Malá Morská Víla (The Little Mermaid) – Zdenek Liska
Liška conveys an abundance of moods with his melodic orchestrations and pulsing oceanic sound effects.
Published on February 20, 2012 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film

Czech filmmaker Karel Kachnya’s 1976 Malá Morská Víla (The Little Mermaid) is a unique take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Disregard any preconceived notion that this is a schmaltzy Disney-esque film though; it is a tragic tale of identity, doomed love and self sacrifice. The startlingly realised underwater kingdom in which most of the story unravels was actually filmed in a lime quarry, with moody lightning, camera trickery, striking costumes and the actors’ movements combining to create the submerged underwater feel. Most of the film takes place in this effectively conveyed undersea space as the little mermaid (Miroslava Safránková) becomes more inquisitive about the world above the waves. Eerie blue lighting, dark caverns that drip fire, icy-white statues of marine maidens with billowing sea-webs for hair and haunting cemeteries full of dead sailors, are but some of the unearthly beautiful images that swirl throughout the film.

Malá Morská Víla’s compelling chilliness is richly enhanced by Zden?k Liška’s evocative score, which combines beautiful orchestral pieces with atmospheric sound effects and electronic washes to create a sub-aquatic, melancholic mood. From the serene calm of the ocean floor, to the crashing waves above, Liška conveys an abundance of moods with his ever-ebbing and flowing amalgamations of melodic orchestrations, choral pieces, strange percussive arrangements, song, and pulsing oceanic sound effects.

Zden?k Liška was born in Sme?no, a small town outside Prague, in 1922. He came from a musical family, both his grandfather and father played in a brass band, and he attended the Prague Conservatory during the war before composing music for documentaries and short films in the late Forties. Liška employed an experimental approach to his work, and often incorporated aspects of electronica into his orchestral compositions. Interestingly, according to Petr Ruttner’s 2000 documentary on the composer, Liška was also the first film composer to use the human voice as an instrument, and an integral part of instrumental music. He usually worked with filmmakers such as Jan Švankmajer, who was so fond of Liška’s work that when the composer passed away in 1983, Švankmajer vowed to only use classical music, if any, in his films from then on.

Malá Morská Víla’s soundtrack boasts tracks that combine the use of orchestral harmonies with electronic effects, notably The Pendant, which begins as a throbbing soundscape before melting into a tender chamber piece with flutes, harpsichords and a touch of Morricone inspired melancholia, and Pearls From The Deep; a gentle flute-led piece with quirky percussive accompaniment that gradually dissolves into clacking and menacing throbs. There are several overtly electronic pieces such as Witches Firewall and Statue of Salt 1 & 2, which exhibit a more sinister mood complete with echoic sound effects and cascades of pulsating, sonorous foreboding. Elsewhere several songs feature the alluring vocals of Lenka Korínková: Aquatic Babicka (soft string arrangements and harpsichord), The Song of the Siren (wordless chorals complete with gentle hand claps) and King of the Ocean (boasting faint whale song, woodwind, brass and sparkling glockenspiels) are akin to folk songs rippling up through ethereal blue depths. The whole soundtrack is saturated in a dreamy haze, and even the more jovial pieces have a dark edge to them, constantly reminding us of the tragedy that lies ahead. Once the story moves above the waves, the music becomes livelier, particularly tracks such as Games/Echoes, which creates a striking contrast with the pieces that accompany the placid dreaminess of the underwater scenes.

The soundtrack was re-mastered from the original master-tapes with the full consent of the Barrandov film studios in Prague, and released last year by the London-based Finders Keepers Records. The label has already released Czech soundtracks such as Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders and Daisies, but they described Liška’s score for Malá Morská Víla as “one of the most idiosyncratic and haunting undiscovered scores in the annals of European cinematic history.” Sadly, the film itself does not appear to be readily available with English subtitles. I can recall watching a dubbed version that my mother taped when it was shown on TV in the early Eighties (I was around five or six), and being quite affected by its sea-blue otherworldliness and tragic denouement.

