(7/10) Based on Karel Capek’s novel, this Czech 1948 film is the first to depict a nuclear holocaust. Otakar Vávra’s feverishly Expressionist direction follows the inventor of a new explosive having waking nightmares about the horror he has unleashed upon the world. While simplified and somewhat dumbed down, the story still follows the novel fairly closely.
Krakatit. 1948, Czechoslovakia. Directed by Otakar Vávra. Written by Otakar & Jaroslav Vávra. Based on novel by Karel Capek. Starring: Karel Höger, Florence Marly, Eduard Linkers, Jiri Plachý, Natasa Tanská, Frantisek Smolik. IMDb: 7.4/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
By 1948 Hollywood hadn’t yet made a serious film about space travel. Germany, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and even Denmark had beaten them to the mark. Aliens hadn’t landed on American soil, either – for some reason they seemed to be very fond of Germany, though. American mad scientists were also very slow to get into the robot business, whereas USSR, Great Britain, Germany and Italy already had top notch robot scientists. Both the Hungarians and the Brits had invented time machines, but the Americans were stuck in 1948. Sure, these themes were abundant in American serials and had even entered American TV, but still not the full length feature films. The world hadn’t even ended on the American big screen, whereas both Denmark and France had been wiped off the map. Great Britain had experienced WWIII, a zombie apocalypse and a moon flight all in one film. And now the Czechs even beat the United States to the nuclear holocaust with Otakar Vávra’s Krakatit.
Krakatit is based on a book with the same name, written in 1922 by influential Czech sci-fi writer Karel Capek, after WWI had ended. The book follows Prokop, a scientist who has invented a powerful explosive that breaks apart the atoms of anything it comes in contact with, and can be set off by magnetic waves. The novel thus draws inspiration from the ongoing experiments at the time to split the atom, and anticipates the atom bomb, and comments heavily on WWI. The feverish protagonist has hallucinations and nightmares about his experiences in the war.
Capek was a playwrite and an author, and wrote the 1920 play R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots, which first introduced the word “robot” into our vocabulary. Although credited with inventing the word, Capek maintained that it was actually his brother, painter and writer Josef Capek, who had invented it. In his work, Capek often commented on the human condition and aspects of modern society and morals. The same year as he wrote Krakatit, he also released The Absolute at Work, about a man who invents a machine that can produce anything out of nothing, and the chaos that it wreaks on global economy and society, thus criticising mass production, the consumerist society and human greed. But at the same time it is a commentary on organised religion, class, war, international politics, communism and anarchism.
It would be easy to categorise Krakatit as a classic sci-fi tale of techno-pessimism and a simplistic The Day the Earth Stood Still-type warning about the horrors of war. And it definitely contains those elements. But when Capek writes one thing, he often means ten, and this book is one of his most hectic ones. Sure, he makes a comment on the ethics of science and warns the reader about the dangers of creating a weapon of mass destruction. Prokop himself stands as the centrepiece for this, as he is on the one hand intensely proud of his invention, but on the other hand mortally terrified of what it could be used for, and this dilemma is one that he struggles with throughout the book. When one of his friends steal some of the explosive to work out its formula, Prokop takes pursuit.
But at heart Capek isn’t talking about an actual explosive, as much as he is talking about the modern human condition and the modernist and avant-garde movements in Europe and America. As Prokop explains in the book, it is not only all materia that is potentially explosive, but also thoughts and feelings, life itself is an explosive if the bindings between the molecular structures are severed. Capek saw the urban cultural and artistic movement as an effort to deconstruct life and art and free them from old forms and traditions. He once said that traditional life, as such as he observed in a church mass on the countryside, was built around filling a pre-existing form (such as religious rituals) with life, whereas the modern urban lifestyle, art and philosophy was characterised by life refusing to be defined by form. The book moves at a frantic pace and is told through a hallucinatory, defragmented narrative. As the Saturday Night Review of Literature put it in 1925: ”His extravagance is a genuine attribute of modern life, which, particularly in its phantasmagoric quality, he depicts with inner truth. His is a world seen by flash-light, which is the only way in which anyone now has time to see it at all. The rush, the whirl, the madness of contemporary life express themselves in his work without comment. If one would like to be more sure that Capek’s comments would be wise, if he made them, that after all is irrelevant. A more philosophic temper would doubtless lend a firmer structure and greater lucidity to his work. But it would make him less expressive of the time in which he lives.”
