by Scott Spires
Avoid bad dreams.
Alexander Lindberg had spent almost two weeks in Prague, and still had nothing to show for it. Only a few days remained; then he would go home, write the trip off as a failure, and return to his life of reading, watching, and writing.
For this evening's excursion he had exiled himself to the pub U Vahy ("The Scales"), located in Smichov, a neighborhood just outside the central cluster of tourist attractions and rip-off prices. Lindberg liked Smichov for its air of shabby gentility, its dignified Hapsburg-era apartment blocks in faded yellow and green and gray, and its status as the Gypsy capital of Central Europe: here was one place in Prague where they didn't look askance at those keeping odd hours. And what he especially loved about The Scales was that it lived up to its name. Sunk several feet into the ground, the pub boasted a large bronze model of a pair of scales on its roof. Whether this had to do with justice (a court of law was nearby) or food (so was a market), Lindberg didn't know, and hadn't been able to find out; but he liked the look of it all the same.
He slid off his coat, sat down and plunged into a glass of Krusovice Dark, a black beer which was his current favorite; luckily he was alone at the little table, and had room to spread his papers out. He removed a pile of them from his briefcase and slammed them down on the table. After a moment's rummaging he selected one paper and placed it in front of him; at the top of it were the words "List of Local Contacts."
When he wasn't teaching courses in literature and film back in the states, Lindberg was writing film criticism and articles on cinematic history for various publications in the English-speaking world. He had reached the point where, in his late thirties, he was beginning to achieve the sort of name recognition that marked one's entry into the small cadre of critics that really mattered. All that remained, he felt, was a groundbreaking achievement he could call his own, the kind that might eventually gain him an entry in one of those compendious film encyclopedias with titles like The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Film or An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Cinema. Enlightenment came when he contributed an article to Sight and Sound on the legendary Czech director Martin Havranek. Attempting a general evaluation of Havranek's career, he had been frustrated by the fact that the director's final film, entitled Lux Aeterna ("Eternal Light"), shot in the 1960s, had been confiscated by the Communist authorities in 1968 and apparently never shown in public. To make matters worse, no one knew if a complete print of the film even existed. Maddening rumors surrounded Lux Aeterna: it lasted, depending on who you talked to, anywhere from four to eight hours; it was a love story made up of alternating monochrome and color sequences; it was a philosophical meditation on God, matter, and time, filmed mostly in sepia; it had taken six years to complete, or perhaps only six months; the lead actor committed suicide shortly after its confiscation, or perhaps he was murdered; it included a brilliant and hilarious car-chase sequence which had to be shortened due to lack of funds, or perhaps it did not. It was even suggested that the invading Soviet Army had carted off the film's odd-numbered reels to a vault in Moscow, while the even-numbered ones reposed somewhere in St. Petersburg.
To Lindberg, this was a mystery which simply had to be cleared up. With the help of a grant from a generous patron, he was soon on his way to Prague, intending to do precisely that. Now, after two fruitless weeks, he sat alone in a pub, wondering if anything could be salvaged.
Carefully he went over the list of contacts. Vaclav Cernik, Havranek's colleague on the faculty of FAMU, the national film school, had told him an amusing anecdote about a cow, but knew nothing about Lux Aeterna. Jiri Kubecka, film scholar and critic for the paper Lidove Noviny, had told him nothing he didn’t already know. Pavel Mueller, on the other hand, claimed some kind of special knowledge: at their last meeting he had titillated Lindberg with tales of secret archives and unofficial sources known only to him. Pavel was an amateur photographer and hanger-on in the theater and film world, where he had many friends. Lindberg decided he was worth another call.
A potbellied waiter appeared before him, brandishing a fresh glass of beer. "Jeste jedno pivo, pane?" he asked.
"Thank you," said Lindberg in halting Czech, "but this will be the last." Beer, he thought: the only medicine that works for me.
Since his arrival in Prague he had been haunted by nightmares. Almost every night, soon after the lights went off, he did battle with misshapen monsters and dragons, as well as vindictive traffic police and customs officials. Days of fruitless labor, he believed, were to blame; or perhaps it was the local cuisine, the inevitable pork and dumplings. Whatever it was, he considered beer a good tonic for this, as it caused him to sleep soundly and calmed his overworked mind.
Shortly thereafter Lindberg was sprawled dreamily inside the night tram. With tired eyes he observed the charmingly shabby buildings as he went past, the desolate glow of dormant shop windows, and a few nocturnal strollers. As the tram rattled and jingled towards the small furnished room where he was staying, his mind felt peacefully numb.
Excerpt from Lindberg's diary, detailing his dream of that night.
Entry from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Film, edited by E. MacDonald and F. Norman (Cambridge University Press, 1991), concerning the life and work of Martin Havranek.
The Savoy Cafe is located near the river on the edge of Mala Strana, that dense stone maze of baroque palaces and churches, crumbling yellow walls, and brittle red roofs. Its lofty white ceiling is inscribed with abstract patterns, elegant curls and folds which impress by their complexity but refer to nothing in particular, like the decorations in a mosque. True to its Hapsburg-Jugendstil era origins, service is slow.
