Despite finding itself under the thumb of Stalin’s Soviet Union after World War II, grey and miserable Communism never quite took in what was then Czechoslovakia, no matter what the Party or the secret police demanded. There was (and still is) something too…weird…about the Czechs, in the very best sense of the word. Wonderfully weird, infused with creative spirit and an appreciation of the esoteric, odd, and absurd. This is a nation whose most famous ruler, Rudolf III, turn Prague into the global capital of alchemy, inviting wizards and alchemists and charlatans from across Europe to live in the city he had honeycombed with secret tunnels and laboratories.
The core incompatibility between the dreary seriousness of Communism and the playful Czech spirit came to a head in 1968, when a period of political liberalization kicked off under reform-minded Alexander Dubček, the newly-elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. For the next eight months, Dubček set about lifting censorship restrictions, increasing personal freedoms, and decentralizing the economy in a brief but hopeful period known as the Prague Spring. It came to an end in August when the Soviets got upset with this flurry of freedom and fun and rolled in with tanks. But during that era, a number of artists spread their wings, and even after the guns were pointed in their direction, the effects of that brief thumbing of the nose at dour Soviet domination were long-lasting. It took the Soviets eight months to finally quell the uprising.
During this exciting and tumultuous time, filmmaker Jaromil Jires made his first feature-length film, Žert (The Joke, 1969), retelling the story of Ludvik Jahn (Josef Somr), who finds himself ejected from the Communist party after cracking a joke. In an attempt to get his humorless Communist girlfriend to lighten up one day, he sends her a postcard that reads “Optimism is the opium of mankind. A ‘healthy spirit’ stinks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky! Yours, Ludvík.” Soviets had no sense of humor when it came to Trotsky (accusations of Trotskyism are as common and as serious as that of being a capitalist). She turns the card over to the authorities. After six years of prison, mining, and army service to atone for his crimes, Jahn sets about getting revenge on those who testified against him by, as is usually the way in movies, seducing ladies.
Released after the Soviet crackdown on the Prague Spring, The Joke was a hit—at least until the Communist Party had it banned for the next twenty years. The movie secured Jires’ position as one of the preeminent members of the Czech New Wave, a group of artists who excelled at making strange, wonderful, and thoughtful films (no doubt because subscribing to the austere tone of an Antonioni or Rossellini would seem too…Soviet) that subverted Communist authority even as the Hammer and Sickle was coming down. Jires’ follow-up film didn’t have the same degree of freedom, but artists have been circumventing such restrictions for decades, usually by relying on the narrow, literal minds of censors and the inability of such people to see beyond the most obvious of elements. Released in 1970 and couched in the harmless looking vestments of a fairy tale, Valerie a týden divu (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) is an allegorical Czech fantasy film which, on the surface, is about a teenage girl trying to get a decent night’s sleep. Underneath the gorgeous, hypnotic veneer is a skewering of everything from religion and political authority to sexism and exploitation, all disguised as a film about a teenage girl’s coming of age in a surreal fantasy world.
Orphan Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) is in a precarious situation. Her first period signifies her first tentative steps into womanhood. Almost immediately, she is beset by a parade of questionable characters harboring unsavory intentions. She lives with her stern, religious grandmother (Helena Anýzová), who is unwilling to tell Valerie very much about her long-missing parents and who treats the young girl with that all-too-common confusing duality adults have toward teenagers: expecting responsible grown-up behavior from them while also treating them like children. A mysterious figure of religious authority (Jirí Prýmek)—his exact role is vague and tends to change with the film’s fluid narrative—takes a sinister, perhaps supernatural interest in Valerie. A local priest named Gracian (Jan Klusák) takes a more carnal interest in Valerie. Any moment of peace, or of contemplation, or of simply enjoying her life, is constantly interrupted by one of these three predators. Her only ally against them is the undependable Orlik (Petr Kopriva), who seems initially like he might be her first love—until they unravel the mystery of their origins and discover they might be brother and sister.
