Lokis: Rękopis profesora Wittembacha

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Lokis: Rękopis profesora Wittembacha (1970) is a Polish film based on the French novelist Prosper Mérimée’s novel of the same name which is itself inspired by Lithuanian folklore. Although the film and the novel are set in mid-nineteenth century Lithuania, the folktale itself dates back before the arrival of Christianity to the region in 1387 at the hands of the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Władysław II Jagiełło and Vytautas the Great. Mérimée updated the temporal setting for his novel in order to dramatize the cultural conflicts between faith, superstition and science.

Each of the three leads in the film and the novel epitomize one vein of thinking. Pastor Wittembach (Edmund Fetting), a folklorist, represents a theological perspective on events while Doctor Froeber (Gustaw Lutkiewicz) represents science. Count Szemiot (Józef Duriasz), who turns into a bear in the heat of passion, is indicative of those human appetites and behaviors (kinks and mental illness) that have inspired folk tales for eons. Filmmaker Janusz Majewski embraces the character of Wittembach as a means of exploring those unexplainable events that give rise to myths and legends. The camera, always at a distance from the action, functions in conjunction with Wittembach’s character, giving the audience very measured and highly skeptical sequences of the uncanny in an effort to sustain the illusion of an objective distance. The eerie atmosphere of Lokis: Rękopis profesora Wittembacha is sustained in this way by those mysteries that neither religious faith nor medical science can explain.

Much of Lokis: Rękopis profesora Wittembacha avoids the fantastic, countering scenes of bizarre behavior or unexplainable phenomena with multiple scenes of character development. Majewski continuously reiterates the plausible and the mundane so that the macabre becomes not just scarce but extraordinary. For Lokis: Rękopis profesora Wittembacha to succeed as both a horror film and an investigation into the morality of lore then the world within the film on the Count’s estate must be populated with very real human beings occupying a “realistic” environment. Where another filmmaker might have embraced a more verbose stylization Majewski opts for minimalism and restraint.

All of these components make Lokis: Rękopis profesora Wittembacha an exceptionally faithful adaptation as well as a quietly powerful cinematic experience. The climax of the film comes in its final scene where Wittemback and Froeber glimpse a dead bear (or lokys in Lithuanian) from their rail car as it exits the station. Upon seeing the bear’s corpse Wittembach crosses himself, acknowledging for the first time that the Count has in fact transformed into a bear. Throughout the entirety of Lokis: Rękopis profesora Wittembacha it is in symbolic gestures that characters very subtly reveal their true intentions and feelings.

The roots of the Lithuanian legends of the lokys that inspired Mérimée are not dissimilar from those of the werewolf or vampire. When a lord or lady took it upon themselves to violently exploit the peasant class it was these myths that explained this behavior. The purpose of such folktales was cautionary but also a means to account for the aristocracy’s betrayal of the feudal system. The tale of the lokys speaks of a lord or count who becomes a bear during sex, impregnating his bride with a cub and leaving her insane. This particular folk tale is rather transparent with the truths of a likely rape, trauma, incest and birth defects barely hidden between the lines.

The great weakness of the film actually comes from Mérimée’s novel in the form of a historical inaccuracy: a Protestant clergyman such as Wittembach would be exceedingly rare in both Poland and Lithuania. Presumably Majewski retained the error for dramatic reasons though it does result in diminishing any sense of authenticity or reliability regarding the central character Wittembach. Both Poland and Lithuania were notoriously very hostile to non-Catholic faiths well into the twentieth century. Himself a Frenchman, Mérimée may not have been aware of the extent of these hostilities or simply under estimated the severity of the sentiments.