An excerpt from the booklet essay by Michael Brooke

Pavel Juráček’s second and sadly final full-length feature opens with a modest tribute to its inspiration, the great Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745): ‘If Swift should turn in his grave on account of this film, I beg his compatriots for forgiveness.’ It seems unlikely that Swift would have minded, partly because Juráček took the trouble to adapt one of the lesser-known volumes of Gulliver’s Travels (watching most screen versions, one could be forgiven for assuming that Gulliver never ventured beyond Lilliput or Brobdingnag) and also because for all the sometimes wild liberties that Juráček takes with the original text, he shows a keen understanding of its core purpose as a work of satire, something else that most other adaptations miss. And although Juráček played down the satirical angle, Swift would also undoubtedly have understood what he meant when he described his film as being ‘about the certainty and security provided to the stupid by stupidity’.

However, Swift’s hypothetical approval counted for nothing when set against the Czech Communist authorities’ real-life disapproval, as they assumed that that any perceived satire in the film was targeted specifically at them. Perhaps surprisingly, the film wasn’t banned outright, although it was given extremely restricted distribution, and there was also a wider crackdown on films associated with TS Juráček-Kučera, one of the creative groups (tvůrčí skupina) based at Barrandov Studios, with Věra Chytilová’s The Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromů rajských jíme, 1969) given similarly limited distribution and Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti, 1969) was banned for what turned out to be two full decades. Finally, on 1 March 1970, the creative groups were dissolved and, following a top-to-bottom restructuring, seventeen Barrandov employees were sacked in the early summer of 1971. Juráček, recently turned 36, was the only film director amongst them.

Whereas contemporaries such as Menzel and Chytilová resumed their careers from the mid-1970s, Juráček was never welcomed back into the filmmaking fold. Indeed, after signing the dissident Charter 77 document, he became persona non grata to the extent that, following round-the-clock surveillance by nearly thirty secret policemen, he was exiled to West Germany from 1977-83. However, unlike previous émigrés such as Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer, Juráček was unable to resume his career outside Czechoslovakia either, and eventually returned home, by then addicted to both alcohol and the amphetamine derivative phenmetrazine. With dismally unfortunate timing, he died of cancer in May 1989 at the age of just 53, six months before the Velvet Revolution led to the swift rehabilitation of one of the Czechoslovak New Wave’s most imaginative practitioners.

Juráček’s filmography as director is tiny: two full-length features, a short film for television, and a medium-length film that he co-directed. However, as a screenwriter, dramaturge and creative group leader his impact on 1960s Czechoslovak cinema was huge. He wrote or co-wrote scripts for several New Wave filmmakers, and also for more established figures like Jindřich Polák and Karel Zeman. As an increasingly respected figure in the Barrandov Studios hierarchy, he was instrumental in getting Chytilová’s feature debut Something Different (O něčem jiném, 1963) approved, and performed a similar service for Menzel and Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1967) a few years later. He also made a major creative contribution to Radúz Činčera’s ambitious Kinoautomat project, premiered at Expo ‘67 Montréal and subsequently staged in other cities. The audience, equipped with red and green buttons, was given the regular option to influence the direction of the narrative by majority vote.

It’s a remarkable output, not least for its consistent commitment to the power of the untethered imagination, with A Case for a Rookie Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata) in particular offering the most convincing presentation of pure dream-logic in Czechoslovak cinema outside the more overtly Surrealist work of Jan Švankmajer. A less politically outspoken Juráček might have continued his career even under the ‘normalisation’ period of 1970-89 – he’d already demonstrated that he could work perfectly well (albeit reluctantly) within the confines of thoroughly mainstream projects, and it’s not hard to see how his sensibility could have been transplanted into some of the more fantastical 1970s Czech comedies. But by then he had both said and indeed signed too much.

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Michael Brooke's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.

Contents
Disc Info


Czechoslovakia, 1969
A Case for a Rookie Hangman (Blu-ray/24fps): 107 mins
(DVD/25fps): 103 mins
Special features: 75 minutes
Sound: 2.0 Mono LPCM (48k/24-bit)
Black and white
Original aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Language: Czech
Subtitles: English

Blu-ray: BD50 / 1080 / 24fps / Region ABC (Region Free)
DVD: PAL / DVD9 / 25fps / Region 0 (Region Free)

DVD £12.99 / Blu-Ray: £19.99
Release Date: 24 June 2019

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