A classic romantic comedy of the lightly screwball variety, Kristián is one of the best-remembered and most beloved Czech films of its period. On the international scene, however, it´s largely unknown (I note that at the time of writing, it doesn´t have a single external review listed at IMDb.) Czech film from the end of the silent era through the 1960s New Wave is a relative black hole for most foreign audiences, which is a real shame, because films like Kristián demand to be seen and appreciated right alongside their Hollywood counterparts.
Kristián (Oldřich Nový) is a big-tipping aristocrat who shows up at the Oriental Bar once a month, seduces a woman by force with song, dance, and romantic fantasy, and then promptly vanishes. But Zuzana (Adina Mandlová), his most recent object of seduction, is left in a real tizzy; determined to resolve the fantasy, she sets out to find the mysterious Kristián.
At Kristián´s address, however, she finds frumpy housewife Marenka (Nataša Gollová), who claims to know nothing of the mysterious Don Juan; when Zuzana spots his picture, Marenka claims it´s her brother-in-law. Searching for the brother, Zuzana meets Alois Novák: a meek, bespectacled clerk at a travel agent´s office who bears a striking resemblance to Kristián. He continues the ruse, pretending to be Kristián´s brother, but he´s not fooling Zuzana; still, she lets him keep it up while turning his life upside down in order to teach him a lesson.
Written by Eduard Šimáček and Josef Gruss, from a French play by an uncredited Yvan Noé, Kristián´s screenplay bears many of the trademarks of the Hollywood screwball comedies by Howard Hawks, Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, and others, including the farcical situations surrounding a mistaken identity. It´s frequently very funny, though the pace here is decidedly slower, and there´s a greater focus on the romantic aspects of the story – particularly the Kristián fantasy and what it inspires in Zuzana.
There´s one other major difference between this film and Hollywood films from the same period: the cathartic resolution to the touching, heartfelt, and subtle romance between Kristián and Zuzana. The ending (and, indeed, the construction of the film that leads up to it) reveals fundamental cultural differences that place importance on contrasting aspects of society.
Kristián was directed by Martin Frič, one of the most prolific Czech directors from the 1930s until his death in 1968. He´s best known for his comedies, which included work with actors Hugo Haas, Vlasta Burian, and the famous comedy team of Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec. In Kristián, he lends a very precise and exacting touch; there are no wasted scenes or even words, and what happens feels destined and logical, even if the romantic in us wishes otherwise.
Also noteworthy: some beautiful original music by Sláva Eman Nováček, including the memorable song Jen pro ten dnešní den (see clip below). Popular bandleader R.A. Dvorský appears as the conductor and singer at the Oriental Bar.
Kristián was filmed in 1939, during the early days of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia; it was released on September 8, during the dawn of the Second World War. There´s precious little political commentary on overt display (though you could read plenty into the script´s resolution of the romantic fantasy), which is just fine; this is delightful escapism.
Off the screen, however, the war and its aftermath took its toll on the cast. Oldřich Nový, who was launched into stardom after his lead performance here, was persecuted by Nazis when he refused to divorce his Jewish wife; they were both imprisoned in a concentration camp as a result (their story was eerily echoed in 2009´s fictional Protektor.) Arrestingly beautiful co-star Adina Mandlová was immensely popular during the 1930s (she reportedly turned down the lead role in Gustav Machatý´s Extase, which Hedy Lamarr rode to stardom), but she was accused of Nazi collaboration and blacklisted due to starring in a German-produced 1943 film, and her career never recovered.
Image Quality: 5/10
The good: the transfer on Filmexport’s region-free PAL DVD is fine for the most part, free of digital noise or compression artifacts. The bad: the print used here is in pretty rough shape: the soft, washed-out picture is full of scratches, flecks, and missing frames (particularly around reel changes), and the crop appears to be too tight, cutting off some information from the top. Considering the age of the film, however, and barring a complete restoration, this is within the realm of expectation – though certainly not up to the standards of the well-preserved Hollywood films from the same era that we’ve seen hit DVD in recent years.
Sound Quality: 6/10
The audio track has some not infrequent scratches and hissing, but it only rarely becomes a distraction; dialogue, for the most part, is always clear (if low, compared to the soundtrack). What does distract are a couple instances of jarring shifts in quality and volume – audio from another print of the film appears to have been spliced in. Again, considering the age of the film, the sound quality is acceptable.
Subtitles are offered in English and Czech for the hearing impaired.
Bonus Features: 4/10
Slovo Historika (18:12, in Czech without subtitles) is a short interview with a film historian who discusses the background of Kristián.
A nice photo gallery (3:07) presents a quick selection of bronze-tinted photos set to music from the film.
Soudobá dokumentace (1:52) is a photo gallery documenting print articles and advertisements for the film.
Dokonalý gentleman (14:12, in Czech without subtitles) is a short feature on men’s fashion and how to dress with tailor Adam Steiner that has only passing relevance to Kristián.
Text-only content includes information about the cast and crew (in Czech), and distributors Filmexport Home Video and the National Film Archive (In Czech and also English), and other classic titles in their “Zlatý fond” (in Czech).
Also included: short advertisements for media partners CRo 1 Radiožurnál, Lidové noviny, and Seznam.cz.
Kristián is a must-see film of considerable historic value; it’s also held up wonderfully after 70 years, and remains pretty damn entertaining. I wish the print used here was in better condition, but considering the age of the film this DVD is perfectly acceptable.
Screenshots (click to view full resolution):