Juraj Jakubisko: A Thousand-Year Old Bee (Tisícročná včela) 1983

reviewed by Kevin Brochet © 2005

Jakubisko’s Slovak Town and Country

If A Thousand-Year Old Bee, a panorama of rural life around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, was one’s only exposure to Slovak history and culture, what sort of assumptions might a viewer make? Juraj Jakubisko uses the history of three generations of the Pichanda family—the father, Martin (Jozef Kroner), and his children, Valent (Michal Dočolomanský), Samko (Štefan Kvietik), and Kristína (Eva Jakoubková)—to show that the Slovaks, at least the “good” people of the small farm and village communities, are self-sufficient and self-governing, and that anything more than what is found in such an environment is unnatural and unnecessary. Wealth, cities, and any aspect of life away from home and family are dangerous or corrupting. The town can care for itself. The Hungarian government, which ruled Slovakia’s present territory until 1918, is not only oppressive; it is entirely unnecessary to the Slovak way of life. Women are idealized, though not necessarily empowered, representations of an aspect of the spirit of the people.

The family’s name, Pichanda, carries a dual symbolism: simultaneously a worker bee and queen bee. On the one hand, there is hard work and capacity to defend the hive when necessary even at the cost of an individual’s life and, on the other, there is procreation, which maintains the survival of the family and nation. The name is derived from the verb pichať, which has the literal meaning of “to sting,” and a figurative, mildly vulgar, meaning of “to have sexual intercourse.” Samko’s nickname, “Bee,” identifies him as the true bearer of the family’s and, in Jakubisko’s presentation, the nation’s essence. This is not the only instance of symbolic names in the film. In contrast to the positive symbolism of farmer Pichanda’s name, the entrepreneurial town family—whose daughter, Hermína (Barbora Štepánková), marries Valent—is named disparagingly Haderpán, which loosely translates as “lord of the rags.” Such blatant verbal symbolism parallels the heavy visual symbolism of the scenes in the film with actual bees, already announced in the title, and culminates in the sequences with the cumbersome, gigantic talking “mother-bee”—the symbolic spirit of the Pichanda family and, through them, of the Slovak people. The filmmakers went to the Bavaria studios in Munich to shoot these scenes.

Like most Slovak production until the 1990s, A Thousand-Year Old Bee is primarily about men. Although the female characters appear only in supporting roles and are not consistently portrayed, if they were brought to the foreground, it would be obvious that according to Jakubisko the spirit of Slovakia resides with the women. The “mother-bee” (as she identifies herself in her monologues) speaks as a spiritual queen-bee, directing the life of the hive―a village community, which Jakubisko uses to represent the Slovaks. Within this community, Stázka Dropová (Zuzana Bydžovská) acts as a spiritual or moral leader. Not only does she make the mute character Juraj “Fish” Drozdy (Juraj Greben) sing, which shows her to have some special powers, but, more importantly, she leads the men away from the bacchanalia after they have completed their bricklaying job. The site of the bacchanalia is, of course, located to the south of the Slovak area, in the region of the Kingdom inhabited mostly by the Hungarians.

Women in the film possess a great deal of moral strength. Even though Kristína is drawn into a strange relationship with Julo Mitron (Pavol Mikulík) while she is married, it occurs only after years of coaxing and only after receiving a “magic” gift, a small meteorite that he has shaped into a heart, indicating something like true love. Moreover, he does not completely abandon his wife, Matilda (Jana Březinová). Indeed, the two women end up living together when their husbands die. As a result, Kristína does not come across as immoral. The only Slovak woman to be negatively represented is Hermína, Valent’s wife, who is the wealthy girl from the town. But even she is not represented in an unconditionally negative way. Her attempt late in the film to seduce Samko, who is also married, is an isolated incident that does not really fit with the rest of her portrayal. Earlier in the film, Valent chooses Hermína as his bride over his village love, Hanka Kolárová (Jana Riháková), during a scene of foreplay in which Hermína is ashamed of her nakedness and reveals that she has saved herself for him. In other words, Hermína has not been corrupted by her wealth or social status before her marriage. She, like every other Slovak woman in the film—and unlike some women outside the Slovak area of the Kingdom where the men migrate temporarily for work or education—gives herself only out of love. Jakubisko presents an idealized, but not empowered, vision of Slovak womanhood. Despite their invariable purity, Jakubisko’s Slovak women do not represent a moral center because, with the exception of Stázka (and the bee), they do not actually guide the men or call them to account. Yet they also never leave the village, tying family and the community even more closely together. The true life of Jakubisko’s Slovaks revolves in that binary orbit.

