‘And he has a lion in his emblem, the hairless rabbit!’
A lonely businessman in Prague meets a mysterious woman who seems to know all about him. She takes him to a cemetery, where he tries to seduce her, but she’s more interested in telling him three bizarre, supernatural stories…
An offbeat Czechoslovakian anthology film, which cheerfully mixes its horrors with romance, some comedy and even a faint whiff of science fiction. Director Milos Makovec delivers the framing story and the third tale, with the other two are helmed by Jirí Brdecka and Evald Schorm respectively.
Middle-aged executive Willy Fabricius (Milos Kopecký) arrives in Prague on the eve of closing a big business deal. However, rather than spend the evening with his prospective new partners, he begs off, claiming he needs time to study the contract on offer. In truth, he’s after some fun instead. After unsuccessful attempts to interest the pretty hotel receptionist and the female motorist who gives him a lift into town, he meets Zuzana (Milena Dvorská). She comes with a vintage car and chauffeur Václav (Jirí Hrzán) but, unfortunately for Kopecký, their first stop is not the kind of boneyard he had in mind. Instead, it’s a nearby cemetery, and all Dvorská wants to do is tell him bedtime stories.
The first tale revisits Prague’s most famous legend: the Golem. In this version, the clay statue brought to life by Rabbi Jehudi Löw (Josef Bláha) has already completed its mission and lies inert on the temple floor. However, Emperor Rudolf II (Martin Ruzek) wants to use the creature for his own purposes. Bláha explains that it cannot be revived, but the ruler has anticipated his refusal and called in the ambitious Rabbi Neftali Ben Chaim (Jan Klusák) to do the job. During preparations for the rites, the young pretender becomes inflamed with desire for a mute servant girl (Lucie Novotná). Determined to impress her, he uses a spell to grow his Golem to giant size.
The second story focuses on Countess (Teresa Tuszynska), who has made manipulating men her lifetime’s work. She’s driven them to suicide and ruin, even provoking a pair of twins to kill each other over her. Her latest plaything is the Knight Saint de Clair (Josef Abrhám), who invites her to a masked ball. She’s happy to accept as long as he can furnish a pair of party slippers made from loaves of bread. He cannot procure the unusual footwear, and she breaks with him, prompting his offscreen rendezvous with a pistol. On the evening of the ball, a Shoemaker (Josef Somr) suddenly arrives to fulfil her order. She’s delighted and sets out in a coach with a masked man she assumes is Abrhám. Of course, it’s Somr instead, and he takes her to his gothic mansion, which is staffed by mechanical servants and covered with cobwebs.
Rounding out the trio of stories is the oft-told tale of the bloody tavern. Yes, this traveller’s rest is likely to be your last, courtesy of landlady Yvetta Simonová and the elderly Attendant Prech (Václav Kotva). There’s a warm welcome waiting, accompanied by a quick dose of poison and an exit through a trapdoor to a cellar filled with corpses. At least Simonová doesn’t bother her guests with a bill, lifting their jewellery, purse and silver buttons instead. However, her perfect scheme begins to unravel when she starts to fall in love with her latest victim. When this story concludes, we go back to our modern-day Scheherazade and her hapless audience of one for a final twist in the tale.
There’s a lot to admire in this unusual collection of tales, with Brdecka’s Golem story and the activities of Schorm’s Countess being particularly noteworthy and engaging. The first of these edges the honours, with the smartest script and some striking production design. Brdecka’s economic direction also ensures that not a second of screentime is wasted, and the cast are on point throughout. Although the practical effects are crude and unconvincing, they are highly imaginative and memorable for all the right reasons.
Schorm’s segment runs it a close second, principally due to a tour de force performance by Tuszynska. Her Countess is deliciously corrupt; a sexy, blonde kitten who holds court naked in her bubble bath, fondling Chambermaid Mici (Jana Brezková) and sending men to their doom with uncontrollable glee. Her request for slippers made from bread seems an innocent piece of fun at first until a later scene highlights the plight of the local peasant population. Let them eat cake, indeed! The scenes in Somr’s mansion pile on the atmosphere impressively, and there’s even a homage to the Powell & Pressburger classic ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948). The only fault lies in its length; the final scenes are in danger of becoming too repetitious.
The remaining sections of the film fail to scale these heights. Humour has been present throughout the first hour of the film, but director Makovec opts for far broader comedy in both the tavern segment and the wrap up of the framing story. These create a serious clash of tone. The handling of the former is particularly jarring as it’s shot without dialogue or synchronised sound. Instead, the plot is conveyed courtesy of offscreen singers, who seem to have wandered onto the film’s soundtrack from an operetta taking place next door! As of in itself, it’s a creative idea, and the sequence is entertaining; it just doesn’t fit well with what the audience has been watching. Similarly, subtlety goes out the window, along with the cast, when the fate of amorous businessman Kopecký is revealed. It’s played for big laughs and is accompanied by some (intentionally?) terrible SFX.
Ultimately, the theme that ties these stories together is man’s inability to resist a beautiful woman. Even when the female concerned is not actively deadly, she’s still a trap that leads to man’s ultimate destruction. The apple offered by Eve is still a temptation that cannot be resisted. Not an original notion, of course, but one that’s examined here in a pleasing variety of ways and with genuine creativity and imagination. There are some lovely quiet touches too; it rains indoors when the Golem is brought to life, and its feet break the stone slabs of the floor when its walks, Tuszynska gives a quick shrug of indifference when she finds the silver snuff box of an old lover in her bed, and Somr takes a peek at the cogs and wheels inside the head of one of his mechanical servants by lifting the top of its head like the lid of a coffee pot.
Of the three directors, Makovec has most feature films to his name, although he was not prolific, with just 15 credits in 25 years. Although this may not seem a bad strike rate by modern standards, many of his contemporaries in Western Europe ran up far higher totals in comparison. Brdecka often worked as a writer on his projects and was also a prolific director of short films, as was Schorm, making them the perfect collaborators on an anthology. Little of their work is known outside Eastern Europe. Still, Brdecka was the principal script collaborator on writer-director Oldrich Lipský’s bizarre Jules Verne adaptation ‘The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians/Tajemství hradu v Karpatech’ (1981).
Overall, an uneven effort thanks to its late swerve into overstated comedy. Still, there’s a great deal to admire and enjoy in this unusual production.