In A Soldier’s Story silent film narrative meets avant-garde film experimentation. Čeněk Zahradníček and Vladimír Šmejkal’s joint project A Soldier’s Story (Příběh vojáka, 1934) is a pure anti-war propaganda piece whose unique symbol system is built around the multiple meanings of ambiguous images and driven by their context-dependence.
The need to connect art forms and literature pervades the symbolist films of Zahradníček. Caliber 33W (Kalibr 32 W, Příběh z kanadského severu, 1926) recalls the universe of Jack London, and May (Máj, 1936) puts the poem of Karel Hynek Macha, a 19th century Czech poet, into moving images. The latter, which – together with Spring Awakening (Procitnutí jara, 1936) – was filmed as a backdrop to part of a theater performance. Featuring a conscripted writer and a ballerina toe dancing in a tutu and using the loss of sight (here the loss of the source of creation) as their personal tragedy, A Soldier’s Story uses the connection to other art forms as the foundation of the narration.
The work of Zahradníček and Šmejkal exploits the narrative film conventions creating a symmetrical composition, a frame which is strengthened by the confrontation of the playful and tragic variants of the exclamation:” I cannot see!” (Nevidim!) The prologue opens with the image of a poet working in the sun, forming rhymes inspired by the beauty of the bucolic idyll surrounding him. His creation gets interrupted by a romantic intermezzo: a ballerina wearing a white tulle temporarily „takes away his sight” but makes amends for it by giving him a wild flower to feed his inspiration. The peaceful atmosphere given by the mackerel sky, the sheep grazing and a man plowing is negated by the rapid succession of mobilization notes followed by aggressive drum beats. If only analyzing the plot, the film consists of three parts bordered by the same image: a parting train. Therefore the transition of the images foreshadowing the horrors of the war (change of the sky, trees, flower, fields etc.) still belong to the first part, the frame. But if examining the form, the use of classic silent film techniques ends earlier as the traditional narrative structure gives way to formal experimentalism already with the appearance of the mobilization posters.
The calm ambience of the first 90 seconds of the film is destroyed by sequences depicting an encroaching warmongering atmosphere. The long-held stills and the fixed angles are replaced by dynamic cuts, superimpositions and sudden changes of perspective. The romantic theatricality is mixed with hectic expressivity (including a few surrealistic hints) culminating in a stream of symbolic images: the sky clouds, the flower withers, close-ups of insects replace wide shots of grazing animals, the poet is bound as captive without his quill and his collapsed lover is slowly burried by falling petals. The war images riot in extreme ellipses, metaphors, repetitions, accumulations and enhancements which appear through jump-cuts, dissolves and the variegation and confrontation of different montage techniques. The technical eclecticism is boosted by stop-animation tricks (chess, domino) and the use of maquettes. Following the climax of the war sequence, the soldier’s injury the intensity eases and and after a short nursing scene the middle part of the film concludes with the image of the train. The ending completes the structure of the film with a simple transmission, limited to the negative variant of the first exclamation: “I cannot see!” It denies any further conclusions.
This anti-war short does not fit any of the canonized avant-garde film trends but refers to several and anticipates the specific language of later schools. Looking back, the simultaneous application of dream-sequences, dance scenes, rituals and sexual metaphors foreshadows trance film, while the extravagant associations of images and ideas illustrating the absurdity of war wink at expressionist traditions and surrealistic portrayal, while keeping distance from the ideology of the latter one. The parade of the barbed wire assembledin different forms and the image of the female torso hiding behind a lace fan, and the delicate dissolve of their sequences makes a play for the tendencies of lyrical film. The overflow of symbols is explained and kitsch is overwritten by the aim of demonstrating the continuously thickening and never ending horrors of war, with added emphasis of its unstoppable nature.
A Soldier’s Story advances the act of looking instead of accidently seeing. Looking is connected with the urge of interpreting regarding social-political and film language aspects. Who looks understands the turpitude of war, the hopelessness of bloodshed and the hypocrisy of the hero-images created by the aggressors. Who looks is willing to take time to decode unfamiliar forms, in this case the structures of avant-garde moving images. And who really looks might be able to change the way others look at war, art and their connections, following in the footsteps of Zahradníček and Šmejkal.
Written by: Dorottya Szalay