Wednesday 11 July 2018

The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman

If anyone can truly be said to have captured the spirit of Georges Méliès, it is Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. It is one thing to use the methods pioneered by Méliès, which in a sense makes all subsequent filmmakers his children. When Méliès purchased his first camera, the art was so new that in developing his screen fantasies, he created many of the techniques that would become standard practice in the medium for a century. It is quite another to be heir to the spirit of wide-eyed wonder and fantasy that infuses Méliès' films themselves.

Most filmmakers don't even make the attempt, which is their right, since not all creative visions need be the same. A few try, but none have come so close as Karel Zeman. Heralded as one of the fathers of Czech animation, his films are celluloid adventures in wonder and whimsy carefully crafted from nearly every form of special effect known before the invention of computers. He is what a modern Méliès might have grew into, his films a Jules Verne illustration come to life.

Zeman was born in what is today the Czech Republic in 1910, and after artistic training abroad found himself trapped in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the Thirties. With time on his hands, he was taken on by an animation firm in the Forties, beginning his long career as Eastern Europe's premier animator. His hallmark was experimentation and combination of techniques, incorporating live-action, puppetry, stop-motion, traditional animation, cut-out animation, double-exposure, and virtually every other cinematic effect known to man, often in the same scene. The result were meticulously crafted films bringing classic literary art to life. 

Original Czech poster for Vynález zkázy,
resembling the cover of a Verne novel. 
His most archetypal work is 1958's Vynález zkázy (The Deadly Invention) or better known by its 1961 English dub, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. The film is specifically an adaptation of Jules Verne's 1896 novel Facing the Flag, but also draws inspiration from  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and the Robur stories, at the barest minimum. The overall impression is the sort of world where all of Jules Verne's creations have been made manifest.  

The story is faint rationalization for what The Fabulous World of Jules Verne really sets out to accomplish. In it, a man waxes philosophical on the magnificent achievements of humanity as it has conquered the land, sea, and air, ushering in a new age of science that has abolished outmoded ways of life and thought. He is on his way to visit his friend Professor Roch, who has discovered a new energy source that could be just as easily used for destruction as for creation. Unfortunately, after a midnight raid, the Professor and his assistant are abducted into the submarine of the villainous Count Artigas, "last and most diabolical of the buccaneers" (according to the English dub). To the chagrin of Simon, the assistant, Professor Roch is unwittingly helping the scallywags to develop a doomsday weapon on their volcanic island base. 

The contention of the plot is familiar to anyone who has seen any Atomic Age Science Fiction film of the Sixties. It could have as easily been the standard Hollywood fare by Disney or Twentieth Century Fox from the time, another 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or The Mysterious Island. What sets it apart is its unbelievable visual style. It is not only a film set in the kind of world envisioned by Verne, but also the world as visualized by the illustrations to Verne's novels. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is an Edouard Riou engraving sprung to life, projected and given motion right from the pages of the text.  A review for Locus Online eloquently describes the complicated and astonishing process:
This is a live-action black and white movie — but it uses every camera trick and every form of animation known in 1958... Methods include stop-motion, paper cutout, drawing and painting animation, drawn foregrounds and backdrops, dissolves, miniatures and models, double exposure (probably in-camera and superimposition), still images, traveling and stationary mattes — they're all here. There were at least eight people watching; someone yelled out at one point "There are at least seven different things going on in this scene!" (I counted eight.) And all this before the invention of blue screens!

There are lines drawn on sets, and even on people, to keep the original steel-engraving feel. The scenes of ships of the water have been treated with some sort of light, striped screen (probably cloth, probably double-exposed) that makes the moving waves of real water take on the appearance of the engraved lines in a 19th century drawing of the sea. There's a scene of a train coming down a track — the train is drawn; the wheels and the tracks are animated; the (real) engineer stands on an open platform in the engine's cab and (real) people lean out of the (drawn) passenger car. (It's so simple and powerful it takes your breath away.) Actors walk through back-projected sets; at the same time they're walking behind animated full-sized paper cutouts of spinning flywheels and meshing gears, all this in front of a painted set in the middle-background. For maybe five seconds of screen time. There's a scene of an animated shark attacking a real diver in a model set with painted water.

Trailer for the digital restoration of Vynález zkázy.

Before Vynález zkázy, Zeman released Poklad ptačího ostrova in 1953 and Cesta do pravěku in 1955. The former, which translates to The Treasure of Bird Island, was a retelling of Persian tales rendered in the form of animated Persian painted illustrations. The latter was dubbed, partly reshot, and released in the United States as Journey to the Beginning of Time

The ostensible source material for Journey to the Beginning of Time was the 1915 Russian novel Plutonia, Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, and the paintings of the celebrated Czech palaeontological artist Zdeněk Burian. The story, such as it is, involves a group of boys who find themselves canoeing up the River of Time, passing glaciers, Mammoth, Uniatherium, Styracosaurs, Pteranodons, Stegosaurs and Ceratosaurs, a Paleozoic swamp and the full breadth of geological time. In the Americanized version, the trip begins with the boys falling asleep on a bench at the American Museum of Natural History. In the original, the lead character is simply reminiscing about a curious canoe trip they once took.     

