In his best-known work – The Essence of Christianity (1848) – the Bavarian philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach argues that religion is a form of psychological projection as humanity created God as a means of externalising such basic human values as benevolence, love and the ability to do as one pleases. Religion is the process through which values are stripped from individual things and rendered abstract for the purposes of worship and contemplation. God is nothing more than Man; he is the projection of our inner nature and our most basic desires. According to Feuerbach, this process has become increasingly problematic over the years as people now prize the abstract construct over the values themselves. God was supposed to be a means, but now he has become an end.
Frantisek Vlácil’s film Údolí vcel (a.k.a. The Valley of the Bees) is an examination of what happens when people project their desires onto abstract entities only to forget that these entities are not actually real. Set in medieval Bohemia, the film tells the story of one knight’s love for another knight and how, by projecting that love onto God, something as simple and human as wonderful as love can be distorted into something truly monstrous.
The film’s tone of repressed sexuality is set almost in the opening shot where young Ondrej approaches the table at which his father is celebrating his marriage to a girl Ondrej’s age. The girl looks beautiful and, as the two teenagers lock eyes, it is difficult not to notice a crackle of sexual tension arc between them. The young woman has married an elderly lord in order to gain financial stability, but it is clear that her sexual desires focus upon someone much closer to her in age. Despite being of a similar age to his step-mother Lenora, Ondrej is less emotionally developed and so he reacts to the wedding with spite by giving his mother a basket full of blossom and bats. In a fit of rage, Ondrej’s father smashes the child’s head against the wall and, terrified that he might have killed his own son, pledges his child’s life to the service of God if God will only spare his life. Needless to say, Ondrej recovers and is packed off to join the Teutonic Knights far to the north.
Much like their more famous contemporaries the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Knights were a monastic military order whose members are required to foreswear property, title and the fleshy delights of women and men alike. The unusual acknowledgement of homosexuality in the pledge turns out to be eerily prescient as we soon find a grown-up Ondrej (Petr Cepek) bonding with handsome fellow knight Armin (Jan Kacer). Ondrej and Armin’s relationship is one of close friendship but also of a mutual attraction that expresses itself through talk of brotherly devotion and of bizarre rituals in which the pair punish themselves for impure thoughts while lying in the freezing cold surf so that it might numb their lower extremities. Much as Feuerbach predicted, Armin’s devotion and desire for Ondrej manifests itself as a fanatical devotion to the rules of the order and to the glory of God.
Initially, Ondrej seems happy enough in this environment but cracks begin to form when he is offered the opportunity to run away with another knight. Ondrej turns the knight down and is beaten about the head for his troubles but when Armin learns of the knight’s departure, he reacts to Ondrej as a jealous and paranoid lover. Ondrej did not run away but he did not subdue the renegade and so his weakness deserves to be punished. The harshness of Armin’s judgement sits poorly with Ondrej and so Ondrej decides to flee the order and return home to his father’s lands. Once he has fled, the zealous Armin requests permission to leave the lands of the order and bring him back.
Armin’s encounter with his commander is oddly sexualised too as the commander says little aside from commenting upon how cold Armin’s hands are and demands that next time he warm his hands before serving him. Armin’s devotion to Ondrej also manifests itself on the road when he encounters a beautiful blind girl only to rebuff her advances and intimacy. “Cover yourself girl”, he grunts as he rides past but is it his devotion to God that blinds him to the flesh of a young woman or is it his obsessive devotion to Ondrej?
When Armin catches up with Ondrej, the pair battle some brigands and Armin reveals his plan to take Ondrej back to the north as part of a redemptive pilgrimage but Ondrej clubs his old friend to the ground and escapes before taking up his father’s position as head of household and lord of the manor. Having heard that there is a new lord, the parish priest comes sniffing around and suggests that his loyalty could be purchased by Ondrej agreeing to donate some alms to the church. Initially Ondrej seems sceptical but when he later marries his former step-mother, the priest reveals that an agreement has been struck.
The worldliness and hypocrisy of the priest is telling. Up to this point in the film, our experience of Christianity is that of Armin’s fanaticism but by suggesting that Mother Church can quite happily follow Caesar’s orders, Vlácil is suggesting that Armin’s beliefs may well be just as subject to earthly concerns. In one incredible scene, Armin confronts the priest and speaks of the fact that everyone fears his order but the priest responds by suggesting that faith can take many forms and that the rules that govern the order are not necessarily those that govern the world, or indeed other Christian priests. The priest tells the story of a man who in time of famine and plague was hanged for eating corpses. Once he was hanged, his wife came to dig up his corpse so that she and their children could eat. His story complete, the priest turns on the knight and asks him if he would kill the wife and children too. If moral purity is your aim then the world is such that you may well wind up having to hang everyone. The knight’s answer is chillingly apocalyptic:
“Let [life] be extinct. The angels will remain. No one has ever seen them, and yet I hear the beating of their wings.”
