A short excerpt from the booklet essay by Peter Hames.
Like most of the other Slovak directors of the 1960s, Jakubisko graduated from FAMU and studied alongside the leading members of the Czech wave. He worked with Jaromil Jireš on Hall of Lost Footsteps (Sál ztracených kroků, 1960) and with Věra Chytilová on Ceiling (Strop, 1961). At the end of his first year at FAMU, he made the short film The Last Air Raid (Posledný nálet, 1960), about a little girl disturbed by an air raid siren during World War Two. Here, everything depended on his use of camera. In his highly sophisticated graduation work Waiting for Godot (Čekají na Godota, 1966), he examined the lives of young people on the eve of their joining the army for national service. Basically the observation of a party at which they drink, talk, and play games, it evokes an era while also demonstrating the influence of Godard. As Jakubisko has observed, Godard broke all the rules they were being taught 'in terms of editing, themes, the use of non-professional actors, location shooting, lighting, the handheld camera'. Jakubisko also worked for the experimental multi-media theatre Laterna Magika.
Jakubisko originally applied to FAMU to study cinematography but was accepted for direction. Interestingly, he notes that it was his knowledge of art history that tipped the balance in his selection. He was particularly interested in the work of the Russian cinematographer, Sergei Urusevsky, who photographed Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat zhuravli, 1957) and I Am Cuba (Soy Kuba/Ja-Kuba, 1964).
Jakubisko's third feature, Birds, Orphans and Fools (aka Birdies, Orphans and Fools) began shooting in October 1968 immediately after the Soviet invasion and was completed in 1969, when it was premiered at the Czechoslovak film week in Sorrento. However, it was not shown in Czechoslovakia until 1990, when it won the FIPRESCI award at the Karlovy Vary Festival.
The script, written by Jakubisko together with Czech writer Karol Sidon (later Chief Rabbi of Prague), was originally drafted in 1967. At the time, Jakubisko asked the question, why are we all fools and why do we find craziness the only possible way of existence? The film weaves a complex web of game playing that involves the audience closely with the characters' imaginative world. Just as his earlier film The Deserter and the Nomads (Zbehovia a pútnici, 1968) was dedicated to the notion that killing is indiscriminate, Birds, Orphans and Fools attacks the absurdities of political and ethnic division. However, it also challenges romantic and heroic approaches to history.
Politically, the film has a significance relating to the Czechoslovakia and Slovakia of the 1960s through its reference to Slovak national symbols which had previously been banned under Communist rule.
In particular, there is continued reference to the figure of Milan Štefánik, who had been an astronomer and a general in the French Air Force and was killed in an air crash in 1919 (a commemoration of the crash occurs near the beginning of the film). Yorick frequently wears a French military cap echoing the national hero and, when they visit his memorial, he describes him as his 'father' (while destroying the Slovak flag). He comments that all he left him was a statue (which occupies their room) and madness. Jakubisko notes that it was the first reference to Štefánik in any Slovak film. There are also references to the Slovak National Uprising of 1944 - a partisan is still searching for fascists - as well as the political radicalism of the 1960s (through references to 'Mao's red-star' and the presence of a guerrilla band of old women). Soviet soldiers also appear in a number of scenes. Jakubisko criticises Slovakia's (and by extension the Communists) continuing preoccupation with the past as well as peasant, folk and pastoral stereotypes.
The film would not be of its time without a degree of cinematic self consciousness. At the beginning of the film, Jakubisko introduces himself as the director, speaking through the voice of a child and then a woman, and shows the film crew at work. Perhaps Jakubisko's work is itself an act of foolishness in the face of realpolitik. Later in the film, the characters emerge from a bog festooned in strips of celluloid like the ancient Trojan priest Laocoön, emerging from the sea attacked by serpents. They pose as the trademarks of MGM, Columbia, Rank, and Mosfilm before setting fire to the lot (Godard's 'Hollywood-Mosfilm'?). They then urinate on it, announcing "Watch out! The New Wave!" - although whether this is an attack on tradition or an acknowledgment of cinema's political irrelevance is unclear. Just like the word, ambiguously described in the film as 'the weapon of the powerless', perhaps film shares the same fate.
Peter Hames's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the DVD release.
A short excerpt from the booklet
MovieMail by Michael Brooke
Little White Lies
by David Jenkins
The Arts Desk
by Tom Birchenough
Backseat Mafia by Rob Aldam
Electric Sheep by Alison Frank
CineVue by D W Mault
by David Flint
Cinehouse by Shane James
by Nathaniel Thompson
Sight & Sound
by Charlie Fox
(i) Jakubisko interviewed by Peter Hames at National Film Theatre in March 2004
(ii) An essay on the film from 'Cinema of Central Europe'
(iii) From Czechoslovak to Slovak and Czech Film by Václav Macek
(iv) Petr Ruttner's 2000 documentary for Czech TV on film composer Zdeněk Liška
(v) Historical and National Background of Slovak Filmmaking by Martin Votruba (vi) Jakubisko Film
(vii) Slovak Film Institute