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Savage Hunt of King Stakh (1979)

Updated: Jan 24, 2023


While recent decades have seen arguably the most fundamental shifts of civilization in history so far, having one's foundation thrown into question is nothing new. Accelerationism aside, to be uncertain of the past & what it may mean for the future is a dilemma as old as humanity has been capable of perspective. In an age of radical individualism & collective dissolution, it helps to keep perspective that no matter who you are, your ancestors also weathered comprehensive exchanges of political, ethnic, & cultural power. One such reminder is Savage Hunt of King Stakh, an appropriately aestheticized story for incorporating a horror of the past into a gaze toward an uncertain future all within each ethnic group must endure as either atomized individuals going with the flow or as a powerful whole taking a stand.


Set shortly before the dawn of the 20th century, Savage Hunt of King Stakh, follows young, bright-eyed Andrej Biełarecki, who has become an ethnographer to strengthen ties among his fellow Belarusians as well as better identify his own personhood. Adventuring across what the wonderful wordplay of the novel this film is based on so vividly describes as "the land of hunters and nomads, black tar sprayers and quiet & pleasant chimes coming across the quagmires from the distant churches, the land of lyric poets & of darkness," Andrej finds himself in a remote swamp & takes shelter in the ancestral castle of the Janoŭskis, a family who proves to hold dark secrets. House head Nadzieja Janoŭskaja, a wispy young lady whose countenance pales wearily from restlessness, laments being likely among the last of her bloodline due to hauntings. It seems a band of ghosts is taking vengeance upon her family for being murdered by her ancestors twenty generations ago. This spikes Andrej's curiosity, and the gentlemanly intellectual seeks to get to the bottom of the matter.


Lady Nadzieja is on edge at the prospect of being punished for deeds she & her relatives of recent generations never did. She has been born into the last of one of those local gentries whose carelessness materialism & lack of community preservation left them vulnerable to being wholly replaced by the class of international financiers that have dominated the world in recent centuries. Not even having truly begun to live, the gaunt girl has already formed a permanent image of herself in her head. Yet Nadzieja sustains a sense of dignity & hospitality to guests even if it's clear that no peasant heeds her family name anymore. Not unlike a modern shut-in or wage slave, she sees no choice but to maintain her useless station, having no skills or experience beyond a miserably contained existence. The novel further elaborates that her inherited investments provide little more income than mere sustenance of the estate, yet she preserves her owned forests in their beautiful natural state instead of razing them for money. Perhaps more than simply lacking options, she feels a responsibility to do good by her status & inheritance of family possessions. On top of this unfortunate arrival at the end of a way of life, the orphaned mistress feels further isolated & deracinated for being constantly reminded of possible dubious deeds committed by ancestors from centuries back.


Possibly haunted by ghosts & surely haunted by melancholy, the Bałotnyja Jaliny (Swamp Firs) mansion is a massive gothic ground whose ivory pillars & marble halls have grown decrepit: a beautiful feat of European ingenuity left neglected. An invasion of imposed guilt & doom hangs in the air. Inhabitants variously claim to have intimated the presence of such spirits as a gnomelike Little Man who appears before sudden deaths & a spectral Woman in Blue who was executed by the Janoŭskajas generations ago only to curse their race with misfortune. The most terrible fright comes from the titular King Stakh & his hunt who are allegedly responsible for murdering the descendants of a Janoŭskaja who betrayed him to steal his wealth.


Legend has it that in the 17th century, a chaotic Belarus was united by Stakh Horsky, a landowner honored for acting fairly & having royal blood in his veins. King Stakh was loved by peasants & landowners alike -- save for one Roman Janoŭskaja. While joining the king on a successful hunt for a man-eating marsh lynx, Roman & two cohorts made a dirty power play that Nathan Rothschild himself would have approved, poisoning the celebratory wine to kill the King & all the other landlords. In his dying moments, King Stakh cursed the Janoŭskaja bloodline. Soon after, Roman & the conspirators were murdered after screaming fears of being pursued by a silent spectral horseback hunt led by King Stakh himself. Ever since then, deadly events have befallen the family line, including Nadzieja's father being found butchered in a fashion similar to the original revenge upon their distant ancestor.