As a knight and a monk, Armin is supposed to be devoted to the salvation of mankind and the redemption of the human soul but, when it comes down to it, he would rather mankind burn than tolerate any deviance from his worldview. Made, as it was, in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, many people have taken this speech to be an indication that The Valley of the Bees is about Soviet totalitarianism and the willingness of people in positions of power to place ideological correctness above human reality, but this is to look at Armin’s speech in complete isolation from the rest of the film. What makes Armin such a fascinating character is not that he is a tough-guy zealot willing to beat the world into shape through force of arms, it is that his fanaticism is a projection of his own inner and secret desires. The message of Armin’s speech is simple: If I can’t have Ondrej, then the world can burn to ash. Armin’s God is a bloodthirsty bastard because Armin needs him to be. He is heart-broken, bereft and insanely in love with a man who has left him to marry a woman.
The psychosexual nature of Armin’s obsession is made even clearer in the film’s final act. When Ondrej and Lenora are married, Armin turns up at the gate and looks in at the couple as they celebrate their wedding. As a child, Ondrej looked in at Lenora with a combination of fear and frustrated desire, now it is Armin’s turn to look in at Ondrej with a similar set of feelings. As a child, Ondrej could not act upon his feelings for Lenora and, as a knight, Armin cannot allow himself to act on his.
In a desperate attempt to avoid bloodshed, Ondrej and Lenora invite Armin to sit down and drink and… for a minute… Armin seems happy enough. However, Armin’s apparent calm comes not from some tentative acceptance that Ondrej has moved on with his life but from an inability to act. Indeed, throughout the film, Armin is presented as a character who talks a lot more than he acts. For example, when Armin meets with his commander, he suggests that he will be dragging Ondrej home in chains. But when Armin actually does catch up with Ondrej, he finds himself unable to take up arms against him or even argue with him about the need to return to the order. Similarly, though Armin arrives at the wedding dripping with apocalyptic rhetoric and spoiling for a fight, he finds himself unable to act against Ondrej once the pair are actually face to face. His fanaticism simply cannot overpower his love. But because Armin is a fanatic and because he is convinced that he is doing the right thing, he has to act and so he acts by attacking Lenora in a moment of almost orgasmic joy.
The Valley of the Bees ends with Ondrej making a pilgrimage to the wind-swept beach where the two men first met as novices. Kneeling at the water’s edge, Ondrej is clearly heartbroken and regretful over what happened to Armin. This is an interesting sequence as it speaks very much to the political interpretation of The Valley of the Bees: Here is a man who has been confronted by fanaticism but who managed to win his freedom. However, despite having no reason for needing to do so, Ondrej carries out Armin’s last wishes and returns to the ugly little beach where they first met. If read for its politics, this scene seems like a commentary upon the existence of a policeman inside peoples’ heads and how, even though the forces of totalitarianism may not be present to force them to do things, people subject to totalitarian rule still tend to follow the rules as though they are being observed 24 hours a day. On the other hand, if we read the scene in terms of the homoerotic themes I have suggested in this piece, Ondrej’s pilgrimage is an admission of where his heart really lay all along. Indeed, though the film makes it clear how Armin feels about Ondrej, it devotes very little time to unpacking and explaining Ondrej’s sudden desire to leave the order.
Ondrej flees the order after Armin decides to punish him for failing to prevent another knight from leaving. If we see the order as a symbolic representation of totalitarianism then Armin’s unjust treatment of Ondrej is a statement about how, under a totalitarian government, even your friends can turn upon you. But if Armin is nothing more than a government stooge then why does Ondrej not kill him? Why does he invite him to sit at his table on his wedding day? A more interesting way of reading this scene is to suggest that Ondrej’s departure from the order is representative of his dumping Armin over Armin’s abusive behaviour. Having left his lover, Ondrej returns home where he enters the closet and lives with his mother. When Armin turns up and attempts to drag Ondrej home, Ondrej acts to defend himself and to protect the secret of his sexuality but he never – not even for an instant – stops loving Armin. Ondrej is disappointed in Armin, he is hurt by his cruelty and he is dismayed by his creepy and stalkerish behaviour but he continues to love him and so he returns to the place they met. Not out of a desire to be redeemed or to pay penance for his crimes but because he loved a man and that man has now gone.
Armin’s downfall flows from his inability to recognise the true emotional basis for his moral beliefs. Armin was no tyrant, he was a lover driven insane by jealousy and loss. But because he had projected his love on Ondrej onto devotion to the order of the Teutonic Knights, he was ready to mistreat and possibly even murder Ondrej for his failure to act in accordance with Armin’s abstract and twisted vision of love. Ondrej, on the other hand, is a man who never lost sight of the fact that his devotion to the order was always about Armin. His refusal to deal with Armin despite the danger he posed to Ondrej’s freedom along with his romantic pilgrimage to the place where the pair first met speaks to the fact that Ondrej never stopped loving Armin and his love of God was always driven by a love of man.