Skeleton on Horseback


(6/10) Based on Karel Capek’s play, this 1937 Czechoslovakian dystopia is a thinly veiled allegory on Hitler and Nazi Germany. A pacifist doctor finds a cure to a mysterious “white plague” and with it tries to blackmail the ruling class into signing a peace treaty. Future Hollywood director Hugo Haas makes a poignant, but slow-paced dark satire. 

Skeleton on Horseback (Bílá nemoc). 1937, Czechoslovakia. Directed by Hugo Haas. Written by Karel Capek, Hugo Haas. Based on play by Capek. Starring: Hugo Haas, Bedrich Karen, Zdenek Stepánek, Václav Vydra, Frantisek Smolik, Helena Friedlová, Vladimir Smeral. Produced by Hugo Haas. IMDb: 7.4/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.   

1937_skeleton_horseback_021Czech novelist and playwright Karel Capek is best known for introducing into the common language of science fiction the word “robot” in his 1922 play R.U.R. In 1938 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, and branded the unapologetic political satirist “Public Enemy N:o 2”. In December the same year Capek died from pneumonia, an illness speculated to have been exacerbated by the Gestapo’s persecution of him. This background gives a special poignancy to the 1937 film Bílá nemoc, released overseas as Skeleton on Horseback or by the more literal translation of the title, The White Disease. The film is based on a play with the same name, written by Capek the same year.

The action takes place in an unnamed, big European country, which is ruled by a despotic leader by the title of Marshal (Zdenek Stepánek), who drums up support for an invasion of a neighbouring smaller country. The Marshal, giving charismatic speeches from the balcony of his Classicist, white mansion, dressed in a military uniform, is naturally a pastiche on Hitler and the country likewise a metaphor for Germany, threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. The reason for the Marshal’s thirst for war seems to be war itself, in particular the glory of war and the honour of victory.

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Zdenek Stepánek as The Marshal.

But at the same time, the country is ravaged by a mysterious malady, dubbed the white disease because of its early symptoms, which are hardened, white and numb spots on the skin, which feel like cold marble to the touch. The disease only affects those over 35-40 years of age, is 100 percent fatal and has no known cure. The leading expert on the disease is perceived to be the head of the country’s main hospital, Professor Sigelius (Bedrich Karen). But Sigelius, a pompous careerist and a close friend to the Marshal, echoes the sentiment of the upper classes of the country: the white disease is a minor problem blown out of proportion by the press, and as long as it doesn’t affect the young men needed for the war, then it can be ignored while the country focuses on the glory of conquest. But there is one dissenting voice, that of the humble slum doctor and pacifist Dr. Galen (Hugo Haas), who is the movie’s protagonist.

Galen has developed a cure for the disease, but he refuses to reveal its formula, and likewise refuses to cure the rich, unless they cease all their war preparations and force world leaders sign a universal peace treaty.

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Hugo Haas as Dr. Galen wagging his finger.

In his review of a production at the Northlight Theatre, critic Tom Boeker condensed the plot for the Chicago Reader: “Meanwhile, every effort is made to co-opt Dr. Galen–including threats, bribery, and ethical sophistry–but to no avail. And as the rich and powerful start coming down with the ‘white plague,’ Galen uses his ‘utopian blackmail’ for the cause of pacifism. Yes, it’s a classic case of the moral responsibility of the individual, or, to bastardize Ibsen, Enema of the People. Typical of Expressionist drama, Galen’s story unfolds episodically, as he confronts adversaries that are types rather than individuals. First there’s Dr. Sigelius, who wants to claim Galen’s cure for his own fame and fortune. Then come Baron Krug, the arms manufacturer, and finally the Marshal, a military dictator. A nuclear family and assorted lepers represent the masses. Along the way, Capek cranks out social and political commentary with that characteristically Czech penchant for exhaustive satire. Some of the major topics covered are medical ethics (‘We don’t serve humanity; we serve science’), the arms race (‘How can any country sign a peace treaty after the millions we’ve spent on arms?’), and political expediency (‘God wants me to make peace. You say it, Annette. I want to hear how it sounds’).”

Unsurprisingly, the white plague, the skeleton on horseback, doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor, and finally the disease catches up with the ruling class, even with the Marshal himself, who is now torn between his own survival and abandoning his life’s work, the war he is on the brink of achieving. I won’t reveal the ending, other than that it is poignantly tragic, but offers perhaps a little more hope than Capek’s original (written) drama.

