“One must fight to get to the top, especially if one starts at the bottom.”
― Franz Kafka, The Castle

Few of the world’s film-events can merit the description “Kafkaesque” more than the Film Noir Festival, whose 10th edition took place in the tiny Czech village of Český Šternberk over five days this August.

Kafka died from tuberculosis in 1924 at just 40, leaving his final work, The Castle, tantalisingly unfinished. Since its publication two years later the nightmarish-absurdist allegorical novel has, despite its inadvertently up-in-the-air finale, become established as a classic of 20th century literature. Most Kafkaologists reckon the location which inspired his tale was probably Frýdlant (pop 7500), up near the Polish border some 25km north of Liberec; the much smaller, ruggedly scenic Český Šternberk (pop 166), 60km south-east of Prague, might now serve better as the backdrop for a period-accurate adaptation.

The festival’s main venues are located in various corners of the Gothic-baroque castle which shares the village’s name; this imposing pile was completed in 1274 atop a hill in a forested valley through which the Sázava river lazily meanders. Kayakers and canoers are drawn here throughout the summer months; the arrival of the Noir festival last year now means that the third Saturday in August is “high season” in these parts.

Over the course of festival weekend the only proper restaurant in the village — the imaginatively-named Restaurace Pod Hradem (“restaurant by the castle”) — is chock-a-block inside and out all the way through from 11am to 10pm. Pig is always the best choice in the Czech Republic, and twice during my five-night visit I took the pork steak in mushroom sauce with herby boiled potatoes (just under €10) plus a half-litre or two of Staropramen Extra Chmelená beer.

Most of the patrons — of the restaurant and festival alike (there are many overlaps)— come from Prague and its environs, although occasional American voices are overheard; the US Embassy is among the festival’s main sponsors. Český Šternberk has a rudimentary sort of train station (more of a halt), from which the capital is a two-hour journey via Čerčany. Road-vehicles can be left down around the minuscule village green or, more conveniently, in the small car-park under the castle’s western lees. The pile itself is accessible by two paths, one of them a tarmacked, relatively gentle slope (spot the antique statue of St Francis Xavier near the stream at its foot) the other a more demanding series of irregular stone-and-pebble steps.

Screenings during the daytime are held in five Castle rooms, temporarily turned into mini-venues which hold between 30 and 80 patrons, and where the films (mostly pre-1965, with a handful of current Czech titles) are shown from Blu-Ray discs. This set-up is very different from more cinephile-oriented, archive-focused events such as Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato, where celluloid projection remains the norm.

Oriented squarely towards buffs and enthusiasts rather than academics, archivists, preservationists or journalists, the festival (whose slogan a few editions back was “NOIR FANS ONLY!)” has steadily built a devoted following over its decade of existence — most screenings at the 2022 renewal were total or near sell-outs. Always castle-based (renting certain portions of the premises), the Noir festival was held in Kokořín in 2013 and then Křivoklát from 2014-2020. There is certainly no shortage of potential venues in this corner of Europe; some sources reckon the Czech Republic boasts more such landmarks per capita than any other nation.

The indoor venues at Český Šternberk yielded mixed rewards: none had raked floors, and some were, especially on the first couple of days with their summery temperatures, simply too small and/or warm for properly comfortable viewing. Four are found within the main building of the castle, and patrons had to be guided in and out by a festival representative lest they be tempted to stray nosily around.

My first film of the festival was Abraham Polonsky’s 1948 racketeering drama Force of Evil (starring John Garfield as a gangland lawyer) in the “US Embassy” room located in the misleadingly-named “Grand Hall” of the Castle; the “Voyo Hall” (named after another sponsor) proved a suitably sweaty spot to appreciate Murder Is My Beat (1955), a twisty B-Movie directed by relatively-local lad Edgar G Ulmer (born 200km along the road in Olomouc), and a rousing big-screen swansong for the notorious, tragic and quite magnificent Barbara Payton — think Marilyn Monroe’s raunchier, wilier cousin.

Easily the most pleasant of the five locations is the “gothic kitchen,” a thick-walled, nicely cool spot holding 55 and officially known as the Innogy Hall after the prominent Czech energy company. Apt setting for the quietly immaculate thunderbolt that is John M Stahl’s astonishing Technicolor noir from 1945, Leave Her To Heaven, with the stunning Gene Tierney as one of cinema’s most beautiful, complex and disturbingly fascinating femmes fatales.

And while even Blu-ray can never match the quality of 35mm, the carefully-modulated hues of Leon Shamroy’s cinematography were conveyed in surprising clarity on the compact Innogy Hall screen. At least one nitrate-celluloid print of the film still exists — that long-abandoned, highly dangerous format’s extra-sharp images and deeply-saturated colours must yield an overwhelming sensual impact — but my hunch is that this film still “works” regardless of screening-circumstances.

Leave Her To Heaven is that rare noir to mostly unfold in rural locations, far away from big cities, and to concentrate exclusively on well-heeled characters. Noir has always been a (maybe the) quintessentially urban genre, usually focused on those on the very lowest rungs of society. The extreme incongruity of celebrating this particular cinematic tradition amid the inescapably aristocratic splendours of a middle-European castle — one still owned and intermittently occupied by descendants of its 13th-century founder, Zdeslav of Divišov — adds an odd piquancy to festival proceedings.

