Friday 2 November 2018

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 21. Carriage to Vienna

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Carriage to Vienna
Director Karel Kachyna
Country - Czechoslovakia
Year - 1966
Runtime - 78 Minutes

Czechoslovakian film-makers have contributed a great amount to the world of cinema throughout its exciting development over the past hundred years. Like many post-war European countries, the strife and hardship suffered by its people gave rise to powerful and important films being made that created waves throughout Europe and beyond or, in some cases, led to the films in question being banned due to their controversial nature.

Carriage to Vienna falls into the latter camp but was eventually released 23 years after its completion when the communist regime who banned it were finally forced out of power in 1989, and it has since been reappraised as a minor masterpiece of Czech cinema. It still has a long way to go before gaining the relative popularity which is afforded some of its closest contemporaries such as Closely Observed Trains or Diamonds in the Night but I am hoping that others who enjoy the film as much as I do will continue to spread the word of its brilliance and importance. 

Taking place over the last days of World War Two, Carriage to Vienna is set entirely in dense woodland where a young widow, Krista (Iva Janžurová) is accosted by two Austrian deserters, one of whom is seriously wounded, and she is forced to accompany them on their retreat home when they commandeer her horse-drawn carriage. Fearing for her life she attempts to dispose of their weapons along the journey, using each rest stop to her advantage by hiding a dagger or a gun in nearby thickets, relying on the knowledge that an axe is secretly stowed under her carriage for protection. Initial hostilities and language barriers eventually make way for a begrudged mutual respect but this, along with her loyalties to her country, is tested while they traverse a route fraught with danger.

If you have a predilection for bleak and depressing war films then Carriage to Vienna should strike a chord with you. Whereas war merely plays its part as a backdrop to the tragic events – there are no gunfights here – its presence is felt through the motivations and actions of the main characters who are torn between self-preservation and allegiance to their home nations. Brief glimpses of tanks and groups of partisans through the foliage serve as a reminder of the inherent threats that lurk close by, threats that are only avoided thanks to Krista’s skilful control over the two horses that draw her carriage.

Apart from Krista and the two soldiers there are only a handful of supporting characters, all with relatively little screen time, and the success of the film rests largely upon the astounding performances by the leads. The emotionally charged portrayal of Krista by Iva Janžurová offers a stark insight into a widow in turmoil and Jaromír Hanzlík’s depiction of the able-bodied Hans is an excellent rendering of a soldier on the verge of breaking point. Their characters both undergo a dramatic catharsis which is instigated when Han’s aggression turns full circle and he begins to make unwanted advances towards Krista. Alone and lost in the woods, they have no-one to turn to but each other, as the wounded soldier is largely unconscious throughout.

Every element of Carriage to Vienna is a work of fine art, with director Karel Kechnya demonstrating a masterful command of the medium that resonates throughout his unique vision. By using the natural borders of the woodland paths to frame the action, the film has a subtle picturesque quality. The camera is often placed on the carriage or behind it to put us firmly in the character’s viewpoint, encapsulating their isolation and sense of helplessness given the vast scope of the surrounding woodlands that fade into the seemingly endless horizon. An evocative classical organ accompaniment chimes perfectly with the downbeat subject matter, intensifying the impact of key scenes and enhancing the bleak mood that permeates the film.

Considering its short runtime, Carriage to Vienna still packs one hell of a gut punch, and also impressively transcends the focus of its political agenda, an agenda that can so often hold film-makers back from realising their true potential. This is a story that can be appreciated on many levels, and its sombre denouement is a striking and fitting closure that is likely to leave you shell-shocked as it comes full circle with a devastating blow.  

If you take the time to watch Carriage to Vienna then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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