Andrej marvels at these accounts, and with signs of dangers slowly revealing themselves, he resolves to protect Nadzieja & investigate the present-day appearances of the Hunt. He finds himself at a polite distance from most of the house's help & visiting aristocrats, save for fellow intellectual Svetsilovich, a rare kindred spirit who goes on to help Andrej in his quest. But one family branch proves prickly. At a ball taking place in the mansion shortly after Andrej's arrival, the slender, sharp-gazed Alieś Varona (jealous cousin of Nadzieja) picks a fight with the outsider. This is apologized for by his father, Hryń Dubatoŭk, who is also Nadzieja's uncle & guardian. The bearlike Dubatoŭk wears a hefty, hearty countenance & is quick to generously break out the liquor yet tends to bring ill tidings with him in the form of not only his incendiary son but also by bringing gifts & hosting plays revolving around the King Stakh tale, which only exacerbates Nadzieja's insecurities.


Indeed, what may afflict the remaining Janoŭskis the most is the notion that present & impending suffering is a result of not their own choices but from acts allegedly committed by their ancestors: a grim reaper of reparations. As with impressionable whites in the West, Nadzieja has been born into a snare of guilt-tripping & even outright endangerment on account of her heritage alone, feeling she has no home or right to live. It's an immiserating psychological & spiritual affliction that can totally drain one of his gifts, if not eliminate the will to live altogether: an easy prey to exploit.


Awakened to a sense of righteous indignation, Andrej is increasingly resolved to aid Nadzieja. His quest to uncover the mysteries of the marsh makes him aware of the struggles of not only the reclusive castle-dwellers but also the peasantry who dwell across the vast expanses of foggy wetlands. In addition to being generally impoverished, they too seem to have been assailed & murdered by the hunt on occasion. This discord results in everyone being suspicious of everyone else as being responsible. Andrej not only begins to see hidden enmities among inhabitants across the region -- he also sights the hunt itself & barely escapes its murderous ride! With the distant police bureaucratically dismissing the strange sightings & deaths in favor of letting the status quo run its course, it's up to Andrej to determine what's going on in classic detective mystery fashion, researching environs & making allies.


This investigation involves the exploration of locale & lore seen in the likes of Sherlock Holmes to Scooby Doo, yet Savage Hunt of King Stakh takes great care to never flippantly undermine the mystique of its subjects even when revealing their natures. The novel is exasperated with the over-sheltered aristocracy, which in its stupid twilight has little dignity or much to impress in general, yet it acknowledges the awesomeness of the high feats of architecture & the transcendentally graceful demeanor of one such as Lady Nadzieja. There's a powerful sense of mourning at these comprehensive social shifts, a frustration at mismanaged posts resulting in the suffering of individuals subjugated to or even inheriting them.


Valeriy Rubinchik's film has far less of the sociological descriptors & character relationships present in Uladzimir Karatkievich's original novel in exchange for focusing more on living up to its vivid setting visually & tonally. Andrej has less of the first-person righteous indignation when translated to the screen, and his budding love for Lady Nadzieja, intellectual brotherhood with Svetsilovich, and banding with the peasantry are truncated to varying extents from the prose's poetic progression. With less text or even sufficient skill in demonstrating the character's thoughts through action, the film compromises the novel's complex feelings of being initially disappointed by countrymen yet forming meaningful bonds that grow in number & significance during the search for ethnic identity. Images can be evocative, yet they rarely if ever have the specific insight of prose. On the other hand, certain characters & moments, especially the revelation of the only living person that art collector & house steward Bielman feels a true kinship with, are more richly realized in the film. As a result of exclusions & reorderings, the movie is arguably a less complete story, but it's an excellent sensory companion piece & a uniquely elliptical odyssey worth seeing in its own right, demonstrating a love for its ethnic subjects by visually representing the aesthetic & gravitas of cultures past.


