Tag Archives: Czech

10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

Baron Prásil

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek

PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Baron Munchausen comes from  Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
  • Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
  • Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
  • Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.


Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some Continue reading 10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

THREE FANTASTIC JOURNEYS BY KAREL ZEMAN

Karel Zeman was a Czech animator, creator of some of the most lavishly stylized Jules Verne-inspired fantasy films ever made. His mature movies combined live actors with cutout animation and eye-popping three dimensional sets that defy imagination, with geometries that would make Escher scratch his head. Although the three major films chronicled here all made it onto an international stage and were dubbed into English, this pioneer remains known today mainly to a small group of cult movie fans and animation nerds. The Criterion Collection sought to rectify that oversight in 2020 with a very cool box set of three of Zeman’s best and wildest fantasies, newly restored and with a host of extras—many courtesy of the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague (yes, he’s that big of a deal in the Czech Republic).

In Zeman’s playful spirit, the Blu-ray set comes in a fold-out package with pop-up art (a dinosaur, a balloon, and Baron Munchausen riding a cannonball). The DVD set costs a few bucks less and is more modestly packaged. Otherwise, the extra features are the same between the formats. Each includes a foldout Michael Atkinson essay that’s presented like a vintage newspaper or playbill. Although the Blu-ray packaging is both chic and retro, the three fantastic journeys are the star features.

Disc 1: 1955’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is the perfect introduction to Karel Zeman. It tells the story of four boys who take off downriver, traveling backwards through time as they row along, first encountering woolly mammoths, then dinosaurs. This is the kind of movie a Disney might have produced in America, full of wholesome adventure and a healthy dose of scientific facts to nourish growing minds. At times, it plays more like a trip to the natural history museum than a rousing adventure yarn; but the kid actors are surprisingly good, and the stop-motion animation is often the equal of (and sometimes better than) Zeman’s American counterpart, Ray Harryhausen. It’s unmistakably a kid’s movie, and more simplistic in craft than the director’s future features, but you can already tell a sure hand is on the rudder.

Still from Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)Like all the discs, the first includes a Czech trailer and a selection of short “museum documentaries” from the Karel Zeman Museum. The footage from these museum documentaries, which provide context for each film and reveal some of Zeman’s techniques, run about two to six minutes each, and will later be incorporated into disc 3’s full-length documentary. It’s handy to have the bits specific to the film you’re watching collected in one place, however. This section of the disc also presents a short before-and-after restoration Continue reading THREE FANTASTIC JOURNEYS BY KAREL ZEMAN

CAPSULE: DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (1964)

Démanty noci 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ladislav Jánsky, Antonín Kumbera

PLOT: Two Jewish boys escape from the Nazis and flee through the German countryside.

Still from Diamonds of the Night (1964)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A minimalist mix of almost-documentary realism with disorienting fantasies and flashbacks, there are rewards to be had in digging up the buried narrative gems in Diamonds of the Night. But despite its impressive pathos, it’s easy to see why this dour, low-budget sleeper wasn’t one of the enduring international breakout titles of the . Nemec would deliver better films.

COMMENTS:We open on two boys running into the woods with a train clacking in the background. They ditch overcoats painted with the letters “KL” (for “konzentrationslager,” indicating they are bound for Nazi concentration camps) as they flee the sound of gunfire and cries of “halt!”

This thrilling opening soon loses steam, however, as the boys continue to run, then slow to a walk, then walk, and walk, and walk, occasionally pausing to lap water from a stream like dogs or take off their boots to check on their spreading blisters. It’s all shot with documentary-style shaky handheld cameras. There is no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes (and little thereafter).

The drudging pace and gray tedium of this opening will lose many viewers. The increasing confusion of the story will lose even more; but it is here is where Diamonds of the Night starts to get interesting. A few mysterious flashbacks—one of the boys climbing through cars in an empty passenger trolley, random scenes of the two trekking through almost deserted cities—are spread throughout the film’s first half. These increase in frequency as the movie progresses, and start to overlap with fantasy scenes, creating layers of memory, dreams and reality that blend together. When one of the boys barges in on a farm wife as she prepares lunch, for a while it’s unclear what really happens. We see alternative scenarios, one in which she silently hands him bread to eat, and one in which he kills her and takes the loaf. It’s immaterial whether he really strikes her down or not; he’s hungry and desperate enough to kill, and it’s only a question of fate whether he raises his hand or not.

In the second half of the film, the fugitives are hunted by a posse of German men too old to serve at the front; it’s grimly amusing to see the aged squad arthritically stalk them through the forest. An extended, chopped-up sequence of flashbacks shows one of the pair strolling through Prague streets that were deserted in previous flashbacks, wearing the coat that destines him for the death camps, running through the trolley once more, thinking of a dark-haired girl, pressing a doorbell and getting no answer; impressions of a life just before the Nazis seized him that conveys a sense of oppression without telling a coherent story. They are caught by their doddering pursuers when one of the boys can no longer run on his injured foot and the other stops to help him; a flashback shows the healthy one trading his boot to the injured one for food on the concentration camp train.