One of the compelling features of the film’s cinematography is the use of light often evident in the scenes that focus on women, specifically the many shots that are back-lit by an open window, silhouetting the image of the character(s) in front it. Like the film’s use of color distortion, this device is aesthetically effective in establishing the mise en scène, most noticeably in the scene that takes place between Matilda and Kristína after Julo’s death. The final shot of the film places a large, unshuttered window in the center of the frame, creating a very bright rectangle that acts as a second (dominant) frame, reducing or obscuring the details of the room because the camera is pointed directly at a light source. In this interior light-frame, the two women embrace as Matilda says “Now we are both alone,” which in the context of the scene also means: now we have only each other; now we are together; now, having both lost the (same) man that we loved, we are somehow linked in spirit. Because of the strong light from the window and the absence of any other significant details, the women appear as indistinct silhouettes that do not so much embrace as merge, becoming one shadowy body. As a result of Julo’s death, they are shadows of their former selves joined together by their tragedies. While other scenes using backlighting may have conveyed less thematic content, the creative use natural lighting make the supernatural effects and incidents appear less unnatural.

The film is shot and played in a fairly straightforward manner, making it appear that the strange incidents were also supposed to be elements of the natural world—special, but not unexpected. All of the supernatural incidents that occur in the village involve or are represented by light. Martin’s time in the whale is represented with colored lighting; the illumination at the ball and the meteors are created by lighting effects; and the various rains, including the rain of frogs (almost two decades before it recurred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, 1999) are represented by colored lighting as well as colored water or actual frogs.

Jakubisko’s mythologizing of the nature of Slovak society, its past and potential future, is the essence of the film. Until the final third of the film, the only representative of the “establishment,” a foreign entity by implication, is the lower nobleman Pál Belányi (Jiří Cisler), who attempts to present himself as Hungarian, even by Hungarianizing his name from the original Slovak Paľo Belan. The film portrays him as a buffoon and he has no role in the film other than providing comic relief until he precipitates the intrusion of the real Hungarian government into the village because of a personal slight. When the Hungarians arrive, they focus on the socialist movement, which had special significance as a quasi-nationalistic movement whose goal was to bring ethnic-national liberation. According to the film, there was no government in Slovakia, nor was one necessary. Small communities self-regulated through custom and kinship, and government was alien and foreign, imposed, and corrupting (in the case of Pál-Paľo) or dangerous: the police at a rally fire at their own citizens; the war, in which the characters have no interest and which results in the deaths of the village’s sons, is orchestrated by the “foreign” government against distant foes. The government’s interventions in the life of the village are always unnecessary and destructive. Even after the fire at the mill, when the village might have required the involvement of an external authority, the people of the village attend to it on their own. The film conveys the message that life would be better if the Hungarians left Slovakia to tend to itself.

This raises other issues concerning the representation of Slovakia in the film: its apparently rural nature and the place of the Social Democratic movement in society. Cities are marked as corrupting influences in A Thousand-Year Old Bee. Valent’s time in Prague merely exacerbates his corruption; his questionable morality and honor have already been laid bare in his betrayal of Hanka, his village lover. When he returns from his studies, his clothing and manners visually differentiate him from his family, and though he consults them before accepting Haderpán’s (Hugo Kaminský) offer of a partnership, Samko―the epitome of everything true and honest in this film―tells his brother Valent: “You’ve already made up your mind.” Wealth and a sophistic education distance Valent from the family and community, both socially and spatially—he moves to the nearby Slovak town. The film, however, suggests that there are no “truly” Slovak towns during this time; the only urban centers in the film are Prague and a large town to the south, which has a Hungarian majority. While historically Slovaks could travel from the countryside to Slovak towns like Prešov, Ružomberok, or Trnava to seek work or to attend school, Jakubisko portrays Slovakia as rural and, therefore, pure.

