Three Wishes For Cinderella

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“#CinderellaForPresident2020”

While we’ve covered revisionist versions of fairy stories before, e.g. Maleficent, this is likely the closest to a “straight” retelling yet covered on the site. Cinderella (Šafránková) is condemned to a life of drudgery at the hands of her stepmother (Braunbock), until she gets a magical chance to attend a ball given by the local monarch. There, she meets the handsome prince (Trávníček) who falls for her, only for the couple to be separated at the end of the night. He seeks her out, with the help of a lost slipper, and they live happily ever after. So all the standard elements of the well-beloved story are present in this 1973 co-production between East Germany and Czechoslovakia. So what is it doing here?

Well, as the picture above suggests, this Cinderella is quite the bad-ass. She initially has no interest at all in the Prince; while the rest of the town is getting in a tizzy over his passing through, she sneaks out to ride off on her horse. That’s where she first encounters him, since he has snuck off similarly – and it turns out, she’s a better rider than him. Their second encounter comes when he is out hunting with his pals. This time, Cinderella is dressed as a boy (above – raise your hand if you’re unconvinced!), and proves herself to have better aim than him as well, shooting into a crossbow bolt being held in his hand. She also demonstrates a talent for tree-climbing: this is all apparently a result of the upbringing through her late father, who can only be commended. When she shows u[p at the ball, she’s not exactly throwing herself at the prince, chiding him after he says he has chosen her as his bride, for not asking her opinion [To be honest, he seems a bit of a dim bulb. Like father, like son maybe, for the Queen is the smart one of the family as well.]

There isn’t even a fairy Godmother to be seen here, and one isn’t needed. For this Cinderella isn’t pining out a window, waiting for her prince to come. She gets things done herself, more or less. She does get help from the local fauna when stepmom inflicts particularly tedious chores on her, and there’s also the “three wishes” of the title – though they’re less wishes, than sets of clothes that appear out of hazelnuts, because fairy tale. But overall, this is a remarkably self-reliant, smart and confident young woman, who will likely make an excellent ruler. Indeed, it would have been perfectly fine if, at the end, she had politely listened to the prince, and said, “No, thanks – although, if you can get my stepmother off my back, I’d appreciate it.” I do understand, it would likely have been a step too far, even for a heroine several decades ahead of her time.

This has become something of a staple of Christmas viewing on the European continent, broadcast on TV across a number of countries. In Britain, it was one of the East European films imported by the BBC’s children’s department in the sixties and semi-translated (the original dialogue is retained; a voice-over translates the dialogue and narrates, as if by a storyteller). However, it has now largely been forgotten in the English-speaking world, overshadowed by the terrors of The Singing Ringing Tree. That’s a shame, since this is worth equally as much attention, and offers a considerably more robust heroine than anything Disney was producing at the time, or would produce this side of Mulan.

Dir: Václav Vorlíček
Star: Libuše Šafránková, Pavel Trávníček, Carola Braunbock, Rolf Hoppe
a.k.a. Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, Tři oříšky pro Popelku, Three Gifts for Cinderella

Fair Play

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“Czech out those legs…”

fairplayTeenage sprinter Anna (Bárdos) is on the edge of making the Olympics with the Czech national team, but still needs to meet the qualifying time. She’s being brought up by her mother, Irena (Geislerová), a former tennis prodigy, now reduced to working as a cleaning lady – in part because of the defection for the West of her husband. Irena also secretly transcribes underground documents for a dissident, Marek. Coach Bohdan (Luknár) pushes Anna hard to reach her maximum potential, and gives her “Stromba”, a substance that helps her performance, but screws up her health. She stops taking it, believing it to be an illegal steroid: when her coach finds out, he enlists Irena’s help to inject her daughter surreptitiously, saying it’s the only way Anna will make the squad. Reluctantly, Irena agrees, unwilling to see her daughter lose out in the same way she did. But as the authorities close in on Marek, the two women become pawns in a political game, with their common Olympic dream now used as leverage against them.

This makes an interesting companion piece to Goldengirl, with both films telling a similar story about female runners in the early eighties, whose family and mentors are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve success at the Olympics. Goldengirl unfolded in the lead-up to 1980’s Moscow Games, but subsequent history rendered it obsolete, as America boycotted them. Fair Play shows things from the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the lead-up to the 1984 Los Angeles games – which the Eastern Bloc similarly spurned. The benefit of time allows the film to incorporate this history into an ironic postscript for its narrative and, while less SF-oriented than its American cousin, the attitudes of both heroines, and the approach of their supporting cast, have a surprising amount in common. The main difference here is, the doping regime is state-sanctioned; in Goldengirl, it’s free-market forces driving the “win at any costs” mentality.

The piece makes a pointed connection between Anna and Irena’s situations, both coming under pressure to compromise their personal morality for personal gain – one sporting, the other judicial. It’s this stand which represents the true heroism to be found here, though the script struggles to escape from the obvious clichés of Soviet Bloc culture. The other main weakness is the actual athletics, which never give the impression of anyone moving at more than an energetic jog, while the thread involving Anna’s relationship with a boy doesn’t go anywhere of significance at all. In the final analysis, it’s a worthy enough effort, if rather too earnest to be wholly successful. You can see why it became the official Czech entry for this year’s Academy Awards – and equally as much, why the Academy then decided it wasn’t worthy of making the final nominees.

Dir: Andrea Sedláčková
Star: Judit Bárdos, Roman Luknár, Anna Geislerová, Ondrej Novák

The Pagan Queen

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“Czech mates”

This is the story of three sisters – Kazi the healer, Teta the priestess (Filatova) and Libuše (Zoli), who can see both the past and her future. Their father is chieftain of the local tribes, and when he passes away, Libuše is chosen to replace him, due to her supernatural talents. This does not impress some of her male rivals, who seek first to wed her, then when she spurns their advances, to replace her. Libuše’s dream of founding the city of Prague hits problems, and she is forced into marriage, but does at least trick her way into choosing her own husband, the farmer Přemysl (Lucas). However, she soon discovers that he isn’t quite the man he seemed, and he rules the country with an “iron fist,” causing Libuše’s childhood friend, the warrior maiden Vlasta (Mornar) to raise an army of women and rebel against the patriarchy.

paganqueen2It really is nowhere near as good as this sounds, and the synopsis above is significantly more coherent. I swear, I didn’t fall asleep – but it felt like I did, the story lurching from scene to scene in a disjointed manner that rapidly drained all interest. Outside of the heroine, there was hardly any significant effort at giving the characters motivation or depth, and matters weren’t helped by the fact the entire nation seemed to consist of about 25 people. The scenery is nice, and the soundtrack has a full, orchestral feel which seems to have escaped from a higher-budget movie, but it doesn’t work as a historical piece or as a political one – and, certainly, not as an action film. However, I was amused by what I suspect is likely a realistic, if ruthless, depiction of what would probably happen when a warrior maiden comes up against her male counterpart.

I suppose it’s possible this may be more entertaining, or simply coherent, if you’re aware of the legend on which it’s based. However, this would still be a flaw: you don’t need to have read Le Morte D’Arthur to appreciate Excalibur. And, beside, this seems to have been critically skewered in the Czech Republic, so it doesn’t appear background knowledge is that much of a help. I think it’s probably more the case that poorly considered femo-paganism [or paga-feminism, if you prefer] does not make for great cinema, regardless of the language.

Dir: Constantin Werner
Star: Winter Ave Zoli. Csaba Lucas, Lea Mornar, Vera Filatova