Both Plutonia, by Russian geologist Vladimir Obruchev, and Journey to the Center of the Earth feature characters descending literally through the geologic strata of the Earth to see prehistoric life first hand. Zeman has his daring boys floating along a river, but in many ways, Journey to the Beginning of Time is an even purer, more thematically accurate adaptation than the several proper versions of Journey to the Center of the Earth that have cropped up over the years. For the most part, adaptations of Journey to the Centre of the Earth exchange the true theme of the story for an adventuresome romp through the underworld where there happen to be dinosaurs and giant mushrooms. That is quite enjoyable, of course, but it misses the point of Verne's novel. That novel is essentially a time travel story without need of a time machine, allowing the reader to go into deep time by going deep into the earth. Instead of the inner earth, Zeman substitutes a canoe ride down the river of time, but the effect is essentially the same. Journey to the Beginning of Time is a travelogue of prehistory.

This accuracy lends itself immeasurably to the concept. We're taken along with the boys' personal adventure, but for the most part we're in as much awe as them, watching the spectacles of ancient life passing by the canoe. At the outset, the world is familiar. Glaciers and icebergs give way to mountains and pine forests filled with stop-motion woolly mammoths. These forests pass into desert landscapes of palms and cycads in which Stegosaurs and Ceratosaurs square off to the death (a rare example of contemporaneous dinosaurs in battle). The boys are able to examine the fight's loser up close when their canoe is wrecked by an anonymous dinosaur. Building a raft, they sail on to the hazy, atmospheric tree-fern swamps of the Paleozoic Era, swarming with giant insects and amphibians. Finally they hike across the dry and lifeless Precambrian landscape before reaching the primordial sea, beyond which lies the volcanic fury of earth's creation and the void from which God drew it.

A clip from Cesta do pravěku.

The most romantic, in the philosophical sense, of Zeman's films is undoubtedly Baron Prášil, otherwise known as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. This 1961 film is an incredible love letter to Zeman's muses. His rendition of the life and times of history's most humble compulsive liar is not a simple narrative of the legends surrounding him. Rather, it begins with a time lapse of humanity's striving towards the moon, and when they arrive on the lunar surface, they are greeted by Cyrano de Bergerac and the characters of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. The modern astronaut Tony (and recall that the moon landing was another eight years in the future) is assumed, by his strange dress, to be a true Lunarian. The poets then take it upon themselves to show their new friend the wonders of their own home. For this duty they call upon the incomparable Baron Munchausen.

Their initial conveyance to Earth is a tall ship borne by flying horses. Munchausen assumes that this astonishes the moon man, but for all the wrong reasons. The whole time, the Baron observes, he speaks prosaically of science, engineering and mathematics. Nevertheless, Munchausen is pleased to show him the delicacy of human dreams by taking him to a lush Oriental Sultanate. After all, Tony is from the moon and the symbol of the Turk is the crescent moon.

The pair rescue a captive princess, over whom they will spend the remainder of the film competing. Bianca has but two loves, though. The first is Tony, and the second is the moon. All of Zeman's camera tricks are in prime form as he takes the lovers through countless landscapes inspired by the majesty of Gustave Doré's illustrations. From the opulence of Orientalist palaces to the midnight, moonlit ocean of Coleridge, Doré's engravings come to animated life much like Édouard Riou's did for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

In the end, the trio surrealistically arrive back on the surface of the moon. All are bid farewell by a waving Bergerac, who proclaims that to now, the moon was the sole domain of the poet and dreamer. It is becoming the realm of the scientist and explorer. However, it is and will always most truly belong to the lovers. Baron Munchausen is Karel Zeman's great paean to that gleaming silver orb of night.

Clips from Baron Prášil. 

Each of Zeman's Verne-inspired films begins with an artistic montage outlining its general theme. In The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, we see the "age of progress" through the eyes of the protagonist, whereas in Baron Munchausen it is humanity's ascent into the sky, and into space, and finally to the moon where we catch up with the imagination. In 1964's Ukradená vzducholod (The Stolen Airship) it is the long history of adults wagging their fingers at children.

