Juraj Herz, director of the acclaimed and creepy The Cremator, wants us to look upon Morgiana (1972) as a stylistic exercise. And certainly the aspect of the film that first hits is the disturbing, crazy-house visuals, a combination of fisheye lurch and decadent, Klimt-inspired design, with psychedelic colour experiments and shots taken from the point of view of a Siamese cat. Add in the sinister, seductive score and the extreme, silent-movie theatrics of lead actress Iva Janzurová, and the stylistic richness of the film might tend to overwhelm any content.
In fact, that content was surgically removed at the demand of the Czech censors who, in the years following the Prague Spring, were particularly sensitive. The film as it stands documents, or dreams, the melodramatic and murderous battle between two sisters (both played by Janzurová, normally a comedy actress), but Herz’s original plan, derived from the source novel by Alexander Grin, was to reveal halfway through the film that only one sister exists. A case of multiple personality disorder was apparently too disturbing for the state to accept, so the plot twist was deleted before filming was allowed. (MPD has been diagnosed almost exclusively in America, so perhaps the communist state could not accept the implication of it crossing the iron curtain?)
From Herz’s point of view, this undercut the whole point of the film, but he was forced to proceed anyway. He entertained himself by coming up with crazy visual ideas, although with the doubling of the main actress the shoot was already arduous enough. Should I have told you this? Does knowing that its author believes it to be senseless prejudice you against investigating the film’s meaning? I don’t think it should: the film pretty openly declares itself a piece of fin-de-siècle pop-art extravagance from the off. The warring sisters theme often invites comparisons with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), although The Dark Mirror (1946) and A Stolen Life (1946) more directly anticipate the use of one actress in two roles. Whatever the Western influence might be, melodrama is the keynote of Iva Iva Janzurová’s performances, Herz’s approach and the operatic tone set for the whole movie.
If the film’s intended meaning was killed by censorship, so that only the casting hints at Herz’s duality theme, can we divine our own meanings from the kaleidoscopic whirl of images? I think perhaps we can, but they are always going to be provisional and incomplete. Rather than risk encoding any subversive message into this work, the filmmaker has satisfied himself with an echoing void, surrounded by beautiful colours and striking scenes. Whatever we yell into this chasm will echo back to us, distorted and fragmented, and that will have to be our meaning.