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Karel Capek (left) at the Prague National Theatre.

Karel Capek has never been the author of choice even for the hardcore science fiction reader. His most famous work is a play, which remains so scarcely read that there prevails an enduring misconception that the 1935 Soviet robot film Loss of Sensation (1935, review) is based on it, even though the stories have almost nothing in common (the only commonality is that the robots in the film have the text “R.U.R.” stamped across their chests). The film is actually based on another book entirely, but it has still even been released on DVD as a purported R.U.R. adaptation.

Capek is difficult to pin down from a stylistic perspective, as he places somewhere in the landscape between the social realism of Maxim Gorky, the satirical futurism of H.G. Wells, the absurdism of Franz Kafka and the burlesque humour of Mark Twain. R.U.R (1922). is, more than anything, an Expressionist prelude to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). His most famous novel, The War With the Newts, is an absurdist epistolary work about intelligent newts tamed and educated by a pearl fisher, that evolve and procreate over time until they threaten to become the dominant species on Earth. My favourite is perhaps Capek’s debut novel from 1922, The Absolute at Large, in which a scientist invents a “God-Machine” that can create anything out of nothing in unlimited quantities, sending the economic, political, religious and social order of the world into complete tailspin. Another well-known novel is Krakatit (1922), a kafkaesque fever dream in which a scientist learns to deeply regret his creation of a new highly volatile super-explosive. This is one of the few of Capek’s works that have been adapted for the screen.

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Frantisek Smolnik as The Citizen and Vaclav Vydra as Baron Krog, the arms manufacturer.

Happy endings were not a trademark for Capek, but The White Disease is still one of his most cynical works, almost completely devoid of the playful nihilism he displayed in so many of his other texts. And it is no surprise that the play, and likewise the film, feels like it is enshrouded in a blanket of resignation. Capek had a disdain for collectivism in all forms, be it organised religion, communism or fascism, neither did he believe in corporate capitalism. But his most outspoken ideological stances throughout his life were his anti-fascism and his pacifism. Yet by 1937 he watched all his darkest nightmares coming true. In the East, Stalinism was quenching any of the hopeful optimism that might had existed in the young socialist federation, and in the West Hitler’s Nazi party loomed ever more dangerous, like a black plague spreading throughout Europe, now threatening to engulf his home country and thrust upon the world a war of catastrophic proportions. What’s more, for the pragmatic humanist Capek, the coming war seemed devoid of reason or logic, a war that could benefit no-one but arms manufacturers and power-hungry despots. Yet, somehow, much of the world seemed oblivious to the utter folly behind the Nazi ideology, a world ruled by a content middle- and upper-class that somehow believed that they were impervious to the disease spreading through Europe. Thomas Mann wrote after Capek’s death: “If ever anyone died of a broken heart, he did”.

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Karel Capek.

Czech critics praised the Bílá nemoc stage production at the Prague National Theatre after its opening night (right-wing and fascist parties excluded), and it was quickly picked up for adaptations at least in London and Tel Aviv. I have found no information of how the film adaptation came about, but the cast of the movie is the same that was featured in the original play. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of the play, but according to a scene-by-scene plot synopsis on Czech Wikipedia, the film seems to be a verbatim reproduction of the stage production.

And this is perhaps the main problem with the movie. Line-by-line film adaptations of stage productions rarely work as theatre is a medium that relies primarily on the spoken word and film is a visual medium. And by that token I mean to say that Skeleton on Horseback is a very talky film. Not only is it very talky, it is also very slow. The takes are long, the pauses are long and people even move slowly. About halfway through the film I decided to watch it on double speed, and found that it had no detrimental effect. In fact, even at double speed the film felt like a rather slow movie being played at normal speed.


An example of the look of visuals of the film.

The film was directed by Hugo Haas, who also plays the lead as Dr. Galen. Haas was a star of the Czech stage, primarily known for his comedic roles, but Skeleton on Horseback sees him equally adequate in a dramatic performance. This was his third film as a director, and would remain his most famous Czech film until he emigrated to Hollywood via France and Portugal in 1939. The somewhat static camera, the long, unedited shots and the overuse of wide shots, as well as some rather peculiar pans and tilts show a filmmaker who is still getting used to the medium. That said, the cinematography is not without some stylish touches. The film opens with a speech by the Marshal, an opening inherited from the play that a seasoned screenwriter (Haas also adapted the script) would have omitted in favour of opening with the much more effective second shot. This scene begins with a long tracking shot through a hospital ward, showing nothing but the name plaques and hospital records of the patients being treated for the white disease, all while we can hear Professor Sigelius voice in the background, explaining to a group of journalists the horrors of the malady. Unfortunately the movie never improves on this early scene.

