If you took special effects film pioneer Georges Melies and combined him with stop motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen and surreal fantasist Terry Gilliam, then taught him to speak Czech, you’d have a film maker very close to Karel Zeman.
I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
If you took special effects film pioneer Georges Melies and combined him with stop motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen and surreal fantasist Terry Gilliam, then taught him to speak Czech, you’d have a filmmaker very close to Karel Zeman. In fact, the latter two filmmakers were influences or influenced by Zeman. Harryhausen was a contemporary, and so the two men played off of one another’s work. And Gilliam frequently names Zeman as one of the biggest influences on the former Monty Pythoner’s exquisitely designed fantasy films. Unlike Harryhausen or Gilliam however, the name of Karel Zeman is relatively obscure to modern cult film fans outside of (and perhaps even inside) Zeman’s native Czech Republic. You know me though, and rather than play the old “what a tragedy this man is ignored” snob card, I think of Zeman’s under-the-radar nature as being an opportunity for discovery.
Born in 1910, Zeman never intended to work in movies but seemed destined to never the less. He went into advertising, working in Paris during the 1920 and 30s. It was while employed at an advertising studio in Marseilles that the young Zeman had his first experience with filmmaking and animation, when he was tasked with creating an animated commercial for a soap product. He traveled extensively after that before returning to his homeland. Upon his return to what was Austria-Hungary when he was born but was now the first independent Czech nation, Czechoslovakia, Zeman continued to work in advertising. During the lead-up to World War II, Zeman sought residence in Casablanca but did not get out the country in time. The newly formed Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia — an official way of saying “Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia” — blocked his travel. After the war, while teaching at a window dressing school, Zeman met Czech animator and filmmaker Elmar Klos, who would become most famous for the Academy Award winning film, The Shop on Main Street.
Zeman showed Klos some of the animation work he’d done in advertising, and Klos was so impressed that he offered Zeman a job at Zlin’s Animation Studio. Zeman accepted the position and began work first as an assistant to Hermina Tyrlova (“the mother of Czech animation”) and soon after as the director of the stop-motion animation group. His first big hit was the series Mr. Prokouk, and throughout the late 1940s, into the ’50s, Karel Zeman made a number of innovative, ground-breaking animated short films and specials. Animation was popular in Czechoslovakia, thanks in no small part to the tradition of marionette and puppet theater in the country. In 1955, buoyed by his success, Zeman made his first feature length film: Cesta do Praveku, or in English, Journey to the Beginning of Time.
Beginning at the Beginning of Time
I will not play at having been a Karel Zeman biographer when I stumbled across the museum in Prague. I know his name thanks to a review of one of Zeman’s films, The Stolen Airship, on Die Danger Die Die Kill. Having subsequently seen that movie, I put Karel Zeman on the list of filmmakers about whom I really wanted to know more. What I didn’t know at the time, because when it comes to research I can be rather on the lazy side, is that I was already familiar somewhat with the films of Karel Zeman. As is my way, with his name thus filed in my brain, I promptly forgot it until that day in Prague when I saw his name on the side of a building and thought, “Wait, isn’t that the Stolen Airship guy?”
I happily plunked down my entrance fee and stepped into the museum — which, at eleven in the morning on a Monday in the middle of January, I had to myself. Although I am, as you know, a man of the world with tastes sophisticated and refined (the Philly cheesesteak upon which I’m now feasting should be testament enough to that), I freely admit that there are some experiences that transform me almost instantly from aloof gadabout to giddy schoolboy. Disneyland, for example, and as I discovered, the Muzeum Karla Zemana. As soon as I set foot down the first dimly lit hallway lined with photographs, plaques, and stop motion models and marionettes, I was swept away by my own enthusiasm for such filmmaking. The early days of Zeman’s career are detailed, but it was when I made a turn down a costume and prop-lined passage dedicated to his feature film work that I realized I was more familiar with Zeman than I’d initially realized. Standing amid stills and models from Journey to the Beginning of Time, it struck me that I’d seen this movie before, albeit in its re-edited and dubbed American version.
A Parade of Dinosaurs
Cesta do Praveku tells the story of four lads — Petr (Josef Lukas), Tonik (Petr Herrmann), Jenda (Zdenek Husták), and Jirka (Vladimir Bejval) — enthralled by dinosaurs, as children tend to be. Deciding that it would be jolly good to explore prehistoric times, the boys take a row boat into a mysterious hidden cave that leads, incredibly, to a strange prehistoric land where they bear witness to a progression of prehistoric beasts and events boasting as much scientific accuracy as could be mustered in 1955. It’s a simple set-up inspired, according to Zeman, by Jules Verne and fueled by the desire to make a children’s film that was both educational and a rollicking adventure yarn. For Zeman, it was a huge undertaking, one of the first films to feature such extensive use of stop-motion animation and his first endeavor that combined live-action actors and sets with miniatures, 2D animation, and matte paintings.
