Lemuel Gulliver is standing before a roadblock. He takes an unpaved detour and finds himself lost in a tranquil forest while his car drives on without him. With a misleading sense of familiarity, he comes upon a solitary decaying house littered with forgotten emblems of his childhood and catches a glimpse of Marketa, his first love, who drowned twenty years earlier. Reality gives way under Lemuel’s feet, and, after being gunned down by mysterious intruders, he plunges into Balnibarbi through a door in the floor. There a professor holds up a flashcard reading “I’m sorry, but this is not a dream,” and an eerie silence prevails. Lemuel is arrested by the rather ludicrous Academy of Inventors for possession of a watch he purloined from the corpse of a well-dressed rabbit (the first of many Alice in Wonderland references) and the next day he is used as a case study for a college class on interrogation. Later he’s called before the childlike governor and learns that Balnibarbi is beset by the flying kingdom of Laputa, which blots out the sun for long periods. He meets a succession of rather unhelpful characters, joins a dubious band of poet rebels, witnesses a water riot at some sort of refugee camp and has other adventures, but primarily busies himself with chasing the elusive Marketa. Her real identity is in constant flux and it doesn’t help that as whenever he makes any romantic progress he wakes up in a bed, naked, with another woman entirely.
At the heart of the film’s fertile imagination and haunting imagery is Juracek’s talent for scouting out locations bound up in otherworldly enchantments and dressing baroque sets in dilapidation rife with lost history, but it wouldn’t have worked without cinematographer Jan Kalis’s unique combination of seductive nostalgia and noir menace. Case for a Rookie Hangman is a rare film, even within the context of the underappreciated Czech New Wave, but it has a unique, timeless brilliance.