaking the hand of his infected friend, believing himself too strong to succumb to something which surely only affects the weak (with predictable consequences). The disease finally manifests once he has irrevocably committed the country to a war which will not be the easy victory he expected, and he discovers that he has made himself so indispensable to the military hierarchy that the entire war effort would collapse on his death. After imagining himself leading the war effort on horseback from the front as the flesh decays from his skeletal figure, the Grim Reaper incarnate, he finally succumbs to Galén’s condition of peace and summons him to the ministry… only for Galén to be killed by the crowds outside the ministry before he can enter, due to his refusal to join in with their cries for war.
Haas’ technique as a director technique isn’t visibly on display for much of the film, probably because of its origins as a stage play. One sequence that stood out to me came during the conversation between Galén and the Marshal, when the Marshal attempts to appeal to Galén’s military experience as a way of evoking a sense of duty. The camera focuses on the Marshal’s gleaming military boots, pacing backwards and forwards, before contrasting them with Galén’s ordinary footwear, firmly in place. We then cut to a shot of the Marshal’s torso, chest puffed up, decorated with medals and military braid, contrasted with Galén’s shabby civilian suit. Finally we see a shot of the Marshal’s face as he attempts to pull rank, switching to Galén’s face as he raises his chin high and refuses to comply, demanding to be arrested for insubordination.
Although the movie aims for a message of hope despite the cynical inevitability of Galén’s death, the very forces that Čapek and Haas railed against were soon to overtake their country. Čapek, named by the Nazis as “public enemy number two”, died in 1938 of pneumonia, not long before they seized power. Haas lost his position with the National Theater due to his Jewish background and fled to America with his immediate family, but was to lose both his father and brother to the concentration camps.
After moving to America, Haas found it difficult to reestablish his film career. He broke back into acting in 1944 and finally obtained work as a writer/director again in 1951 with a string of B-movie films noirs, generally involving an older man (played by Haas) who is exploited by an attractive younger woman. In Strange Fascination, selected as a support feature by ACMI, Haas plays an emigre pianist struggling to establish a career in America, enticed into a relationship with a dancer (Cleo Moore) before she dumps him for a younger man. It’s more sentimental than most films of its type, building the pianist’s life back up again at the end with his original wealthy patron. It’s perfectly competently made on a tight budget, but I found little to recommend it, despite the esteem in which it’s held by Martin Scorsese.