Juraj Jánošík is often described as the Slovak Robin Hood, a seminary student who became the leader of a band of outlaw highwaymen, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor on the mountain passes of Central Europe in the early eighteenth century. Feared by the corrupt Hungarian aristocracy and revered by the serfs for whom he fought, Jánošík soon became a mythic figure, a legend in his own lifetime, until he was finally captured and hung in 1713. His legacy endures and he remains a symbol of resistance against oppression in a land that saw more than its fair share over the course of the twentieth century. So important a figure is Jánošík to the Slovaks that a society of wealthy émigrés meeting in Chicago in the early 1920s decided to bankroll a film documenting his exploits in a popular new medium. Forming the Tatra Film Corporation, this consortium of investors hired director Jaroslav Siakel, Czech star Theodor Pištěk, a skeleton crew and an otherwise non-professional cast and dispatched them to the Old Country for location shooting, using a novel by journalist Gustáv Maršall-Petrovský and a play by Jiří Mahen as the source material for Jozef Žák-Marušiak's screenplay. The team may have set off with only a half-completed script in their suitcases, forcing them to ad-lib the rest of the story, but their finished film gave Slovakia a place in the history books as only the tenth nation to make a full-length feature film, a major achievement for this small but redoubtable nation.
I was lucky enough to see Jánošík screened at the Barbican yesterday in partnership with London's Czech Centre, with live accompaniment from a quintet of native musicians on violin, piano, lute, guitar, harmonica, pipe and fujara, performing and singing an eccentric semi-improvised score. Although Siakeľ's film is really in rather bad nick, it retains a ramshackle charm and serves as an attractive record of the verdant splendour of the Slovak countryside, its picturesque villages and traditional costume. The film's rise-and-fall of a bandit narrative closely follows the universal folk template but it's no less exciting for that, with the director clearly taking inspiration from early Hollywood westerns in his depiction of hold-ups and horse chases through the forests. Jánošík ditches his priestly vestments and embarks on a life of crime to avenge his parents after his farm labourer father is beaten to death by the local land baron's henchmen as punishment for presuming to take a day off to tend to his dying wife, a tragic backstory that gives our hero a satisfying revenge motive and immediately wins our sympathy for his cause. The sinister appearance of the elegantly moustached Vladimír Šrámek as his nemesis, Count Šándor, all dandyish decadence and beady-eyed malevolence, is also a great pleasure to behold.