Last Saturday night we let the children watch a newish Czech fairytale on television. The eight o’clock start time ran well past their bedtime, even for the weekend. Unlike most movie nights, when we’re watching a favorite DVD, no one, except Radek, knew the plot line. Apart from watching a few of the most famous Czech fairytales over the holidays and catching an occasional early morning weekend cartoon, most of our family’s television-watching centers around English language DVDs we’ve brought back or been given by family in the US. The children do watch Czech movies on weekends at babička‘s, however.
To make our TV movie night extra-special, I popped a bag of microwave popcorn. Admittedly, I was at a disadvantage comprehension-wise, since only the baby understands less Czech than I do, and he was already in bed. Once I heard the movie’s title, I figured the plot couldn’t be hard to unravel. Called Čertová Nevěsta (The Devil’s Bride) (2011), the movie was based on a fairytale by the famous 19th century Czech author Božena Němcová. Even as the opening credits rolled, there were hints of the ethereal: a haunted bog, dancing spirits, a devil clumsily hiding amongst trees and an ancient witch doctor. The action opened promisingly with a traditional hunt scene, lovely period costumes and children scampering about the castle grounds. Yet soon, the story took a darker turn when the young newly-wed queen was approached by an unknown figure who offered to make her a deal she couldn’t refuse. When the unknown figure, dressed a bit like a fancy Czech woodsmen, revealed his true devilish identity (black-painted face, horns and twitching tail), the rest of the movie unfolded with fiendish action and devilish tricks that might have been suspenseful, if you hadn’t already seen one of the numerous existing Czech films starring the devil Lucifer and his sidekicks.
It’s hard to escape the devil in Czech culture, from his yearly appearance on 5 December, flanked by St. Nicholas and an angel, to his well-established role in the Czech fairytale tradition and his appearance in modern Czech theater productions. He even popped up in the production of The Nutcracker Anna and I had attended. The devil is undeniably a character near, and I dare say, dear, to most Czech hearts. Devilish expressions abound in popular curses, and even the smallest Czech child recognizes the familiar figure of evil with a mixture of fear and good-natured skepticism. Drawing back to the country’s Slavic pagan roots, devils, demons and evil spirits have always been integral figures in the nation’s folklore and belief system.
Although the tail-twitching, chain-rattling figure who dishes out coal, waggles his tongue and threatens to cart misbehaving children off to hell in his trademark sack is viewed by most Czech parents as humorous and benign, I’ve spoken with other non-Czechs who were just as shocked as I (at least that first year) to find their young child had been paid a visit by the devil at the preschool’s Christmas party. I remember watching groups of teenagers parading through Prague’s streets, the feistiest character always being a devil. Even though it seemed the devil played his role partly in jest, I knew several parents who opted not to send their children to preschool because their child was frightened he could end up in the devil’s sack. Quite rightly so, as one year, Anna came from school wide-eyed, telling us that her friend Matěj really had been placed in the devil’s sack.
The modern Czech interpretation of The Nutcracker that we recently saw seemed to be a cross between Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and the traditional Tchaikovsky Nutcracker, with a the devil character in a star role battling for a scrooge-like character’s soul. Even Anna Lee’s dance recital Cestou gave stage time to a battle between the devils and the angels, in a semi-humorous, sarcastic, yet chilling portrayal of the conflicted mind of a modern-day teenager contemplating ending her life. Watching the performance, I wondered how much of it Anna Lee and her contemporaries understood. On the surface, the devil characters were lively, brightly-dressed dancers whipping their pointed tails back and forth, and the battle scene looked like a physical education class. The plot seemed to go over her head but several parents agreed with me that the dark undertones hadn’t been what they’d expected from a Christmas performance.
After we finished watching The Devil’s Bride, I hinted to Radek that I thought the devil’s appearance in Czech films and theater was a little over-the-top. He argued emphatically that the devil belongs to Czech fairytales, and his presence there is essential, if predictable. While I agree for the most part that modern fairytales such as the humorous S Čerty Nejsou Žerty (There’s No Joking with Devils) depict the Czech perception of the devil to perfection, I don’t believe the devil always needs to be center-stage.
I grew up in a culture where the devil had deeper roots in religion and the term “devil” was most likely to be heard spoken by the preacher in a Sunday morning sermon. The devil was never a bumbling character with an undeniable physical presence that, though fearsome, was also laughable in its grotesqueness. Instead, testimonies attested to the devil’s evil presence in our lives, but his physical character was never mentioned, at least not in terms like in Czech culture. I’ll never forget attending a church camp as a preteen one summer and hearing a rumor that several teenagers had become possessed by evil spirits during a mountain top campout.
Another pagan ritual dealing with evil spirits and demons will soon be reenacted across the country as Czechs create scarecrow-witch dolls that they toss into a rushing river to bid Old Winter farewell. On 30 April, witches are burned in effigy on tall pyramids while children dressed in witch costumes watch on. During ancient times, this date was believed to mark the beginning of spring. Bonfires were lit to dispel evil spirits and to welcome spring. Nowadays, it’s a good excuse for a celebration with roasted sausages, beer and plenty of revelry.
I’ll give the devil his due though. In the Czech Republic, the devil has carved a nice niche for himself, with his waggling tongue and pointed tail, teaching generations of Czechs once and again why it’s best not to joke with the devil. As a way to learn life’s lessons, a bit of cheery mischief and a slight sense of unease doesn’t seem like a bad way to go.