'Once upon a time' - A look at the Czechs' fairytale obsession at Christmas time

26-12-2004

"Byl jednou jeden kral" — once upon a time, there was a king — the opening line for many a classic fairytale. While all peoples have their folk tales and legends, from the Arabian Nights to the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney, in few cultures have fairytales won such an honored and beloved a place as they enjoy in the hearts of the Czech people, certainly at Christmas time.

Over the past half century fairytales on film — or "pohadky" — have become even more of an essential part of a Czech Christmas than is, say, the ritual carving of the goose or turkey and The Nutcracker ballet for much of the English-speaking world.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the fairytale genre in Czech culture.

A case in point is the 1950s classic film "Pysna Princezna," the story of an uppity young royal sorely in need of a dash of humility. It still holds the record as the most visited film ever to screen in Czech and Slovak cinemas. Well over 8 million people saw it at least once on the silver screen; millions more watch it at home on television, Christmas after Christmas.

In fact so popular are fairytales like "Pysna Princezna" and "Tri Orisky pro Popelku" — the Czechs' take on "Cinderella" — that many families plan their holiday meals around the television programming — meals at which, by the way, a freshly killed carp with a side of potato salad is far more likely to play the starring role as dinner than any kind of plucked bird.

To this day, in parts of Moravia and Slovakia, people say with a wink that domestic animals are able to speak on Christmas Day and even predict the future, though legend has it that if you repeat what you've heard you won't live out the following year.

In pohadky, of course, all kinds of enchanted creatures come to life on the screen. In modern productions — and a good half-dozen new Czech fairytale series and films come out each year — state-of-the-art special effects are employed to do just that. Digital wizardry allows witches and devils to transform themselves — and others — into all manner of talking beast.

In today's program, though, we'll be giving you a taste of the Christmas viewing fare that the Czechs love best — the classic old fairytales in which the human comedy — along with elaborate set designs and fanciful songs — take center stage and visual effects a supporting, or cameo, role.

The first fairytale film we feature today is "Pysna Princezna" or "The Proud Princess." Shot in black and white in 1952, it is the most popular "pohadka" of all time, and, as mentioned earlier, the most screened film in Czechoslovak cinema history.

That merry little fellow you've just heard singing is a cobbler who each day crosses the border between his homeland, the Kingdom of Midnight, into the neighboring kingdom and bursts forth in song.

Why make the journey?

Because in the humble shoemaker's own land, incredibly, it is forbidden to sing, or even whistle a tune, as it is seen as a distraction from work.. The peasants there also live in fear of the king's tax collectors.

Based on a story by the early 19th century writer Bozena Nemcova — who is known as the "mother of Czech literature""Pysna Princezna" is the tale of a good king, Miroslav, who sets out to win the heart of the beautiful - but uppity - Princess Krasomila of the Kingdom of Midnight.

Now, by their very nature, fairytales are morality tales, with a message to impart. With the Czechoslovak directors working under the watchful eyes of Communist censors, the propaganda was often very thinly veiled.

King Miroslav, for example, is beloved in his own land because his royal subjects know that an honest day's work means an honest day's pay — and also because singing is encouraged (this is a fairytale, after all). The handsome young king peppers his speech with gems like "first work, then play," and "he who works well must prosper" and sings: "there is honor in every kind of work."

Of course, in any fairytale worth its salt, love conquers all. Early in the film "Pysna Princezna", matchmakers arrange for the two young royals to exchange portraits of themselves. King Miroslav likes what he sees — a tall blonde with wavy hair and delicate features — but Princess Krasomila snubs her suitor sight unseen; she doesn't even bother to unveil his portrait, yet deigns him "unfit to tie her shoelaces."

Ouch.

In classic fairytale style, King Miroslav goes under cover, disguising himself as a gardener, in order to get close to Princess Krasomila and see what makes her heart tick. Ironically, when they do meet, she demands that the lowly "gardener" lace up her shoe, insisting that kings would consider it an honor to do so.

"Kings might find it an honor, maybe: I am a gardener," fibs King Miroslav, and struts off (wearing the tight tights and short shorts that were apparently all the rage back in the day).

It's been said that music calms the savage beast and it soon proves to be the fastest way to melting Krasomila's frozen heart. The kindly old nurse tells Miroslav that the princesses' favorite song from childhood is "blossom, little bud, blossom." Somehow — call it magic — he grows an enchanted singing flower, which wilts in Krasomila's presence — apparently this plant is allergic to pride.

Well, before too long, Krasomila falls for the "gardener," who teaches her not only humility and manners, but how to play the guitar. Remember, singing is forbidden in the Kingdom of Midnight, so this is an act of rebellion. But when Krasomila's father, the king, can't resist but to join them in song, he has to ask himself why he banned it in the first place?

After a few minor plot twists good chase scenes, the kindly old fool of a king admits he's made a mess of things. He lowers taxes, rescinds the order to ban singing, and turns over his crown to Miroslav, his future son-in-law.

