Fracturing its various moods and themes into isolated chapters, Pavel Juráček’s Case for a Rookie Hangman refashions excerpts of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels into a paranoid and disjointed nightmare, indulging fits of farcical humor and surrealistic imagery in the name of sociological discourse. Where Swift intended to disguise his contempt for the scientific and political elite beneath obvious fantasy, Juráček reins in the supernatural aspects, zeroing in on Gulliver’s subconscious guilt and utilizing it as the chief metaphor in his literal trial by jury. The resulting work wavers between madcap and nerve-racking, snickering at man’s attempts at dominion in an absurd world, while admiring each character’s capacity for faith in the face of corruption.
The opening duo of chapters stray the furthest from reality, placing Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) at the mercy of his environment and the darkest corners of his own mind. Our initial introduction is shot from over his right shoulder, lending access to Gulliver’s perspective and enlivening the humorous and preposterous circumstances that befall him, spearheaded by a speeding car without a driver and a dead rabbit bedecked in a three-piece suit.
The score’s ethereal harp and festive keys imply congeniality, but gradually unfasten into abstract bits of shrill sound, mirroring the macabre tenor of each subsequent section. As memories peek out from Gulliver’s prattling narration, lucid metaphors flood the screen and landscapes shift like the curved glass of a funhouse mirror, manifesting floorboards akin to struck piano keys and ominous structures fit for a Franz Kafka novel.
The leitmotif of Lemuel’s delusional visions is a drowned schoolgirl, either acting as reinterpretation of childhood shame or flicker of repressed sexuality. Pursuing the phantom through the pandemonium of his dream world brings her no closer, but each passing glance and prurient sensation unlocks a facet of his persecution complex, prompting leering faces to peer out from pockets of light in the darkness and descend upon him like a pack of ravenous wolves.
Tracking shots follow Gulliver’s frantic motion with the ebb and flow of a pendulum, exemplifying fluidity in spite of the anarchic volatility of the narrative. The dialogue is just as unrestrained, pouring forth from Gulliver’s head like a faucet and adding abstract layers of rhetoric atop an already befuddling scenario.
Forthcoming vignettes are far more conventional than the cerebral commencement, stranding Gulliver in a sea of interchangeable characters in realistic settings, examining his culpability before a criminal court in a foreign land. His role as an observer to the contradictory nature of his captive nation’s laws and superstitions lays the base for Pavel Juráček’s incisive tinges of irony, perverting scientists into fundamentalists and kings into woebegotten baggage clerks.
This mélange of sarcasm and symbol can be perplexing, even maddening, but beneath its cynicism lies an understanding of why man makes myths and shelters itself in hope, making Case for a Rookie Hangman an empathetic study in human folly and not an act of condescension.
Case for a Rookie Hangman (Barrandov Studios, 1970)
Directed by Pavel Juráček
Written by Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Pavel Juráček (screenplay)
Photographed by Jan Kalis