A Slovak-American collaboration brought one of the world’s first full-length silent films to people across Europe and the United States.
As the cinematic masterpiece Jánošík celebrates its 100th year, its messages of freedom of expression and democracy still resonate, and the story of the film’s creation highlights the long-standing U.S.-Slovak friendship.
Since the mid-19th century, Chicago has had a large Slovak immigrant population that at one point grew as large as 600,000. In 1920, a group of Slovak Americans established the Tatra Film Corporation there with plans to expand it across Eastern Europe — setting up offices in Prague, Bratislava and Žilina.
Six months after establishing the corporation, company representatives traveled to Slovakia to plan their first feature-length film. Two brothers, Jaroslav and Daniel Siakeľ, served as the director and director of photography. Both had immigrated to the United States in 1912 with their family from Slovakia.
With Slovak producer Ján Závodný and František Horlivý, a Czech theater director also from Chicago, the Siakeľs began to shoot the film Jánošík in Blatnica, Slovakia.
The rolling hills of the town were the perfect setting to cast the story of Slovakia’s famous outlaw, Juraj Jánošík. The 18th-century hero is known for his adventures plundering riches from tyrannical feudal lords and redistributing wealth to impoverished peasants. The resulting film was a fusion of American and Slovak cinematic innovation. The film had separate premieres in Slovakia and in the United States only six months after filming concluded.
At first the film was among the most screened pieces of its era, but later it was considered lost. An American copy was found in the 1960s, but the Slovak version has not been preserved.
Two hundred years later, Jánošík — who scholars think did exist in real life — represents freedom from oppressive governments and freedom of expression to many in Slovakia. And even now, 100 years after his story first appeared on film, his fight against injustice still resonates with many.