"Pavel, do you believe in God?" asked Lindberg.
"The more important question is: does God believe in me?" said Pavel, clearly taken aback. "But after today, maybe I do." His bearded face lit up with a jovial expression.
"What do you mean?"
"Dr. Cernik claims that the film archive at FAMU has discovered something, that will interest you greatly."
"Three short fragments, authentic ones! of Lux Aeterna. Don't ask me, why they only found this now. According to Dr. Cernik, these are out takes, so maybe not quite as authentic as you wish. But they are from the original shoot itself."
"Really!" said Lindberg. "How long are they?"
"Probably not more than ten or fifteen minutes. So your spirits, I think, should not rise too high."
"At last, I'm making some progress." Lindberg was hoping that he might even be able to construct a skeleton of the film from these shreds, much as an archeologist or linguist hypothesizes an entire imperial decree from a scattering of isolated glyphs across a shattered monument.
"I think you are not really a critic," said Pavel. "You are more like a detective."
"Detective is not a bad job. Nor is critic. But neither was my first choice. Years ago, I wanted to make the films, not just write about them. But unfortunately, things didn't work out."
"Oh... circumstances." Lindberg waved his hand dismissively. "Or maybe a character flaw. Maybe I just didn't have the patience or the strength of character to make it."
"No," said Pavel, "I think you should blame the circumstances. In this country, you know, we have a lot of experience with them."
Transcript of Lindberg's dream of that night.
"At that time he was in a terrible state," said Dr. Vaclav Cernik. "After the invasion, he went back and forth. Long periods of gloom, then short bursts of panic."
Dr. Cernik, tall, intense, white-haired, gestured before Lindberg's tired eyes as if working some complicated precision instrument. The little office gave off a faint whiff of coffee and cigarette smoke. A moat of papers and books, spread sloppily across Dr. Cernik's desk, separated the two men.
"So," said Lindberg, "what happened then?"
"It was decided that a film of such potential importance must be confiscated for examination by the relevant political operatives. Havranek told all his friends not to talk about Lux Aeterna, hoping the authorities would overlook the whole thing. Festivals in France and Italy wanted to show it, but he didn't respond to them. They were confused, because they knew the film was almost finished, but he just refused to say anything. In the end, of course, this tactic of silence did not work." Dr. Cernik looked regretfully into the distance while puffing on his cigarette. "One day, they gave an official order to the people in charge of the film archive, and they carried the reels out of the building, onto a truck, and then—away."
"Just away—they didn't say anything. Then, that same day, Havranek comes to the archive. When they told him what happened, he looked like a man who comes back to his house and finds it burned to the ground." A pause, then: "He died incomplete, you can say." Another moment of silence, then: "But I don't want to delay you any longer. We will go to the screening room. The fragments have been put all on one reel, ready to show."
Lindberg and Cernik made their way through the bare corridors of the film school, up a flight of stairs, through a door and into a zone of darkness. They took their seats and, at a signal from Cernik, the projectionist flipped a switch. A rectangle of light was thrown onto the screen and the projector began to whirr in a rapid-fire staccato. Shapeless blobs appeared on the screen, then a few words and numbers whizzed past at great speed. Suddenly the screen revealed a lush, rolling landscape, grassy and abundant with vegetation, presented in sepia tone. "I'm sorry there's no sound," said Cernik, but Lindberg paid him no attention. A pair of human figures, dressed in black like monks, made their way steadily across this landscape; what appeared to be a lamb was following them at some distance. The two figures gestured as if deep in conversation. Then a strong wind blew, ruffling the vegetation and knocking one of the actors off balance. The screen went blank.
"That's probably why they cut this scene," theorized Cernik, "the wind blew at the wrong time."
The next clip appeared, accompanied by a cacophony of shouting. It was in ordinary black-and-white and looked like a courtroom scene. A lawyer was delivering what must have been the most vociferous denunciations and accusations while a white-robed angel sat attentive at the judge's desk, gavel in hand. Cernik took a stab at translating the lawyer's speech: something about this being a time of revolt, why are you just sitting there on your hands, I appeal to all of you to join me... He went on in this vein for some time. The faces of some spectators were shown in closeup. A click, then the screen went blank again.
"This is the last one," said Cernik as a delicate composition in pastel colors, again soundless, flashed on. An idyllic rural scene presented itself, as in the first fragment. This time it was a milkmaid attempting to milk a cow. She grabbed at the udder with a hesitancy which showed clearly she was neither an experienced milkmaid nor an experienced actress. After some struggle she managed to get a fairly steady rhythm going and filled the pail with an amount of yellowish milk, but the cow moved and kicked over the pail. The actress looked straight into the camera with evident disgust, and the screen went blank for the third time.
"That's it," said Cernik. Lindberg did not rise but simply sat in the dark feeling sluggish and empty. As he sat there, the lights came up, and he heard Cernik's voice, sounding just a little apologetic. "You know, some people think that last scene is not part of Lux Aeterna at all. They think it's a clip from a nature documentary that wound up here by mistake."
