In Memoriam Václav Vorlíček

Czech film director Václav Vorlíček died today aged 88.

You may never have heard Václav Vorlíček’s name until today, but if you were a kid in Eastern and/or Western Europe in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, you have almost certainly watched his films at some point. Because Václav Vorlíček was the man behind many of those Czech fairytale movies that were afternoon television staples for children all over Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Because – uncommon for the time – Vorlíček’s films crossed the iron curtain and entertained children on both sides.

His best known movie is Tři oříšky pro Popelku a.k.a. Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel a.k.a. Three Wishes for Cinderella from 1973. Forty-five years later it’s a beloved classic that is on Czech and German TV every Christmas, even though Three Wishes for Cinderella was never intended as a holiday movie and the snowy Saxonian landscapes around Moritzburg castle near Dresden (my grandmother hailed from there) were just a lucky coincidence, because it started to snow as Vorlíček and his team were shooting. Nonetheless, it’s a truly magical movie and a surprisingly feminist take on the Cinderella story, featuring a crossdressing Cinderella.

If Three Wishes for Cinderella were the only movie Václav Vorlíček had made, he would still be remembered. But he did so much more. Fairytale films were his forte and his oevre includes such classics of the genre as Das Mädchen auf dem Besenstiel (The Girl on the Broomstick)*, an early take on the magical school trope and the film that first introduced me to the trope, Wie man Dornröschen wachküsst (How to Kiss Sleeping Beauty Awake) and Der Prinz und der Abendstern (The Prince and the Evening Star). But he also made a lot of comedies, often with fantasy and science fiction elements, and even a James Bond parody called The End of Agent W4C.

Václav Vorlíček particularly liked stories in which the world of stories and fairytales collides with the “real world”, i.e. Communist Czecheslovakia of the 1970s, usually with hilarious results. In Who Wants to Kill Jessie?, a comic book character invades the real world, while in How To Drown Dr. Mracek, the Lawyer the last seven watermen of Bohemia try to survive in 1970s Czecheslovakia. In The Girl on the Broomstick, a sassy young witch flunks magic school and finds herself banished to the world of humans, as the clip below of Saxana the witch trying to impress her human teachers with magic spells shows. And who never dreamed of turning their teachers into rabbits?

But my favourite among Vorlíček’s works and one of the most delightful things you’ll ever see is the 1979 TV series Arabela a.k.a. Die Märchenbraut a.k.a. The Fairytale Bride. Once again it’s a story where the real world and the fairytale world collide into utter chaos, when the evil wizard Rumburak takes on the appearance of Karl Majer, a typical everyman who tells fairytales on Czech TV. Rumburak as Majer thoroughly messes up the fairytales, which in turn plunges the fairytale realm into utter chaos. The king of the fairytale realm sends his two daughters as emissaries to set Majer (who still has no idea what is happening) straight, only for the younger daughter Arabela promptly to fall in love with Majer’s son Peter. Things get even more chaotic from there on, as Karl Majer gets turned into a dachhound, the exiled king of fairyland is forced to work in a factory, Arabela’s older sister Xenia decides to inject a bit of Socialist realism (trash, factory jobs for everyone, housing estates) into fairyland and the seven dwarves discover what a flush toilet is good for. Unfortunately, they mistake it for a waterslide. We also encounter adult fairyland, which is inhabited by fictional heroes such as Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes and ruled over by Fantomas, the classic villain/antihero of French literature. A highlight is Peter and Arabela’s wedding, where the bride has unfortunately been turned into a goat and the groom into a grandfather clock by Rumburak. The registrar refuses to perform the ceremony, but is then forced by Fantomas at gunpoint to marry them anyway, because “if they love each other, what does it matter.”

I’m not sure if the wedding scene is intended as an argument for same sex marriage, though I have always taken it as one and have been known to quote Fantomas’ line from Arabela to opponents. Though rewatching Arabela as an adult, it’s striking how much satire and sly criticism Vorlíček managed to slip into this and his other works and that barely ten years after the suppression of the so-called Prague spring and around the time of the Charter 77. I suspect that Vorlíček got away with so much, because he made films and TV shows for children, so the censors didn’t pay close attention.

If you want to see Arabela, the whole series is online, but only in Czech alas. Unlike other Czech fairytale films of the era, Arabela never had an English language release, likely because of rights issues. Vorlíček’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves not only look like Disney’s, they even sing “Hi Ho, Hi Ho”, though Disney’s dwarves never mistook a toilet for a waterslide. And characters like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Fantomas (who looks eerily like Jean Marais’ 1960s take on the character) were still trademarked as well. But if you want to catch a glimpse of what the show was like, here is a clip featuring a messed up version of Sleeping Beauty where the prince robs the sleeping princess instead of waking her up with a kiss.

Indeed, Vorlíček’s fairytale films pretty much ruined the ongoing renaissance of fairytale retellings in the English speaking world for me, because whenever I try to read the latest updated, feminist fairytale retelling, I realise that Václav Vorlíček did something similar forty years ago and that he did it better.

Václav Vorlíček’s genius was recognised in his native country and the Karlovy Vary film festival gave him a lifetime achievement award only last year and his wonderful films will continue to entertain children all over Europe. Unfortunately, Vorlíček is not nearly as well known in the English speaking world, which is why I had to write this piece about his passing, since the only English language obituary I could find was the brief article from Radio Prague’s English language site. This is a true pity, because he was one of the great fantasy directors of all time and deserves to be remembered.

So rest in peace, Václav Vorlíček, and thanks for all the stories that brightened up mine and so many other childhoods.

*I’m not listing the original Czech titles from here on, because the Czech language has too many characters that require HTML handcoding – sorry.

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