Matching the nonlinear storyline, the film is also out of phase aurally: sometimes the sounds of memories will lap over into the current times, and sometimes the opposite happens, further blurring the boundary between past and present, fantasy and reality.

Diamonds was adapted from Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novel; Nemec’s student graduation thesis film (1960’s “A Loaf of Bread,” included on the Criterion disc) was also a Lustig adaptation. As a first narrative feature, Diamonds of the Night plays like a very advanced student film; even it’s padded-yet-barely-over-an-hour runtime fits the bill. There are fascinating moments, but probably only a half and hour of truly interesting material here, interspersed with long stretches of the boys trudging joylessly through the woods. The 2019 Criterion release supplements the film’s short running time with two short documentaries featuring Nemec, a visual essay, Czech New Wave expert Irena Kovaroa, the aforementioned student short, and of course a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a realistic Czechoslovak film about two escapees from a German concentration camp; it makes one realize just how valid and necessary absurdism, particularly the austere absurdism of great dramatists like Beckett or even Pinter, is.”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

355. LUNACY (2005)

Sílení 

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”–Edgar Allen Poe, 1848 letter to George W. Eveleth

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová

PLOT: A young man suffers recurring nightmares about white-coated men coming to seize him in the night. When he awakens the guests at a roadside inn as he thrashes about during one of these attacks, one man, a modern-day Marquis, takes an interest in him and invites him back to his manor. There, the Marquis troubles the traveler with macabre games that may be real or may be staged, then suggests he voluntarily commit himself to an experimental mental asylum for “purgative therapy” to cure his nightmares.

Still from Lunacy [Sileni] (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • The script is loosely based on two stories: “The Premature Burial” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The character of the Marquis is obviously based on the .
  • Svankmajer wrote an initial version of the script that became Lunacy in the 1970s, but the Communist authorities refused to approve the film.
  • This was the last film Svankmajer would work on with his longtime collaborator, costume designer, and wife, Eva Svankmajerová; she died a few months after the film’s completion. Among her other duties, she painted the deck of cards featuring Sadean tortures.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one of Svankmajer’s meaty animations. We picked the scene of brownish cow tongues slithering out of a classical bust—including a pair escaping from the marble nipples—but we wouldn’t blame you for going with the sirloin marionettes instead.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Meat bumpers; shirt unlocking door; human chickens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s got the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks dancing in between scenes. Despite that lineup, it may be Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional movie. The director calls it an “infantile tribute to Edgar Allen Poe” in his introduction—and is interrupted by a tongue inching its way across the floor.


Introduction to Lunacy (2005)

COMMENTS: The trailer explains that “ + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.” It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents would produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing Continue reading 355. LUNACY (2005)

CAPSULE: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST [PANNA A NETVOR] (1978)

AKA The Virgin and the Monster

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zdena Studenková, Vlastimil Harapes

PLOT: A virtuous, virginal merchant’s daughter pledges to live in a magical Beast’s castle to save her father’s life after he plucks a rose from the Beast’s garden; she falls in love and transforms him.

Still from Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor) (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Panna a Netvor is almost a Czech color remake of ‘s more famous film version of the fairy tale, with a few unique weird additions. It makes for an appealing Gothic fantasy, but one which does not distinguish itself enough from its classic inspiration to count as one of the 366 most notable weird movies.

COMMENTS: Identical source material explains a lot, but there are so many similarities between Juraj (The Cremator) Herz’s version of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale and Jean Cocteau’s better known classic that Panna a Nevtor almost strikes me as a Czech remake of the French film. The similarities occur especially in the unseen hospitality of the invisible servants of the Beast’s chateau, and shots from a candelabra’s POV and of Beauty running down a dark corridor with billowing curtains seem like direct nods to Cocteau.

The one big difference is that this adaptation takes pains to bring out the story’s horror elements. Netvor starts out like a Hammer film, in a lonely mist-shrouded wood, before segueing into an unsettling semi-animated title sequence of twisted flowers, animal skulls and lost souls that sits somewhere between Hieronymus Bosch and ‘s Fantastic Planet designs. The score is a portentous recurring dirge played on a pipe organ. Netvor focuses on the Beast’s cursed role as a reluctant killer; rather than simply seeing Cocteau’s poetically-rendered smoking paws, this Beast gets blood (both human and animal) under his talons. If Cocteau’s cursed prince was sometimes criticized for being too cute to be frightening, Herz solves this problem with a strange bird-of-prey interpretation of the Beast: it might look a little silly, but at least it’s not something a sane Beauty would consider cuddling with.

