VARÚJ…! – BEWARE…! (1946)
Director: Martin Frič, Paľo Bielik
Script: Karel Steklý, Ivan Stodola
Music: Šimon Jurovský
Cinematography: Václav Hanuš
Cast: Paľo Bielik, Jiřina Štěpničková,
Július Pántik, Arnold Flögl
VARÚJ…! was the first fictional Slovakian feature film since JÁNOŠIK in 1921, and featured many talented individuals who laid the foundation for Slovakian cinema, including Director and Actor Paľo Bielik. Released early on in the Socialist political shift in Czechoslovakia, it was mostly free from censorship at the time. Later in 1950, censors revisited older films and decided to ban the film from that point on. Critically, the film wasn’t very well received in Slovakia and was mostly criticized for its folklore elements. VARÚJ…! is based on a play by Ivan Stodola, BAČOVA ŽENA, that Paľo Bielik had also acted in as the lead role of Ondrej.
VARÚJ…! tells the story of Slovakian serf Ondrej who is struggling to survive while the master of the land, a bourgeois Hungarian, parties all day and takes all the food harvested by Ondrej. With the lord doing nothing to stop a bear from attacking the livestock, Ondrej takes matters into his own hands and fights the bear with an axe, but is injured in the fight. After recovering from his injuries, Ondrej is visited by a servant of his master who demands the skin of the bear he killed. This is the last straw for Ondrej, and he decides to set out with his friend Miso to America to find a better life. While working in a mine in California, an accident occurs and Ondrej is trapped in the rubble. Miso, convinced his friend is dead, returns to Slovakia to tell Ondrej’s wife. Wanting to return home to his wife, Ondrej digs and climbs his way out of the mine only to collapse and succumb to amnesia. Back in Slovakia, Miso and Ondrej’s wife become closer as Miso tries to take care of her. World War I breaks out and Miso and Ondrej’s wife decide to marry, since years have passed since Ondrej’s “death”. Meanwhile in America, Ondrej has wandered the country and witnesses a coal truck in an accident and recovers his memory. Returning to Slovakia, Ondrej sees his wife with Miso, and is filled with rage but in the end decides to leave them be and seek out his son.
While there may not be a lot lurking beneath the surface of VARÚJ…!, it is a surprisingly well executed drama from a region that hadn’t released a fictional feature film in over twenty years. All of the performances are strong, and even though the folklore elements were originally criticized they now help to establish the atmosphere of VARÚJ…!. A unique element of the film is how the ending diverts from Stodola’s play, which originally had Ondrej demanding his wife back and her unable to choose between the men, ultimately committing suicide. Instead the film opts for a more positive note, typical to postwar films, but the message in hindsight seems even more prophetic knowing the struggle Slovakia would continue to endure.
VARÚJ…! is also a curiosity in that it uses a past historical event only for its narrative purpose, unlike later Eastern European films which use past historical events as a metaphor for attacking the current political climate. VARÚJ…! isn’t a subversive film by any stretch, but was probably censored in 1950 for its plot of emigration to a better life and elements of religion. VARÚJ…! still sends a strong message through its superb dialogue, ending on a monologue that encourages Ondrej to forget the crimes committed against him and to help his son, a member of the next generation.
VARÚJ…! is available as an English friendly, PAL, region free DVD from SME.