In every aspect, Zeman and his crew succeed. The special effects are a delight, and even though the plot is basically “four boys look at things,” Zeman keeps the story moving at a crisp and involving pace. It helps that the four young leads are perfectly acceptable. Ah, how I long for the days when kids in kid movies were resourceful, determined, and smart instead of whiny, lazy and constantly told that “they’re special.” They rise to the occasion and have adventures not because of fate or prophecies; they just like adventures. These are the sort of lads who would strap packs to their backs on a whim and be just fine hiking through the Ural mountains on their own, probably noting a lot of interesting things about the flora and fauna. And none of these four actors lapse into annoying. Even their arguments are more like reasoned debates between responsible Eagle Scout types armed with those old “Golden Guide” paperbacks about geology and fossils and such.
For the scientific portion of the adventure, Zeman relied on illustrations by Czech artist Zdenek Burian, based on research by paleontologist Josef Augusta. The land through which the four lads drift is strictly segmented by epoch, with their initial encounters being with the most recent of earthly creatures — prehistoric humans, then wooly mammoths and “those big animals with the huge, flat teeth. You know the ones.” That’s, ahh, that’s me not knowing the name. I am sure these kids would have known. As they drift further, they travel further back in time, encountering the usual assortment of dinosaurs, all appearing in their own proper time period and not guest starring in the time period of others. So no cavemen fighting a T-rex. Finally, the boys arrive near the beginning of life on earth, encountering living examples of the trilobite fossils they knew from their own time.
It’s not a total scientific classroom experience, though. Zeman was inspired as much by Jules Verne as he was Augusta and Burian, as well as earlier stop-motion dinosaur adventures, like the 1925 silent film The Lost World, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 adventure story. Zeman’s wonderful sequence involving a sunset fight between a Stegosaurus and a Ceratosaurus seems a direct homage to famous Allosaurus – Edmontosaurus – Triceratops battle royale in The Lost World. And Zeman’s own images would later inspire other film makers. Around the same time Zeman made Cesta do Praveku, the career of American stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen was beginning to take off. After attracting attention with his work in the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen began a rise that would result in any film for which he handled the visual effects being referred to as “a Ray Harryhausen film,” regardless of who directed or starred in it.
In 1955, Harryhausen was animating a giant octopus for It Came from Beneath the Sea. And Zeman’s film would prove to be an inspiration for Harryhausen (minus the attempt at scientific accuracy, but plus Raquel Welch in a fur bikini) when he worked on two dinosaur movies: 1966’s One Million Years, B.C. from Hammer Studios, and 1969’s Valley of Gwangi. And I am confident that Steven Spielberg was influenced by Karel Zeman’s work when he made Jurassic Park, specifically the scene in which the characters gather around a dying triceratops, which is almost identical to a scene from Cesta do Praveku, in which the four boys gather around a slain stegosaurus.
After collecting a pile of international awards, Zeman’s film was purchased for U.S. distribution. Producers shot new footage with lookalikes for the four stars visiting the dinosaur exhibits at New York’s Museum of Natural History, then rowing a boat across the lake at Central Park and into a mysterious cave — at which time Zeman’s film takes over for the bulk of the remaining run time. Released in 1966 as Journey to the Beginning of Time, and later serialized in six-minute chunks on American television during other children’s programming, this is the version I remembered seeing. As far as bastardizations of foreign films go, worse crimes have been committed by Harvey Weinstein, but it is a shame that there still isn’t a nice looking English dubbed version of the original. It would be the perfect gift for any kid.
A Vision of Verne
In 1958, Zeman made the first of what works, more or less, as a four-film series that relies on the inspiration of Jules Verne, the illustrations in Victorian and Edwardian adventure books, and the amazing cinematic style of French special film effects pioneer Georges Melies. As a set, they represent the summit of Zeman’s vision as an animator and a filmmaker. He crammed every technique he loved or needed into their brief and breezy run times. The plots — sometimes scant, sometimes involved — underneath the eye-popping artistic madness were a reflection of the times in which they were made, from the deep sigh of relief that came in the wake of Stalin’s death and loosening of laws (albeit only until the neo-Stalinists took the reigns) to exasperation at the folly of war and politics that settled in during Vietnam and the era of discontent that characterized the late 1960s, early 1970s.
