Great points all round, especially on the water imagery, and on the dogs:
The religious order employ the hungry dogs to tear apart anyone who strays from the Teutonic code, which to me portrays the dogs as institutionalized religion's common tendency to take divine wrath into its own hands. Particularly interesting is Ondřej's father's offscreen demise. He makes an oath to God to commit his son to the work of the Virgin Mary, in other words, trying to influence divine will as he sees it. Even with his son "sacrificed" to the order, he still meets his end at the hand of his own hunting dogs, an event that suggests, IMO, there is no influence on God's judgement.
I’d only disagree slightly with the last bit: I think the point here is that there is no God and no divine judgement. When Armin is talking to Father Blasius, he says that it wouldn’t matter if humanity went extinct; the world would still be inhabited by ‘angels’. These angels must exist, he says rather desperately, otherwise we would live ‘in darkness, like dogs or wolves’. He also articulates his frustration with the life of the Order: why should only the virtuous starve and freeze to death in dark, cold cells, with only the prospect of death offering an escape from this ‘loneliness’, while sinners live like animals, ‘like ants’?
When Rotgier rejects the Order and harms one of its members, he is cast to the dogs to signify his choice of a godless existence, down in the dark amongst the wolves. When Ondřej’s father is killed by his own dogs, it is just after having his eye poked out by a branch and falling off his horse into a marsh; he too is deprived of light and suffers a descent, which I don’t think represents divine judgement so much as a cruel mockery of his attempts at aspirational faith.
Finally, think about what precipitates Armin’s death. He struggles with his loneliness and his doubts about the validity of his way of life. At the wedding feast, he finds himself among the bees and ants, looking at a woman, kissing her, feeling human warmth, a momentary escape from loneliness (but one that he cannot embrace, for reasons that are too complex for me to articulate, and that I think hold the key to understanding why Ondřej goes back to the Order at the end). The sand he brought back from his pilgrimage, which he had invested with such sacred meaning, is mistaken for sand from the beach near the Order’s castle, admired only for its sensuous qualities (its ‘fineness’), and casually poured away – cruelly underlining its essential earthliness and transience. When Armin kills Lenora, this also expresses his own death-wish. He hardly puts up a fight when Ondřej’s servants seize him, and then he is ‘cast down’ (like Rotgier and Ondřej’s father), this time into the courtyard. When presented with the cross, he says that he ‘cannot see’, I think because his faith is gone: he is in that low, dark, godless place he was so afraid of, among the wolves, and longs only for death; but weirdly, he still wants to save Ondřej’s faith in the process of his own self-imposed damnation (wrong word perhaps; ‘annihilation’ might be better).
The deer is also significant in this pattern of imagery. Ondřej mutters that this deer was ‘made for hunting dogs’, destined by nature to be hunted down and devoured. Then, as he hears the story of his father’s death, he remarks that his mother ‘never told him’ about it; the servant says this is unsurprising, as she ‘hates to think of it’. At this precise moment, the servant cuts the deer’s throat and drains its blood out, and Ondřej seems vaguely troubled by this sight. The moment foreshadows Lenora’s death: we see the blood gush from her throat when Armin cuts it, and I guess she is figured as innocent and vulnerable, like the deer. I’m not sure exactly what to make of all this, but there is clearly some association between Lenora’s horror at the thought of her husband’s death (and ‘the evil that went into the grave’, as she puts it), the killing and bleeding of the deer, and the death of Lenora herself. Note also that Lenora dies at the precise moment when we see her head and face released, for the first time, from the restrictive white bands that surround it. There’s a strong sense, in this film, that sensual liberation is as impossible as religious salvation. Perhaps institutionalised religion is the ‘villain’ here, preventing us from fulfilling our natural inclinations, but I think the point may be more subtle and elusive than that.
One other, associated, pattern of imagery that I thought was interesting: at the start of the film, we see Ondřej tending to the bees, and there’s a striking image of a bat nailed to one of the bees’ nests. Bats used to be nailed to doors to keep away evil spirits. I’m not an expert on this particular superstition, but I guess because they’re creatures of darkness, this gave them demonic associations. The contrast between bats and bees works alongside the contrasts between bees (or ants) and dogs, and between sea water and spring water, darkness and light, Armin scaring the valley’s vaguely heathenish inhabitants, the storm scaring the bees, etc. There’s a recurring motif of emerging out of a dark room into blinding light throughout the film, and a lot of interesting play with the competing sounds of bees and ocean waves on the soundtrack, at significant moments.
Young Ondřej presents his stepmother with a basket of bats, buried under a heap of blossoms, and this is another iteration of the same kind of contrast: blossoms, associated with light, are placed on top; buried underneath them are bats, associated with dark, demonic forces. It’s as if Ondřej sees his stepmother as a demonic force (significant, of course, that she seems roughly his age, and that there seems to be some kind of erotic charge in their initial exchange of glances) and is trying to dispel her by tricking her into touching the bats. He expects his father to be pleased with him for exposing and exorcising this demon who has come into their midst, ruining the purity of their family. The father reacts by trying to kill Ondřej, but then reaches out to the Order for salvation.
At the end of the film, Ondřej takes up his father’s role in marrying Lenora, Armin takes up Ondřej’s role by arriving at the wedding feast in order to disrupt it (this
blog post underlines the point by observing the visual rhyme between Ondřej’s appearance in the doorway at the start of the film and Armin’s appearance in the same doorway at the end), Armin tries in some sense to exorcise the demon of the woman who stirs his erotic desires and, like Ondřej, believes that he is acting in the best interests of the woman’s husband (here Armin’s surrogate brother, or perhaps son, rather than his father). Ondřej responds by actually killing Armin, but then, like his father, reaches out to the Order for salvation – that seems to reductive a phrase to explain why he goes back to the Order at the end, but there’s clearly a significant echo here. I also noticed that Ondřej’s fear of Armin’s arrival at his home often flares up when someone refers to his father. Ondřej is a convincingly screwed up character, unable to disentangle the associations between these different forces in his life (father, brother, stepmother, wife), or the neuroses that his traumatic upbringing has inflicted on him.
So much more to say about this film... Two years ago, when we discussed Marketa Lazarová
, I got so caught up in its intricate, complex imagery and symbolism that I became a bit obsessed with it. I kept re-watching it compulsively, tried to do a shot-by-shot analysis, and ended up with about 10,000 words of rambling notes on the first hour or so of the film. I had to give up for the sake of my own sanity. I feel like I’m now slipping into that with The Valley of the Bees
. Like The White Dove
as well, the film just keeps getting richer every time I see it. As well as being stimulating on a cerebral level, these films are also just so beautiful; I hesitate to use the word ‘perfect’, but it does seem to apply here. They beg for close analysis, but it’s frustrating trying to boil my reactions down into a coherent interpretation. These films evoke and suggest so many different ideas and emotions at once. It’s really incredible. I wish more of Vláčil’s work would be made available in English-friendly editions.