All generalisations are false, up to and including this one. But it does feel as if, even before Czechoslovakia divided into two nations, there were already two parallel cinemas existing in it. You have the Czech films of Jan Švankmajer and Věra Chytilová; witty, urban, fast-cut, colourful, likely to appeal to fans of the French New Wave. Then you have what the critics Mira and Antonín Liehm defined as “the Slovak style”, which is more deliberate, rural in its subject matter, rooted in folk traditions, ballads and myths.
The Slovak director Eduard Grečner’s third film Dragon’s Return, made in 1967 and receiving its first British release on Second Run DVD, seems to be an archetypal example of his national film-making tradition. Yet, according to Jonathan Owen’s booklet, his first two films didn’t resemble this in any way. This has to be taken on trust because – as with too much Czech and Slovak cinema – Grečner’s work is little-known in the UK. This is unfair, and becomes even more unfair once you watch Dragon’s Return. It is a jaw-dropping masterpiece, an exercise in pure cinematic storytelling that captivates, enchants and terrifies in each scene.
Grečner was inspired by Bergman and Resnais, and these inspirations are certainly apparent in the film. However, modern viewers of Dragon’s Return are more likely to be reminded of the films it presaged. The astonishing, Stravinsky-inspired score by Ilja Zeljenka points the way forward to Stanley Kubrick’s similarly disturbing use of Penderecki and Ligeti in The Shining and 2001, and the opening pan around a misty, heavily wooded mountain range is pure Herzog.
The Dragon of the title is Martin, a local potter whose fire-breathing nickname makes sense when you see the people of his village freeze in terror upon his return from a long, initially unexplained absence. From this point, the film unfolds in two time frames; an earlier one showing the events that led to Dragon’s banishing, and a later one showing the villagers’ attempts to drive him back out. The actual period when the film is set is unclear; it seems to be medieval, though the village is so isolated you get the impression that it could be any time within the past millennium and things wouldn’t look any different.
Whenever they’re living, Grečner’s film completely immerses you in their mindset. The villagers of Dragon’s Return are painfully aware that they’re one bad harvest away from extinction, and their attempts to rationalise a drought – it’s an omen of Dragon’s return, it’s because we didn’t sacrifice enough animals – feels less superstitious and more like a desperate, last-ditch attempt to bargain with the elements. Grečner returns to motifs of fire and wilderness, as his story attains something of the depth and deceptive simplicity of myth.
When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Grečner called for a campaign of passive resistance, a stand which led to him being unable to make a film for a boggling twenty-five years. How apt that his last film before this forced hiatus was about an exile’s revenge – and not a violent revenge, either, but a way of forcing his fellow villagers to look upon their guilty consciences. Every frame of Dragon’s Return thrums with a vengeful menace, a sense that this one village and the small story it contains is something to do with the whole of humanity, and the world, and the heavens. Grečner’s laudable principles are what probably caused his career to fall into obscurity outside his native country. But now Dragon’s Return is among us, he deserves to be remembered as a master.
Dragons Return is now available on Second Run DVD