Of the sundry authority figures that prey upon Valerie, none is so explicitly skewered as religion. Jirí Prýmek’s Tchor is a nightmarish ghoul of a religious leader, is the most photogenic, a literal and figurative vampire feeding off the bodies and spirits of the townsfolk as he cuts Faustian deals. In any given circumstance, he could be a fire and brimstone preacher, a Lothario, a vampire, a seducer, a protective father, a common swindler, a murderer, or a small rodent. He represents the human capacity to contain multiple and sometimes contradictory personalities and intentions, the personification of any one human’s capacity to commit evil deeds then seek (and achieve) redemption and forgiveness —to die then be resurrected, only to give in again to temptation. Despite the evil he commits, his character, like that of Valerie’s grandmother, is not entirely unsympathetic. For all their supernatural manifestations and mysterious powers, the missteps they take and the betrayals they commit are not incomprehensible. They are the missteps and betrayals all of us commit during the course of a life.
Valerie’s grandmother also has a fluid state of being, though hers is easier to decipher. She is an aging, once-beautiful woman, willing to betray anyone in order to relive her youth and recapture what she perceives as fading beauty—even if it means becoming a vampire. She is the vector by which the forces assaulting Valerie obtain access to the poor girl. She infantilizes and protects Valerie, demands that the teen live within the confines of childhood innocence, but she is also quick to exploit for her own gain the prurient interest in Valerie shown by the men. It is the grandmother who makes Valerie available to the leering priest, refusing to believe that a holy man could be anything but righteous, though it’s unlikely the grandmother isn’t aware of the priest’s sleazy intentions. Her deference to his authority comes partly from blind faith and partly from willful ignorance and selfishness. By sacrificing Valerie on the altar of Father Gracian’s lust, grandmother might obtain for herself greater stock in the church, greater respect for her faith…more power. She is more than willing to throw Valerie to the wolf (or the rodent) that is Tchor, to sell Valerie into slavery, in exchange for the promise of eternal youth. In both cases—standing in the church and standing in the eyes of a society that judges women by their youth and beauty—the grandmother’s primary motivation is vanity, but we also understand how few avenues are afforded to women.
One can see, in the ghoulish, vampiric Tchor the looming specter of Soviet authority seeking to crush the liberation of Valerie—of Czechoslovakia itself. The fleeting moments of peace, of happiness, of wonder that Valerie experiences are her Prague Spring—the promise of freedom and whimsy and happiness constantly snuffed out by the hypocritical, greedy villains around her. And yet no matter their efforts, she defiantly maintains her belief that there is freedom to be won, magic to be experienced, and a nap to be taken. In these moments, her grandmother becomes her mother, Tchor has his demon’s mask stripped away and becomes Valerie’s loving father. But they never stay. As an orphan, Valerie is prone to idealize her missing parents. But when she encounters them, she discovers what every kid has to discover sooner or later: that adults are not infallible. That they are not always correct and cannot always be trusted or depended upon. That they are often disappointing. And that they will at times react to their own fallibility poorly, blaming everyone but themselves even though they too must have undergone a similar disillusionment with adults when they were themselves children.
Valerie’s parents are always banished, give up on her, or are transformed back into vampires and exploiters. Valerie cannot depend on them, just as the Czech people could not depend on NATO or others in Western Europe to stand with them against the tides of Soviet oppression. Children must someday stand on their own feet, even if that independence is opposed by parents who covet youth and either do not want to see it blossom or do not want to release their own hold upon it, remaining stubbornly nostalgic for the days when they were young and pretty and full of curiosity. Yet again, despite all that is grim and grey, despite those that prey upon her and send her curious and happy spirit into a coma, Valerie remains unrepentantly hopeful. She refuses to be cowed by these lecherous creeps or let them define her truth.
Political symbolism aside, Valerie is the story of a girl becoming a woman and of the ways society preys upon her and seeks to dismiss her as a girl while coveting her sexually as woman. No character is more emblematic of this than the priest Gracian, whose desire for Valerie in obvious and whose willingness to blame her for his bad behavior is tragically predictable. When he tries to rape her, it is not his shortcoming. No of course not. It is Valerie’s fault…for being young, for being pretty, for being friendly. Valerie’s fault for being a woman. Women are blamed for the weaknesses of men, for the shortcomings of institutions. When we do not understand them, we condemn them. We burn them as witches. We demand they be sexual and chaste. We try to hurt them.
