Jiří Svoboda's Prokletí domu Hajnů is an experimental Gothic noir, blending not only several genres but also elements of auteur film, argues Steven Jay Schneider.
Transcending time and place
Summarising an "important insight" of Milan Kundera, east European film scholar Daniel J Goulding writes: "The best of the Czechoslovak films transcended the political particularities of the moment to express deeper layers of the unique Czechoslovak historical and cultural experience and such dimensions of human existence as the grotesque, the tragic, the absurd, death, laughter, conscience, and social responsibility." Goulding is here referring to Czechoslovak New Wave cinema of 1960 to 1968, a brief but prolific period of liberalisation and innovation in Czech film production before the Soviet-led invasion of the country resulted in two decades of bureaucratic censorship and Socialist Realism aesthetic imperatives.
The fact is, however, Kundera's insight extends far beyond the temporal boundaries of any specific film movement, cycle or "Wave," and Goulding's eloquent paraphrase serves equally well as an admonition against that species of critical reductionism which would minimise or ignore the philosophical and psychological resonance of post-1968 Czechoslovak cinema in favour of arid political-ideological interpretation.
Jiří Svoboda's Prokletí domu Hajnů (The Damned House of Hajn, aka Invisible Man) was released in 1988, just one year before the Velvet Revolution brought about a return to democratic principles and a privatisation of film production in the new Czech Republic. Being screened as part of a short season on horror and fantasy in Czech cinema at Riverside Studios in London later this month, there is a rare opportunity to see a dubbed version of this compelling and underappreciated film. Although it is undeniable that Prokletí domu Hajnů—adapted from a psychological novel, Neviditelný (The Invisible Man), written by Jaroslav Havlíček in 1937—makes creative use of generic conventions to reflect critically on the social and political status quo, by virtue of the sheer forcefulness of Svoboda's directorial style and the uncanny effects he succeeds in engendering, this is a picture which transcends its particular time and place to explore such universal themes as fate, lust, madness and, as the opening line reveals, the (im)possibility of "happiness."
A Czechoslovak Chinatown
Prokletí domu Hajnů is perhaps best described as an experimental Gothic noir. A hybridised genre film which somehow manages to blend together narrative, formal and stylistic elements from auteur directors as diverse as Roman Polanski, Billy Wilder, Maya Deren (all three of whom are central or east European by birth, it should be noted) and Dario Argento, its title and plot nevertheless situates it firmly within the "lunatic-in-the-attic" horror tradition which goes as far back as Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary (1927) and James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). The opening scene—at night in the woods outside the Hajn mansion—has enough atmosphere (eerie music and maniacal laughter on the soundtrack, heavy fog, shattering glass) and mobile, subjective camerawork to suggest a cross between Deren's seminal experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Argento's expressionistic horror masterpiece Suspiria (1977), were it not for the voice-over narration by an embittered male protagonist, calling to mind such classic noirs as Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950).
|Petr trying to fit in with upper-class respectability|
The story, filled with more duplicitous twists and incestuous turns than Polanski's Chinatown
(1974), centres around the doomed marriage between Prague businessman Petr Švajčar (Emil Horváth) and country aristocrat Soňa Hajn (Petronela Vančíková). Moving into the Hajn family home, Petr learns that his fiancé has a crazy uncle named Cyril (Petr Čepek) who thinks he is invisible and who spies on everyone around him— especially his niece, with whom he is sexually obsessed (an obsession that finds creative expression through his vivid and grotesque portraiture). Soňa is terrified by mad Uncle Cyril, and just before Petr decides to move her out to a place of their own, Cyril bursts into her room while she is changing and attacks her.
Cyril is promptly removed to an asylum, but Soňa—who believes she was raped, although this is denied by the chambermaid (whose own motives are suspect)—begins losing touch with reality and claims to see her uncle around the house. More disturbingly, Soňa undergoes a radical shift in feeling towards Cyril, viewing him as her one true love and even having sex with his invisible (or else just absent) body in a scene which calls to mind Catherine Deneuve's rape fantasies in Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Pamela Franklin's tryst with a ghost in John Hough's The Legend of Hell House (1973). Soňa holds that Cyril is the father of her newborn baby, a charge Petr vehemently denies on evidentiary grounds, although there is sufficient ambiguity in the narrative to render the prospect of prior incestuous liaisons between Soňa and her uncle a legitimate possibility.
