When Martin Lepiš (Radovan Lukavský) comes home after a prolonged absence, his fellow villagers aren’t exactly pleased to see him. ‘Dragon’s back.’, ‘Dark days are coming.’, they mutter in terror. Martin’s only apparent connection with dragons is the kiln he uses to fire his whimsical pottery. It’s unclear why the villagers should fear this aging, quiet and artistic man with an eye-patch.
When their cattle are stranded by a forest fire, the villagers blame ‘Dragon’ for bringing them bad luck. He offers to lead the cattle to safety in exchange for being allowed to live once more in his potter’s cottage in the village. But someone must go with him, and the villagers appoint Šimon (Gustáv Valach), the man who married Dragon’s former lover, Eva (Emília Vášáryová), and the one who has most to lose from Dragon’s return.
Eduard Grečner was part of the first cohort of Czechoslovak New Wave directors who studied at the Prague Film School, FAMU. He assisted fellow Slovak director Štefan Uher on his 1962 film The Sun in a Net, generally considered the first film of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Like Uher, Grečner incorporated avant-garde visual and storytelling techniques into his films, ushering Czechoslovakian cinema into the modernist era.
Unfortunately, a combination of events meant that international audiences were deprived of the chance to see 1967’s Dragon’s Return: the Pesaro Film Festival, where it was meant to be screened, was disrupted by the ‘May 68 protests, and that same year Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact armies. Grečner’s opposition to the Soviet occupation meant that he was subsequently blacklisted.
Now, Second Run have released a miraculously clear transfer of a 50-year-old classic that looks as though it were filmed yesterday. In his engaging and erudite liner notes (which include an interview with the director), Jonathan Owen points out that Grečner was strongly influenced by Bergman and Renais. This film reminded me in particular of The Seventh Seal, with its fateful atmosphere, striking visual composition, and timeless bond with the cycles of nature and local superstition.
Grečner establishes an artistic signature all his own with his 360-degree pans across the mountains, and around Dragon and Eva. The couple is shown in frequent, powerful flashbacks inspired, as the director himself explains, by Surrealism’s insistence on the supremacy of desire. The film’s particular style is also indebted to composer Ilja Zeljenka’s score, which establishes an atmosphere of threat and hysteria early on through its orchestration of human voices, and later develops a sophisticated aural motif from the cows’ bells and their terrified lowing.
In a 20-minute introduction, Peter Hames makes the persuasive suggestion that, in this highly symbolic film, the director is Dragon: an artistic outsider who is hated and attacked for being different. In the films of the later Czechoslovak New Wave, it is hard not to perceive premonitions that the nation’s brief period of grace from the iron fist of political and creative oppression was about to end.