Siren of the Danube

One of the most important Czech films to emerge during the Czech New Wave of the 1960s was The Shop on Main Street (Czech title: Obchod na Korze, 1965), which was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1966 and snagged a Best Actress nomination for Ida Kaminska the following year. The important thing to note is that The Shop on Main Street was not really a part of the Czech New Wave. The film’s directors, Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, were more than a generation older than the young upstarts of that movement that included Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde), Ivan Passer (Intimate Lighting) and Jan Nemec (Diamonds of the Night), among others. And even though The Shop on Main Street made Kadar and Klos internationally famous, their other films are not as well known to most American filmgoers. That is a shame because their final collaboration, Adrift (1971), is one of their most fascinating features but the troubled production behind it is possibly one of the reasons it is almost unknown today.

The Czech film poster for the 1944 version of ADRIFT, directed by Gusztay Olah and Lajos Zilahy, author of the original novel.

Based on the 1928 novel Something is Drifting on the Water by Hungarian writer Lajos Zilahy, Adrift marked the third film adaptation of this popular work of fiction. Zilahy himself co-directed the first version with Gusztav Olah under the title Valamit visz a viz in 1944 and, four years later, another movie based on the novel was made in Mexico by director Alfred B. Crevenna entitled Algo Flota Sobre el Agua. While the motivations of the main characters and the unfolding of events in the narrative may have been completely straightforward in the two earlier films, Kadar and Klos took a much more ambiguous and dreamlike approach to Zilahy’s work and turned it into a compelling study of a man at war with himself.

An alternate poster for the 1971 Czech film ADRIFT starring Rade Markovic (pictured).

Janos (Rade Markovic) is a fisherman, who lives with his wife Zuzka (Milena Dravic), his son Petr (Janko Boldis) and father-in-law in a small rural hamlet on the banks of the Danube River. One day a young woman named Anada (Paula Pritchett) throws herself in the river and Janos volunteers to search for her but has no luck. Instead her body washes up on a nearby beach and she is taken into Janos’s home where she is nursed back to health by Zuzka. Almost from the beginning Janos has a bad feeling about this and his emotions become more conflicted when his wife wants Anada to stay on with them and help with the chores.

Zuzka (Milena Dravic, right) tries the mirror breath test on the unconscious Anada (Paula Pritchett) to determine if she is still alive while Janos (Rade Markovic) waits in the background in ADRIFT (1971).

Who is this woman and where did she come from? Why did she throw herself into the river? Anada reveals very little about herself but Janos is also hesitant to grill her about the past because he feels the less he knows, the better. Much more unsettling is Anada’s stunning beauty, which is noticed by all, especially Janos, who can’t help but measure her against his unglamorous but kind-hearted peasant wife. He even begins to suspect that every man in the village is lusting after Anada including his son, father in law and Kristof (Ivan Darvas), a wealthy local who drives a flashy car. His growing attraction to Anada causes him to panic and he connives a way to make her leave before he loses control and destroys the life he has built with his family.

Janos (Rade Markovic) thinks Anada (Paula Pritchett) is making eyes at a villager when they attend a town fair in ADRIFT (1971), a Czech film by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos.

The structure of Adrift is particularly unconventional and inventive with time shifting between the past and present without warning. The film also comes full circle at the end with an opening and closing scene which mirror each other except for the final shot which might be considered baffling if you haven’t been noticing the little details along the way.

An arty Eastern European poster for the 1971 film ADRIFT.

When Adrift opens, Anada has gone missing, Petr has run away from home and Zuzka has taken to her bed with a deadly case of Typhus. Janos is found unconscious on the river bank by three friends, who warm him by the fire and question him about what happened. Their incessant interrogation is interspersed throughout the film along with Janos’s interior monologue that lets us know exactly what he is thinking, even when others have no idea of his mental state. And if there is one defining characteristic of Janos’s personality, it is an anxious uncertainty about everything he thought he knew and felt.

Three village fishermen question Janos about the incidents surrounding the missing Anada in the 1971 Czech film ADRIFT.