Bravura surreal moments include Beauty’s drugged dream, where human bedposts lower the canopy until it turns into a coffin-like box, and a second monster who hangs around in the shadows and telepathically encourages the Beast to give in to his animal side. There are not enough of these touches, however, to transform the movie into a Surrealist version of the tale (although Cocteau’s treatment was not literally Surrealist either). All told, Panna a Netvor is a worthwhile variation on the familiar story, one that will appeal to horror fans, but it shouldn’t displace the classic version in your heart.

A word of warning: animal lovers may want to boycott this feature, which definitely would not have been approved by the ASPCA due to a scene of a horse trampling a frightened doe. It’s an unnecessary lapse of good taste in a film that is otherwise elegantly appointed. Also be aware that the only available DVD, while not region coded, is in PAL format, meaning some U.S. players will not be able to handle it; and although there are English subtitles for the film, the menus and extras are all in Czech. Check your system’s compatibility before ordering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many viewers may takes issue with the unusual Beast design, which does take some getting used to, as do such odd sights as what is essentially a giant bird galloping around on a horse. Thankfully, that ends up hardly even mattering in the long run. The film is so beautifully-crafted, visually arresting and richly atmospheric the Beast could have been wearing a paper bag over his head and I still would have bought it.”–Justin McKinney, The Bloody Pit of Horror

(This movie was nominated for review by “Leaves,” who advised “[f]or crazy Czech films… Beauty and the Beast is a great choice.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

CAPSULE: THE OSSUARY AND OTHER TALES (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Various

PLOT: The collection of short films on this disc range from people-puppet tellings of classic opera to unconventional documentaries, as well as examples of what Svankmajer is most known for: stop motion animation with a decidedly macabre aura of cheekiness.

Still from The Ossuary and Other Tales
“The Last Trick”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would be easy to argue that these short films are all very well done, and easier still to contend that a handful of them are disorientingly bizarre. However, the overall degree of weirdness fluctuates greatly, and seeing as this is a compilation of shorts anyway, Mr. Svankmajer will have to make do with his feature-length Certifications.

COMMENTS: Jan Svankmajer’s influence is well known to the visitors of this website. His body of work, beginning in 1964 with “The Last Trick,” has inspired everyone from ‘s to the Pennsylvanian duo, the . The Ossuary and Other Tales is something of a scatter-shot collection of his short films from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, and is intriguing both for its content and its omissions. Over the course of two hours, the viewer gets to marvel at increasingly surreal sleight-of-hand from a pair of competing magicians (“The Last Trick”), watch a summary of the earth’s life forms put to classic dance riffs (“Historia Naturae [Suita]”), see ominous social commentary (“The Garden”), and even catch up on some classic opera (sans opera) with “Don Juan.” The overall result is a nice showcase of Svankmajer’s scope and talent, but it leaves one feeling that there are some gaps.

Two of the highlights of the anthology are “The Ossuary” (1970) and “Castle of Otranto” (1979). Both are documentaries. The former is made up entirely of shots of the famed Sedlec Ossuary, home to the remains of forty to seventy thousand people whose bones are arranged in intricate formations. Most notable are an enormous bone chandelier and the coat of arms of the royal house that funded the project. The voice-over from the never-seen tour guide provides commentary, challenging the school children the guide is ostensibly lecturing to contemplate what they could hope to make with all this human material, and constantly reminding them that there is a 50 crown fine (“to be paid immediately!”) for touching the remains.

“Castle of Otranto” is more conventional in that it features an interviewer speaking with an amateur archaeologist who is convinced the fabled story from Horace Walpole’s Gothic tale is based on an actual castle, the Otrhany ruins found in (then) Czechoslovakia. The documentary bits are interspersed with Gilliam-esque (Svankmajer-esque?) animations of Walpole’s story, one that involves love, betrayal, and a truly massive knight. The amateur archaeologist contends that the Otrhany ruins show evidence of both the existence and gargantuan size of said knight as described in the book; the interviewer is skeptical, providing some mundane explanations for the archaeologist’s circumstantial evidence. In a nice twist, the words of doubt prompt a tumbling of rocks and debris on the pair and the camera pans up to a massive gauntlet smashing through the tower above them.

There is too little space to cover everything included here, but at the same time I was left wanting more material. Those who enjoyed the “uncanny valley” effect of the Certified Weird Marquis will revel in Svankmajer’s “Don Juan,” with its people dressed as marionettes. The dangers of solitary drinking and soccer obsession are explored in “Virile Games,” which features a man slowly getting hammered while watching a match on TV, and combines live-action, cut-out animation, and stop motion (the last of which showcases the offing of the soccer players in various clever ways). So there is a wealth of material here: but not nearly all of it. Looking over a list of Svankmajer’s shorts, it appears that maybe just half show up in The Ossuary. Hopefully a truly comprehensive Blu Ray disc will come along to put things right; until then, I advise completists to pick up what they can where they can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a great compilation of truly odd little films.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk

(This movie was nominated for review by “hazebass7,” who said “This movie is teeming with weird imagery and a great avant-garde feel. I was greatly entertained by this collection’s weirdness and I think that it would be a great addition to the list!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)