Frantisek Vlacil was born in Cesky Tesin and spent his childhood and early adulthood in northern Moravia and Brno. His father was an attorney, but, at the end of World War I, after he returned from his sojourn with the Czech Legion in Russia, he remained in the military. His mother was Czech, but when she was six months old, her family moved to Russia. She returned to Czechoslovakia in 1919.
Frantisek started to display artistic talent at a very early age. After completing secondary school, he studied at the Philosophical Faculty of Masaryk University in Brno from 1945 to 1949, specializing in art history and aesthetics. At the same time, he was active in a Brno-based puppetry and animated film group as well as at a studio that produced popular scientific educational films. He became a permanent employee of the latter in 1947 and gradually became acquainted with all of the professions involved in production. In 1951, on the basis of a decree issued by Minister of National Defense Cepicka, he was called up for active military service and was transferred to the Czechoslovakian Army Film Division. Over the next seven year period, he shot over thirty scientific, instructional and documentary films, often working under difficult conditions. This period of time was instrumental in his decision to make feature films and also provided his training in the filmmaking industry.
Vlacil’s distinctive talent did not escape the attention of the new management of the Barrandov Film Studios. He was engaged at Prague’s Hill of Dreams by Eduard Hofman, who was the studios’ director and creatively-focused film events organizer at that time.
The White Dove was Vlacil’s first feature length acted film. It immediately received a number of international awards and paved the way to joining the filmmaking elite.
A sequence of four extraordinary pictures followed, thanks to which the creator attained a prestigious position within the film community. The first was his historic ballad The Devil’s Trap. The epic story, set in the first half of the eighteenth century, received favorable reviews from the critics and enjoyed success abroad.
The resulting acclaim enabled Vlacil to start working on what was to become his most famous work – Marketa Lazarova. This film was long in the making and is an exceptional work in many respects. Even today, it significantly stands out above the rest. According to the majority of film critics and filmmakers, this is the best film that ever came out of Czechoslovakian film production.
Immediately afterwards, Vlacil filmed Valley of the Bees, which is based on a theme by author Vladimir Körner. This story, set in the thirteenth century, deals with the strength of religious fanaticism. In places, it depicts, in an almost naturalistic manner, the conflicts that exist between desire and passion for freedom and faithfulness to principles that go beyond individualism.
The psychological Adelheid was next. This film, set in the Czech border areas during the post-war period, was the director’s first color film.
During normalization, Vlacil had to bid farewell to acted films for a period of time and devoted his efforts to documentaries. His most valuable production during this period was Art Nouveau Prague, which received first prize at the film festival held in Paris.
The director returned to feature length acted films with his two subsequent projects: Smoke on the Potato Fields, which is a psychological portrait of an aging physician and features Rudolf Hrusinsky in the leading role, and the adventure film Shadows of a Hot Summer, about a group of Ukrainian nationalists attempting to fight their way from the Ukraine to the West.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Vlacil started working with screenwriter Zdenek Mahler. The results of this partnership include an unusual portrait of Antonin Dvorak in Concert at the End of Summer. The memorable pictures Snake Venom, Shades of Fern, and Magician followed.
Vlacil’s signature as a director was bold and outstanding. When he had freedom of choice, he turned to themes from the past. His films speak through imagery and, as a result of his lyrical and psychological conceptions, he has been given the title of poet and philosopher of the silver screen.
After November 1989, he was the first to receive a Czech Lion award for his lifelong work and was chosen as the president of the Czech Film and Television Academy. At the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Frantisek Vlacil received a prestigious award for the extraordinarily artistic contributions he has brought to world cinematography. Amongst Czech filmmakers, he has a reputation as a genial creator who has placed his signature on the most valuable works from our film history.
Vlacil was not only an exceptionally talented creator, but also a very complex personality full of internal conflicts. His lifelong curse was dependency on alcohol, which ultimately destroyed his health and shortened his life. Nevertheless, his work is entirely extraordinary and he remains an unattainable model for contemporary Czech filmmakers.
The Fantastic World of František Vláčil
“One of the most important retrospectives in recent memory.” TONY PIPOLO, ARTFORUM
“A welcome salute to a director whose work should be world-renowned.” KRISTIN M. JONES, WALL STREET JOURNAL
A film poet and master of imagery whose visionary work has evoked comparisons to Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, Bergman and Kurosawa, František Vláčil (1924-1999) is perhaps the least-known major figure of the Czech Republic’s storied national cinema. Vláčil’s films rank amongst the finest Czech films of the 1960s, the heyday of the Czechoslovak New Wave, a movement with which Vláčil has been more or less associated. Because he was a good decade older than most of its major figures, Vláčil is typically seen not as part of the Wave but as an important immediate precursor and influence; Josef Škvorecký, who adheres to this view, has called him the New Wave’s “brilliant fellow traveller.” In any event, until 1998, when his magnum opus Markéta Lazarová (1967) was voted, in a survey of 100 Czech film critics, “the best Czech film ever made,” Vláčil largely escaped international notice. A subsequent stirring of interest led, in 2002, to the first touring retrospective of Vláčil’s work in North America (it was presented at Pacific Cinémathèque in November/December 2002). Village Voice critic Michael Atkinson, writing at the time, called Vláčil “one of the most inspired subjects for a retrospective in years,” declaring that “Vláčil requires an international reawakening.” A decade later, Vláčil’s work remains too-little-known; this new retrospective, more comprehensive, has so far travelled to London, New York, Chicago and Washington D.C., and continues the effort to give Vláčil’s remarkable films the international spotlight they merit.
Vláčil, who studied aesthetics and art history before taking up filmmaking, approached cinema as a form of visual poetry. “I have always striven for pure film,” he said. “I wanted film to act as music and poetry.” A Variety critic once described him as “the director with the eye of a painter.” “Both ‘poet’ and ‘painter’,” wrote the Pacific Film Archive’s Jason Sanders in 2002, “capture well Vláčil’s ability to use all of cinema’s tools — its narratives, sounds, and sights — to search for the grace, the madness, and the sorrow of humanity.” Conformity, iconoclasm, and conflict — ideology versus freedom, the individual versus authority, the clash and crush of cultures, orthodoxies, dogmas — were important themes of Vláčil’s career, not only onscreen but off. His visionary, darkly beautiful films, so full of mystery, metaphor and allegorical resonance, were bound to be viewed with suspicion, or as potentially subversive, by censorious Communist officials. In the crackdown that followed the 1968 Soviet invasion, Vláčil, like many other leading Czechoslovak filmmakers, found himself unable to work for a number of years. His returned to cinema by, at first, making children’s films.