There aren’t many literary adaptations which begin with an apology to the source author – although there are plenty that should. But Pavel Juráček’s A Case for a Rookie Hangman, reissued on Blu-Ray by Second Run, is not like most films. It begins by promising “If Swift should turn in his grave on account of this film, I beg his compatriots for forgiveness”. “Swift” is Jonathan, the book Juráček is adapting is Gulliver’s Travels, and the resulting film is as thoroughly bananas as the opening title suggests.
In one key way, A Case for a Rookie Hangman is a laudably faithful rendering of Swift’s work. Most people know Swift has something to do with satire, but they would struggle to explain why, given that his most famous work is inadequately enshrined in the popular imagination as a children’s adventure story about giants. In adapting the third voyage of Gulliver, to the floating city of Laputa, Juráček clears away any element of the quaint or apolitical from the set-up. Rather than being a seafaring explorer, his Gulliver is a man in a suit played with an air of nervous bafflement by Lubomír Kostelka, and rather than voyage to Laputa he slips oneirically into it after a strange car accident.
The accident involves a white rabbit dressed in a waistcoat and carrying a pocket watch (which Gulliver steals), adding Carroll to the film’s list of literary antecedents. The author it most recalls, though, is Juráček’s fellow Czech Franz Kafka. Juráček reportedly got fed up of hearing his early, co-directed short Joseph Kilián (included as an extra in this set) compared to Kafka, but it has to be said he’s doing little to distance himself from the association here. Laputa was already the most satirical segment of Swift’s novel, satirising the South Sea Bubble in its list of ridiculous schemes seeking investment (“…eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers…“) and painting the relationship between bureaucracy-throttled Laputa and their ground-based cousins as a vicious parody of tensions between Britain and Ireland.
It was, then, a bold thing for Swift to write in 1726. Redressing its central points and attitudes in the style of 20th-century absurdism was an astonishingly brave thing for Juráček to do in 1970, two years after the Soviet invasion. Ten years prior, he was such a darling of the Czechoslovak film industry that Věra Chytilová commissioned him to write a decoy script for her debut short Ceiling, knowing that anything by Juráček would be waved through while she got on with filming her original screenplay. A Case for a Rookie Hangman, though, was so contentious that it was banned – or rather, indefinitely withdrawn from distribution, the kind of slippery euphemism that could have come straight out of Juráček’s script.
Three short films Second Run have included as extras chart Juráček’s growing disillusion. The first, Cars Without a Home, is a straightforward, amiable documentary by Jan Schmidt with a voiceover by Juráček. It ends with the kind of full-throated glorification of manual labour that Communist propaganda films were prone to – and which the second Schmidt/Juráček short, Black and White Sylva, begins by spoofing. According to Michael Brooke’s superb booklet, Black and White Sylva was criticised for being too lightweight. Looking back, though, it’s hard not to see it as the film that started Juráček off on his collision course with the authorities.
Black and White Sylva‘s central plot idea – a film character falling out of the screen into the real world – now evokes Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. Allen’s Zelig also comes to mind in A Case for a Rookie Hangman in a brief but fantastically accomplished scene where a Laputan grandee is inserted into newsreel footage. It’s incredibly ahead of its time, but Juráček is more interested in keeping the ideas flowing than stopping to linger on a trick shot.
The film stays true to that ethos. There are remarkable visual coups in A Case for a Rookie Hangman – a scene where the floorboards beneath Gulliver suddenly become flexible, for instance, or the image of the floating city itself, which reminds us that Juráček also collaborated with the great Czech fantasy filmmaker Karel Zeman. There are also wonderful uses of film grammar; a repeated shot of Gulliver waking up heightens the sense of Laputa as an inescapable land, and some of Juráček’s montages are dry, funny and precise enough to impress Wes Anderson. It is a tragedy that Juráček never directed again after this, but the film itself is a pure celebration. Other directors have got whole careers out of a smaller number of ideas than this.
A CASE FOR THE ROOKIE HANGMAN IS OUT FROM FROM SECOND RUN