There is no greater physical symbol of the Czech people than the Gothic cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague. Construction began in the tenth century, during the reign of the legendary Wenceslaus, with additions continuing for several hundred years. It was only finally completed the year that this film was released.
In The Organist at St. Vitus Cathedral, the church is shown as a glorious paean to a Christian god, with spires reaching upward to the heavens. In a magnificent collage of images of the cathedral, the bells swing back and forth like flowers in the breeze, tolling their inspirational sounds to the entire population of the city. But coexisting with these uplifting sights and sounds is a dark side.
Inseparable from the cathedral is the legendary figure of the benevolent ruler Wenceslaus, who ordered it to be built. Wenceslaus was murdered in a nefarious plot by his power-hungry younger brother, who was influenced by pagan religions. Wenceslaus became a Catholic martyr and was retroactively made king and declared a saint. His remains are buried in the rotunda, along with other Bohemian rulers, including four Holy Roman emperors.
Like the opera house in The Phantom of the Opera and the church in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, St. Vitus Cathedral is a magnificent building, but at the same time its nether spaces hide an evil history. In all three films a lowly figure becomes the victim of the curses of these buried secrets: the Phantom, Quasimodo, and the Organist.
The Organist is an elderly, unassuming man who goes about his longtime vocation: providing holy music at night. Most parishioners don’t even know who he is. One evening a mysterious figure, who turns out to be an old friend, comes to his shabby apartment nearby to ask him to deliver a letter and some money to his daughter, who is a nun in a convent. Before the Organist can talk him out of it, the man takes out a gun and shoots himself.
Afraid to bring the authorities into the situation because they might falsely implicate him in some wrongdoing, the Organist hides the man’s body in the cellar. But it’s too late: He has been observed by Josef, a neighborhood ne’er-do-well who threatens to expose him, but will keep quiet for a fee.
Meanwhile, the mystery man’s daughter, Klara, has decided to leave the monastery. “The call of life and liberty was too strong,” the intertitles tell us, and turns to the Organist for shelter. The Organist now has two problems: deal with Josef the blackmailer and try to make things up to Klara. Before anything can be resolved, he is struck by a partial paralysis that means he will never be able to play the organ again.
The Organist was only Frič’s second film as director, but he was able to collaborate with a number of Prague’s top professionals. In the 1920s, Frič had acted in the films of director-actor-producer Karel Lamač, known for his collaboration with comedy star Anny Ondra. The Organist’s interiors were shot at Lamač’s Kavalírka studio, and the story originated with Frič and the writer and actor Václav Wasserman, a member of Czech silent cinema’s so-called Strong Four that included Lamač, Ondra, and cameraman Otto Heller. The Organist’s scenario was written by poet Vítězslav Nezval, who, two years later, wrote Gustav Machatý’s From Saturday to Sunday. Nezval was a prominent member of the avant-garde scene in Prague and is credited with founding the Surrealist movement in Czechoslovakia.
Starring in the role of the Organist is the venerable Karel Hašler, who gives a virtuoso performance as a character humble to the point of being anonymous, someone whose music everyone can hear, but whom no one ever sees. At the same time, this self-effacing character displays an immovable strength that Hašler more than matched in real life. Primarily a songwriter, he ran afoul of authorities since the days of the Hapsburg Empire with his sardonic lyrics that criticized foreign rule of the country. During the Nazi occupation Hašler was arrested by the Gestapo for going around nightly to the pubs and leading patrons in his songs. He was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in September 1941 and killed before year’s end.
The year before he made The Organist director Frič married the actress and scenarist Suzanne Marwille, considered the Czech people’s first movie star. Frič cast her in the pivotal role of Klara. Marwille portrays the sudden transformation of a modest girl into a liberated woman who trades in her nun’s habit for a Lulu-inspired bob and short skirts. This magnetic beauty attracts the attention of Ivan, a well-heeled young painter who is immediately smitten. Playing Ivan is Oskar Marion, who became a well-known figure in Czech cinema, appearing in more than a hundred productions.
An obsessive worker, Frič went on to an impressive career. When he didn’t have a feature on his agenda, he was busy with documentaries, shorts, stage work, acting, directing, writing. “When I didn’t make a film for a few days,” he is quoted as saying, “I felt empty.” As a teenager he attended art school and soon found his first jobs in film as a poster designer, artist, lab assistant, camera assistant, bit player, writer, anything he could get. He also worked extensively in cabaret until he got his first serious movie break with an offer in 1928 to direct Father Vojtěch (Páter Vojtěch), which starred Karel Lamač and Marwille.
Working in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution, Frič became part of the swirling avant-garde of the 1920s, both artistically and politically. He associated with Surrealists and radicals and befriended André Breton. Ultimately, Frič became best known for dark comedy. He made film versions of classics of satire like The Good Soldier Schweik (1931) by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek and in 1933 Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. His wide-ranging background prepared him for anything. This is evident in the assured structure and timing of dramatic plot twists he brought to The Organist at St. Vitus Cathedral.
Frič was a survivor, too. Despite his radical credentials, he not only survived the Nazi occupation from the late 1930s till the end of World War II, he even managed to make two films in Hitler’s Germany! After Germany’s defeat, Frič fit into Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia more easily. He became a member of the Communist Party and continued to direct films, though he was always resented by Stalinist bureaucrats for his satirical bent. His films competed at Cannes and Venice into the 1960s.
One of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved directors he also became an elder statesman to younger artists. “When he arrived on the set, he never failed to greet everyone with a smile,” filmmaker Giovanna Roklová later said about him. “Technicians, lighting crew, sound engineers, costume designers and make-up artists. He was a wonderful person.”
In the end it was his self-destructive lifestyle that did him in. In 1968, a new era erupted with the Prague Spring uprising against Soviet domination and the Czech New Wave burst upon the world with filmmakers like Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Ivan Passer, Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec, and others. Now at age sixty-six, after a lifetime of smoking and excessive drinking, Frič was fighting terminal cancer. Doctors told him just one more drink could kill him.
“One day, when I don’t care about anything anymore, I’ll pour myself a real shot from that wonderful cognac,” Frič told Miloš Forman, who was visiting him and accidentally found a bottle in the cupboard. As the Soviet tanks rumbled across the Czech border headed for Prague, Frič decided he could no longer tolerate the pain and drank the entire thing. The doctors were right, he died soon after.
“Martin Frič’s contribution to Czech film is, in my opinion, still underrated,” his colleague Jaroslav Marvan, who appeared in more than thirty Frič movies, told film writer Mary Meixner in a 2012 interview. “Some say he was our greatest film professional, others despise him and claim he was only a craftsman. But this is a truth that nobody can change: Filmmaking needs artists who properly know the craft.”
Presented at SFSFF with live musical accompaniment by Maud Nelissen