If you are stuck for something to watch this Christmas you won’t go far wrong with Václav Vorlícek’s delightful Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku, 1973). The film has just been released in time for the holidays, in a 4K restoration in an English friendly subtitled edition, via the fabulous folks at Second Run DVD. The Czechoslovak/German co-production has long since reigned as a seasonal classic of choice in various European countries— not just in the respective production countries, but in Russia and Scandinavia too. Now fully restored, with English friendly subtitles for the first time in the UK on Home Video, the love can spread even further afield. Those even loosely acquainted with the inimitable Czechoslovakian take on fairy tale and fantasy from around this era, through the likes of say Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu, 1970)— which was released both sides of the Atlantic for English speakers by Second Run and Criterion consecutively— will know to expect some level of subversion lurking underneath the enchanting facade inherent in the genre. Three Wishes for Cinderella is no different in this respect, and while it may lack the overt sexual references of Valerie, it comes with its own rebellious take on a classic fairy tale all the same.
As a director, Vorlícek introduced some wildly inventive entries to both Czechoslovakian fantasy and science fiction prior to tackling Cinderella. For instance, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Kdo chce zabít Jessii?, 1966) combines delicious pop art comic strip visuals with the type of madcap comedy vibe you will only find in Eastern Europe fare of the period. His later piece You are a Widow, Sir (Pane, vy jste vdova!, 1970) is no less compelling or delirious; with both films reaching such sublime levels of absurdity they really need to be seen to be believed. When taken in context the films belong to a Czechoslovak science fiction cinematic tradition where anarchic energy ran riot; alongside films like Oldřich Lipský’s I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Zabil jsem Einsteina, pánové, 1969) or the much later Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem, 1977) — directed by Jindřich Polák. This was something typical of the time and place, and a way in which directors could explore social and political themes on an abstract level without fear of censorship from the communist government. Artistic freedom became of major concern for filmmakers after the Prague Spring in 1968; a time that saw directors exiled or banned from making film altogether if they were seen as criticising the regime in any way. Some of Czechoslovakia’s most creative and innovative cinema was produced in the aftermath of this via the Czech New Wave. Admittedly Vorlícek was not as subversive as some of his peers, but the imagination evident in his work puts him firmly in tune with this era of invention in Czechoslovakian cinema.
By the seventies, the director started to move away from science fiction and into the fantasy world he would explore throughout the next decade. The Girl on the Broomstick (Dívka na koštěti, 1972) — made the year before Cinderella — introduced Saxana, a teenage witch, who escapes her magic school and enters the world of humans, where she longs to stay so she can be free. For that picture the director loaded on Gothic garnish, contrasting it against the contemporary world of teen sexual politics, by way of some ludicrous jokes (many of which involved turning various people into animals). At the centre of it all is a strong willed young witch and for all its fluffy messages about love, Saxana is a free spirit who seeks freedom above anything else. This is a line Vorlícek would carry on when it came to Three Wishes for Cinderella.
There are many different incarnations of the original fairy tale Cinderella. The script for Three Wishes for Cinderella employs Božena Němcová’s Bohemian take on the story, which has some similarities to the Grimm tale, replacing the Perrault standard Fairy Godmother with some magic nuts (for the Grimms it is a tree). Pumpkins and magic coaches are notably absent. This is all for the greater good: this Cinderella, or Popelku as she is named in her native language, doesn’t need a Godmother to save her. She possesses a power all of her own. Magic just gives her a slight edge when it comes to introducing her to her prince, but the true magic comes from within herself.
Cinderella (played by Libuše Šafránková), like her contemporary Saxana, is a free spirit. Following the death of her father, she is held hostage by her odious stepmother (Carola Braunbock) and vain and greedy step sister Dora (Dana Hlaváčová). She is forced to do chores, denied her inheritance and abused by her new family. Not happy with sweeping up ashes from the fire, the orphan sneaks out of the house at any opportunity; running wild in the forest, charging through the snow on horseback, enjoying the freedom of being at one with nature. She projects the spirit of a fighter and warrior completely at ease with her environment (which is largely a credit to Šafránková’s performance). With the entire town bubbling with excitement at the arrival of the young Prince (Pavel Trávníček), Cinderella is all too happy to use the diversion as a means of escape. It is during one such excursion she stumbles on the Prince by accident, whilst he is out with a group of friends hunting in the woods. The girl is quick to use the opportunity to show up the group of boys, in her capacity of as a far superior hunter. After losing the Prince his shot at the wildlife, thus humiliating him in front of the other boys, she resists intimidation, making the group look even bigger fools in the process. This begins a chain of events that results in the Prince falling madly in love with her. Denied entrance to the ball, Cinderella finds salvation in three magic hazelnuts that grant her three magnificent costumes, designed by Academy Award winner Theodor Pištěk; who worked on František Vláčil’s The Valley of the Bees (1967) and Marketa Lazarová (1967) amongst many other films during his prolific career. However, it is her tenacious spirit that really wins the Prince’s heart. Even when he submits to her, she makes him work for his prize by giving him a series of riddles to solve. The clock doesn’t make Cinderella leave the ball in this story; she leaves of her own volition to retain a sense of mystery and make her suitor’s yearning for her even greater. This is a Cinderella completely in charge of her own destiny, and sexuality, despite the obstacles she has to face.
