It’s easy to see why director Juraj Jakubisko was known as the Slovak Fellini. Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969) instantly sweeps the audience along with a liberated camera that plunges joyfully into the film’s carnivalesque world. It has been called a surrealist film, and like other films that fall under this loose designation, Birds, Orphans and Fools focuses less on storyline, more on original images and unpredictable digressions. Unlike some so-called surrealist films which alienate the audience with a lack of structure, Jakubisko’s work has a developed sense of timing, keeping the audience engaged by regular changes of scene. Furthermore, these diverse scenes are given meaning and unity by the continued presence of a central trio: Yorick, his girlfriend Marta, and his best friend Andrej, a photographer. They live in a tumbledown barn, presided over by a maudlin old man, with a variety of little birds flying in and out at will. The title comes from the old Slovak saying that God looks after birds, orphans and fools, but the film seems to contradict the proverb with a tragic ending, announced by the director’s voice-over during the opening sequence.
The source of the tragedy is jealousy, already present early on when Yorick, Marta and Andrej live together in near-utopian bliss. They enjoy a playful existence, always clowning about, living up to their reputation as fools. But every so often, the men show signs of resentment towards Marta: Andrej sees her as an unwelcome newcomer who disrupts his friendship with Yorick, while Yorick suspects her of unfaithfulness. The men’s unkindness and injustice in these moments is emphasized by their regression into anti-Semitic insults. Later, when the characters adopt a more bourgeois lifestyle, feelings of ownership and exclusion become more pronounced, leading to the film’s shocking finale.
Completed in 1968 just after the Soviet invasion and banned the year after, Birds, Orphans and Fools is a key example of the lesser-known Slovak side of the Czechoslovak New Wave. With its stylistic experimentation and non-conformist characters, the film recalls Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), but is less manic and more pastoral. It also invites comparison with French New Wave masterpieces: its ménage à trois recalls Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), but its stylistic virtuosity and affinity for youth culture makes it closer in spirit to Godard’s Breathless (1960). Jakubisko has a talent all his own when it comes to integrating the contemporary hippie zeitgeist into the traditional Slovak countryside. He emphasizes an organic relationship between modern and traditional lifestyles, rather than taking the more obvious approach of ironic contrast.
In an excellent and wide-ranging essay in the DVD liner notes, Peter Hames traces the film’s lineage back to Slovak surrealism, with its characteristic attachment to folk culture. Equally, though, I would suggest that this film has roots in Poetism, a uniquely Czechoslovak version of dada, which emphasized a good-humoured, self-deprecating, playful attitude to life and a powerful attachment to nature.