Despite all this, Valerie soldiers on, unwilling to let male weakness, jealousy, and insecurity dampen her spirit. She is unwilling to let craven, predatory men drain her of her sense of wonder. She also refuses to let herself be hammered down by women of the previous generation—her own grandmother—who are beholden to the old ways, who have agreed, even against their own desires, to play the roles assigned to them by men. It’s telling that Valerie’s most dependable, purest friendship is with a bride promised at an early age to her older husband but not entirely at ease with her destiny as a wife and mother. Valerie mistakes the wedding procession for a carnival of actors—and in many ways, it is. People play at being revelers, at being the happy bride, inhabiting the roles assigned to them by the expectation that marriage is a joyful affair when, in reality, that can be very far from the case. The bride and Valerie find temporary solace from the world when they are with one another. Valerie’s curiosity regarding same-sex friendship and experimentation is just another part of her awakening, innocent and free before the guilt and condemnation of adults tricks the young into thinking it is impure, unnatural, or unholy.
Valerie’s other friend, Orlik, is more complicated. He is, from one scene to the next, a slave, a coward, an artist, a rebel. He is brave and then cowardly; Valerie’s friend, then her lover, then her brother. His fluid identity is a reflection of the way relationships between the sexes change as children become teens. He is a dependable friend, a sly collaborator, a partner in crime. But as Valerie becomes a woman, that asexual childhood friendship becomes potential romance. He acts not because they are friends, but because he desires her and wants Valerie’s affection in return. It’s not a condemnation of that transformation; just an example of it—just one more thing Valerie must contend with. One more adult hassle heaped onto the shoulders of a person who is neither adult nor child. It’s one more expectation, however much without malice toward Valerie Orlik may be.
And he is without malice. After all, he is going through his own transformation from boy to man, from servile to free, from safe within the confines of being told what to do to having to figure out his own way in the world. Like Valerie, he is exploited by Tchor, his every move toward manhood greeted with violence by those who have grown comfortable knowing that can use him to make their own lives easier (at one point, Tchor insists that he literally be allowed to stand on Orlik’s back). He becomes not Valerie’s friend, not the awkward boy with a crush on her, but her brother. Her comrade in arms. Another person struggling to blossom under the disapproving weight of the previous generation.
It is rewarding, to sit back and take in the dance of the macabre and the sublime, the parade of vampires, black magic, gorgeous imagery, and Pagan strangeness Valerie and Her Week of Wonders offers—to enjoy this sumptuous feast without attempting to unravel the mystery. But should one want to divine deeper meaning, it is there so long as one abandons the need for traditional story structure. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a fairytale after all, a dream, and we shouldn’t expect logic or linear narrative from a dream. Strange things happen. People arrive and vanish without explanation. They die and return. Their identity can change abruptly in the middle of a “scene.” And within the dream, it all makes perfect sense. Attempting to inflict the logic of our waking life on the dream world is folly. Unbeholden to the demands of a logical narrative, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is free to play in the territory of fairyland, where the constraints of the waking world do not apply.
Czech cinema’s long history of experimentation contributes to Valerie’s successful conjuring of a dreamscape, its ability to use the avant garde as a means of exploring an idea rather than telling a linear (or even a non-linear) story. In the hands of a less adept writer or director, dream logic can seem too obvious an affectation. It rings false. Or it remains too similar to the logical waking world, the filmmakers unable to fully divorce themselves from the rules. Valerie achieves its dream world. There is a sincerity in it, a genuine strangeness. It is not a literal-minded director being weird for the sake of weirdness. It is not a dream that behaves as the real world, only with the occasional monster.
But this isn’t just a dream. It’s not just surrealism. It’s also an attempt by a child who is no longer a child to interpret the adult world into which she has been thrust and about which she has been told so many lies. If the nature of those around Valerie changes abruptly and without explanation, it is not just because we are dreaming; it is because Valerie is trying to make sense of things that seem to have very little rhyme or reason. She is trying to process the fact that those who adored her as a child now resent her as a young woman (in one scene, an incarnation of Valerie’s grandmother attempts to spoil the young girl’s coming of age by dwelling on the cramps she will get), that those she trusted as a child suddenly have entirely different intentions. Children are usually poorly prepared for this jarring transformation, which is why adolescence is such a difficult time. Chemical and biological changes are tumultuous enough. Having to deal with the upheaval of society around us is an entirely different pile of stress. If you think Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a difficult film to understand, it’s nothing compared to a teenager’s task of understanding the adult world, of processing the temptations and demands and thrills at once available to them yet still forbidden. Is it any wonder that after enduring all of this, Valerie wants nothing more than to get some sleep without being interrupted? Facing all of this nonsense is exhausting.
