The dying days of cultural freedom and the dark side of the hippy dream explored in Juraj Jakubisko’s defiantly anarchic film.
A slice of Czech New Wave – well, Slovak New Wave, actually, but at the time they were one nation so it probably all blurs into one – that seems to have mostly slipped through the cracks of Western recognition, Birds, Orphans and Fools is one of the most unjustly ignored great movies of late Sixties counter-culture cinema. Long buried away in its home country – the film was banned in 1969 and remained unseen until the fall of Communism two decades later – it’s a movie that hasn’t achieved the same level of recognition as other anarchic, subversive films of the era – notably Daisies and Valerie and Her Week of Wonder, both of which it shares a certain connection with, in the sense that it is a celebration of freedom over repression. In the case of this film though, shot a year after the Soviet invasion of 1968 had put a stop to any sense of liberalism in the country, that freedom is underscored with the knowledge that it won’t last. Behind the often crazy, joyful silliness of the film is a sense of displacement, of misery and of pain, and the film becomes increasingly bleak as it goes on, leading to one of the darkest endings you could possibly imagine.
The film follows the oddball relationship between Yorik (Jin Sykora), Andrej (Philippe Avon) and Marta (Magda Vasaryova), three misfits who are brought together when Yorik picks up the dirty and lice-ridden orphan girl at a gay party (where the sense of freedom being on its last legs seems all too apparent) and takes her back to the bombed-out home he shares with Andrej. While the virginal Andrej initially disapproves, the three eventually form a curious relationship, brought together by their sense of displacement and what seems to be an increasingly desperate need to ignore the horrors of real life. The evidence of warfare is everywhere – ruined buildings, orphaned young people and inserted scenes of gun-toting revolutionaries. No wonder they choose to escape this grim reality with foolishness and child-like joy.
Marta – sporting an androgynous sexuality (at least until she takes her top off) and very Sixties look that I believe we are supposed to call ‘elfin’ – is a catalyst for a shift in the relationship between the two men; she is ostensibly in a relationship with Yorik, but attracts Andrej, and they develop an odd three-way split relationship based around a playful sexuality, that comes to a halt when Yorik gets himself arrested and imprisoned for an unspecified crime. When he is freed after a year, the relationship balance has changed between the three. The film here begins to take a darker turn, as the enforced foolishness gives way to a bleaker reality, leading to a particularly brutal finale.
Clearly influenced by Godard in its visual and editing style (the film breaks the fourth wall and makes constant reference to the artifice of cinema), and by Vera Chytilová’s Daisies in its sense of anarchy, Birds, Orphans and Fools is overtly and unsurprisingly political. This is very much a film shot in the wake of a brutal suppression, and the sense of loss, anger and desperation is all too apparent. This feels like the dark side of Chytilová’s film – the world its anarchic, naughty girls might have grown up to experience. This is a story that tries to keep reality at bay and celebrate individuality, but eventually, the grimmer truth begins to seep through and the fun starts to seem more and more desperate. There are always reminders of the bleak truth beyond the crazy world of the protagonists. Indeed, their foolishness can be seen as an aspect of a world that is itself foolish – a mad society that encourages this sense of displacement from reality as a way of coping. It’s only when the horrors of life are forced on Yorik – we don’t see him in prison, but it’s safe to assume that he hasn’t exactly enjoyed the experience – it’s clear that the grim insanity of real life is impossible to shake. Why play at being fools when the real world is run by them?
The film takes digs at the hippy ideals of the era, the sense of false liberation and determined wackiness that pervaded that scene. It also, interestingly, foreshadows the death of the hippy ideal at the hands of the Manson Family. It’s impossible to watch the rather shocking and brutal final moments, with a pregnant woman having her hands tied behind her back and then being brutally stabbed, and not think of the fate of Sharon Tate, murdered in much the same way. The film would appear to precede the crime, but it’s a sobering moment. Even without the real-life killing, this would certainly be a shocking scene, all the more so because it comes without precedent and without warning. The story shifts to the dark side brutally and tells us that the foolishness of before is a contrivance – this is the reality of life. Violence, jealousy, insecurity and death.
It’s an astonishing looking film, with a plethora of visually remarkable moments – some beautiful, some grotesque. It’s weird, playful and chaotic, but it’s never especially indulgent – this is a film that is taking its narrative somewhere, even when it appears to be a free-form slice of anarcho-cinema. It’s a film that is defiantly free, even while acknowledging that such freedoms are fragile and short-lived – it must have been grimly ironic to director Juraj Jakubisko when it was subsequently banned by the oppressive regime it is commenting on. Clearly, the subtext wasn’t that deeply buried! The cast are impressive – all three are entirely convincing in their shifting roles, the two men trying too hard to be free, the girl they adopt effortlessly sexy and both liberated and manipulative – and the sense of magic and madness in the film makes it a fascinating, enthralling experience, with this new restoration looking remarkably fresh. It’s one of the unsung great movies of counter-culture cinema and a great piece of revolutionary film-making.