Thursday, May 03, 2018

Panorama Europe ’18: Case for the New Hangman

Prague was the home of Franz Kafka, but the old Communist regime was never really sure what to make of him. Apparently, they were even less enthusiastic about Jonathan Swift, judging from the lifetime filmmaking ban they imposed on Pavel Juracek after they got a load of his Kafka-influenced dystopian riff on Gulliver’s Travels. Of course, there is no better recommendation for a film than the crude use of censorial force. Poor Lemuel Gulliver is in for quite an excursion down the rabbit hole in Juracek’s freshly restored Case for the New Hangman, which screens during this year’s Panorama Europe at MoMI.

There is a lot going on in New Hangman, but it is hard to really pin down the plot. Frankly, that is far too prosaic a concept for this Gulliver’s misadventures. After his car breaks down, largely out of its own subversive willfulness, Gulliver is welcomed to Balnibarbi by some ghosts from his past. Once he breaks out of his own personal Hell, he quickly runs afoul of the local authorities by talking on a Monday, their designated silent day of the week.

He will sort of acclimate to dubious laws sets forth by the scientific society, at least for a short while. However, his guileless will lead to trouble. Indeed, his invitation to the cloud city of Laputa will be rather timely, arriving right before his appointment with the titular hangman. However, their interest in him stems from the vain hope he might have encountered their prodigal king, now working as a bellhop at the Monte Carlo Carlton Hotel, during his stay there. Or something like that.

In any event, it is easy to see why the socialist censors took one look at New Hangman and said “oh, Hell no.” It is not a strong one-to-one allegory, but it is clear as day every authority figure in the film is cruel, arbitrary, corrupt, unstable, and looney as a jaybird. Plus, it is just light years removed from the official sanctioned style of socialist realism. You will not find any rough-hewn but dignified laborers digging down deep to make their production quotas and hasten the building of socialism here.

Visually, New Hangman is wonderfully baroque and trippy. Balnibarbi is a cluttered place, but the sets and settings are often quite imposing. It certainly looks like Juracek was processing influences from caricaturists like Honoré Daumier and J.J. Grandville, as well as the films of Wojcieh, particularly The Hourglass Sanitorium. Lubomir Kostelka also rises to the occasion. As Gulliver, he looks like a composite of Graham Chapman and Roman Polanski and acts like a much less passive everyman than we might expect. He is often believably freaked out by it all, but he can also lose his patience and his cool.

The work of cinematographer Jan Kalis and the entire design team is always strikingly cinematic. Juracek also nimbly walks a tightrope, keeping the audience baffled and somewhat unnerved, without ever truly menacing them or leaving them unmoored in a surrealist maelstrom. Even if you are not sure what New Hangman all adds up to (which is highly likely), it is a rewarding film to parse, ponder, and generally try to impose meaning on. It should be seen on a big screen, like movies were meant to be seen, so real cineastes should definitely make an effort to see it when Case for a New Hangman screens this Saturday (5/5) during the 2018 Panorama Europe, at MoMI.