Excessive wealth or luxury are also marked as external to Slovak society and as corrupt or corrupted; no one in the village is actually wealthy. Although Valent and the Haderpán family live prosperously in a town quite near to the village, the bacchanalia in which the migrant bricklayers―the farmers’ winter jobs―briefly take part is located far from the village, in the Hungarian part of the Kingdom, emphasizing the need to travel far, to “foreign” areas in order to find work. If the village is at the heart of true Slovakia, then it contains everything one needs to live a happy and fulfilled life. Villager Hanka seems to be superior to town girl Hermína in beauty and morality, and Samko seems more satisfied with the flour produced by his work at the mill than Valent with his money earned, at least in part, by exploitation. Samko’s wealth is nourishing and useful to the community, while Valent’s wealth provides unnecessary luxuries that dissociate him from the land and the life of the people. Valent may own a car, but no one ever needs to use it; the family takes their picture with it, but the children do not clamor for a ride. Petrík, Samko’s son, cries when his father breaks the new watch his uncle Valent gave him, but his real appreciation of it is manifest in the skill and care he shows in repairing it. The watch is simply a thing for Valent to look at, but for Petrík it is something to work on. With the possible exception of the art academy, which is located far from the village, and Pittsburgh, where some villagers plan to emigrate, everything good and necessary is within the village.

Though the film does not represent any form of Slovak government during this period, it portrays the emergence of a socialist movement. The movement gains momentum throughout the film and reaches its apex at the end, when Samko, the “Bee,” finally puts his sting to use. The socialist movement is used both as a historical marker and a symbolic device. Historically, it works to reinforce the representation of the Slovaks as a self-sufficient and informally self-governing people. Socialism does not represent in the film an attempt to form an alternative government, but rather an attempt to carry the communal values of the village into the political realm in order to secure the village life. Jakubisko does not provide the movement with a local leader; indeed, different individuals will momentarily take the lead―for instance, blacksmith Ondrej Mitron (Andrej Rudnavský) in the episode involving a contract to sell horseshoes to the army that is broken by Pál-Paľo, or Samko at the end of the film when he decides to block war supplies (because his sons have been killed in the war) by blowing up a railroad tunnel. The villagers spontaneously adopt proto-Communism as a means of rebelling against the oppression of the Hungarians, securing their labor rights, and fighting against their forced involvement in an undesired war. Socialist sentiment seems just to rise up out of the workers and the village; it seems to be the key element calculated to find favor with the communist authorities.

The film ends with highly stylized and symbolic visions of a socialist battle against one of the aggressors of World War I, neatly reprising in an older Slovak historical context the common Soviet theme of communist heroism in WW II. A Thousand-Year Old Bee suggests that Slovakia, though part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wanted no part of World War I and, indeed, to some extent fought against it. The formation of the socialist movement has more to do with the metaphor of the bees than with any philosophical commitment. In tune with the socialist realist method, Jakubisko takes pains to portray Samko throughout the film as avowedly apolitical, only to have him embrace socialism (that is, communism) in the end. But the catalyst of his change is not a socialist epiphany but rather his sons’ death—once again, family and community are more important than politics. And so his act is not motivated by the spirit of socialism but by the spirit of the Slovak people, represented by the giant bee, which communicates with Samko throughout the film.

Kevin Brochet (University of Pittsburgh)

A Thousand-Year Old Bee (Tisícročná včela)
Slovakia (Czechoslovakia) 1983, 162 minutes, color
Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Screenwriters: Peter Jaroš (also story), Juraj Jakubisko, Jozef Pašteka
Cinematography: Stanislav Doršič
Music: Petr Hapka
Production designer: Miloš Kalina
Editing: Patrik Pašš, Judita Fatulová
Cast: Jozef Kroner, Michal Dočolomanský, Barbora Štepánková, Štefan Kvietik, Eva Jakoubková, Ivan Drozdy, Samuel Adamčík
Production: Koliba (Bratislava)

Juraj Jakubisko: A Thousand-Year Old Bee (Tisícročná včela) 1983

reviewed by Kevin Brochet © 2005

Updated: 21 Dec 05