Beauty and the Beast: And the Hypnotic World of Czechoslovakian Fairy Tales



It is my understanding that over in Czechoslovakia, watching fairy tale movies is some sort of Christmas tradition, and looking at these films, one can see why: most of these were TV productions and offered a more mature, surreal and often grim new approach to classic tales, films like Alice (1988), The Little Mermaid (1976) and The Frog Prince (1991) bring new life to old stories. One of the finest examples of this little niche, and my absolute all-time favorite, is Juraj Herz’s 1978 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Herz was one of the pioneers of the Czech New Wave, and his 1969 film ‘The Cremator’ is one of the most iconic of the movement, but after multiple projects that conflicted with the strict communist regime, he was given two choices: either make political propaganda movies, or make fairy tale movies. He chose the latter.


But the films he ended up making took the classic stories and twisted and distorted them, gloomily but beautifully, and the result, as in the case of today’s film, is perhaps the most gorgeous rendition of the tales one can experience. If you want to get a feel of just how different his adaptation was, the Czech title “Panna a netvor” literally translates to “The Virgin and the Monster”. The story is still somewhat the same, a merchant has gone bankrupt with three daughters, two greedy ones losing interest in him and looking to get married to rich suitors, and an innocent younger daughter, he takes a valuable portrait of his late wife and goes to a mansion in the woods to try and sell it, the monster in the mansion buys it but when the merchant plucks one of his roses to give to his youngest daughter, the monster tells him that if one of the daughters doesn’t come to him by her free will, he shall die. The youngest gladly goes and the monster falls in love with her but never shows his face, and she falls in love with his kindness and voice.


The old noble virtues of the fairy tale are of course all still very much present, an impeccable lead performance embodies sweet innocence and purity, the sisters’ greed is caricaturized and mocked, and most importantly, the notion of love is the centerfold of the film and the story in general: a feeling so strong that it changes the very nature of a brutal monster who feeds on blood and lives in isolation, and gets to where it’s almost his downfall, a conversion that is shown as excruciating and self-aware. The film’s style of blending theatrical movements with the visual capacities of the camera gives incredible depth and menace to the otherwise-bland character of the monster: beautifully orchestrated movement, reflective and poetic monologues, and the ominous aura of living in the shadows grants the character the audience’s sympathy as he quite literally suffers in the dark.

Herz’s Beauty and the Beast plays like the imagination of a frightened child hearing the tale for the first time from his grandmother, there really is no other way to describe it, it is an embodiment of everything that makes fairy tales so enchanting and mesmerizing. The opening scene is set in a foggy forest as some travelers get killed by the monsters of the mansion, and the rest of the film follows in similar fashion, blending the fantastic with horror and accentuating the darker undertones of the story visibly on screen. It has an instrumental score that alternates between a soothing melody and a tense chilling theme on the pipe organ, which only adds to the way it infuses the serene with the disquiet. The film’s cinematography is reminiscent of Herzog’s Aguirre The Wrath of God (1972): frequent use of handheld shots, emphasis on close-ups and the characters’ responses to the strange events they witness, gorgeous set design and a gloomy dim tone all go towards creating an incredible feeling of immersion.


What I love most about these renditions of fairy tales is the fact that they are completely stripped of any technological and special effects nonsense, the filmmakers work with what they got and the result is often a lot more entrancing that recent adaptations. In the case of a little 1976 production of The Little Mermaid by Karel Kachyňa, the mermaids are just girls dressed in cloaks and The King of the Seas is just an old man in a robe, as silly and primitive as it sounds, it works. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, it is highly more sophisticated, incredible attention is given not only to the setting and the characters, but also to their presence on screen. Whatever it is I said about the film’s entrancing spell, it was an understatement: watching it for the first time I don’t know how long ago was a singular experience that truly felt like being a kid again, and revisiting it was just as strong.  

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