"In the crown itself there is no wisdom; it is through his head that a king rules," says King Miroslav, the last word in the picture and the moral of the story. Presumably, they all live happily ever after.

Now, the cast of characters in any fairytale must include at least one bumbling but good-hearted king, a lovesick prince or virtuous pauper, an evil stepmother or kindly nurse, and of course, a beautiful princess, or princess-to-be.

Nevertheless, the censors probably felt that did have to walk something of a fine line in the pohadky of entertaining while promoting socialist ideals — and without encouraging nostalgia for the days when kings and queens and not the politburo ruled the Czech lands.

Perhaps the ideal mix from that point of view can be found in "Princezna se zlatou hvezdou," the princess with a gold star — on her forehead. The presence of the unusual birthmark — a useful plot device — is never explained in the film, by one poll the third-most popular in the history of Czech cinema.

This princess is an avid gardener with a common touch. We first meet Princess Lada singing as she waters the royal gardens. Her father the king wants to marry her off and has invited King Kazisvet — whose name translates as "the breaker of worlds" — to come for a visit.

Why, I'll never know.

Anyway, Kazisvet arrives with his army of soldiers and hangers on, bearing exotic gifts from faraway lands. Oh, and he's ugly. But that's not why the princess isn't keen to become his queen.

"I couldn't abide to marry such a boastful king," she confides to her kindly nurse.

Hoping to brush off the boastful suitor, she refuses his treasures, much to Kazisvet's dismay. Before she'll even consider Kazisvet's proposal of marriage, she demands something she thinks he won't be able to deliver: three dresses, "each lovelier than a dream," in fact, three of "the most beautiful dresses on Earth."

The first should be "like rays of sunlight playing upon the bosom of a forest lake at dawn;" the second, like the "azure of the southern sky and as delicate as a leaf falling in water;" and the third — as if that wasn't enough — "deep blue as midnight before the stars come out."

"I will give you the dresses that you wish for — and then you must be my bride for evermore," Kazisvet says.

He tells his royal tailors they can get this monumental task done by sunrise - and earn their weight in gold - or "be a head shorter" the next day. They deliver, but Princess Lada still refuses him; she flees the kingdom in the cover of night disguised in a coat of mouse fur with a hood (to cover her golden star) and goes into hiding.

In the neighboring kingdom, which, not by accident, lies to the East, and not to the West — she finds work as an assistant to the chief cook of the castle belonging to one Prince Radovan. Of course, she can't resist attending the ball, decked out in full glory. Prince Radovan falls for her immediately.

"You seem to me like some kind of fairytale nymph - so wise, kind and noble," Prince Radovan says in their first meeting. He proposes then and there, but Lada refuses, afraid of Kazisvet, and saying she can't bring misfortune upon his kingdom.

Speak of the devil and he soon shall appear. Before long, the most unwelcome King Kazisvet is banging at Radovan's door, demanding "his" princess back. Another fairytale staple — a swordfight — ensures. Radovan wins, of course, but that's not the end of it. Kazisvet threatens to return and "lay waste" to the kingdom.

However, he ends up getting a major dressing down from a kindly old nurse (read: the voice of the people).

The nurse says that Kazisvet, this "good-for-nothing" from the West, tried once before to "lay waste" their land — but was driven out by the people.

"The people?" asks the princess. "You mean all the people?" asks Radovan.

"Yes, the people," says the nurse, "those with weapons and without, peasants and laborers armed with pitchforks and scythes tossed him out on his backside."

Asked what he has to say for himself, Kazisvet, give his trademark salute and heads for the hills — to the West. And, to quote Monty Python, there was much rejoicing.

Well, the two fairytales on film we've presented thus far — the "Proud Princess" and "The Princess with a Gold Star"— are both adaptations of stories by Bozena Nemcova, who, you will remember, was famous for her idyllic portrayals of peasant life and values. Both films were also shot in the 1950s, a troublesome time for Czechoslovakia, and perhaps consequently, the golden age of the film pohadka genre, as people yearned for a bit of escapism.

Along with these two films, there a half dozen others perennial Czech favorites, but none as quite as popular.

Although the 1960s saw the birth of the Czech New Wave, only one pohadka from the time is really considered a classic: "Silene smutna princezna," or the "Terribly Sad Princess," which came out in 1968. With the ever-popular singer Helena Vondrackova in the title role, the story of star-crossed lover is known more for its music than its wit or artistry.

Still among the most popular of the pohadky shown on Czech television at Christmas every year, it plays second fiddle to the 1973 film "Tri orisky pro Popelku," or "Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella." Popelka is yet another adaptation of a work by Nemcova (who, of course, herself drew heavily on the Brother's Grimm version).

Well, we certainly hope you've enjoyed this brief look at the history of the pohadka, Czech fairytales on film, and hope you can enjoy a nice helping of carp and potato salad as you settle in to watch your favorite tales on television this Christmas.

Happy viewing! And may you live "happily ever after."

26-12-2004