Eastern European Fairy Tale Triple Feature – Blood Countesses, Rat Kings and Evil Astrologers

Greetings 2021! I’ve been away from this blog longer than intended, due to a mixture of social commitments, excessively hot weather and laziness. Today I’m beginning to catch up on my viewing from the monthly Cineslut Film Club. The theme for October was Eastern European Fairy Tales, a genre niche which is like catnip to me, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to explore three examples previously unfamiliar to me. It’s now been over a week since I watched them, so it’s about time I assembled some of my thoughts before the details have faded from memory.

First up is The Bloody Lady [Krvavá pani] (1980), a feature length Slovakian animation telling the tale of Countess Alžbeta Bátoriová, better known to English speakers as Elizabeth Báthory or the Blood Countess (1560-1614), whose influence as the primary historical inspiration for countless female vampires continues to echo down through the centuries – although you could be forgiven for failing to recognise her at first in this unusual take on her story.

When we first meet the Countess, she’s very much like your traditional fairy tale princess, a sweet blonde girl beloved by all and beset by suitors. Every day, as she looks down to the courtyard from her room, her perpetually present suitors show off with displays of physical prowess. Two of them take turns shooting arrows at each other and attempting to catch them; another must have travelled a very long way to be there, since he’s wearing a karategi and putting on a martial arts exhibition. The Countess isn’t particularly interested in these macho displays, preferring to sneak out of the castle and frolic in the forest with her woodland friends, an assortment of animals who delight her with surprisingly well choreographed performances. One day the weather suddenly turns sour and she’s caught in a torrential storm while the animals flee for shelter and her horse bolts. A handsome woodsman finds her unconscious form in the forest and nurses her back to health, while her animal friends bring her presents of food. (Rather perversely, the bird brings her one of its eggs, and it’s made very clear that the bird is effectively bringing her its own child to eat – but it’s played for comedy, with the bird simply giving a sheepish shrug to the viewer in acknowledgement.) Inevitably, the Countess falls in love with the woodsman, and as she prepares to depart for home she gives him her heart. Literally.

In a delightfully twisted turn of fairy tale logic, her new heartless state has dire consequences. She’s abusive towards her woodland friends on the journey home, presaging a gradual increase in bad-tempered and sadistic behaviour, flying into a rage for trivial reasons and tormenting her servants. And then comes the fateful incident when she scratches a servant girl’s face. Wiping away the drop of blood which landed on her hand, she discovers that the newly uncovered patch of skin has turned the purest white. It’s just a short step from there to her new skin care regime – having her servants murdered and then bathing in their blood. Her suitors soon meet the same fate, invited to her chambers via a secret route only to meet their demise in one death trap or another. The woodsman eventually discovers what’s going on and attempts to restore her heart, but she no longer wants it and he’s barely able to rescue it from her dog’s jaws. After a physical confrontation with the Countess’ henchman – whose death, bizarrely, results in snakes slithering out of his head – the woodsman escapes. Her crimes are discovered, the authorities wall her up in her castle to starve to death and justice is (presumably) served. The end? No, because the woodsman suddenly appears inside the sealed tower and revives her corpse by reinstalling her heart, allowing the two to live happily ever after!

It’s difficult to tell whether or not this film was intended for viewing by children. The sometimes overly cute art style, the Countess’ woodland friends and the odd choice to give her a happy ending suggest that it might have been, but the acts of violence and occasional female nudity are… atypical at best for a child audience. The story is told without dialogue, with only a couple of sentences of opening narration to provide any context – but since the version I watched did not include subtitles, I’m left none the wiser.

Writer/director Viktor Kubal was a pioneer of Slovakian animation, involved with the creation of the first Slovakian animated film in 1943, and frequently incorporated elements of local legend and folklore into his work. It’s difficult to find much information on him in English, but as best as I can tell he turned out a substantial body of work from the 1940s to the 1980s. The Bloody Lady is his second and final feature length animation. Although the art style was sometimes a little twee for my tastes, his animation techniques display a great deal of creativity and slowly won me over. The moment which most stood out for me was the transformation of the innocent Countess as the storm struck. During her sun-soaked frolics, her billowing dress made her look very much like a flower; the sudden onslaught of the storm caused her dress to collapse completely, leaving her looking like a drenched bell flower. (There’s some resemblance to Angel’s Trumpet – which, being a poisonous flower, may be a deliberate hint of what’s to come.) Kubal’s fluid animation style is at its best when the forms of objects or people become mutable and their colours flow (with red and white dominating the palette).

Don’t be fooled by the lurid poster for The Rat Saviour [Izbavitelj] (1976) – the movie itself is far subtler and more interesting than the poster would have you believe. An unidentified town in contemporary Croatia is in the throes of a recession. Novelist Ivan Grajski (Ivica Vidović), desperate for money, approaches his publisher hoping for good news only to learn that his allegorical plague novel has been rejected as unsuitable for the times. Returning home to his apartment, he finds himself expelled by the landlord for non-payment of rent. With only a few books and the clothes on his back to his name, his only recourse is to sell his books at the local marketplace. Sonja (Mirjana Majurec), a young woman selling some of her father’s books, takes pity on him and leaves him with her scarf and phone number. Ivan passes a political rally, where the Mayor (Relja Bašić) is making empty promises of wealth and prosperity, before settling down to sleep on a park bench. The policeman who wakes him turns out to be his local butcher, who covertly grants him access to the abandoned Grand Central Bank building on the condition that he stays for only one night and tells nobody.