"It appears that, after a quarter-century of idleness, Havranek was able to recommence where he left off, and complete a film in the unique style that was characteristic of him." Lindberg looked closely at this sentence. He then took his pen and crossed it out, realizing it would never stand up to critical scrutiny. He tried again: "Although the surviving fragments of Lux Aeterna are scanty and enigmatic, Havranek's unique old style does succeed in coming to the surface. This film would seem to be the logical continuation of his earlier efforts." That felt a little better, but could it be justified? Regretfully Lindberg acknowledged that it was too speculative and flimsy, and crossed it out as well. Finally he wrote: "Nothing definite can be said about Havranek's final film, Lux Aeterna. The surviving fragments are too paltry to be of any help." These two sentences unburdened his conscience, and he put the manuscript away.
He lay down; his whole being was pervaded with a feeling of resignation. He told himself that the effort he had made was important: Lux Aeterna may have been lost forever, but if so, he had done more than anyone else to establish this melancholy fact. As he drifted into sleep he marveled at the intuition and boldness of cryptographers, archeologists, and paleontologists—at all those who were part of the reconstruction industry—and wondered what they possessed that he didn't.
He entered the peaceful gray limbo that separated sleep from wakefulness. Eventually this hazy terrain cleared, like a fog dispersed by the sun, and he saw that he was standing in the courtyard in front of St. Vitus Cathedral. The sun was shining and rain started to pour down; people around him scrambled for cover. "If I can't solve the first mystery," he thought, "I'll solve the second." His mind was clear and he knew that all he had to do was take the next step and everything would go smoothly. He walked directly into the vast bulk of the cathedral, but found to his surprise that the cafe was gone. The cathedral was its usual monstrous size, and a cryptic quiet reigned as supplicants went about their business. Lindberg had no idea which way to turn; he felt small and out of place. "Maybe I should go outside," he thought. He was about to leave when he heard brisk steps hurrying his way; they echoed in the cavernous gloom. Then came a voice: "Are you looking for me?"
He turned around. It was the waitress, still wearing her apron in the cathedral. "Oh, how glad I am to see you," said Lindberg; then, in an attempt to sound friendly, he added: "The last time we met, you were smashed to pieces by a custard pie."
She laughed and said: "Unfortunately we're closed today, so I can't give you any tea."
"You know I didn't come for tea. I want the message from God."
"Of course." She reached into her apron and pulled out the piece of paper. She smoothed it out carefully, then held it up for him to see. Lindberg saw again the plain yet awesome black marks, the very hand of God.
"It's really very simple," she said, "so simple you might be a little disappointed. It's an invitation."
"To a private film showing."
"Of course," said Lindberg. "I should have known."
The waitress said, "You'd better get going, you don't want to be late!"
"Where is it?"
"In here." She held out the inscription.
"What do you mean?"
She laid the message on the floor, directly in front of him, then said with great authority: "Dive in!"
Lindberg got on his knees, rolled himself into a tight little ball, and hurled himself awkwardly at the piece of paper. He missed and went sprawling. "Try again!" said the waitress. He set both his hands on the inscription and tried to force his way in. It yielded slightly, then pushed him back. "No no! Head first!" said the waitress. He raised his head and attempted to aim it very precisely at the central squiggle of the inscription. Then, with intense concentration, he plunged forward. The black marks parted to admit him, and as they swallowed him he heard a faint "There you go!" issue from behind. He stumbled for a second, then righted himself and saw that he was standing in front of the same theater where Used Cars for Sale! had played the previous night. Snow was falling softly all around him in a foggy murk that was neither night nor day, and he felt like a man who has returned home after a long and arduous journey.
"Please come inside," intoned a clear and profound voice. The speaker was not visible, but Lindberg knew the voice was proceeding from inside the theater. He entered, and found the lobby completely empty and quiet. Shuffling of feet was heard, and from the auditorium came the very same one-eyed usher who had smiled at him the night before. This simple man radiated power: his modest physical being crackled with supernatural authority which ran through him like electricity from a hidden source. The usher extended his hand and directed Lindberg into the auditorium with nonchalant wags of his index finger. The effect, however, was of a controlling iron hand. "Only two minutes before it starts!" said the man in a croaking voice.
Lindberg entered the auditorium. He was the only person there, so he took the best seat in the house and made himself comfortable. The curtains were flung back and the film started. The words Lux Aeterna appeared on the screen, white against a black background. The credits ran past (with English subtitles), and the screen showed a lush, rolling landscape, grassy and abundant with vegetation, all presented in sepia tone. A pair of human figures, dressed in black like monks, made their way steadily across the landscape.
"I am not dreaming," thought Lindberg. "My quest is at an end."
Excerpt from a letter written by Martin Havranek in 1970, and sent to Dr.
Excerpt from a nonexistent book, The Harvard Companion to Film, describing the career and achievement of A. Lindberg.
Excerpt from An Experiment with Time by J. W. Dunne.
Excerpt from Martin Havranek: Life and Work by Alexander Lindberg.
Nothing definite can be said about Havranek's final film, Lux Aeterna. The surviving fragments are too paltry to be of any help.
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