This is where Adrift becomes trickier and more elliptical than Zilahy’s original novel and the two earlier film versions. Janos is an unreliable narrator. He can’t be sure of what really happened from his memory and neither can we. Reality is mixed occasionally with fantasy versions of the past and some hallucinations. We can’t even be sure if the three inquiring friends are real or figments of his own fragmented personality. In some ways, these three bickering men serve as a kind of Greek chorus, much like the three men in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) who tell the story through flashbacks. The difference is that Janos is the sole witness to all of the events discussed and can’t be sure what is the truth, even when these men seem to know the answers. It all builds to a hallucinatory finish with Janos in a state of paranoia. The film would make a great double feature with Luis Bunuel’s El aka This Strange Passion (1953), in which a married man becomes so fixated on his wife that he begins to suspect her of infidelity even though she is completely innocent.

Czech director Jan Kadar.

Adrift was originally intended to be the next feature that followed Kadar and Klos’s The Shop on Main Street and filming began in July 1968. Unfortunately, production on the movie was shut down in August when the Soviet Union invaded the country and began constructing a military bridge at the site of filming on the banks of the Danube, not far from the town of Bratislava.

The Italian poster for the 1971 Czech fantasy-drama ADRIFT.

Kadar fled to the United States where he directed his first English language film in 1970, The Angel Levine with Harry Belafonte in the title role and co-starring Zero Mostel, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson and Ida Kaminska, the star of The Shop on Main Street. Sometime in 1969, Kadar was allowed to return to Czechoslovakia to finish Adrift and was lucky enough to re-assemble his original cast to complete the movie. When Adrift opened in Kadar’s homeland in 1970, it was allegedly a huge success but the film was soon pulled from theaters after the authorities decided that Kadar’s status as a defector made the film unacceptable for audiences.

Anada (Paula Pritchett) gives Janos a look that he can’t decipher in ADRIFT (1971), a Czech fantasy-drama.

Adrift came at the tail end of the Czech New Wave and it is still potent today, thanks to an excellent ensemble cast and the eccentric music score of Zdenek Liska (Icarus XB 1, Marketa Lazarova), which can veer from carnival-like merriment to the spiritual sounds of a heavenly all-female chorus. The luminous cinematography of Vladimir Novotny also grounds the film in a specific physical reality – a rustic cabin on the edge of a river with the surrounding woods, marshes and waterways providing a pastoral landscape.

An alternative Eastern European poster for the 1971 Czech film ADRIFT.

Rade Markovic as Janos is never less than remarkable in a complex role that requires him to express and suppress emotions, often at the same time. A perfect example of this is a scene toward the end when Janos realizes “what matters is not to live long but to live as long as one is happy” while preparing to kill his wife with an overdose of her Typhus medicine so he can run away with Anada. (This never happens and is more of a passing fancy in Janos’s conflicted mental state).

Zuzka (Milena Dravic) lies sick in bed with Typhus while her husband Janos prepares her medicine in ADRIFT (1971), directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos.

Markovic was a major Yugoslav and Serbian theater star after WW2 and ended up with over 150 film and TV credits including award-winning roles in Yojislav Nanovic’s Solaja (1955), Joze Gale’s Tudja Zemlja (1957), the war drama Radopolje (1963), and Vulo Radev’s The Peach Thief (1964). Cult film fanatics might recognize him from the 1963 film Operation Titian, which was later plundered and reused in sections by producer Roger Corman for the films Blood Bath (1966), Track of the Vampire (1966) and Portrait in Terror (1968).

Rade Markovic (center) stars in an 1963 espionage thriller from Yugoslavia entitled Operation Titian that was later pillaged by producer Roger Corman for scenes in other low-budget films in the U.S.

In the role of Zuzka, Milena Dravic should be familiar to fans of Eastern European cinema, especially the work of Dusan Makavejev (Man is Not a Bird [1965], WR: Mysteries of the Organism [1971]), Veljko Bulajic’s The Battle of Neretva, 1969) and Poseban Tretman (1980), a comedy-drama about the compulsory treatment of alcoholics, which won Dravic the Best Supporting Actress award at Cannes (she shared it with Carla Gravina for Ettore Scola’s La Terrazza).

