The Czech Méliès: Karel Zeman

Over two weeks ago, I returned from my two month-long journey in Europe, where I lived and studied in Paris for a month and then did the same in Prague. (If you're curious about my time in Paris, you can see my post about it here.) Prague was absolutely gorgeous -- possibly the prettiest place I've ever seen -- but I'm afraid I didn't do much learning while I was there. My class on Czech cinema wasn't nearly as informative as I wanted it to be, especially in comparison to my French cinema course, but there is one thing I will always cherish from it: discovering Karel Zeman, the man called the Czech Méliès.

Zeman was an animator from the 1940's up until his death in 1989, a genius who often combined live action and animation to beautiful effect. In 2012, Prague opened its Karel Zeman Museum, also called the Film Special Effects Museum, and it was there during a class field trip that I fell in love. The images I saw were striking and imaginative, with exhibits accompanied by film clips and interviews that give you insight into the behind-the-scenes action and how Zeman was able to achieve what he did. Unfortunately, my
teacher whizzed us through the museum, leaving me no time to absorb the exhibits and thus giving me only a faint idea of what Zeman was about. I was still hooked, though -- I went to YouTube and watched as much as I could, and then during my last week in Prague, I returned to the museum, exiting the gift shop the proud owner of four Zeman films and one documentary.

So, what's so great about this guy? His visuals are some of the most riveting I've ever seen on the screen, for starters. In 1943, Zeman accepted a job offer at Zlín's animation studio and by 1945, he was directing his own short films. He created a very popular series focused on the puppet Mr. Prokouk; I couldn't find any video of the amusing Mr. Prokouk, but that's a photo of him above. What I could find online, though, was the superb 1948 short Inspiration. The result of a bet, Zeman worked with glass figurines to create this wonderful piece:


In the mid-1950's, the filmmaker produced the works he is perhaps best known for, which are his live-action films mixed with animation. As I said, so far, I've only watched four of Zeman's movies, but what I've seen has absolutely enchanted me, such as...

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958).
An ardent admirer of Jules Verne, Zeman delved into the adventurous worlds of the author and ultimately made four movies based on Verne's novels. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, also known as Invention for Destruction, may be Zeman's most well-known film, and it's often boasted as the most successful Czech film ever made. It was actually popular in America when it was first released! If you know 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this movie will seem familiar to you. A nefarious submarine captain kidnaps a great scientist and his assistant with the goal to use the scientist's recent research for evil. The assistant, Simon Hart, is desperate for a way to escape from the pirates and spends most of the picture attempting to foil the captain's plans.

While a pleasure to look at, I must confess that this movie is a slow-burner. It would have benefitted from a quicker pace and more fleshed-out characters; after all, it's only 78 minutes. The lack of dialogue is a main reason why we don't really get to know the characters, which is a shame. I found myself comparing it unfavorably to Disney's 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues, although both films are matchless in their aesthetics. Zeman employs hand-drawn sets, paper cutouts for long or wide shots, and other techniques to create a one-of-a-kind world. Old Hollywood often used matte backgrounds and such to fool the audience into thinking they were seeing a full-blown ballroom or something; Zeman does the same thing, but in a more obvious manner. It makes his films feel like storybooks that have come to life.

I do like the film, just not as much as I was hoping to. There were some moments of humor that were pretty great, such as when Hart climbs into a woman's room in the night and she asks him to go back and hang off the side of the building so she can put a proper dress on. They treat it like a perfectly reasonable request, this being the prim and proper 1800's. While not my favorite Zeman picture, Fabulous World is still nice to watch. You can view the museum's three minute video here to learn more about the behind-the-scenes action.













*****

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961).
Now, this is my favorite Zeman movie! The Baron is a swaggering, tall-tale-telling Renaissance man, someone who knows a little bit about everything and loves to show it off. He narrates this movie with his charmingly arrogant style, as he discovers an astronaut named Tony on the moon and mistakes him for a moon man. Wanting to show his new friend Earth, the Baron travels back to Turkey in the 18th century, where he and Tony meet the lovely Princess Bianca. Both men fall in love, with the Baron believing he's clearly the best choice. The group goes through a series of amazing adventures, including being swallowed by a whale and the Baron casually riding a cannonball, allowing Zeman's creativity to go wild.












The aesthetics were based on the artwork of Gustave Doré, but the overall effect is pure Zeman. This movie is the ultimate fantasy, taking its inspiration from German author Rudolf Erich Raspe, who created the Baron in 1785. You can read more about the literary character here. Often poetic and always entertaining, this film is like a dream you don't want to wake up from.

*****

On the Comet (1970).
Based on Jules Verne's Off on a Comet, this film takes place in 1888 at a French colony in Africa. Lieutenant Porucík Servadac is browsing at the street market one day when his eye comes across a postcard with a beautiful woman on the front. He's instantly smitten and completely surprised when he is later saved from drowning by that same woman, whose name is Angelica. She had just escaped from being held captive on the ship of a Spanish diplomat, who plans on helping a Middle-Eastern warlord become king of the colony by overtaking it. Everything is disrupted, however, by the appearance of a comet, which collides with Earth and takes the colony and its people with it. Finding themselves stranded in a strange world that includes dinosaurs and giant sea serpents, the people try to navigate their new environment while learning that maybe peace is the way to live instead of war.

On the Comet was Zeman's last Jules Verne feature, as well as his last film to combine live action and animation. The director was strongly anti-war, often depicting soldiers as buffoons and battle as something terrible and dependent on the fragile egos of men. When transported to the comet, Lt. Servadac realizes that their guns and weaponry are useless against the creatures that threaten to attack them, discovering that the noise from pots and pans is what really terrifies them. Later, when Mars is close to colliding with them, everyone assumes they're going to die and so they become friendly and carefree with one another, although just hours before they were ready to bomb each other.