Alas, this is not the film that legendary Czech filmmaker Otakar Vávra has made. The world in 1948 was possibly even darker than 1922. WWII had all but destroyed Europe and news was accumulating rapidly about the atrocities of the Nazis. The world was stunned by the American unveiling of the nuclear bomb in Japan, and everybody knew that all the major powers of the world were now working on their own versions of the bomb, and there was much talk about an even deadlier weapon, the hydrogen bomb, as tensions between the West and the East was mounting. Vávra died in 2011, 100 years old, and had lived through the seven year Nazi occupation and the 1948 Communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia, and was often criticised for accommodating both oppressive regimes, as well as later, in 1968, giving his blessing to the Soviet occupation in order to keep working in his home country.
Vávra takes the hallucinatory style of the book literally, depicting the proceedings of the film as the hallucinations of a sick man being cared for in a hospital. The viewer is never sure of whether the visions of Prokop are relived flashbacks of actual happenings or merely fever dreams. Vávra concentrates on the actual explosive krakatit and includes a harrowing scene of Prokop being led to a desolate version of his lab by a demon who tricks him into pushing a button which makes all the krakatit in the world explode, obliterating all European capitals with a swift blow, marking the start of World War III. Throughout the film he chases an elusive veiled woman, the symbol of peace, and when he confronts her her face dissolves, in an extremely harrowing scene with some superb visual and make-up effects for the time. The film is extremely dark and feverish, shot in an expressionist style with hints of Russian montage theory, symbolism and a kafkaesque surrealism. The film, as the book, ends on a positive note, though.
Many of Vávra’s early films were adaptations of Capek, betraying the notion that the director and later founder of Czechoslovakia’s film institute, wasn’t as much at ease with the authoritarian regimes he collaborated with – Capek was in outspoken opposition to both fascism and communism. In his review of the film Dennis Grunes complains that it holds none of the wit here of Capek’s fabulous, late War with the Newts”, and asks himself if it may be due to the fact that Krakatit was one of Capek’s early works. One of the reasons for the the ”aridity”, as Grunes puts it, is that Vávra does a very simplified adaptation of the book, focusing on the anti-war sentiment and the speculations around the atom bomb, and leaves out much of the social commentary present in the book.
Grunes writes: ”The threat of titanic explosions hangs over the film, sharpening the plea for peace that a convoluted and deliberately discontinuous plot might at any moment lose, in addition to losing the rest of the world. It is Prokop, a scientist, who has presumably developed the alarming prescription for Armageddon that foreign powers now covet.”
A staff writer at The New York Times continues: ”One learns, too, that Prokop’s formula was stolen by an unscrupulous colleague when he found the researcher wandering deliriously around Prague. And, it is ultimately gathered that this would-be friend has sold out to a covey of dastards anxious for the omnipotence contained in Krakatit. But, despite the blandishments of these power-hungry people, among them a vampirish princess, who have imprisoned him in what appears to be a latter-day Graustark, our man is finally able to escape and use his science for peaceful purposes.”
Dave Sindelar of Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings says: ”There are some haunting moments here, particularly in scenes with an old mailman and with a mysterious character called D’Hemon (pronounced “Daimon”, and if you know a word that sounds very close to that, you’ll have a clue to his real identity). Since the movie is framed by sequences in which a doctor and a nurse try to care for the ill main character, you’re left wondering whether the events are being dreamt or remembered. At any rate, this is a powerful movie, and it’s a shame that it’s not better known or more widely available. ”
Grunes: ”Gorgeously photographed by Václav Hanus in black and white, Krakatit is largely a film of dark, blowy nights […] the shafts of wind-swept, mysterious poetry make this film a must-see – as does the transmutation of the songs of wild birds into various instances of mechanical noise: ironically, symbolically, the reduction of humanity that has rendered its slippage into atomic oblivion a fresh, persistent possibility.”
The New York Times shares Grunes‘ notion that the film lacks the book’s stringency: ”Krakatit is a strident preachment for peace and against destructive nuclear fission, but basically it is clouded and halting drama.”
The reviewer goes on, though: ”Karel Höger plays the youthful but plagued scientist realistically and with tortured sincerity. Florence Marly, who has been seen here in French and American films, makes a beautiful royal temptress against whose seductive charms Prokop rebels. Natasa Tanska has a brief but effective moment as the nubile daughter of a medico he loves briefly, and Eduard Linkers is oily as an agent for the militarists. Despite the adequate English subtitles, the rest of the cast moves through the scientist’s dream world much like the robots invented by Capek in R. U. R. They can’t be blamed however, for Krakatit, is sapped by a surfeit of symbolism.”