The first of these films wears Zeman’s adoration for Jules Verne on its sleeve — and in its title. Vynalez Zkazy, or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, is based on Verne’s Facing the Flag. Verne’s book is the tale of a French inventor named Thomas Roch, who devises plans for a weapon so powerful that whichever nation controls it would potentially control the entire planet. The countries of the world are initially uninterested in what is basically an unproven theory, and as a result of his commercial failure, Roch goes mad. The United States politely sequesters the mad scientist and his doomsday device plans in an asylum. Less dismissive of Roch is one Count d’Artigas, by day an eccentric but respectable man who tools around on an old schooner. By night, however, or by day but when no one is looking, he and his crew are vicious pirates who use a secret submersible to ram and sink ships, which they then plunder using a variety of underwater apparatus.
d’Artigas is able to win over and spirit away the bitter Roch, though in doing so he also ends up with Roch’s assistant from the sanitarium, Simon Hart, who is actually himself an engineer and expert in explosives, masquerading as Roch’s asylum assistant in hopes of learning the secret behind the madman’s weapon. d’Artigas takes Roch and Hart to his secret island lair in the Caribbean, where he plies Roch with enough platitudes, money, and promises that Roch agrees to construct the weapon for d’Artigas. Hart, meanwhile is kept alive on the off chance that he might be able to fill in some of the gaps the wily Roch leaves in what he gives d’Artigas and his pirate band. Specifically, as insurance, Roch keeps the secret of detonating his weapon to himself. Careless in their handling of Hart, the engineer is able to sneak a message off the base and to the authorities, which is found by the British navy.
The Brits mount a rescue operation, and though Hart manages to get himself and the unwilling Roch aboard the British submarine, d’Artigas’ pirates discover them and launch an attack in which the Brits are defeated and Roch and Hart recovered, though Hart at least manages to convince his captors that it was a kidnap — not rescue — attempt. Roch completes his weapon just as a hastily assembled multinational naval force arrives to combat d’Artigas’ band of killers and thieves. Though Roch has no issue using his weapon to obliterate Englishmen, when a French ship appears on the horizon, he is overcome with the still burning embers of patriotism and has a change of heart. He causes the weapon to self-destruct, destroying it, the island lair, d’Artigas and his pirates, and himself in the explosion. Only Hart lives to tell the tale.
Zeman’s cinematic adaptation would keep much of Verne’s story intact, though he would soften the character of Professor Roch (played by Arnost Navrátil), turning him from a bitter turncoat into a gullible scientist who is fooled by d’Artigas’ (Miloslav Holub) masquerade as a philanthropist. The invention in this case is not initially intended to be a weapon; it’s just something amazing Roch has discovered, and it is d’Artigas and his own cunning engineer, Serke (Vaclav Kyzlink), who recognize its potential as a weapon of mass destruction. Additionally, Hart (Lubor Tokos) has no duplicitous nature; he is simply Roch’s able assistant, an accomplished engineer in his own right hoping to learn more from the master inventor. Most of these changes are minor. The only major alteration to the story by Zeman is the addition of a female character, Jana (Jana Zatloukalova), rescued from the wreckage of one of d’Artigas’ targets so Simon Hart has someone with whom to fall in love.
Plot and actors both take a back seat to Karel Zeman’s special effects and visuals. The actors were, in fact, told to intentionally deadpan it — though the guy playing the pirate captain of d’Artigas’ band didn’t get the memo — which is fine; no one wants to watch a restrained pirate captain performance. Inspired by the artwork of Edouard Riou and Jules Ferat, whose work accompanied many of the Verne stories, Zeman went to painstaking lengths to create a motion picture that looks like an ornate Victorian illustration. The result is astounding, if somewhat riotous despite being filmed entirely in black and white. Black and white does many things well, but riotous isn’t usually one of them. Zeman’s actors move through what does indeed look like a storybook illustration come to life, interacting with both 2D animation and stop-motion models, as well as cinematic interpretation of old motion illustrations — the kind of thing where an illustration would be attached to a tab the reader could pull to move the object through a scene.
Of particular note are the movie’s underwater sequences, which combine simple camera trickery with stop-motion animation to create dynamic sequences like the ramming of a ship by d’Artigas’ submarine and the subsequent plunder by stop-motion deep sea divers and, later, a battle between divers and a giant octopus. Some of the scenes are direct recreations of Riou’s illustrations — though more from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than Facing the Flag. But that’s only fair, given how many elements Facing the Flag shares with 20,000 Leagues (Captain Nemo is basically Professor Roch with more humanist — if still violent — intentions). So much goes on in every frame of the movie that it can be dizzying at times, and it can be almost impossible to focus on any particular thing, so lost can they become in Zeman’s dense compositions. That all of this was accomplished practically and by hand, in an era decades before computer assistance, is a grand testament to Zeman’s vision, dedication, and talent. Despite the ease with which incredible worlds can be rendered these days, none of them really come close to matching the grandeur Zeman accomplished with old cameras, models, puppets, and the simple act of dragging a drawing across another drawing.