The overall narrative pivots solely on the theme of female independence and power. Cinderella is shown to have traits that appear to connect to witchcraft, but remain unexplained. These flow from her unspoken ability to communicate with animals on a psychic level. She also has an owl as a familiar, and it is through this animal she is able to unlock the secret of magic. Her connection to nature is also demonstrated through her instinct for the hunt that far surpasses any of the males in the piece. She shows this by climbing up the tallest trees, jeering in defiance for the Prince to come and fetch her, then disappearing before his very eyes. On every level Cinderella outwits her Prince. While her stepsister obsesses over fashions and marriage, this heroine is far more comfortable firing off a crossbow in the forest and taking every prize: including the hero.
If you compare Three Wishes for Cinderella to some of the other fairy tale pieces of its time and place, it becomes apparent it is distinct in how it straddles the middle ground between the dark and light ends of the genre. For instance, lead actress Libuše Šafránková — as well as taking a role in Vorlícek’s How to Drown Dr. Mracek, the Lawyer (1975), a film that carried aspects of folklore, in the form of water sprites — appeared, alongside her sister Miroslava, in one of the most tragic genre pieces to emerge from the period: The Little Mermaid (1976). Libuše also took a less active leading role in The Prince and the Evening Star (Princ a Vecernice, 1979): an adaptation from Božena Němcová’s collaborator Karel Jaromir Erben; the writer responsible for the tales behind films like Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik (Otesánek, 2000) as well as anthology Wild Flowers (2000). The Prince and the Evening Star, while admittedly ending on a much happier note than The Little Mermaid, is packed full of fantastic aspects that link to a pagan themes, and the tone is quite moody throughout. Dark themes continued when the master of the Czechoslovak horror film, Juraj Herz, turned his hand to the fairy tale in two fantastic films, Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor, 1978), which features a horrific birdman and Gothic sets, and The Ninth Heart (Deváté srdce, 1979). The films were made back to back and share an affiliation with folk horror just as much as they do with fantasy. It is also worth mentioning that the aforementioned, forerunning Valerie and Her Week of Wonders injected fairytale elements into a fantastical and often surreal, nonlinear Gothic plotline that basked in the themes of coming of age and female sexuality. These films were a direct contrast to films like the light and fluffy (complete with singing and talking animals) Goldilocks (Zlatovláska, 1973) which is another example of an Erben story providing inspiration for film, just executed in a far more palatable way; references in the original story to beheadings were totally removed for the film.
While it may be true that Three Wishes for Cinderella projects a family-friendly exterior and on the surface shares more in common with Goldilocks than it does with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, appearances can be deceptive. If you look at the 1969 made-for-television musical adaptation of Němcová’s story, Popelku, the subversive nature of Three Wishes becomes all too clear. Ironically sharing cast member Dana Hlaváčová in the same awful sister role, the films couldn’t be any further apart in tone or context. The 1969 title focuses on a very traditional passive Cinderella, the complete opposite of the fierce spirited girl seen in Three Wishes; she moons after her Prince (going after him on three occasions before the clock demands her home) and the copious ballads do little to help her cause.
If you want to know more about Czechoslovak fairy tales or the production behind Three Wishes for Cinderella, Second Run, along with the gorgeous restored print of the main feature, have packed in a generous thirty minute appreciation by genre expert Michael Brooke. The featurette is an absolute delight and goes into some impressive depth over the history and evolution of the fairy tale in Czechoslovak cinema, where is stands in relation to the Czech New Wave, and also provides an astounding amount of production detail as well as an in depth analysis of the film. Second Run have really exceeded expectations on this package; it truly is a beautiful set (also included is some delicious new artwork and a collector’s booklet). Check out where to buy a copy here.