Class-divisions were even enforced during the screenings, whose front seats (with cushions) were reserved for sponsors/partners and VIPs, with those purchasing “Noir” passes accorded the next-closest pews. The disjoint was most noticeable before and during the open-air screenings which are the main raison d’être of the festival and which take place, weather allowing, in the courtyard at the Castle’s rear (capacity 160).

This year the balmy opening night featured various rambling introductory speeches (in Czech, translated line-by-line into English), a vocal/guitar performance and the presentation of a bouquet to the chatelaine, Mrs Sternberg (the family, now mainly Vienna-based retains the German-language spelling). And then Death of a Cyclist, commemorating the centenary of its director Juan Antonio Bardem, uncle of the better-known Javier; the Spanish classic from 1955 played under a dark, starry sky; over the hills across the river an orange, cloud-shrouded half-moon slowly emerged.

The following night — even warmer — offered further chatty preambles and a classy violin “turn,” then vintage home-grown fare via Bořivoj Zeman’s A Dead Man Among the Living from 1949. This mordant chronicle of guilt and peer-pressure is regarded as one of the earliest landmarks of post-WW2 Czechoslovakian cinema, though its classification as “noir” may be open to debate.

The courtyard’s projection “booth” is unorthodox, militaristic and architecturally impressive; the modern, compact digital projector is located on the ground floor of a 50-foot cylindrical tower built circa 1600 as an additional fortification. The tower overlooks and guards a wide bridge which offers access to the castle from the south for those allowed through the imposing iron gates.

From around 8.45pm on the first two nights (official start-time of the programme was 9pm) “Noir Fans” assembled here and awaited admittance amid good-natured chatter, while bats swooped around the shadowy battlements, the bridge and the surrounding trees. Far down below, occasional cars crossed the bridge over the Sázava; a film noir touch was presented when a pedestrian passed into, out of and back into sight as they walked below the two sets of street-lights. But otherwise this was very much a scene infinitely more redolent of horror classics (or, at a pinch Douglas Fairbanks / Errol Flynn swashbucklers) than fatalistic, city-set crime-thrillers…

The Český Šternberk summer came to a sudden halt some time during the night that followed the second day; the Friday dawned jarringly autumnal, with intermittent rain and a thin fog hanging above the stream that runs along the bottom of the castle’s hill. Conditions remained damp or wet throughout the day, so it was no surprise when that night’s outdoor screening of The Big Sleep was cancelled in the late afternoon.

This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as the Howard Hawks masterpiece was shifted indoors and down the hill to the 87-year-old Kino Sokol, just off the village green. Recognisable from the castle by its silvery, four-sided roof, Kino Sokol is used for occasional screenings each summer (this year Amelie and Ghost Dog). As with the courtyard screenings, there was a delay in starting The Big Sleep; patrons, assembled under the dripping trees near the Sokol’s gates, looked up at the castle: illuminated by bright floodlights, its river-facing flank displaying laser-written adverts optimistically touting the festival to passing train-passengers.

The cinema’s name (Czech for falcon) identifies this venerable picture-house as being part of the Sokol organisation. A nationwide physical-fitness and sports-club institution that has existed since 1862, Sokol which played a crucial role in the emergence of Czechoslovakia as an independent entity out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ruins post-1918. A very big deal in the inter-war period, the avowedly non-political Sokol was regarded with suspicion and even loathing first by the occupying Nazis and later by the Communist. It has been banned for significant stretches of its history, most recently from 1948-1990 — during which period Český Šternberk castle was held in ČSSR state ownership.

Whether or not the Sokol cinema has been in continuous operation since 1935 or whether it was shuttered as a result of Communist oppression, I have not yet been able to ascertain. Watching Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep, however (the digital monochrome image pleasingly pin-sharp, sound just a little muddy), it was evident that hardly anything in the interior can have changed much since the 1960s — maybe even since the 1930s — including the spartan, brown-wooden seating (fairly creaky) and the milky glass orbs in the ceiling that function as lighting.

While it was still damp outside, the evening was surprisingly temperate: I sat at the end of a middle row with a gap in front allowing me to stretch my legs. My spot was roughly equidistant between the two main sets of doors, which were wisely left open throughout the screening to facilitate cooling cross-breezes (which I felt every delicate nuance of, as I was wearing shorts) and dispel the musty odours which some attendees found noxiously off-putting — i.e. my two Polish friends, who bailed before the end of the first “reel.”

I had no problem with the whiff, my olfactory senses having been dulled by a bout of COVID-19 last autumn, and very happily stayed put. Twice during the film, the atmospheric sound of a train was audible in the middle-distance, accompanied at one point by the mournful, muffled blast of a horn. A large, well-behaved Alsatian sprawled contentedly to the right of the screen, trotting in and out on the heels of his master whenever the latter went out to stretch his legs…

I must have seen thousands of films in hundreds of locations over the last four or five decades; and I know that watching The Big Sleep in this ancient, bare-bones moviehouse in an obscure Czech village in late August, with evening breezes wafting gently through the room and the big old dog dozing in the corner, is one of the most mysteriously transcendent moviegoing experiences I’ll ever have. Ancient castles are, by their very nature, magical settings. Bygone cinemas? Even more so.