Wednesday, March 8th. I'm joining Juraj Herz and his wife, Martina, for lunch at Arcady in Brussels. In case you're not familiar with Juraj Herz, he's one of the most noted film directors from the Czech Republic. Chances are you've seen his movies The Cremator and Morgiana.
Communicating with the almost 83-year-old Juraj Herz isn't an easy feat. He's tired after having traversed the “largest airport in the world” and has only a basic knowledge of English. Because I don't speak Czech, Yugoslavian, Slovenian and Polish, I go for German which I understand but don't speak well. Still, we both get only half of what the other is saying. “I'm afraid I only know one word in Czech: Kočka,” I say. He looks up to me and his eyes start to sparkle. “Kočka! Cat! I love cats,” Herz answers and, all of a sudden, he finds the words to get the conversation going. “I had a cat once called Boogie Woogie. I also wanted to adopt one of the seven cats that played Morgiana. I took him home with me but he only stayed three weeks. My wife at that time didn't agree with me keeping the cat.”
That brings us to our Caturday movie of the week: Juraj Herz' Morgiana (1971).
Based on the short story Jessie a Morgiana by Alekszandr Grin, the movie starts with the funeral of Viktorie and Klara's father and the subsequent apportionment of his inheritance. Not only is Klara receiving most of the property, she's also becoming involved with the man her sister loves.
When Viktorie goes to see a fortune teller, she mentions money, jewelry, a black widow, an unpleasantness, and death. She also tells Viktorie that a “queen of hearts” is always ahead of her. “She's an obstacle. Only you can remove that obstacle between you and the riches.”
Viktorie takes the fortune teller's advice to heart and buys a poison which she then put into Klara's glass of water. For a short moment, Viktorie regrets her decision and tries to prevent her sister from drinking, but eventually, she changes her mind.
In the weeks that follow, Klara suffers from fever and hallucinations, but the poison is slow-working. Viktorie then tries the poison on a dog, who quickly becomes unwell. Other casualties follow, including a child and Viktorie's cat Morgiana. When Klara begins to suspect her sister has evil intentions, the question arises whether justice will prevail or not.
The titular Morgiana, Viktorie's Siamese cat, is the witness to everything that happens in the film, from the initial plotting, over the execution of the plan, to Viktorie's downfall. Just like Klara, Morgiana knows the truth of what's going on, falls victim to Viktorie's darkness, and is ultimately the embodiment of justice. Though the cat is not essential to the storyline, it's the symbolic representation of the film's theme and happenings.
More than 45 years after its release, Morgiana remains a favorite for many enthusiasts of Gothic, European films. Thanks to Juraj Herz' collaboration with Jaroslav Kucera, the most talented cameraman of the Czech New Wave cinema, each shot evokes the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Felicien Rops and Alfons Mucha. The result is eccentric for that era, with psychedelic color filters, cat POV shots, and dreamlike wide-angle lens photography. The ornate costumes, wigs, and makeup accentuate the melodramatic tone of the film.
The only person who isn't in love with Morgiana is Juraj Herz himself. “Actually, The Cremator is the only film I made as it was, without any censorship or changes,” Herz says in between several bites of meatballs in tomato sauce. “Morgiana wasn't fit for the communist regime I was filming in. When I shot the beach scenes in Bulgaria, they even phoned the authorities to tell them they shouldn't help me. They didn't let me make the film that I wanted. Viktorie and Klara are supposed to be the same woman, two sides of the same personality. That idea was too dark for that era so I couldn't keep it.” However, numerous hints of that intention are still present: Viktorie and Klara are both played by actress Iva Janzurova; they often look into the mirror, seeing several reflections at once; and in some of Klara's hallucinations, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and sees her sister.
“Following the completion of Morgiana, I was banned from filming for three years because the movie was called sadomasochistic,” he says. “Honestly, Morgiana is a movie I'd rather forget.” Herz then changes the subject to Belgian beer, his newborn grandson, and, once more, his cat Boogie Woogie, and his eyes start to sparkle again.
Juraj Herz' movies at Offscreen
This month, you can discover six of Herz' movies on the big screen during the Offscreen Film Festival in Brussels, Belgium. Morgiana will play on Sunday, March 12th, at 7 pm, in Cinema Nova. Other movies from Juraj Herz that Offscreen will be showing are Beauty and the Beast, The Cremator, The Ninth Heart, Passage, and Ferat Vampire.