Separating truth from legend in new film about Slovakia's most infamous mass murderer

Anna Friel as Countess Bathory

Coming up in this week's Arts, we'll be speaking to the renowned Slovak director Juraj Jabubisko about his latest film - Bathory - described as the most expensive Central European movie ever made.

Bathory is the story of one the most notorious figures in Central European history - Elizabeth Bathory, the so-called "Blood Countess", a 16th century Hungarian noblewoman accused of murdering dozens, possibly hundreds of young girls in sadistic rituals at Cachtice Castle in present-day Slovakia...and then bathing in their blood.

Elizabeth Bathory has been labelled as the greatest female mass murderer in history, but little evidence has ever been found to prove those claims. With this new film, which has a starring role for British actress Anna Friel, Juraj Jakubisko sets out to tell the story in its historical context. We'll be hearing from Anna Friel in a few minutes, but first of all to Juraj Jakubisko. When I met up with Juraj at the recording of the film's score in Prague, he began by telling me what had attracted him to the story:

Elizabeth Bathory
"I chose Elizabeth Bathory for many, many reasons. First of all, for commercial reasons - Elizabeth Bathory was the most famous historical figure in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including in my native Slovakia of course. She's also in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most prolific female mass murderer. She managed to get right up there with Hitler and Stalin! But her fame is built on various legends, and that's part of the story's attraction to me."

"I didn't set out to make a really gory film to be honest. But even though I tried to avoid it, there is a lot of blood in it, and that's because I was making a film about an era when human life was worthless. I find the whole period really interesting. Four hundred years ago the area of modern-day Slovakia was the last bastion of Christianity, a kind of buffer zone stopping the Turks from invading Western Europe. If they'd broken through that dam they would have destroyed Western European culture."

But Juraj Jakubisko wants to prove that Elizabeth was actually the victim of a massive smear campaign, a victim more of 16th century political intrigue than anything else. And most of all, this Czech/Slovak/Hungarian/British co-production wants to dispel some of the wilder myths about the so-called Blood Countess:

"There are so many legends about her which just aren't true. The idea that she bathed in the blood of young girls to retain her eternal youth for example. You can't bathe in blood because blood clots. But the historians are even divided about her legacy, because for the older generation Elizabeth Bathory was this Hungarian countess who murdered Slovak girls. But for me - and this is so important - she was first and foremost a woman. You can find all sorts of Freudian explanations for what she did."

Anna Friel as Countess Bathory
As we've already heard the lead role was played by the British actress Anna Friel, who made her name on the British TV soap opera Brookside before moving on to film and television in the US. In an interview for Europanet's European film website, Anna Friel describes the role:

"I play Elizabeth Bathory, who is a real historical character, but we tell a very different story. We think she is very misjudged and she wasn't guilty of all the crimes attributed to her. There is a lot of folklore and Bathory is a strong, warrior-like heroine who has a duty to her marriage and her country, which stretched from the borders over Moravia all the way to the Adriatic Sea, and she basically had to do it single-handedly."

And she also talked about what it was like filming on location in the Czech and Slovak republics with a Slovak director:

"This is the first time I've ever made a movie with a director that doesn't speak any English, but I'm enjoying it immensely. I think the entire Czech crew we have are the hardest workers I've ever come across. We're doing mad hours, like 16 hours a day, and they've been so collaborative and so helpful and warm; and the translation has been fantastic. It is very complicated, the story spans over 25 years - in the morning we're doing chapter one and in the afternoon we may be doing chapter three when she was 54 and we all have to stick together and I think the English blending with the Czech is working quite nicely. Juraj is beautiful. I think the nicest thing is that they are still paying attention to making films look beautiful, which is quite rare these days."

Lucie Vondrackova playing Bathory's maidservant,  photo: CTK
Bathory also features a number of faces who will be very familiar to Czech viewers, including Karel Roden, Bolek Polivka and Lucie Vondrackova. Here Lucie Vondrackova, who places Elizabeth Bathory's maidservant Lucy, talks about working on the film:

"This is the third film I've made with Juraj Jakubisko and in every film that we've made together I was crystal and pure in the film - just like here. So, if you can imagine the renaissance era and the evil things being done around Bathory - I'm absolutely the opposite."

Bathory will premiere in Slovakia in September, and the Czech Republic the following month. And as Juraj Jakubisko explains, it's certainly not the first time the Elizabeth Bathory story has made it to the silver screen. Though he does hope this latest treatment of her life will be rather more sympathetic - and closer to the truth:

"There were so many aspects to her life. There have been around 1,000 poems written about her, there have been dozens of books, even two operas and a musical. She's even made it to Hollywood - there have been eight or so films where some Countess Bathory is seen bathing in blood. She's even been in the same film as Dracula! She was supposed to be his bride, his wife or something. So her legend has long taken her beyond the real world and into the realm of fantasy."