A little Neanderthal relieves himself on the family fire, Roman flower-bearers upset an urn on a horse's head, Mediaeval lovers steal a kiss, and a pet monkey interferes with a Victorian street performer... Adults just can't cut kids a break. We are then introduced to our heroes: a group of five children standing in the docket in court, forced to explain their adventure in a perloined dirigible. What an adventure! Zeman fuses together Verne's Robinsonade Two Years' Vacation about a group of schoolchildren lost on a South Pacific island with his Mysterious Island. The Nautilus and Nemo himself does make an appearance, in which he reminisces about his exploits with a boy who loves reading about them, and there is even a reference to In Search of the Castaways by way of a letter in a bottle conveyed via shark.

Boy's own adventure is deftly spliced with burlesques of the adult world. Scandals erupt over the children who have made off with the airship and the town magistrate is prepared to practically hang the delinquent parents, until learning that his own son is amongst the brigands. The airship's owner is a bit of an entrepreneur, having told everyone that his ship utilizes a new form of incombustible gas. Stocks are selling out and caper-comedy spies have been employed by foreign governments to uncover the secret of the gas. None of this does the boys any good when lightening strikes their airship and it bursts into flame. All of the scandals are fuelled by the local newspaper and its shifty reporter who has taken as great an interest in the airship owner's fetching Gibson Girl assistant as he has in the case itself. It's probably in the children's own best interests to get as far away from these people as they can.

In Zeman's typical fashion, he goes above and beyond the source material to fashion a world in which every sort of Vernian invention, Robidian airship and Mélièsian contraption perambulate. Not content to supply us with merely fantastic content, he is true to form by lovingly recreating the style of an engraved illustration come to life. In the cycle of Zeman's films, The Stolen Airship brings together his tributes to imagination and Jules Verne like The Fabulous World of Jules Verne with his "boys own adventure" stories like Journey to the Beginning of Time. It might appear to reinforce the maligned view that Verne was primarily a juvenile writer, but it is impossible to escape the fact that Verne really did appeal so much to children. The art is not to try and steal Verne back from the hands of the young, but to attain a sense of child-like wonder through this purloined zeppelin.

Clips from Ukradená vzducholod.

Na kometě (On the Comet), released in 1970, is one of Czech auteur Karel Zeman's last feature films and his last direct adaptation of Jules Verne. Based on the novel Hector Servadac, Zeman has crafted a film that is once again true to the form of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and The Stolen Airship.

Unrest afflicts French Algeria as a coalition between an Arab warlord and a Spanish diplomat spells explosive doom for the French army. Ignorant to these machinations is Hector Servadac, a surveyor who, through hallucinations about a beautiful woman he saw in a postcard, falls over a cliff and into the sea. He is rescued from the brine by an equally beautiful woman, Angelica, who was kidnapped by the Spanish and escaped as they disembarked. While the Spanish plant their bomb at the French fortress, an evil star appears in the sky. In truth it is a comet, and when the bomb explodes, the fortress, village, and a large part of the Mediterranean lift. Compelled by the power of gravity, they land on the comet and retreat into the stellar frontier.

Zeman keenly uses the situation of castaways in space to satirize the absurdities of political intrigues and military bureaucracy. Though the world has completely transformed around them, literally gone out from beneath them, each force continues in its plots. The French revert to sealed orders "in case of confusion", locked away in the same cabinet as the fine wine. The Arab shiek is intent to take over this new world and the Spanish are waiting in the wings. Not even the sudden appearance of stop-motion dinosaurs is enough to stop them. Peace comes with the threat of apocalypse under the influence of Mars, but can it possibly remain?

On the Comet is as stunning as every Zeman film, its merits going without statement. However, like every Zeman film, it has yet to appear in wide DVD release. Thankfully the Internet has intervened where formal distributors have failed us.

Clips from Na kometě.

After On the Comet, Zeman largely turned from live-action spectacles to more traditional animation. First came Pohádky tisíce a jedné noci (Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor) in 1974, then Čarodějův učeň (Krabat – The Sorcerer's Apprentice) in 1977, and finally Pohádka o Honzíkovi a Mařence (The Tale of John and Mary) in 1977. Each of these were rendered in Mediaeval woodcut style through cutout animation, a style he experimented with in his 1964 live-action feature film Bláznova kronika (A Jester's Tale) and more familiar to audiences today through Terry Gilliam's aping of it in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The truth of Zeman is that, outside of Eastern Europe, his legacy is better known than his works. His films inspired Gilliam, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, and Jan Švankmajer among many others.

Nonetheless, his fabulous worlds are worth seeking out. The strange cinematic universe he created are places of ingenuity, beauty, and poetry that are among the most rewarding in film history.

1 comment:

tom j jones said...


Great review - I really love his films. Fabulous Voyage was my favourite movie for a while, until I watched it too often!

All of Karel Zeman's films are available on DVD - and Fabulous Voyage and Baron Prasil also on Blu Ray - on order from the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague. You can google the site - it has an English language page. They each have some extras and English subtitles. The DVDs and Blu Rays are decent prices, but the postage can almost double it, sadly. But good value for any true fan.