Lovers divided by language and power and the reality of ideas in this brilliant find by Second Run
Adelheid concerns the relationship, and I’m hesitant to classify it as a romance, between a Czech lieutenant who’s returned to his native country after a stint with the RAF in Aberdeen, Scotland and a German woman assigned to him as a servant. The setting is just after the Allies’ victory in World War II. The layers beyond that are so fascinating in František Vláčil’s film that it seems a disservice to rely too heavily on such broad plot points. I loved how subtle and withholding the direction can be, and how that subsequently leads to various forms of conflict among the characters but also within the viewer. Striking, too, is the tacit statement on the extremities of war, and the underlying tentacles of ideology.
The lieutenant (Petr Čepek) is first introduced as a tired soldier on a train who’s beaten by his fellow countrymen because they don’t know who he is. This skepticism continues after he’s brought to the local police inspector. Once his identity – and importance – is confirmed, Viktor Chotovický is allowed to move in to a now-abandoned mansion with the pretense of solitude. The home had previously been occupied by a well-known German Nazi now in custody at a prison camp. Viktor awakens one morning to a young woman (Emma Černá) cleaning the house. At first startled, especially since she doesn’t respond to Czech, he develops an interest that’s at least partially from some degree of sexual curiosity. This woman, named Adelheid, becomes his live-in servant who can help take care of the ulcer-ridden Viktor’s need to eat every two hours. What he doesn’t know at this point, but finds out later, is that Adelheid’s the daughter of that prominent fascist and this house had been her home not very long ago.
Again, though, I think relying on plot details can conjure up elements of mystery or overextended emphasis on certain expectations that might fail to adequately reflect both the mood and the strengths of the film. This is a terribly engrossing work concerned less with “war” and its aftermath than with the repercussions of the ideology leading to such military conflicts. Viktor develops a sympathy for Adelheid that he struggles to balance against his attraction for her. In turn, she’s an emotional enigma. The language barrier is only the most superficial of their hurdles, and Viktor does speak some German while also learning certain well-chosen phrases. More troublesome is the delicate balance of power between the two housemates. She’s little more than a prisoner, or even a slave, while he’s not interested in commanding her to do hardly anything. Viktor seems to want an attachment with Adelheid that’s based on affection rather than obligation, and he’s at a loss as to how to attain it.
Vláčil establishes most of this with minimal dialogue alluding to their little dance. The caring that develops between the two can be found in looks and actions much more than words. Indeed, perhaps the most enlightening exchange comes near the end of the film, when the situation has changed drastically and Adelheid’s honesty cannot affect much of anything beyond Viktor’s feelings. It’s a harsh reality between these two, and that’s part of why I’m reluctant to consider it an actual romance in any traditional or recognizable sense. Viktor emerges as an emotionally numb figure unable to tolerate the usual pleasantries of life. Adelheid is frigidly cold by nature. His behavior is more intriguing but she’s the one who’s much harder to figure out, particularly regarding her loyalties.
The film, Vláčil’s first in color, is a remarkable depiction of what one might call false love. The two lead characters get to know each other’s habits and gestures without really bonding over much beyond desperation and availability, or, perhaps, fate. Neither can know for sure what the other is thinking. It’s all a theatrical production of sorts, where the lonely wanderer finds a woman who has little choice but to obey him regardless of how she actually feels. And how she actually feels, emotionally, ideologically and so on, proves to be the crux of the film. There isn’t an easiness to any of this. Both characters’ reactions register as true and deeply complicated. If there was an element of magical obedience here it would perhaps feel more like a romance or a love story but it would be perverse to even suggest such a thing. The film instead cuts into what a story of lovers can be, consequently evoking a stronger feeling of their shared pain and questioning the very perception of romance.
As high as I am on Adelheid, anyone considering a purchase might want to first think about instead opting for Second Run’s The František Vláčil Collection. It’s a four-disc set due in September that will also contain Marketa Lazarová, The Valley of the Bees and, exclusively, the 2003 documentary tribute Sentiment. The set is a far better deal than buying the three individual releases together. Only those who already own the earlier Vláčil releases might feel a little slighted since, as of now, there will be no other way to pick up Sentiment.
The Adelheid disc is dual-layered, PAL and region-free. The progressive transfer has the film in what is advertised as its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Be warned that the image is neither pristine nor otherwise perfect. There are frequent occurrences of speckles of dirt and debris popping around the frame. The colors are dull and faded. Sharpness is a little below the expectations afforded the usual Second Run transfer, though detail is still reasonably good. Lots of scenes appear quite dark, yet not deeply black, and show a good deal of grain. With those caveats out of the way, I want to stress that pretty much every quibble seems related to the source materials rather than Second Run’s work on the transfer. Until further, and most likely impractical considering how little known this film is, restoration is done I wouldn’t conceive of an improved image. Thinking of other Second Run releases of this era of color Czech films, Adelheid looks more like a less bright Valerie and Her Week of Wonders than the beautiful quality of Daisies.
The audio is a mixture of Czech and German dialogue. It’s a two-channel Dolby Digital mono track that exhibits nothing obtrusive. This is a consistent, clear listen that is as notable for the handling of musical pieces by Bach and Strauss as it is for the dialogue. A good set of English subtitles doesn’t go without notice. They’re white in color.
As with the other Vláčil titles, the disc doesn’t carry any extras but a booklet can be found inside the case. Peter Hames contributes a lengthy essay that runs for most of the booklet’s 16 pages. Hames’ piece begins with an introduction to the director’s work, including discussion of both Marketa Lazarová and The Valley of the Bees. The essay then moves to Adelheid for a thoughtful analysis of the film and a primer on the historical implications it explored.
This is an exquisite, engaging film that might come as a surprise to those who’ve previously viewed the other films directed by František Vláčil and found in the Second Run stable. Adelheid feels more intimate. It’s also a fairly accessible work in comparison to much of what Second Run releases. The truly great pieces of art that can succeed as being simple and straightforward are almost always full of complexities for those who wish to seek them out, and I think that’s true with this film. I was really taken with it, and once again feel thankful to Second Run for finding and making available something that’s too long dwelt far off in the fringe of cinema.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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