Saturday, November 6, 2021

Wiktor Grodecki | Mandragora

gruesome beauty

by Douglas Messerli

Wiktor Grodecki and David Svec (screenplay), Wiktor Grodecki (director) Mandragora / 1997

Because of its biological combination of active tropane alkaloids, the mandrake plant (or Mandragora) has a root and leaves that produces anticholinergic, hallucinogenic, and hypnotic effects and is often poisonous. Because of its hallucinogenic and narcotic effects it was used in ancient times as a surgical anesthetic, and believed to cure sterility and enhance the effects of lovemaking, gradually coming to be described, especially in Hebrew, as a “love plant.” Jacob’s infertile second wife Rachel, barters with Leah for her son’s mandrakes, eventually becoming pregnant. In medieval times and even today, the mandrake is associated with witchcraft.

     The magical love root which is also a potent drug that is dangerous even to the touch—all has significance in the third installment of Polish-born director Wiktor Grodecki’s study of the Czech boy prostitution scene. But in this case, instead of interviewing dozens of male hustlers, the director focuses in on two figures, one who appeared in Body without Soul, David Svec, known only as David in both works, who already in the second of the trilogy seems older and more knowledgeable than his peers, and who now is 16 going on 17, having been in the business, we discover later in the film, since was a child in the Podolí swimming pools—from the evidence of the pictures, of age 9 or 10. Being in the business as long as he has he has not only lost his boyish looks, but his charm. None of Germans and other foreigners want someone beyond his prime.

     By the time he meets Marek (Mirsolav Caslavka), based on David’s real boyfriend, he has become a cynical insider who still, however, feels for the clueless kid who, having just run away from home, has already been “hooked” like a rabbit by the monstrous pimp who scours the railroad station daily for new boys, Honza (Pavel Skirpal), who connects him—after the boy has been beaten up and robbed by other young railroad station prostitutes—drugs him so that a disgusting older customer can fuck the virgin, Marek waking up from the pain.

     By the next evening Honza has introduced him to one of the clubs where Marek is again beaten by older boys who resent the presence of a cute new competitor, afterwards meeting up with David who quite literally takes control of him, introducing him to clients and pimps, while turning Honza into the police who arrest him due to his long record of past convictions and David’s testimony of what he did to Marek—although when the boys are asked to come down to the station to give evidence they understandably go on the run. 

    In the meantime, David makes certain that through Marek’s 15-year old looks and the robberies they together pull, that the two can survive, as a relationship between the two evolves that, although unsaid, is something close to their being lovers.

     They bring in enough money eventually to begin to imagine how they might invest their “savings,” Marek arguing for a restaurant at the Czech-German border, but David, always the anti-romantic insisting that it was to be a border whorehouse. But we perceive already that there will soon be no savings.

     Marek soon realizes, moreover, that his friend cannot completely be trusted when he takes him to a sleazy game room where several pimps and their “gangs” (color-coded by outfit) hang out. Most of the “gangs” of young boys work the streets or the train stations, but Krysa (Kostas Zerdolaglu) uses his boys in porn films, missing, however, the one essential link he needs to make it big, a “striker,” a beautiful bottom willing to be fucked. His boys, David reports, wear red. Whereas, the more successful Sasha, is in charge of several groups of boys in yellow.

      David, having taken over all their money, invests in his group of boys with Sasha (Karel Polisenský), paying him a substantial amount to become a “partner,” meaning he and Marek will also head up a group of boys. One of his first proofs of commitment, however, requires that Marek hook up with a well-known Czech art connoisseur, who for much of the evening places the boy on a small turning pedestal, handing him a sword in order to appear like a bronze sculpture. Simply watching him as a kind of art object results in a free-handed ejaculation in his dressing gown. But the moment he recovers, he begins to critique what he previously admired about the boy, insisting his balls are too large for Donatello’s David and demanding that something must be done about them. 

     Marek attempts to escape, but another man grabs him and takes him into the next room where we can here the boy screaming. It appears that in a kind sadistic act, either he ties knots around the boy’s balls, sticks it with pins, or in some other painful way forces him to suffer. We never know quite what goes on in that room, but when Marek is finally returned to the street he is horrified to know that David knew of his client’s past tortures of boys and nonetheless send him there. The two briefly take up knives to fight one another, but Marek turns the knife on himself, foretelling his own end. Indeed, from this moment on we recognize that everything that will transpire from here on represents a vortex into hell, as the two spin around each other as doomed boy dreamers in love.

    One might imagine that, indeed, as the man insisted the beauty would become that night, that Marek suddenly is “awakened.” But still he trusts David, as their bevy of boys do not at all pay for the room, let alone bring them in thousands of crowns as they hoped. The two want out of the deal, but Sasha will not refund their money, offering only to send them out with to a wealthy American customer, a former Czech, Rudy (Pavel Kocí) for no cash except for what they might rob from him. 

        Set up in the Praha hotel, the man challenges them to a kind of strip-tease game of pool, where they must take off a piece of clothing for each time he is successful it putting a ball in the pocket, demanding that they play the game also with drinks after each successful pocketing. Finally, they succeed in getting him so drunk that he collapses, the boys scooping up every object of value they can find, David finally discovering the man’s hidden wad of money in the base of small model of the Statue of Liberty.

      This time they are forced to leave town, David taking Marek back to his hometown where he declares the air is fresher. But in fact the ugly, small industrial village where he grew up stinks of bad air, and looks as grim as any place might be.

