I was lucky enough to visit the Karel Zeman museum in Prague. I’d not known of his work before. His ingenuity in creating so many marvellous special effects for films is dazzlingly on display at the museum, and in imaginative and interactive ways children of all ages delight in. But I was too cheap to actually buy one of his films. I thought it would simply be added to the growing mountain of DVD’s one should watch but probably won’t. Also, upon first glance, the films seemed too crude, ‘primitive’ even, the kind of Eastern fantasies ok for Communist era audiences then or film historians who makes this a specialty now but… All my prejudices spilled out. How wrong I was.
When travelling in foreign parts I’ve been making a point of visiting their Cinémathéques or Film Institutes. The Danish one is a marvel. A retrospective of Luis Buñuel was the highlight of the varied programme on offer (see below).
There were varied exhibitions children could join in:
There was a fantastic blu-screen interactive display, which as you can see below, was a great delight to myself and my companion.
And you could hang around at the Asta (aster Asta Nielsen) bar whilst in between activities at the Danish Cinemateket:
The young people selling tickets are cinephiles and their enthusiasm and knowledge is what led us to buy tickets to Straub Huillet’s The Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach (which for reasons I won’t go into here we did not manage to attend) and a marvellous and long-prolonged encounter with Zeman’s work.
The most important aspect in any Cinémathéque is the films curated, programmed and screened. And it was here, amongst a selection of film adaptations of works by Jules Verne, that I once again encountered the work of Karel Zeman, The Deadly Invention/ Den Dødbringende Opfindelse / The Fabulous World of Jules Verne/ An Invention for Destruction/Vynález zkázy: it’s a work that goes by many names and is ostensibly the most popular film ever in the old Czechoslovakia. The look is like that of a Victorian engraving of Jules Verne’s novels mixed with live action; and I can do no better than quote Pauline Kael’s mini-review in full:
Among Georges Méliès’ most popular creations was his 1902 version
of Jules Verne’s A TRIP TO THE MOON (which was used at the
beginning of Michael Todd’s production of AROUND THE WORLD IN
80 DAYS). Another great movie magician, the Czech Karel Zeman,
also turning to Jules Verne for inspiration, made this wonderful giddy
science fantasy. (It’s based on Facing the Flag and other works.) Like
Méliès, Zeman employs almost every conceivable trick, combining live
action, animation, puppets, and painted sets that are a triumph of
sophisticated primitivism. The variety of tricks and superimpositions
seems infinite; as soon as you have one effect figured out another
image comes on to baffle you. For example, you see a drawing of half
a dozen sailors in a boat on stormy seas; the sailors in their little
striped outfits are foreshortened by what appears to be the hand of a
primitive artist. Then the waves move, the boat rises on the water, and
when it lands, the little sailors-who are live actors-walk off, still
foreshortened. There are underwater scenes in which the fishes
swimming about are as rigidly patterned as in a child’s drawing (yet
they are also perfectly accurate drawings). There are more stripes,
more patterns on the clothing, the decor, and on the image itself than a
sane person can easily imagine. The film creates the atmosphere of
the Jules Verne books which is associated in readers’ minds with the
steel engravings by Bennet and Riou; it’s designed to look like this
world-that-never-was come to life, and Zeman retains the antique,
make-believe quality by the witty use of faint horizontal lines over some
of the images. He sustains the Victorian tone, with its delight in the
magic of science, that makes Verne seem so playfully archaic.’
Released in the U.S. with narration and dialogue in English.
According to Wiki, ‘ In 2011, the science fiction writer John C. Wright identified Vynález zkázy as the first steampunk work and Zeman as the inventor of that genre, commenting that if the film “is not the steam-powered Holy Grail of Steampunkishness, it surely ought to be.’
Seeing it was a delirious delight, and one which I’m grateful to the Danish Cinemateket for providing. I am also grateful to Ian Banks for pointing me to this wonderful documentary on Zeman’s work, the Magical World of Karel Zeman, which well demonstrates Zeman’s techniques and how he achieved some of the effects that make his films so magical. It can be seen on youtube here