Malá Morská Víla was made during the midst of the Czechoslovakian New Wave movement, a period marked by Soviet domination of the country. In 1968, and under the Warsaw Pact, Soviet authorities attempted to eradicate increasing anti-communist activism. This extended to cinema, as film studios were placed under new management and censorship was strictly enforced. As international films were restricted, particularly “bourgeois” Western cinema such as that from America, the New Wave filmmakers of the Sixties and Seventies became deeply influenced by Czech literature and sought to portray the mundane reality of everyday people. Grounding their work in indigenous literature was their way of retaining national identity despite the blitzkrieg of Russification. Certain directors chose to adapt fairytales, often using them as subversive metaphors for the oppressive society they were living in, to get their films past militant censors. While Malá Morská Víla doesn’t exhibit as blatantly obvious political metaphors as the likes of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, it is still worth noting the socio-political backdrop of the time it was produced, and its themes concerning identity that are both poignant and pointed. That the mermaid loses her voice and is condemned to silence was also a plight felt by the Czech people of this period.

One of my favourite tracks from the album, and perhaps the best one to include here, is Sunken Dagger/The Little Mermaid, as it best represents the soundtrack as a whole. It features various recurring motifs from throughout the score, and combines ambient electronic moments, lush orchestral movements and haunting vocals by Lenka Korínková. Enjoy.

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey

  • Maren

    This world seems to be suspiciosly small…
    Thanks for turning our attention to Mala Morska Vila ,its beautiful haunting score and its composer. Although the little mermaid (1976) isn´t readily available on DVD you´ll be surprised by the results of a simple google videos search…
    Its made in 1976 not in the midst of Czech New Wave but years after its peak. By then fairy-tale films were a popular, respected genre with a long tradition – including(striking similiarities to other times and countries) a tradtition of harbouring artists fleeing presecution. A good introduction: http://www.greencine.com primers: czech and slovak cinema
    Karel Kachyna made lots of remarkable films incl.Noc Nevesty and Kocar to Vidne(1966) , an allegorical story set in the last days of WWII .Recommended.

    • James

      Thanks so much for your comment Maren. And the link! Apologies for the misinformation on my part. I double checked, and you’re absolutely right – the Czech New Wave occurred throughout the Sixties. I think somewhere along the way I thought it continued into the Seventies and beyond, as the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia only ended in 1990, and the movement seemed to have occurred as a direct reaction to the censorship of the regime. I think its influence and intention still echoes throughout films such as Malá Morská Víla.

      I watched Malá Morská Víla on YouTube when I was writing this, though I couldn’t find a version with subtitles. Thankfully the dialogue is quite sparse – it’s a film that uses images and sound to tell the story. It’s amazing how much of the imagery I remembered from watching it as a kid! It certainly left an impression.

      I will try to check out some more of Kachyna’s work – this film (and the work of Švankmajer) turned me on to Liška. I recommend Petr Ruttner’s documentary for anyone curious to find out more about his life and music. http://tiny.cc/gpq3u

      • Maren

        Thanks a lot for the link I´ll check this out. but the version you were watching (filmgoria) does contain english subtitles. The cc button (closed captions)has to be used.

        • James

          Thanks for the that, Maren! The version I watched was in separate installments though, and the subtitles only ran a little way through the first one. I’ll definitely check out the filmgoria one though – thanks so much! 🙂

  • gelmi

    James, there is already a version with english subtitles on youtube, enjoy! http://youtu.be/U7oXVdkl-SY

  • Stefan Bogers

    One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen…. I remember watching this as a child, and I cried the whole day because I couldn’t understand why she had to die in the end… Miroslava Safrankova is so beautiful in this film, and the soundtrack is one of the best ever…. indeed there is an English subtitled version of the film on youtube… 🙂

    • James

      Thanks for the heads up about the English subtitled version on Youtube. I’ll look forward to watching it, but still hope it will find a release on DVD here. It’s a beautiful film, and it has remained in my head since watching it as a child. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave comments. 🙂