31 Monday Aug 2015
1972 in Czechoslovakia was 4 years after the 1968 Prague Spring, seven months of relative freedom which ended abruptly with the August 21 invasion by the Soviet Union. When Jaromil Jires, already quite well known as one of the Czechoslovak new wave directors, especially for The Joke of 1969, based on a Kundera novel, and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, in 1970, released And Give My Love to the Swallows in May of that year the intent of the story was likely obvious to ordinary film goers, though not to the Soviet bureaucrats then in charge.
The movie is a visual re-creation of a famous series of letters by a young woman Maruska Kuderíková who, after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in March, 1939, joined a communist related resistance group. She was ultimately imprisoned and beheaded by the the Nazis in 1943. As her story unfolds, printing leaflets, carrying messages, smuggling a gun, it is good patriotic stuff. Though by 1972 young resistors had another target in mind.
Magda Vásáryová plays Maruska both in the drab gray-green of the prison and in flashbacks as the happy, sometimes too naive, young woman who finds love and then leaves it behind for a stronger calling. We get a sense of her Catholic upbringing and her subsequent rejection of the church in scenes with her parents and the prison chaplain. Her affiliation with war-time communists is touched on, not explored in depth. The prison scenes with tough as nails female wardens and a chill, bare courtyard for silent exercise are convincing, her grooming and loveliness not so much, given the rags they are dressed in and the thin blankets against the cold . The spontaneous friendships between cell-mates show the irrepressible spirits of the young — a few times a bit overacted to my eye, though with women in prison movies so rare in the U.S. except for the soft-porn genre, there is not much context for judging.
Maruska is found guilty of treason and espionage. The promised execution date is 99 days after the sentence. Put to work painting eyes on German toy soldiers, and stealing time to write her letters the tension does not really seem to build until the 99 days have passed. What now? The women speak of pardons to each others. But perhaps not. As we have heard from many, indeterminate sentences are the worst for the human spirit. News of the German Army retreat after the Battle of Stalingrad, February, 1943, filters into the prison; hopes rise and then sink. She realizes that the more the Germans face defeat, the more savage will be their reprisals.
The words of her last letter give a sense of Anne Frank innocence.
“Farewell to you, I greet, I love. Do not weep, I’m not crying. Without wailing, without a tremor of fear, without pain I leave, I come to what should be the goal, not the means.
Jires does a nice job of conveying her tranquility before death as she pauses on the way to her beheading to kiss others waiting their turn. And he leaves us with this image of her courage, going to black instead of a graphic of the even then shocking, beheading by ax.
Maruška Kudeříková became quite a hero in Moravia and the wider Czech Republic, with streets, schools and parks named after her, though recently a Czech television documentary has taken some of the shine off her legend with assertions “that a poorly organized resistance action arranged by Kudeříková and her collaborators led to the imprisonment of many innocent persons in German concentration camps.“
Some vieweres will be reminded of Michael Verhoeven‘s 1982 The White Rose and Marc Rothemund‘s 2005 Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, both based on similar stories of youthful, female centric, German resistance to the Nazi take-over.
Unfortunately, the Netflix DVD is marred by the superposition of English sub-titles over Czech or Moravian sub-titles, making them occasionally unreadable. Those who are interested in acts of resistance, or who follow Czech movies, will make the effort, or perhaps find a better copy on-line. I don’t see it now, but previews and some longer parts of Jires films are available on YouTube.