Sinister, Singular, and Subversive: The Cinema of Juraj Herz
January 4 - 30
"A one-man wave of Czechoslovak horror...his films always guarantee something artful, bold and unlike anything else from their time and place."—Kat Ellinger, Sight & Sound
From January 4 to 30, the Gene Siskel Film Center, in collaboration with Comeback Company, presents Sinister, Singular, and Subversive: The Cinema of Juraj Herz, an eight-film series devoted to the Slovakian-born director who specialized in the offbeat and the macabre.
The singular career of the prolific film director and occasional actor Juraj Herz is without parallel in the context of the cinema emerging from Czechoslovakia starting in the mid-1960s. He was a breed apart and decidedly a filmmaker of excess—in his visual style and art direction, as well as in the abundance of horror and eroticism in his genre-bending dark comedies, fairy tales, and dramas. Under the surface of genre, he smuggled in clear-eyed and engaged social and political commentary, while attaining the heights in his mastery of the formal language of cinema.
His penchant for the macabre, his gothic style, and his examination of the underbelly of the human psyche made Herz a darling of the fantasy and horror film scene, and in the past couple of decades his films have achieved cult status among genre film geeks in Europe and the U.S. alike.
Herz was born in 1934 into a Slovak-Hungarian-German-Jewish family in Kežmarok (now Slovakia). The horror of the Holocaust—which he experienced as a child, at first living in hiding before being transported with his family to the concentration camps—seeped through into his films, which set him apart from his filmmaking peers. Yet the experience didn’t rob him of his joie de vivre, possibly thanks to the fact that everyone in his immediate family was lucky enough to survive.
His first film-directing opportunity came through Jaromil Jireš, who invited him to take part in PEARLS OF THE DEEP, the omnibus project based on Bohumil Hrabal’s book. The resulting short, THE JUNK SHOP, didn’t make it into the final film, but it opened the door for him to direct his first feature film, the whodunit murder mystery SIGN OF CANCER.
In quick succession, he created several of his finest works: the unnerving THE CREMATOR, the fin-de-siècle decadence-themed OIL LAMPS, and the gothic tale MORGIANA—rich and dark costume dramas that completed Herz’s expressionistic period. After having several of his own projects rejected, he directed a series of comedies and criminal stories that were successful at the box office. That in turn made it possible for him to come back to his own topics in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE NINTH HEART, subversively applying horror principles to the more officially palatable genre of the fairy tale.
Herz’s next project, FERAT VAMPIRE, gravely suffered at the hands of censors, who deemed its open sexuality and freely flowing blood inadmissible. He did manage to direct a film into which he channeled his experience from the concentration camps—CAUGHT BY NIGHT, about the Communist journalist Jožka Jabůrková—after which he emigrated to Munich, in West Germany. After his return to Prague, he made a number of horror films, as well as comedies and dramas setting the record straight on historical injustice. He passed away in April 2018, at the age of 83, while this touring retrospective was already in production.
The touring retrospective is produced by Comeback Company. Curated by Irena Kovarova. Originated at the Metrograph, New York. Films provided by the Czech National Film Archive and První veřejnoprávní. Photos courtesy of Czech National Archive.
JURAJ HERZ DOUBLE-BILL DISCOUNT!
Buy a ticket at our regular prices for the first Herz film on any Saturday in January, and get a ticket for the second Herz film that day at the discounted rate with proof of your original purchase: General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second film only. Discount available in person at the box office only.)
1969, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 95 min.
With Rudolf Hrušínský, Vlasta Chramostová
"Essential viewing... this is an immensely suggestive, disturbing film, as well as a dazzlingly inventive and horribly enjoyable one."—Jonathan Romney, Film Comment
"Herz's masterpiece...ripe for rediscovery."—Brian Hoyle, Senses of Cinema
In his most renowned film, Herz combines calculated stylistic excess with a mordant flair for perverse sex and macabre violence. Comedies don’t come much blacker than this 1930s-set tale of a fastidious crematorium-operator (Hrušínsky) passionately devoted to his calling. When the Nazis march into Prague, he identifies fervently with his new masters, but the discovery that his wife is half-Jewish sends him off the deep end into madness and murder. In Czech with English subtitles. New DCP digital restoration. (MR)
Golden Sixties: Juraj Herz
Zlatá šedesátá: Juraj Herz
2009, Martin Šulík, Czech Republic/Slovakia, 57 min.
This 2009 documentary on Juraj Herz features in-depth interviews and copious clips from the director's work. Interview subjects include film-world luminaries Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Miroslav Ondříček, Otakar Vávra, and more. In Slovak and Czech with English subtitles. Digital video. (Description courtesy of AFI Silver)
Preceded by the opening salvo of Herz's brilliant career, THE JUNK SHOP (SBĚRNÉ SUROVOSTI, 1965, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 31 min.). Originally shot for inclusion in a key work of the nascent Czechoslovak New Wave, the 1965 omnibus film PEARLS OF THE DEEP, but then cut for time, Herz’s film more than stands on its own. A work of nonstop invention set over the course of a single day at a paper recycling facility frequented by oddballs, the film’s style is every bit as eclectic—including a sudden incursion of stop-motion animation— as the human and material curios that fill the shop. In Czech with English subtitles. DCP digital. (Description courtesy of Metrograph/Nick Pinkerton)
1971, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 101 min.
