Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Krakatit (1949)

An anonymous man whom we will come to know in his fever dreams as the chemic Prokop (Karel Höger), is found ill and delirious on the streets of Prague. While the doctors are trying to save him, the audience becomes witness to what at first seem to be his memories, but what later on can only be read as the feverish way of Prokop's subconscious to ponder what his invention of a horrifyingly powerful (the film makes heavy atom bomb insinuations the novel it is based on couldn't have made) explosive he dubbed "Krakatit" (after the volcano, you see) means to the world and him.

In his fever dreams, Prokop will find himself feverish, frequently losing parts of his memory and doubting his sense of reality. He will be betrayed by a former colleague, have a bucolic interlude that sees him breaking a girl's heart because he clearly prefers less innocent companions, get into the hand of a foreign industrial power who wants to reinstate monarchy, exchange explosion metaphors with a femme fatale princess (Florence Marly), get roped into a capitalist conspiracy, and destroy large parts of the world.

I don't know much about Czech and Czechoslovakian film history, but I do know that Krakatit's director Otakar Vávra is quite a problematic case as the sort of opportunistic survivor character who'd take on the mantle of any ideology, and lick the appropriate boot to get his film's financed; Nazis, communists, he just didn't seem to care.

Of course, bad (depending on one's definition of "bad", of course) people can still make good art, and it's impossible for me to watch Krakatit (based on a novel by Karel Capek, who is an important figure in a type of early SF that always bordered on the Weird) and not call it good art, Vávra having licked Goebbels' s boots or not. Ideologically, the film makes it easy enough for a Western leftist (or pinko communist, for you American readers) like me to not get too annoyed with it. In Krakatit, the upper classes, rich people and especially so-called nobility are generally bad, building weapons that can destroy the world is not a good idea, and scientists should work to improve the life of humanity instead. It's not exactly the most complex view of the world, but it's also one I find difficult to disagree with very much as it is presented here; at the very least, it's far easier to stomach than Leni Riefenstahl glorifying the NSDAP or D.W. Griffith telling us how awesome the Ku Klux Klan is.

But really, it's not so much the film's ideology, nor its ideas about the responsibility of science that make Krakatit worth watching, but rather the film's visual power. Vávra has obviously drunk from the same well as the American film noir, transforming expressionist techniques into a thing of his own, letting shadows and abstract and consciously artificial framing choices become metaphors for its main character's state of mind. Unlike most American films of this style, Krakatit does explicitly position much of what happens in it as fever visions instead of just being feverishly, a-realistically intense. It's never clear how much, if anything, of what Prokop dreams has actually happened, and what is only metaphors and symbols for his fears, what expressions of a guilty and doubtful conscience. There is also a strong sexual undertone to everything in the film, be it explosions - all these eruptions clearly have something very sexual for Prokop - or Prokop just looking at women.

For the most part, Vávra handles this aspect of his movie very well, slowly easing his audience into the dream narrative with a comparatively naturalistic beginning that turns more and more symbolic and unreal the longer the film goes on, with plot elements that could be used as straight forward pulp adventure (there's the evil foreign - clearly German - power, two femme fatales Prokop has conflicted and largely unhealthy feelings for, explosions, a conspiracy of rich people) turned into something at once even more heated than pulp usually becomes, and more symbolic.

In its effect, Krakatit works splendidly as the metaphorical fever dream it is supposed to be, melodramatic, difficult and energetic like a serial that has taken a wrong turn some time before it could introduce a mad gorilla.

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