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Jakubisko film puts Báthory legend in a different light

HISTORY'S judgment of Elizabeth Báthory appeared unanimous - until now.
According to legend, as well as several bestsellers, the 16th century Hungarian noblewoman who ruled over a vast kingdom from her castle above the village of Čachtice in present-day Slovakia became so obsessed with attaining eternal youth, she slaughtered more than 600 young girls to bathe in their blood.
But in Bathory, the new film that has its world premiere in Slovakia on September 27, Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko looks behind the myths and suggests the "Bloody Countess" was actually a victim of a smear campaign rooted in political and ethnic strife.

Anna Friel stars as Elizabeth Báthory.
photo: Jakubisko Film

HISTORY'S judgment of Elizabeth Báthory appeared unanimous - until now.

According to legend, as well as several bestsellers, the 16th century Hungarian noblewoman who ruled over a vast kingdom from her castle above the village of Čachtice in present-day Slovakia became so obsessed with attaining eternal youth, she slaughtered more than 600 young girls to bathe in their blood.

But in Bathory, the new film that has its world premiere in Slovakia on September 27, Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko looks behind the myths and suggests the "Bloody Countess" was actually a victim of a smear campaign rooted in political and ethnic strife.

The film, which is the 69-year-old director's first in English, had a €11.5-million budget, making it the most expensive Central European movie ever made. Since wrapping in 2006, it has created buzz with showings at film festivals in Los Angeles and Berlin.

"In today's digital age, fewer European feature film projects embrace major international stories on such a grand scale," Mike Downey, a co-producer from the UK-based Film and Music Entertainment production company, said about the film for Variety. "Juraj Jakubisko is a master of cinematic style, and we invested in his vision because it is a film of ambition, scope and scale destined for worldwide theatrical release."

Jakubisko began the film's long evolution by writing the screenplay, which was translated into English before being sent to screenwriter John Paul Chapple, whose credits include Guy X (2005), starring Jason Biggs.

"The version of the script I received was immensely long, around 200 pages," Chapple told The Slovak Spectator. "I worked on shaping it more to western standards, which meant cutting down the amount of description and remodeling the dialogue from a literary style into lines that were more speakable and actable. Jakubisko's translators helped me the whole time to make sure I kept faithful to the original intent."

And while admitting Báthory is guilty of some of crimes she's been accused of, Jakubisko believes portraying her in the context of her era will show much of what is known about her was exaggerated.

"There are so many legends about her which just aren't true," Jakubisko told Czech Radio in May. "The idea that she bathed in the blood of young girls to retain her eternal youth for example. You can't bathe in blood because blood clots. And even historians are divided about her legacy because for the older generation, Elizabeth Báthory was this Hungarian countess who murdered Slovak girls. But for me - and this is so important - she was first and foremost a woman. You can find all sorts of Freudian explanations for what she did."

Playing Báthory is 31-year-old British actress Anna Friel, a relative newcomer who was better known in England as a soap opera actress.

"I've seen a director's cut of the film and can tell you Anna is brilliant in it," Chapple said. "Her acting and Jakubisko's cinematography make the experience visually stunning."

When discussing the film, Friel agrees with Jakubisko that many of the myths were most likely created to force Báthory from power.

"We think she is very misjudged and she wasn't guilty of all the crimes attributed to her," Friel told the Cineuropa website. "There is a lot of folklore and Báthory is a strong, warrior-like heroine who has a duty to her marriage and her country, which stretched from the borders of Moravia all the way to the Adriatic Sea, and she basically had to do it single-handedly."

Alongside Friel are a number of actors Slovak audiences will recognize, such as Karel Roden, who plays György Thurzó, the count who captured Báthory following news that she had been taking girls from Čachtice and its surroundings; Bolek Polívka, who plays a priest; and Lucie Vondráčková, a longtime collaborator with Jakubisko, who plays a servant girl.

"If Báthory combines critical and commercial success it could well change the profile of Slovak film by making it known internationally," Peter Hames, an expert on Central European film and author of The Czechoslovak New Wave, told The Slovak Spectator. "For the same reasons, it would be likley to encourage other large budget films in the English language, since success is always followed by imitation."

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