A Case for a Rookie Hangman

Pavel Juráček was a key figure of the 1960s Czech New Wave whose work has been steadily re-evaluated in recent years. Although he directed only two features, he co-scripted some major films of the period, notably Karel Zeman’s A Jester’s Tale (1964) and Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB 1 (1963), and supported the work of Vera Chytilová and Jiří Menzel among others. One of the most outspoken of the New Wave filmmakers, he ran into trouble with the authorities and was not able to continue working in the repressive ‘normalisation’ period that followed the Soviet invasion.

A Case for a Rookie Hangman was the last film he directed, and although it was not explicitly banned, it only had a limited release in 1970. Juráček redirects the acerbic satire of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the sinister absurdity of life under a totalitarian regime, adding touches of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka. After a car crash, everyman Lemuel Gulliver finds himself in the strange land of Balnibarbi and the flying island of Laputa (the third voyage in Swift’s tale). A Carrollian dead hare sporting watch and waistcoat signals Gulliver’s entry into this disconcerting wonderland. Soon after arrival, he is arrested and reprimanded for speaking because it is Monday. Dubious honours and farcical trials follow, merging with frustratingly unstable memories of a blonde lover. 

Unfolding with impeccable dream logic, Gulliver’s adventure is told with piercing wit, underpinned by a deep sense of menace and unease. Filmed in Prague, Balnibarbi is a baffling, decaying world governed by arbitrary rules, fallacious logic and an obsession with pointless classification. As Gulliver – and Juráček – reveals at his peril, this feeds the citizens’ blind obedience to a power that is ultimately an empty lie. Juráček never made another film, but his technical brilliance and seditious humour endure in this surreal tour de force.

DVD: The Second Run transfer of the new 4K restoration brings out the wonderful monochrome texture of the image. The extras are particularly valuable, including two early short films that Juráček co-directed with Jan Schmidt, as well as their Kafkaesque medium feature Josef Kilián (1963).

Review published in Sight & Sound, Vol. 29, no. 9 (September 2019).

Picture credit: A Case for a Rookie Hangman (Dir. Pavel Juráček, 1970).

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