Jaromil Jires is aided in achieving this sense of inhabiting a dream by his cinematographer, Jan Curík, and his composers, Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák. Curík’s camera captures a world drenched in sunlight, an atmosphere ripe for contemplative reverie and daydreaming. It is beautiful, soothing, but the beauty is not there to mask the danger and evil that lurks within. It’s not the “beneath the veneer of beauty lies ugliness” cliche. Valerie’s world, as lensed by Jan Curík, is beautiful in defiance of the ugliness that can dwell within it. It’s the poetic light that trumps the darkness. The setting—sun-dappled fields, cobweb-strewn catacombs, opulent manor houses, the maze-like streets of a town somewhere between the medieval and the modern—is the perfect place for such a story, familiar yet disorienting. The music heightens this sense of the unreal, of the familiar transformed into something supernatural, strange, and despite the presence of Christianity, more than a little Pagan (there are several scenes Pagan in nature—from circles in the woods to the sensual ecstasy of a local peasant girl as she writhes in the embrace of a tree, her male lover seemingly inconsequential when measured against nature). Fiser and Klusák lend to this dreamscape the soundtrack it needs. It combines multiple styles: the playful baroque or harpsichords, the sinister undercurrent of woodwinds, both at play amid a combination of chants, prayers, and children’s nursery rhymes. You can guess the tenor of the story simply by listening to the music.
But perhaps no other crew member is as responsible for Valerie’s power than screenwriter Ester Krumbachová, who bases her screenplay on a 1945 novel by surrealist Czech writer Vítězslav Nezval. Krumbachová was another of the luminaries of the Czech new wave, writing some of the period’s best and most forward-thinking films, including Daisies, Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajských jíme), the harrowing witch trial film Witchhammer (Kladivo na carodejnice), and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Krumbachová’s screenplay infuses Valerie’s story with an authenticity—first-hand experience that could not have come as effectively from a male writer. Without Krumbachová’s involvement, Valerie could have subverted its own intentions, turned the exploration of a young girl’s coming-of-age into the very sort of exploitation it sought to criticize. Films about sexual awakening are, by their nature, tricky. Dealing honestly with the material requires imbuing adolescents with a sexuality we like to pretend they do not have. Also, one must portray sexuality without lapsing into the realm of the leering. Valerie has a thin line to walk, and Ester Krumbachová keeps it on track. And she is doubly responsible for Valerie’s success; she also did duty as art director and costume designer.
All of this would count for nothing without Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie. In a moment of art imitating life, it was perhaps unfair to expect this young actress—like her character, only fourteen or fifteen at the time—to shoulder the weight of this strange, ambitious movie—for her to embody all of Czechoslovakia and all of womanhood. But like Valerie, Jaroslava Schallerová perseveres and triumphs. Her performance is enchanting, engaging, and empathetic. There is a combination of willfulness, confusion, fear, and joy that makes her a hero. She might not be jumping off of moving trains or throwing down in bouts of fisticuffs, but she’s no less an active fighter, and one finds oneself cheering for her and fearing for her. Her journey through this perilous, sensuous phantasmagoria is harrowing but, ultimately, affirming. Valerie is a relatable blend of open-minded youthful boldness and shyness, young enough to be trusting but old enough to be suspicious. Her sexual awakening is not a thing to be condemned, but to be embraced. It’s the attempt to steal it from her—either by denying it or forcing oneself into it—that writer Krumbachová rightfully sees as worthy of contempt.
Despite intense social and political messages, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is not about defeat. Valerie wins. The film’s final scene, in which nearly every version of every character parades through the village streets and Valerie finally gets some rest, is a premonition of the jubilant Velvet Revolution that removed the Soviet yoke once and for all, some nineteen years after Valerie. It is a testament to the determination of the Czech people to be true to their own character no matter the attempts to force upon them some external system of behavior fundamentally at odds with their own. Valerie’s fairytale trappings were the sign pointing the wrong direction that sent Soviet tanks down the wrong road. Valerie remains steadfastly optimistic, hopeful, and curious despite all the attempts to control her, subjugate her, or own her. It is a story of whimsy’s triumph over the grim, of freedom’s victory over oppression. Rather than wallowing in the sadness of death and defeat, it is a celebration of life and of indomitable spirit. After all, it’s not Valerie’s week of hopeless exploitation and suffering; it’s her week of wonders. And she’s not going to let anyone steal that from her.