David has brought a bag of gifts for his family, planning to surprise his father on his birthday. He asks Marek to join him, but his friend, tired of family he insists, waits by the car as David walks up the several stairs of a delipidated Communist-built apartment complex where he hangs the package on the doorknob, unable to even to knock at the door.

     We see him quickly sprinting back down the stairs, the young boy he must have been when he first left the building.

           The boys are soon drunk, David completely breaking down over the fact that he hadn’t even the courage to see his father. And suddenly, we recall that he too is still a teenager of only 16, despite his pretense of control over his totally out-of-control life. At a local bar, he attempts to hook up with his old girlfriend, who rejects him, as several men in the bar, tired of seeing young Prague hustlers return to wave their money in their faces, determine to beat and possibly castrate the boys.

     His girlfriend attempts to interrupt their intentions, but when they make it clear to her that he is a male hustler, she backs off, the men beating both boys severely. Time and again David and Marek are beaten by gangs. Even if they might fight back against one or two, they turn only to find others approaching from different directions. One might describe these boys as being gang “raped” again and again by forces of all those in the society who join to destroy them, which, we soon recognize, is nearly everyone outside of a few friends who will themselves turn against them if they are provoked.

      They return to Prague completely broke and broken, unable to function any more as boy prostitutes, now being wanted for their heist. They have no choice but to join up with Krysa in the porn world, Marek gaining favor only by permitting himself to be become Krysa’s missing striker, shocking even David by his willingness to be fucked.   

     Both, however, are terribly uncomfortable in the household where Krysa’s wife and baby boy h ang out in the kitchen offering the duo dinner while in the next open room Krysa prepares for the final series of boy ejaculations. They attempt to leave, but are once more met with others who stand in their way, the boy Libor (Miroslav Breu) who they long ago rejected for his effeminate and drug-addict addiction and a group of others. David finally does escape, but Marek is forced to go through with the shoot, despite the fact that Krysa mocks him when he demands a condom to protect himself. The Germans, the porn director insists, will not permit condoms in their films.

       Without any other recompense, David is now hooked up with foreigner for sex, but almost immediately he recognizes the room: “I’ve been here before.” It is the same room where the boys played pool with and robbed Rudy and, yet again, before he can run he’s met with a team of Rudy’s men, as the disgusting new American now determines to punish him by jamming a pool cue up his ass, Sasha further allowing his confederates, the boys in which David once oversaw, to savagely beat him.

      In the midst of this, Marek suddenly discovers where David is and, as if he might be able to stop events, speeds via taxi to Praha Hotel, only to be turned away at the door, helplessly watching his now bloodied friend be led down by the police and taken away to prison for his previous robbery. Marek himself is now in danger, having been spotted, for his role in the affair.

      Finally, realizing his inability to alter anything and the fact that, despite Libor and other’s enjoinder that he return for another shoot, having become famous in Germany for his last film as a bottom, he begs him for cocaine instead. Marek has previously always refused drugs, but now, having reached bottom, snorts enough almost to knock him out, returning to his room only to have a dream that the absent David has returned, his body covered with the sores of AIDS. And soon after, he is told that indeed David was found in the police hospital to be infected with the disease.

     Meanwhile, Marek’s father (Jiri Pachman) has arrived in the city, almost in a stupor as he tries the various spots where he son might be—and has been—without displaying any of the conversational talents to be able to simply ask about his son’s whereabouts. When he finally attempts to, his inquiry only makes Sasha and others believe he is asking for a boy, and they offer him up another Marek, a boy named Mark. Furious, he begins a brawl, and later shows up at a game room, where a boy that seems to be of 12 or 13 asks him if he wants to have sex with him in the toilet.

     As if stunned, it appears that he is ready to join the boy, as he asks him his different rates for a blow job or anal intercourse, but finally only pays him and leaves, the child prostitute proclaiming that “There are a lot of sick men out there.”

     Meanwhile, perhaps on tip from Marek, the police raid one of Krysa’s shooting sessions where he, in what seems to be an S&M-like film, he is torturing a boy for stealing from him. When the police have left Marek breaks into a utility box outside of Krysa’s apartment which contains a block of heroin in a plastic bag.    

     As his father prepares to leave Prague from the train station empty handed, Marek takes over a bathroom stall, heating up the heroin as he prepares to shoot up, slashing his legs over and over again with a knife while is father, using the bathroom just before his departure stands unknowingly just a few feet away from his now almost dead son. As the father’s train pulls out, another train arrives, from which a young teenage newcomer exits, looking about the place with wondrous eyes, as he moves to the main waiting room where surely he will face....we now sadly know the story.

      Grodecki’s work, far more tragically moving and brilliantly shot than his documentaries is a painful work to watch. Yet there is something stunningly beautiful about it as well, a kind of gruesome beauty that you might not have imagined him capable of in the other two darkly-lit series of interviews and scenes of the boys in action. In Mandragora he achieves an intensity that brings his message of the hopeless condition of these ill-fated boys into focus in a way that their own words could not.

     Yet we recall one boy in Body without Soul declaring he had not seen his close friend David for about a year. And it is clear, despite my ending quotation on that film by a commentator who despaired at hearing nothing about any of these young prostitutes’ survival, that the two stars of this work indeed, at least temporarily at, become actors in portraying their own stories.

     One person leaving a reply to the poster of this film on You Tube insists that David is now working at the Barrandov Film School in the Czech Republic, and that family members are still looking for him. She claims that he is married and has a child named Brett, now 18 or 19 years of age. But obviously this is no better that rumor or gossip. And the events he suffered have surely had an immeasurable impact upon his life even if today if he still survives, 26 years after his first appearance in Grodecki’s films. 

Los Angeles, November 6, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).

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