At this point things take a turn for the surreal. A disused cabinet turns out to be brimming with fancy prepared meals (and the odd rat or two). Ivan finds a working phone and calls Sonja – much to her surprise, since her phone is broken. And he stumbles on a raucous feast-cum-orgy of ratlike people who are discussing their plans to kill Professor Martin Bošković and his daughter. Attempting to expose the gathering to the police the following day, he finds that the cabinet is empty, the phone no longer works and there’s no sign of any large gathering having taken place. Burgeoning doubts about his own sanity are relieved when he’s accosted by the Professor (Fabijan Šovagović), who narrowly escaped an attack by rat people the previous evening and followed him from the police station. The Professor and his daughter (who of course turns out to be Sonja) are the only people aware of a secret conspiracy of rat people (indistinguishable from regular humans until killed) who are ruled by a rat king, as referenced in a 15th century text. The Professor has been attempting to wage biological warfare against the rat people, who are gradually taking over all positions of power and privilege within society. Ivan is enlisted into his mission to expose and destroy the rat king for the good of society.

The Rat Saviour was based on the early 20th century short novel “The Rat-Catcher”, written by Russian author Alexander Grin (aka Aleksandr Green). Director Krsto Papić (considered one of Croatia’s best filmmakers) adapted the novel in conjunction with his frequent collaborator Ivo Brešan and fellow director Zoran Tadić. Although on the surface it’s constructed as a surreal conspiracy thriller, and generally seems to be classified as a horror movie, beneath the surface gloss (or rather surface grime) the movie reveals itself to be a social satire using the rat people as an allegory for political corruption. Given that the movie begins with the novelist protagonist having a similar work rejected by his publisher, it’s tempting to speculate about a connection between his novel and the unfolding story. Was Ivan’s novel denied publication by a lackey of the political elite because it cut too close to the bone? Has Ivan found himself trapped in a nightmare of his own imagination? Do Ivan’s artistic sensibilities provide him with a unique insight which allows him to perceive a reality invisible to most? A definitive answer to any of these questions would be disappointing, but the movie has enough substance and mystery to sustain any or all of these perspectives on the material. It’s certainly possible to watch it as a straightforward fantasy horror, but looking for the subtext makes it a more satisfying experience. Papić clearly felt he was dealing with fertile material, since he would return to the well with Infection [Infekcij] (2003), a movie which is variously described as either a remake or a sequel. The movie poster stirs up vague feelings of familiarity – I’m pretty sure I read about it not long after its release – but I haven’t had the opportunity to see it myself (one for my ever-expanding list).

Finally we come to The Ninth Heart [Deváté srdce] (1979), my favourite of the bunch. Czech director Juraj Herz was responsible for the masterful dark comedy The Cremator [Spalovač mrtvol] (1969). His first entry in the fairy-tale-inflected fantasy genre was Morgiana (1972) which, like The Rat Saviour, was an adaptation of an Alexander Grin novel. While Morgiana didn’t really include any fantastical elements, they are very much an integral part of The Ninth Heart‘s story.

The hero of the story is the penniless student Martin (Ondřej Pavelka), although there’s little evidence on display for his status as a student as he seems to spend all of his time wandering from town to town and admiring the pretty women. Smitten by assistant puppeteer Tončka (Anna Maľová), he falls in with a group of travelling players and tricks a snobbish innkeeper (Václav Lohniský) into feeding the entire troupe, which lands him in jail when he’s unable to pay the bill. Fortunately, he discovers that his newly acquired cloak (a gift from a poor musician to whom he was kind) is actually a cloak of invisibility. Unfortunately, he sabotages his own escape attempt by spending too much time tormenting the arresting officers, losing his cloak when it gets caught in a closing door.

Facing a severe punishment, Martin volunteers to undertake a quest to lift a curse from the Princess (Julie Jurištová), a task which has seen eight other young men disappear never to be heard from again. This turns out to be an elaborate scheme on the part of court astrologer Count Aldobrandini (Juraj Kukura), who is working a spell to make the Princess fall in love with him while using the curse as a pretext to obtain the hearts of nine young men, an essential ingredient for the potion which has allowed him to live for 300 years. The court jester (František Filipovský), who has his suspicions about the astrologer, joins him on his quest, in which a pomegranate necklace bestowed upon him by Tončka to remind him of their love also has an important part to play.

I don’t know what it is about Czech fantasy which resonates so strongly with me, but The Ninth Heart is a gorgeous example of what this type of film has to offer. Herz is in complete synch with his cinematographer, production designers and makeup artists. Among this highly talented group of collaborators, the names which really stand out to a western audience are the celebrated surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer and his wife Eva Švankmajerová, who were responsible for the art direction, visual effects and title design. This was during the period when Švankmajer had been banned by the government from making his own films, leading to several years working in the background of other Czech productions. Although the travelling players’ puppets provide the clearest connections to Švankmajer’s other work, the visual highlight of the film is the astrologer’s Chamber of Time. This beautifully constructed set is a large hall filled with tall flickering candles, requiring careful navigation by the cast members. The back of the set is dominated by a gigantic pendulum straight out of Edgar Allan Poe, swinging back and forth across the fork of a bifurcated staircase, making it impossible for anybody to use unless the pendulum is halted. It’s a stunning piece of work and is heavily featured in the later sections of the film, allowing plenty of time for the viewer to revel in its beauty and construction.

The Ninth Heart was made back to back with Herz’s Beauty and the Beast [Panna a netvor] (1979), which beat it to the cinemas by a month and made the unusual choice to depict the titular Beast of the classic French fairy tale as possessing an avian form. Hopefully the rumours of an impending blu ray release for the English language market will turn out to be true, because The Ninth Heart has left me desperate to see more.

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