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Zdenek Stepanek and Vladimir Smeral.

But there is a compelling style to Haas’ simplistic direction. Many of the scenes are shot in some grand Neoclassical building in Prague, with white walls, columns and high ceilings. Sparsely furnished, save for the Marshal’s huge desk, the scenes capture the empty and meaningless pomp of the ruling class, single-minded pursuit of power and glory. The slow, static cinematography in these scenes almost gives you the feeling of a Beckett play. This is repeated in the Expressionistic shots of the all-white, sterile hospital, sometimes shot with sharp, directional light, casting ominous shadows on the walls. Haas plays around quite a bit with Expressionism, especially in scenes taking place in the poor quarters of the city and in flashback scenes from WWI. However, one suspects that some of these flourishes of class come courtesy of seasoned DP Otto Heller, who later became one of the most respected cinematographers in the British film industry, winning a BAFTA for his work on The Ipcress Files (1965) and being nominated for his work on Alfie (1966).


You can’t fight here! This is the War Room!

The main problem of the film is the script, and not just that it’s rather talky and slow-moving. It has several issues. One is that it is rather predictable. The film has made its point about 30 minutes in, and then there’s still 70 minutes of movie left. We’re just sort of waiting for the inevitable conclusion which we all know is coming — be it that the final twist is a rather spectacular one, and must be one of the most cynical endings in movie history. And as Boeker points out above: Capek flails wildly with his satire and tries to make several points with a broad stroke, leading to a somewhat muddled moral. For example the notion that the white disease only affects people over 40 has no real bearing on the plot. Yes, there’s a comment to be made about the adulation of youth and a society leaving behind the old and the sick. Another way to look at it comes from the mouth of Dr. Galen: it is the old and powerful who are war-mongers, and the young, innocents are the ones who are sent out to die. In this way the plague becomes a symbol of the moral corruption of those who have had time to amass wealth and power and are now profiting off the young. But however poignant this observation may be, the film is not a story of a generational struggle, and the age limit on the plague just comes off as an irrelevant oddity. At the time of the film’s release in the US, Variety also noted that Capek’s message “isn’t entirely clear, he appears to be taking the dramatic theme that Fascism is a sort of white plague that scourges the people who follow its philosophy”. The magazine further stated that Capek’s “thinking is logical [but] he has certainly over-simplified the struggle between war and peace”.

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Middle: Karel Capek and Hugo Haas. Right: Zdenek Stepánek.

Another problem is the tone of the film. While the dialogue is rife with black humour, the movie never comes off as especially funny. The satire may be scathing, but it’s just all too tragic to make us laugh. Compare this with Chaplin’s rather similar story The Great Dictator (1940), which is absolutely hysterical. Capek gives The Marshal too much gravitas, he strikes too closely to home in his imitation of the real thing. Zdenek Stepánek never plays him for the laughs, and with slight changes to the script he could have appeared as the villain in almost any drama movie. Plus finally the fact that the film is terribly preachy. Capek hits us over the head with the message from the very beginning of the film, and here he is uncharacteristically unambiguous. This is easy to forgive, given the circumstances of the film’s creation, and I’m sure the movie struck a very different chord in Czechoslovakia in 1937 than it does today 80 years after the fact.

I whole-heartedly concur with Frank Nugent at The New York Times, who reviewed Skeleton on Horseback in 1940, when Hugo Haas had smuggled the banned movie out of Czechoslovakia and into the US: “There are several reasons why one could wish that Skeleton on Horseback, now showing at the Belmont, were a more vital and affecting film than it is. […] Many of the actors who played in it are now in concentration camps or wandering in exile. And the story is one which must wring a sympathetic response from the heart of every opponent of fascism and mass brutality. Thus it would be gratifying to report that the picture possesses a tragic sweep and intensity commensurate with the unwritten epilogue which subsequent events have attached to it. […] Except in fleeting, flashlit moments, the picture fails to capture the monstrous irony of this story, chiefly because it is paced monotonously, lacks clear emphasis and is crudely edited. […] It’s too bad that all of the picture is not as absorbing as its last five minutes.”