While I agree that Vávra’s adaptation of Krakatit is simplified and somewhat dumbed down, if you wish, I would argue that adapting the novel as written would not result in a feature film, but an art project. It is perhaps Capek’s most confusing and confounding work, peeling layer upon layer of dream and reality, waking and sleep, madness and sanity. Characters slide in and out of each other, merging and separating as two realities seem to blend in the mind of the protagonist. It is perhaps the closest Capek came to the surrealism of his contemporary countryman Franz Kafka. On the other hand, it’s also perhaps the one that deals the least directly with the social and political issues that were so often at the heart of Capek’s work. Furthermore, if Vávra took Capek’s metaphor of a super-explosive and turned into an allegory about nuclear weapons, he surely can’t be blamed for doing so. Just like Capek wrote his novel after WWI, Vávra made his film after WWII. The first world war saw the mechanisation of warfare, mustard gas, airplanes, tanks and rocket artillery, and surely these were in the mind of Capek when he wrote his novel. But his “krakatit” is less about physical weapons and more about ideas – krakatit passion that sets the world aflame, be it a passion for power, knowledge, conquest, money, love, righteousness, freedom or justice. All passions are incendiary, but at the same time, progress without passion is never possible.
But Capek never saw the atom bomb in action, nor the devastation that WWII brought about. If the world stood shocked after WWI, then the evil and destruction unleashed during WWII was incomprehensible. And this new weapon thrust upon the world by the Manhattan Project hung like a black mushroom cloud over all life. That Vávra chose to make his film an allegory about nuclear weapons was hardly surprising.
Vávra’s film is perhaps somewhat sluggish in parts and perhaps a bit on the nose in others, and may lack some of the subtlety of the source novel. But despite this it is still a powerful movie with subtext to spare and interesting twists a-plenty, especially of you haven’t read the book. It retains the feverish atmosphere of the novel, and as a viewer you’re never quite sure what is real and what isn’t, which in this case works in the film’s benefit. Vávra directs with style, confidence and artistic integrity and Hanus’ photography is wonderful. A mention should also go to the superb art direction by Jan Zazvorka. Sprawling mansions and castles were probably not difficult to find in Prague, and Hanus shoots them beautifully, but the futuristic sets with gadgets, Tesla coils and buttons rival that of any Hollywood movie of the era. The acting is good across he board, with special mention going to Karel Höger as Prokop and Jirí Plachý as D’Hemon.
Karel Höger (not be confused with Karel Vänster) appeared in nearly 100 films, often serious, melancholy roles, and taught acting in later years. His other notable sci-fi role besides Krakatit was as Cyrano in Karel Zeman’s Baron Prásil (1962), a contemporary spin on Baron Münchhausen.
Florence Marly had a reasonably long and chequered career. After WWII she moved to Hollywood shere she mainly appeared in staple spy dramas, the most successful was the 1949 film Tokyo Joe, opposite Humphrey Bogart. She received top billing in 1951 in the Japanese-American project Tokyo File 212. However, she had to leave the States when she was branded as a communist and blacklisted. It soon turned out, however, that she had been confused with the russian singer Anna Marly, and was allowed into the country again. She was never able to quite recapture her former career, though, and mostly appeared in B films after that. She apperared in an episode of The Twilight Zone (1962), the sci-fi horror film Queen of Blood (1966) and The Astrologer (1975).
Eduard Linkers as Carson, one of the main characters, appeared on the ghastly French sci-fi film Malevil in 1981. As Dr. Tomes, who steals the krakatit, we see one of Czechoslovakias more prominent character actors and winner of a best actor award in the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1951, Frantisek Smolik. In 1963 Smolik appeared in one of the lead roles in the Czech sci-fi cult film Ikarie XB 1. The role of his character, a mathematician, incidentally was Anthony Hopkins.
Krakatit. 1948, Czechoslovakia. Directed by Otakar Vávra. Written by Otakar and Jaroslav Vávra. Based on the novel Krakatit by Karel Capek. Starring: Karel Höger, Florence Marly, Eduard Linkers, Jiri Plachý, Natasa Tanská, Frantisek Smolik, Miroslav Homola, Vlasta Fabiánová, Jaroslav Prucha, Jirina Petrovická, Jaroslav Zrotal, Bedrich Vrbský, Bohus Hradil, Frantisek Vnoucek, Karel Dostal, Vitezlav Bocek, Daniela Olaha. Music: Jiri Srnka. Cinematography: Václav Hanus. Editing: Antonin Zelenka. Costume design: Marie Bartonkova. Art direction: Jan Zázvorka. Makeup: Vaclav Kamarad. Production manager: Jiri Pokorný. Sound: Emil Polednik. Produced for Ceskoslovenska Filmova Spolecnost.