Classic Musings: Adelheid ('68)

Czech New Wave auteur František Vláčil only directed a handful of feature-length pictures, yet his expressive, almost Bergman-esque style with both Marketa Lazarová and The Valley of the Bees (Údolí včel) makes a quick impression as an existential voice. That's perhaps why Adelheid, Vláčil first soiree in color, is something of a disappointment; his construction of a conflicted post-WWII love affair between a Czech and a German, separated by the language barrier, only intermittently provokes thought within a one-dimensional and contentiously heavy-handed environment. Though the eagerness to absorb another of the artist's work might exaggerate its potency, mostly through a controversial embodiment of post-war German mistreatment, its dramatic flaws are observable even through appreciation for Vláčil's stimulating tactics.

Adelheid first tells the story of Viktor (Petr Cepek), a Czech lieutenant assigned to administrate over a prominent Nazi's mansion in the wake of the war. It's a place with cages waist-deep in water to freeze his captives, expensive brandy tucked behind the books in a library, and filth everywhere. To help in his spruce-up effort, his superior sends along a German POW named Adelheid (Emma Cerná) to clean up, cook, and take care of Viktor's everyday needs, demanding she return back to the camp afterwards. She's a unique choice for the job, though, since the previous Nazi owner of the mansion happens to be her father. Attention quickly shifts to Adelheid as she begins to half-heartedly scrub the floors with a stone-faced scowl spread across her face, yet she still grabs Viktor's attention as he catches glimpses of her bare torso and her covered backside. He develops affection for her, even though they don't speak the same language.

Vláčil creates an intimate human drama out of Adelheid, developing a stern rapport between the weathered-yet-shy Czech soldier Viktor and Adelheid, a subservient but bitter German woman. Our eyes are drawn to Adelheid throughout, subtly but potently performed by Emma Cerná, as she gives a hard, untrusting once-over to any soldier who enter the mansion. As Viktor grows accustomed to her harsh presence, the director allows a very slight juxtaposition to surface between Viktor and Adelheid's inborn personalities and the rough handling of post-WWII Germans under the Czech military -- a controversial depiction. Vláčil contrasts the forced-labor mistreatment with natural human dynamics, showing how Adelheid succumbs to the barking commands of her controllers yet exerts emotional control over Viktor.

Adelheid's reactions to Viktor's kindness and honorable defense in situations -- especially during an attention-grabbing dinner sequence with other Czech soldiers that suggests his affection-driven protection might be pointless -- mold Adelheid into an intriguing-enough study of interaction, yet there's also the romantic component to bear in mind. Since Viktor isn't the type to bed women from town to town like other soldiers, it seems more like proximity-rooted desperation when his fondness for Adelheid builds amid isolation and his almost voyeuristic spying. In combination with Adelheid's unswerving temperament, the idea of tenderness blossoming between the two never gels into the barrier-defying link Vláčil would like it to be. Instead, it only comes together into a meandering, elusive series of consequences that vainly quench the curiosity generated by the characters.

As a result, Adelheid is hollow in comparison to Vláčil's other pictures, photographed with a similar poeticism and deliberate focus yet soggy and ill-defined in its attempts at psychosomatic insight. The decisions made by Adelheid are tepid, at best, which transforms the picture into one as cold as the frigid climate in which it's shot. Vláčil does still show his flare for meaningful imagery via cinematography, capturing water-engulfed cages outside the mansion, the intricate frozen branches surrounding dirt walkways, and an overall textured, brown-and-green veneer that looks up-to-date with the modern WWII visual style. But as the eagerness to absorb another entry of the Czech auteur's oeuvre might be satisfied through perceptive visuals and challenging through, Adelheid's dulled edge simply doesn't compel like his other work.

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