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Frantisek Smolnik.

The acting is not at fault. The actors were all, as we pointed out, professionals of Czechoslovakia’s most prestigious theatre stage, and having actually rehearsed and performed the play, they are invested in the roles. All the leads are superb, with special mention going to Stepánek for his charismatic Marshal and to Frantisek Smolik, playing a middle manager at the weapons factory, who refuses to acknowledge his backwards way of looking at the world even as his own wife dies because he will not hurt his career by speaking out against the war. Stepánek and Smolik returned to science fiction as late as 1963, when they both played the leads in the Czech space exploration cult classic Ikarie XB 1. Smolik also appeared in the 1948 adaptation of Capek’s Krakatit, making him something of an early Czech science fiction staple. Vladimir Smeral, on the other hand, played one of the leads in the 1980 remake of Krakatit, called Dark Sun.

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Hugo Haas with Elsa Lanchester in the 1947 film Northwest Outpost.

Hugo Haas is primarily remembered today as a producer and director of a good dozen cheap potboiler melodramas in the fifties, with lewd titles like Pickup, One Girl’s Confession and Bait. But before that he achieved reasonable success as a respected character actor in a number of decent Hollywood movies, often playing somewhat flamboyant foreign villains. His biggest role was probably that of the villain Smith in the 1950 Technicolor adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (review). As a director Haas earned the nickname of “the Czech Ed Wood“, which has later been interpreted as a comment on the quality of his films, which would seem somewhat uncalled for. But I suspect that this is later misunderstanding. Ed Wood’s reputation as “the worst director in history” is a rather modern one, and didn’t come about until his 1956 movie Plan 9 From Outer Space was named “the worst movie ever made” in Michael Medved’s 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards. At the time that Wood made his films they were generally viewed as bad, but the number of terrible science fiction films cranked out in the fifties were staggering, and while Wood’s films certainly had an unusual childish naivety about them, they were not viewed as any worse than a lot of the other Poverty Row productions made at the time. Rather, what set Ed Wood apart was that he was passionate about his bad movies, and styled himself an Orson Welles who would be involved in every aspect of the production: writing, producing, directing and often starring. This is what Wood and Haas had in common. According to his IMDb bio, Haas would take “total creative control with almost a Svengali-like obsession” over his so-called “vanity projects” that were “badly acted and obviously cheap and cheesy in production values”: While Haas’ films were critically panned, they were often moderately successful at the box office.

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Cleo Moore and Hugo Haas.

There are not many modern reviews of Skeleton on Horseback out there. The Czech film archive calls the movie “a top work of art”, which is perhaps stretching it a bit. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings admits he has seen the film without subtitles. “Nonetheless”, her writes, “the emotional tenor of the situations comes across very strongly indeed, and even without knowing the plot details I was able to appreciate both the strong anti-fascist nature of the movie and the chilling irony of the ending of the movie”. Over at Nitrateville, Lokke Heiss writes that the film has “a lot of ideological baggage”, and that “Skeleton on Horseback loses steam about halfway through the film, becoming at one point a series of lectures about the government, medicine, the military and even industry. […] Some of these digressions are quite interesting – […] but all these ideas don’t add up to a cohesive whole.”

In Swedish there’s a saying that “a beloved child has many names”. In the cinematic universe, when a film is known by three different titles it’s usually a sign that it hasn’t quite seared itself onto the collective consciousness. Skeleton on Horseback/The White Disease/The White Plague was rather forgotten after WWII, at least outside of Czechoslovakia. The Czech film archive has done a beautiful, crisp digital restoration, which is freely available on Youtube.

Janne Wass

Skeleton on Horseback (Bílá nemoc). 1937, Czechoslovakia. Directed by Hugo Haas. Written by Karel Capek, Hugo Haas. Based on play by Capek. Starring: Hugo Haas, Bedrich Karen, Zdenek Stepánek, Václav Vydra, Frantisek Smolik, Helena Friedlová, Ladislav Bohác, Karla Olicová, Jaroslav Prucha. Vladimir Smeral, Vtiezslav Bocek, Eva Svobodová. Music:Jan Branberger. Cinematography: Otto Heller. Art direction: Stepán Kopecký. Chief sound engineer: Vilem Taraba. Produced by Hugo Haas for Moldavia Film.  

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