While strictly a narrative work, the verisimilitude of the real locations & costumes of the movie recalls the aim of documentarian Robert Flaherty in attempting to recreate a fading way of life before not even memory remains of it to be preserved on the screen. This imagery is less significant to individual personalities than the novel's prose, yet it has a cultural weight of its own. Despite excluding important interactions from the novel for the sake of production, the film deliberates on showcasing not only lived-in aged estates & seldom-traveled rural roads, but also rituals such as castle balls, Christmas decorations, puppetry plays, and even bizarre exorcism rites. These Christendom customs contrast both a sterile modernization not so far ahead & a pagan primality at the back. In this dawn of a new century, classical classes anxiously anticipate a secular integration -- and perhaps a resurgence of the chaos of times past.


The wild hunt itself is a legend commonly resonating through many civilizations. Details vary as to who rides & why (from the return of kings to the invasions of demons) or even if the approach is roaring or silent, but in any case, it's said to be overpowering even when perceived at the peripherals -- best to keep one's head down. The hunt is associated with a sense of portending doom & invasion: an excitement for faded glory or a fear of confrontation with mighty, compunctionless Others. Change is on the horizon.


Whether directing a plethora of wartime dramas or even outlandish tales such as science fiction involving world-changing inventions as in The Apostate, Rubinchik explores social shifts & attempts to bridge class divides through his shared observations. The film's protagonist not only investigates but also attempts to end conflicts whenever he can. Andrej speaks honorably & in good faith towards others at all times, both making a handful of friends in all corners as well as calling out misdeeds from both aristocrats & peasants. Neither irresponsible rulers nor scheming parasites are tolerated, but he does attempt to find common ground when dealing with honest misunderstandings. Andrej does have human fallibility, being one step behind for much of the story & even being so defensive of his pride as to accept an aggressor's challenge to duel. Yet he's a gentleman who is willing to show kindness to good individuals of any class, even becoming somewhat of a local hero that has unified the people by the adventure's end, leaving hope for a brighter future for all defiant innocents.


Savage Hunt of King Stakh recognizes that the secularization of culture & distortion of history are weapons that can be used to usurp & oppress distressed subjects, yet the story holds out hope for mediation across classes & peoples. If anything, the resolving climax isn't caused by any one gesture or realization from Andrej so much as by his extensions of goodwill resulting in the rallying of the masses to act toward a common defense. For all the ominous atmosphere & subject matter, the story is revealed to be a remarkably tender tale of encouraging people to shed imposed guilt of their race, emerge from isolation, commune with their kinsmen, and make the most of their nature in the hierarchy. This is a power to be preserved else all fall into disaster, or as the novel put it so well as to be worth quoting at length:


I understood why the powers that be fear such slender, pure and honest young men. They have, of course, wide eyes, a childish smile, a youngster’s weak hands, a proud and shapely neck as if made of marble, as if it were especially created for the hangman’s pole axe, but in addition to all this, they are uncompromising, conscientious even unto trifles. They are unable to accept the superiority of crude strength, and their faith in the truth is fanatic. They are inexperienced in life, are trusting children right into their old age, in serving the truth they are bitter, ironic, faithful to the end, wise, and unbending. Mean people fear them even when they haven’t yet begun to act, and governed by their inherent instincts, always poison them. This base trash knows that they, these young men, are the greatest threat to their existence. I understood that were a gun put into the hands of such a man, he would with that sincere smile of white teeth, come up to the tyrant, put a bullet into him and then calmly say to death: “Come here!” He will undergo the greatest suffering and if he doesn’t die in prison of his thirst for freedom, he will come up calmly to the scaffold.

And finally, take some clarity from a contrast of the muzhyk peasantry before & after they take action against their oppressors in the story's spectacular climax:

[...] A kind, complaisant, romantic people in the hands of rascals. And so it will always be while this nation allows itself to be made a fool of. It gives up its heroes to the rack and itself sits in a cage over a bowl of potatoes or turnips, looking blank, and understanding nothing.
[...] The terrible Wild Hunt was overcome by the hands of ordinary muzhyks on the very first day that they exerted themselves a little and began to believe that with pitchforks they could rise even against phantoms.

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Freeman shows you the hidden methods & meanings of media in its varying forms.

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