Milena Dravic is prominently featured in Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), released the same year as ADRIFT.

As for the enigmatic role of Anada, American model Paula Pritchett is ideal in a role that requires the actress to be both a seductive physical presence (including a full frontal nude bathing scene) as well as a woman of mystery. Of course, the bigger question is – does Anada even exist or is she a manifestation of Janos’s desires? (The Czech title translates as A Desire Called Anada). There are times in the narrative when Janos believes she is evil and even contemplates killing her but Kadar and Klos maintain an air of mystery around Anada to the very end. In the novel, she was very much a real character who comes to realize that her presence among the Janos household is having a destructive effect so she attempts to drown herself but a miracle occurs, culminating in a happy ending.

A publicity photo of American model Paula Pritchett on the set of ADRIFT (1971) in Czechoslovakia.

Pritchett had appeared in one previous film, Conrad Rook’s experimental semi-autobiographical drama Chappaqua (1966), but was mainly known as a top fashion model of the mid-sixties, having appeared on the covers of Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines (She also posed for Playboy magazine). Pritchett made one final film in 1972, playing a mute Native American woman in Ralph Nelson’s western, The Wrath of God, with Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth. It is interesting to note that Pritchett’s voice in Adrift is dubbed (Kadar supposedly had her say her lines phonetically in Czech so they would be easier to dub).

After Adrift, Kadar and Klos went their separate ways with Kadar electing to resume his career in the U.S. and Canada. Although he only completed one final feature, Lies My Father Told Me (1975), a critically well received coming of age drama that received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay (by Ted Allan), he did make a few made-for-TV movies with Freedom Road (1979) starring Muhammad Ali and Kris Kristofferson his final screen credit. Klos, on the other hand, retired from filmmaking after his 17-year partnership with Kadar. He did return to collaborate on a science fiction film with Syrian director Moris Issa in 1989 entitled Bizon but he mainly spent his later years as a film scholar and lecturer at the Prague Academy of Arts and Music film school FAMU.

Upon the release of Adrift in the U.S. in 1971, critics were divided on the film, with several singing its praises, while others derided it as pretentious and deliberately inscrutable. Film critic Judith Crist wrote “the success of this new work stems from [Kadár’s] return to his roots and the particular people and places that he can translate so touchingly into universal terms. . . .We are indeed set adrift in a film so rich with personal feeling that our private experience must formulate the response. And this is an exciting experience.” Arthur Knight of Saturday Review also admired it, calling the film, “Hauntingly beautiful, thematically tantalizing—Kadár’s artful mingling of the past, present, and future is intriguing, and his small cast performs to perfection.”

A short but key scene toward the beginning of ADRIFT (1971) that may help explain the bizarre events that follow in this Czech film starring Paula Pritchett and Rade Markovic.

Among the negative opinions were Roger Ebert who felt that Kadar and Klos’s direction of Adrift was unnecessarily arty and “there is no philosophical lesson to be learned” while Charles Champlin of The Los Angeles Times stated, the movie “gathers together almost all the things which people who don’t like foreign films don’t like about foreign films. ADRIFT is very nearly uninterruptedly lugubrious.”

Janos (Rade Markovic) isn’t sure if he is dreaming or if the above seduction is really happening in ADRIFT (1971) from Czech directors Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos.

I tend to favor what Alan Heppel, a critic for the Harvard Crimson, wrote about it: “Kadár resolves none of the dilemmas that his movie raises; he merely suggests the universality and complexity of its problems. Uncertainty is at the film’s center. Yanos questions himself so completely that he becomes unsure of the existence of the girl. In an age of doubt the threat of losing one’s moorings is implicit in every variation of routine. Adrift is a magnificently crafted and disturbing reminder of every man’s tenuous hold on the secure and the controllable.”

There was a time when you could view an English subtitled version of Adrift on Youtube but the film seems to have gone missing at this point. It has never received a domestic release on any format in this country and needs the restoration rescue efforts of someone like Martin Scorsese and The Film Foundation.

Other links of interest:


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