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 Zdeněk 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.
Zdeněk Liška was born in Smečno, 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!