With Iva Janžurová, Petr Čepek
Iva Janžurová and Petr Čepek are peerless as miserably married cousins in Herz’s early 20th-century period piece, set in a provincial town, Jilemnice, that’s riven by repressed desire and smoldering secrets. Adapting the novel by Jaroslav Havlíček, Herz plumbs deep within the psychology of his characters—Čepek’s syphilitic groom, unable to consummate the wedding and rapidly losing his mind; Janžurová’s disappointed bride, robbed of the family of her dreams—in this gripping and gorgeous film, which investigates the rot beneath the decoration and decorum of the Secession era. In Czech with English subtitles. DCP digital. (Description courtesy of Metrograph/Nick Pinkerton)
1972, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 99 min.
With Iva Janžurová, Josef Abrhám
"Delirious Gothic fairytale...an elegant, beautifully executed, post-'60s essay on sex and repression."—Wally Hammond, Time Out London
Based on a novel by Alexander Grin (aka “Russia’s Edgar Allan Poe”), Herz’s sumptuously colored, turn-of-the-century Gothic centers on two sisters (both played by Iva Janžurová), one pretty and sweet, the other ugly and sadistic. The latter sets about slowly poisoning her sibling, with unexpected but still gruesome results. The title refers to neither sister but to the evil sister’s cat, whose point-of-view perspectives, along with the poisoned sister’s hallucinatory visions, contribute to the film’s flamboyant visual style. In Czech with English subtitles. Imported 35mm archival print. (MR)
Upír z Feratu
1981, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 93 min.
With Jiří Menzel, Dagmar Veškrnová
FERAT VAMPIRE is a satire on consumerism, a potent piece of anti-automobile propaganda, and perhaps the purest horror exercise that Herz produced. Marek (Menzel) is upset to lose his ambulance driver, Mima (Veškrnová), to a job working as a rally driver for foreign car manufacturer Ferat, and even more upset when he hears whispers that Ferat cars use human blood for their fuel. Assaulted by censors, the film still boasts a blood-bathed dream sequence, a disturbing industrial soundtrack, and a piquant performance by Zdenka Procházková as Madame Ferat, a kind of Countess Elizabeth Báthory-as-industrialist. In Czech with English subtitles. DCP digital. (Description courtesy of Metrograph/Nick Pinkerton)
Sign of Cancer
1966, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 87 min.
With Zora Božinová, Ilja Prachař
SIGN OF CANCER is one of the first films touching on the horror tradition to be produced during Czechoslovakia’s Communist period as well as an early manifestation of the attraction to macabre subject matter that would persist throughout Herz’s career. A warped detective story that begins with a murder in a hospital, the investigation of which reveals rampant incompetence, alcoholism, graft, and highly unprofessional goings-on between staff and patients, the film’s implicitly critical depiction of a public service sector overloaded with underqualified Party stooges would land Herz in trouble with censors for what was not to be the last time. In Czech with English subtitles. DCP digital. (Description courtesy of Metrograph/Nick Pinkerton)
Beauty and the Beast
Panna a netvor
1978, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 84 min.
With Zdenka Studenková, Vlastimil Harapes
A tale you’ll know well—innocent girl presents herself as sacrifice to a cursed, freakish beast living in isolation, and learns to live with and love her captor—but turned into something very different in Herz’s morbid imagining. Reworking well-known source material for this dark, grimly atmospheric fable, Herz defamiliarizes it, imagining a beaked bird/snake/mammal hybrid Beast unlike any seen on screen before, and overlaying the proceedings with a heavy air of impending doom, the sense of real danger that’s missing from better-known versions, where the possibility of violence looms terribly near. In Czech with English subtitles. DCP digital. (Description courtesy of Metrograph/Nick Pinkerton)
Caught by Night
aka The Night Overtake Me / Zastihla mě noc
1985, Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 130 min.
With Jana Riháková, Jana Brejchová
Born to Jewish parents in Kežmarok in modern-day Slovakia, Herz spent part of his youth in Ravensbrück labor camp, an experience of horror which may have obliquely informed much of his work, and which is directly reflected in CAUGHT BY NIGHT. Coming to what was conceived as a biography of Communist journalist Jožka Jabůrková, a victim of Ravensbrück, Herz went his own way, creating a nauseously stylized vision of hell on earth that is, with Wanda Jakubowska’s THE LAST STAGE (1948), one of only two fiction films made by a camp survivor about the experience. (Some of Spielberg’s possible borrowings in SCHINDLER’S LIST had Herz reportedly considering legal action.) In Czech with English subtitles. Imported 35mm archival print. (Description courtesy of Metrograph/Nick Pinkerton)