Would you agree to spend the night in a cell with a condemned man? That is the question that drives the story of this Czech film, a tale of a young woman whose life is destroyed by a single impulsive act of kindness.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
A Dead Man’s Widow
A great many films made during the silent era celebrate selflessness, generosity and kindness. “Happiness must be earned” is the constant refrain of The Thief of Bagdad but it can be earned. If Tonka of the Gallows could be summed up in one phrase it would be: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
The film tells the story of Tonka (Ita Rina), a country girl who has gone to the city for work. We meet her as she makes her way back to her home village for a visit laden with presents for her mother (Vera Baranovskaya from Pudovkin’s Mother).
Tonka’s introduction is a testament to silent film’s power of non-verbal communication. Without a single title card, we see Tonka’s clothing, body language and interactions and we immediately know what she does for a living. (Feather boas were often used to code characters as prostitutes.) But the residents of her village do not realize this or, more likely, they pretend not to realize.
Tonka’s mother certainly asks no questions about how Tonka earned money for the shawl and coffee grinder she brought with her. Local villager Jean (John Mylong, American viewers are most likely to recognize him as the Professor in The Robot Monster) asks no questions as he courts Tonka and asks her to marry him but she returns to the city before giving her answer.
Tonka is popular with clients in the nightclub where she works so it’s surprising when she agrees to perform a good deed for the local constabulary. A condemned man (Josef Rovenský) has asked for a woman to spend the night with him on the eve of his execution. As it turns out, his needs are not physical but emotional as he has no family, friends, or even a mother to lean on and the night passes chastely.
But in the world of Tonka of the Gallows, misfortune is a contagious illness and so Tonka soon finds that she has changed places with her erstwhile client. The cornerstones of security in modern life, a job, a lover, a parent, Tonka loses each one in rapid succession. She is considered tainted and no client wants to spend time with her, so her job is gone. Jean discovers what happened on the eve of their wedding and so her love is gone. Her mother overhears what has happened and rejects her daughter, the cruelest blow of all, and this sends Tonka hurtling toward a tragic end.
Ita Rina is the heart and soul of this picture. On paper, Tonka may sound like the standard issue prostitute with a heart of gold but Rina infuses her with wonder, curiosity, gentle maternal instincts and a sense of humor. Her impulsive decision to offer comfort to a condemned man leads to her downfall but she was walking on eggshells from the start. As we discussed earlier, it is unlikely that her mother and Jean had no idea what Tonka did for a living in the city, it is just socially acceptable to politely ignore the fact. But that tissue of self-delusion was never going to hold.
Director Karl Anton creates a beautiful, rich setting and offers nothing but empathy toward the unfortunate heroine. The village scenes are sunny and bucolic, all fields and hills and paper garlands and vibrantly printed clothing under a cheerful sun. The city is perpetually at nighttime with gaudy electric lights and mechanical toys. The prison is distinctly Germanic with sharp corners, harsh lights, inky black corners and prisoners lurking inside. In the film, only Tonka is allowed to travel freely between these three realms.
In fact, the careful planning and execution of the visual elements, the plot points and the performances can be considered this film’s greatest asset. Everything was clearly weighed with great attentiveness and nobody relied on happy accidents to create an artistic picture. (I am a great fan of happy accidents but they should never be Plan A.)
The film was adapted from Egon Erwin Kisch’s novella Die Himmelfahrt der Galgentoni but the screenplay, credited to Willy Haas and Benno Vigny, intelligently opts to remove the framing device of the heroine presenting her case in heaven. (And excises the celestial reference from the very title of the picture.) While it’s possible that such scenes could have succeeded but by keeping the story earthbound, the filmmakers manage to create both heaven and hell in corporeal form and that’s a much more challenging trick to pull off successfully.
(Spoiler) Instead, we in the audience are tasked with judging Tonka and she is so sympathetically portrayed that it’s impossible not to wish for a happy ending. However, the film has other ideas and she slips down to the bottom of the social heap, descending into alcoholism and finally forced to tell her sordid tale in exchange for drink. Her eventual death, run over by a horse-drawn cart, is almost a relief from her suffering.
So, despite its high quality and the sensitivity of the presentation, I have to say that my viewing of Tonka of the Gallows was not the best-timed. A story of someone being destroyed by their own generosity and having every sure and safe haven torn away from them is… well, it’s a bit close to what too many are experiencing in real-time at the moment.
This film is beautifully acted and confidently directed. It has important things to say about cultural taboos and the precariousness of earning a living and finding love. It’s extremely moving. But perhaps it was a bit too moving for me at present. This film is recommended but with the caveat that anyone watching it should make sure they are in the right emotional state before starting their viewing.
Where can I see it?
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