The White Dove


Czechoslovakia / 1960 / Czech, German & French

Directed by Frantisek Vlacil

With Karel Smyczek, Katerina Irmanovová, Vjaceslav Irmanov

Still from 'The White Dove'In a village at the edge of the Baltic Sea a German teenager named Suzanne awaits the arrival of a carrier pigeon addressed to her. She lives in a blanched and windswept place of old brick houses, where the sea is pierced by docks, causeways, and strange sand bars that the tide avoids. When the flock of pigeons comes in all the way from Belgium, the old men of the village rejoice with childlike glee, but Suzanne’s bird is absent, and she is left only to hope for its eventual appearance. She becomes fixated on it, waiting for it day and night, and unbeknownst to her it has become the object of someone else’s obsession, an artist named Martin who lives in an apartment building in far-off Prague. The bird, wounded and lost in a storm, has found itself at his window, bleeding inky rivulets across his lonesome field of vision.

Martin brings the bird downstairs to Míša, the invalid boy who shot it down with his pellet gun, and puts it in his care, without holding much hope for its survival. He wants the boy to understand violence, and to shoulder the weight of suffering for a brief but formative moment. Meanwhile bird images come to dominate his art – but the dove is always wounded in the pictures, its wings splayed in a very different position than if it were in flight. In contrast to Martin’s cynicism, the boy works towards the rehabilitation of his new pet, and even when his neighbor, out of pity, goes so far as to try to locate a replacement bird, Míša’s faith pays off and the tiny eyes of the dove blink back into awareness. In their apartment complex there is a long elevator shaft that goes to the ground floor’s lobby, and there comes a day when the bird can spiral down to the bottom and emerge in flight. Míša, in his wheelchair, slowly follows after it, careful not to let his reason for hopefulness escape him.

At the time the film was made Prague fell behind the Iron Curtain, but the minds of the populace had not yet undergone forcible controlling by Soviet cultural hegemony. Still, The White Dove is a vision dreamt by a divided Europe. It is about regaining a sort of communication that has been lost amid violence and sundering doctrines, and how the characters, despite having never met one another, are connected by what they’ve lost and what they wish for. Suzanne’s desire for that connection is known to her and to every fiber of her being although, stuck on the edge of the world, she does not yet realize she has found it. The artist and the lonely young boy, in contrast, are cloistered in the numbing confines of society, and have still to recognize their bereavement, as it is for a bond they did not know could exist. They feel the presence of their distant, unknowing pen pal but do not want to give up the dove.

Still from 'The White Dove'Martin, who creates art from urban wear and tear (lengths of wire for sculptures, shadows cast through his broken window pane for tracing), seems intent on capturing meaningful moments and representing them, in spite of their transitory discreteness, with the materials that are on hand. With he and Míša there is the classic friendship between a character alienated by self-imposed exile and one restricted by physical limitation. But is Míša actually handicapped? A flashback to his accident, falling from a high fence, and to the office of his unkind doctor suggests his immobility is psychosomatic. And so we wait to see whether that is indeed the case. Sapped of the weightlessness of childhood, he looks upon a soaring view of his city from behind the fence of Martin’s balcony, which calls to mind a rooftop pigeon coop.

And to them the fallen bird represents a link to that which is distant and liberated – shore, sea, and cosmos; aether. It has a different sort of meaning to Suzanne, and while she waits for it to come to her over land, she seems to spend much of her time staring out at the waves, perhaps hoping they will engulf her. In her mind the dove is unharmed, infallible, and as plain and blindingly white as fresh snow. A mischievous young man who once scoffed at her pining for the bird eventually helps her to nurse her undying preoccupation. And in the dream-like coastal town in which they live, where hope and illusion are very much alive (and unashamedly entwined), there is little for them to do but gaze outward. The urban world of Míša and his neighbor is a place where inspiration seems to have gone asleep, revived only by this voiceless arrow from the outside.

The panning shots of Prague’s skyline, a jumble of baroque bulbs and medieval roofs, are clouded gray and resemble Niepce’s 1820’s photographs of Paris, plus antennae. The city’s ghostly reminders of the past and numerous layers of palimpsest seem distant and unreal when viewed from the isolation of a modern high rise. Historicism is an inevitable reaction in light of Prague’s crystalline shapes seen here, appearing depopulated and bleakly dampened by a sort of martial hush. The stark modernism of Martin’s apartment, replete with Calder mobile and perched high above the oldness that surrounds it, gives a strong sense of precariousness, representing the unconscious balance that we humans, alone and uncertain, maintain as we cling to existence.

Still from 'The White Dove'What on paper seems like an undistinguished and nominally uplifting fable turns out to be a finely crafted miniature, splendid with echoing visual metaphors and painterly details. The contrasting palette of deep, smoky grays and bleach whites is echoed in the score, which alternates between sonorous orchestral motifs and shimmering, chiming electronic passages. In addition to the symmetry within the individual frame, there are visual cues joining the scenes in the two parallel locations of the film; ripples in glass prefigure the rolling waves of the seaside; the layered reflections of a cityscape in Martin’s window become warm glints of sunlight in a lagoon at low tide.

Director Vlacil’s method of rigorous pre-planning is evident throughout the film. Geometry, both intensely structural and giddily ephemeral, infuses its compositions. He and cinematographer Jan Curík make ample use of laminal compositions. Their frames will often incorporate bodies and their shadows, along with numerous points of focus on a single plane, not to mention the use of glass surfaces that carry both the image of the object behind them and an imposed layer of text or reflection, code or embodiment.

The avian theme, symbolizing liberation, goes back to Old Testament Noah and surely before, inspiring people by traversing that which they are unable or unwilling to themselves, and with ease and grace. But the homing pigeon carries a special significance for people of the 20th Century, passing over walls and political boundaries to deliver news from the free world, the just world (as it exists in the mind of the imprisoned), materializing from an idealized nothingness and baring the thread that leads back to our past of a unified humanity. There are so many things flying through the sky (bombs, satellites, helicopters, etc.) but the dove is somehow separate from these, untarnished and eternal.

Still from 'The White Dove'


2 Responses to “The White Dove”

  1. Mary Ann said

    Your bringing Noah in at the end was inspired.

    • chaiwalla said

      Thanks for the kind words, Mary Ann. Of course it may be a strong comparison to make, but that was one of the lasting thoughts with which I was left after viewing this lovely, graceful picture.

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