On the Comet is also a bit of a head trip. I won't give away the ending, but it'll definitely make you rethink the film afterwards. While not as visually breathtaking as Baron Munchausen or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, On the Comet is still very worthy. There are some nice laugh-out-loud moments, and the anti-war sentiment is (unfortunately) relevant to our times. I also enjoyed the two leads very much -- Emil Horváth and Magda Vásáryová as Servadac and Angelica were wonderful. Clocking in at 77 minutes, the film doesn't overstay its welcome, either.















*****

In the 1970's, Zeman returned to more traditional animation, doing things like The Sorcerer's Apprentice and The Tale of John and Mary. I admit that I don't find the look of this animation very appealing, but it's still unique. He continued making movies until 1980; he died in 1989 at the age of 78. Zeman's work has inspired artists all over the world, including Terry Gilliam, Ray Harryhausen, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson. I'm very familiar with Burton and Anderson's films, so it's fun to see how they connect to what Zeman did. For starters, the look of Nightmare Before Christmas is reminiscent of Fabulous World of Jules Verne, and the use of paper cutouts and puppetry in Moonrise Kingdom and others are straight from Zeman's playbook. You can hear a snippet of Burton's admiration for the filmmaker in this trailer for a newly-released documentary on Zeman.

If you're finding yourself falling for Zeman's work like I did, you're in luck -- the Karel Zeman Museum has a good portion of his filmography available on DVD, including that documentary. These discs are superb, with special features, English subtitles that are 95%  grammatically correct, and restored versions of the movies that give you a gorgeous, crisp image. These DVDs are also all-region so you don't have to worry about your players not being compatible with them, and best of all, they're cheap. You can check out the selection here. Although 129 Czech crowns sounds like a lot, guess what? It's only about $5 USD!

If you're still on the fence about Zeman, I encourage you to check out the museum's website. They have tons of info and in my opinion, they're doing a wonderful job of keeping Karel Zeman's work alive. Part of our field trip actually included an animation workshop, where we worked together to create our own 30-second movie. If you're at all curious, you can see our finished masterpiece here. We did our best to live up to the Zeman name. (Well, as much as we could in two hours.)

With love,
Michaela

*********************************************************************************

This is my part of the massive Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, which looks at all aspects of cinema, both American and international. You can see the list of entries here.

Comments

  1. I can't believe I've never heard of him before! He was clearly a game changer. The images you posted are so arresting too, and the synopses sound great. I definitely have added them to my watchlist and have bookmarked this post. Thanks for such an informative contribution to the blogathon!

    PS: how cool that you got to make your own animated movie! :-D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Simoa! I was wanting to include Zeman's The Stolen Airship too, but I just didn't have the time. I hope you get the opportunity to check out his work sometime -- you might see some animation that looks familiar!

      Making our own short movie was pretty fun. We thought it would be stupid, and then within 10 minutes, we were totally consumed in the work. The museum was by far the high point of that class.

      Delete
  2. Firstly, I love Mr Prokouk and it's too bad his films are hard to find. He would definitely be one of my faves, if he isn't already. ;)

    Zeman's work is incredible! I was completely unfamiliar with his career until I read your post, and I'm so glad you introduced me. I like what you said about the films looking like storybooks brought to life.

    Also, I loved the animated short you did. I laughed out loud when the kid + snowball ran into a tree and caused an explosion! I did not see that coming.

    Thank you, Michaela, for joining the blogathon with this inspiring look at Karel Zeman.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so upset about Mr. Prokouk. I was able to see some of his shorts at the museum, so I'm hoping they release a collection soon. He's adorable!

      I wish I could take credit for the animated short's storyline, but that was definitely the boys in my class. I thought it was pretty funny.

      Thanks for co-hosting! I was very excited to be able to share about Zeman. He's kind of my new obsession.

      Delete
  3. Dear Michaela,
    Thank you for your inspiring look at Karel Zeman's work.

    Unfortunately, we can't realease a collection of Mr. Prokouk's short stories, because we haven't got the rights yet. Maybe in future.

    Hope you enjoyed our museum and get back when you'll be in Prague.

    Denisa Leskova

    KAREL ZEMAN MUSEUM


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank YOU for all the fantastic work you've done at the museum! I was so pleased with it and I can't recommend it enough! It's sad to hear that about the rights to Mr. Prokouk, but I'm hopeful everything will work out. Thank you so much for leaving a comment!

      Delete
  4. What a fascinating article on such an inventive and important filmmaker. Your readers are as happy as you are that you spent that time in Prague!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Prague was a wonderful experience, and learning about Karel Zeman only enhanced it!

      Delete
  5. I call myself a film lover, but I had never heard of Zeman! And, wow, the stills alone made me speechless, and you even added links to watch some of his movies! Thank you so much for presenting this fascinating guy to me!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Cheers!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hadn't heard of him either, so I can't blame you! I wish I could've found his films on YouTube, but it seems I could only find trailers. I probably could have dug deeper on the interwebs...

      It's taking me so long to get through all the various blogathons, but I'll try to get it done soon! Thanks so much for stopping by, Le!

      Delete

Post a Comment

You might've missed these popular posts...

Loving and Fighting Furiously: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Top Ten: Fred Astaire's Partners

The One Lovely Blog Award.

Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961)

Announcing the Doris Day Blogathon!

The Loss of Gene Wilder.

Announcing the Vincente Minnelli Blogathon!

10 days until the Vincente Minnelli blogathon!

Announcing En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon!