An excerpt from the booklet essay by Jonathan Owen.
Eduard Grečner’s film Dragon's Return (Drak sa vracia, 1967) has been compared to a folk ballad or a fable. Certainly its story and themes are simple enough. Potter Martin Lepiš, nicknamed Dragon (‘Drak’), returns to the village from which he was banished and where he had been treated with superstitious fear, considered a source of misfortune. Dragon had been loved by a local woman, Eva, and his return threatens to prompt violence from Eva’s husband, Šimon. In a sincere attempt at reconciliation with the community, Dragon undertakes to rescue the villagers’ cow herd from a forest fire. All he asks in return is to be able to live and work again in the village...
Grečner has stripped down Dobroslav Chrobák’s already stark narrative, and by simplifying the story and eliding explanation, Grečner enhances the film’s mythic, parable-like character, the universal applicability of the dramas portrayed (Grečner himself compares Chrobák’s text to ‘ancient tragedy’). The major themes here are unfulfilled love, the eternal triangle and the antagonism between the individual and the collective, though given Dragon’s creative vocation the latter theme can be read specifically as the tension between artist and society. The ‘lesson’ of the parable, from this last angle, seems to be that artists are doomed to exclusion, individualist by nature yet misinterpreted even when striving – as Dragon does, successfully – to serve their community.
Dobroslav Chrobák (1907-1951) was himself a beleaguered artist when he wrote his original novella, which was aimed at redeeming his reputation following an accusation of plagiarism. The book would prove a classic work of ‘naturism’ (naturizmus), a variant of the early-to-mid twentieth century Slovak literary current of lyricised prose, characterised by a sense of mystery, a balladic or fairytale-like flavour, and the enveloping, expressive presence of nature. An earlier attempt at filming the novella had been made by theatre director Jan Jamnický and celebrated Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs in the late 1940s. According to Grečner, this attempt foundered when Balázs refused politically motivated demands to show Dragon ultimately ‘reborn’ after a stint of manual labour. Grečner himself, who had discovered the book while still at school, wrote the first version of his adaptation in the 1950s; his script was originally approved for production in 1959, before being later vetoed by film industry leaders.
Grečner had been dazzled by the book’s lyrical qualities, but he was also daunted by the challenge of transposing those qualities to film, of rendering visually the interior, ‘invisible’ realities that the novella captures poetically. Yet Grečner principally achieves the interior quality he aimed for through his approach to mise-en-scène and his extraordinary use of music and sound. The film’s audio-visual realization achieves a distinctive poetry of its own, balancing the tactile and concrete with the stylised and near-abstract. In an approach that typifies this blend of naturalism and distortion, Grečner shot the film in real locations (after being dissatisfied by some initial work on sets) but used a special telephoto lens to highlight the performers and flatten out the backgrounds. This shifting back and blurring of the environment gives the film a sense of mystery, as Grečner notes, and reinforces its non-realist, fable-like quality, making it comparable to Chrobák’s literary aesthetic. At the same time, though, the visual effect of the long lenses enhances our sense of the stripped-down elemental nature of the world portrayed. The visual detachment of performers from their backgrounds additionally comments on the fact that this is a film about exclusion and being an outsider.
Jonathan Owen's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
(i) Slovak Cinema in the 1960s
(ii) About composer Ilja Zeljenka
(iii) On author Dobroslav Chrobák
(iv) That Intense Lyricism: A Brief History of Slovak Cinema
(v) Slovak Film Institute