Completely insane now, and a threat to the life of their infant son, Petr has Soňa locked up in the house—not unlike Cyril himself used to be. Vancikova's powerful and chilling performance as the traumatised young wife lends ample support to Peter Hames's observation that Svoboda's films—most notably Schůzka se stíny (A Meeting with Shadows aka I am Your Memory, 1982), Zánik samoty Berhof (The End of the Lonely Berhof Farmstead, 1983) and Skalpel, prosim (Scalpel, Please, 1985)—characteristically "provide impressive dramatic roles for actors." After listening to the chambermaid, with whom he has begun sleeping, propose a plan to rid himself of Soňa's burden, Petr eventually caves in and arranges for his wife to commit suicide by leaping off the upper-story balcony. The plot twists come fast and furious in the final ten minutes, as the chambermaid illicitly arranges for Petr to receive the bulk of his father-in-law's inheritance after the old man dies, only to turn around and blackmail Petr into handing over a large chunk of the money or else be exposed as a criminal and wind up penniless and possibly in jail.
One thread of this complex narrative is thereby brought full circle, as rumour has it that Soňa's mother had a weakness for shopping and would have bankrupted her husband had she not died at an early age. Now Petr, having finally achieved the financial independence he has been seeking for so long, has his fortune threatened by the new woman in his life. The film ends with Petr's son, the apple of his eye and his only real source of happiness, evincing the first symptoms of Cyril's own mental illness— an irrational terror of house cats. A strong indication that, in true Gothic fashion, the family's dark past has returned to haunt the present.
Invisibility through insanity
A striking feature of Prokletí domu Hajnů's narrative is the antagonism Petr feels towards Cyril, a deep, festering animosity that exists long before Cyril's attack on Soňa in her bedroom. The two men could not be more different. Cyril is a lunatic: incapable of functioning in the everyday world, he depends on the unconditional support and affection of his wealthy brother to survive. He is also an artist, someone utterly unconcerned with money who spends his time either painting or playing voyeuristic hide-and-seek games around the house. Petr, by contrast, is a working man, of necessity out in the world, always thinking about money (his own parents were indigent and he was laid off from his factory job in Prague). He hates his family, has no time to mess about and adopts an insensitive, even arrogant, external demeanour.
So why does Petr hate Cyril? Because he envies him. To be invisible—even to falsely believe that you are invisible—means to see, and to act, with impunity. The invisible man, or the madman who considers himself invisible, need not repress his desires (be they murderous or incestuous), since he need not fear any repercussions from his actions. No social, cultural or familial codes of conduct—no rules for governing behaviour—need apply. In an essay on James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) and Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man (2000), J P Telotte argues that "what these films share is a sense of the force behind that invisible status, as both suggest that this power is quite seductive— hence the tag line with which the [latter] movie was advertised: 'It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror any more.'" Prokletí domu Hajnů shares this same sense of the force behind invisible status, though Svoboda's film obeys its Gothic noir generic imperatives by substituting insanity for technology as the source of invisibility.
From Petr's perspective, being mad offers the same benefits as being invisible, given a sufficiently rich and indulgent family; in short, it provides a way out. Until his attempted (perhaps successful) rape of Soňa, Cyril is free to do pretty much whatever he wants. The Hajn household treats him like a child, humours him, treats his scopophilic perversions as harmless. When Soňa begins to go insane herself, the same compassionate treatment is afforded her. Only in Soňa's case, going crazy allows for a renunciation of various culturally-constructed notions of femininity: no longer is she required to play the role of dutiful daughter, loving wife, sexual partner, happy homemaker or selfless mother.
As for Petr, he is all too visible, all too "sane." At the structural level, he is the protagonist, the main character and point of focalisation for the viewer, the one whose voice-over narration introduces us to the diegetic world and sets up our initial expectations. At the social level, he cannot act with impunity— far from it, as he must depend on the generosity of in-laws who are steeped in their own traditions and who view him with more than a little suspicion. For most of the film, he represses his obvious lust for the chambermaid for fear of being seen (ie, detected) and therefore kicked out of the comfortable Hajn home.
There is an important sense in which Cyril is actually living out Petr's fantasy. Despite being of sound mind, it is Petr after all who is caught cheating by his wife, and it is he who eventually is blackmailed. His very visibility means that other people are able to control and manipulate his life. It seems that just about everyone in Prokletí domu Hajnů gets to be invisible or insane but Petr. That is his curse—he must remain repressed in order to survive.
Steven Jay Schneider
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