Although based on a story written in 1896, Vynalez Zkazy was released at a time when Verne’s story was depressingly relevant. The 1950s were the decade that saw the start of the atomic arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. Suddenly, Roch’s explosive super-weapon was very much a reality, and while then-Czechoslovakia was always a bit of a black sheep within the Soviet sphere of influence (they seemed to have more freedom, at least by comparison, and a greater tendency toward casual rebellion), it didn’t change the fact that it, like pretty much every country, would be swept up in any nuclear conflict that erupted between the world’s two prickly super powers. While Vynalez Zkazy is undeniably a spirited, good-natured adventure tale, there’s also no denying the undercurrent of Cold War brinkmanship and nuclear proliferation that informs it.
It is wrapped, however, in a truly eye-popping style in the service of which are all other aspects of the film. When it was dubbed and rechristened The Fabulous World of Jules Verne for American audiences, no one quite knew what to do with it. It was judged too weird for American kids, and perhaps too light and playful for arthouse cinema fans. So it died a quick death in the west, largely forgotten except by the few who caught it on late night or weekend afternoon television in the 1970s, when broadcasters would put on pretty much anything and everything they could buy cheap in order to fill up air time. Seeing it in its original format, via a good transfer, showcases just how astounding and enjoyable an accomplishment it is. Any fan of animation, stop motion or otherwise, adventure, Verne, steampunk, or simple old-fashioned inventive cinema should give it a look.
Riding a Cannonball
The next of the four films comprising this loosely assembled quartet did not use Jules Verne as its inspiration, though stylistically it is an expansion of the ideas and techniques Karel Zeman used in Vynalez Zkazy. Baron Prasil, released in 1962 is more identifiable by its alternate title, The Fabulous World of Baron Munchhausen. Among fans of sensational adventure yarns, Munchhausen is perhaps unparalleled by any save Captain Nemo himself. Based extremely loosely on real-life nobleman Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Munchhausen, the stories of his fantastic exploits became the stuff of folklore when he appeared in the 1780s as the central character in several adventure tales that were part of a book called Vademecum fur lustige Leute. As the stories were translated from one language to another, the grandeur and preposterous nature of Munchhausen’s exploits grew, as is usually the case with the heroes of folklore, and before too long he was visiting the moon and riding across battlefields astride hurtling cannonballs.
Always a fan of the fantastic and absurd, Georges Melies was the first man to commit the adventures of the Baron to the screen, in 1911’s Les Aventures de baron de Munchhausen. The adventurous German noble found his way to screen several more times, including The New Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1915) by British director Floyd Martin Thornton, and then most famously (and infamously, given the involvement of Joseph Goebbels) in the German film Munchhausen from 1943 (you can read an excellent review of that version on Die Danger Die Die Kill). In 1962, Zeman brought his unique cinematic vision to the material and created what is, in my opinion, his masterpiece. Although using a similar mishmash of techniques, Baron Prasil is different from Vynalez Zkazy in that, where Vynalez Zkazy‘s primary inspiration was the black and white etchings of Edouard Riou, for Baron Prasil Karel Zeman turned to the hand-tinted phantasmagoria of Georges Melies.
Melies’ own Munchhausen movie was not an adaptation of the best-known stories, but rather was a strange comedy in which the baron, perhaps suffering from drunkenness and indigestion, has a dream in which he is endlessly menaced by lizard men, spider ladies, living statues, googly eyed dragons, capering devils, and other such apparitions. Like most of Melies’ films, it packs more surreal weirdness into its scant eleven minutes that most feature length works of surrealism. The style Melies — a stage magician before he become a motion picture pioneer — created for his short films is an obvious influence not just on Karel Zeman, but on the whole of the German expressionist movement of the silent era, where warped and highly stylized theatrical backdrops took the place of more realistic sets and locations.
Melies was also well-known for working in color, despite the fact that he was making films in the late 1800s and early 1900s, well before the advent of color film. He achieved this by hiring an assembly line of women to hand-tint each frame. He would then offer exhibitors the option of screening the cheaper black and white version of the film or the slightly pricier but much more striking color version. Tinting prints in this way was common in the early days of cinema, as was projecting the film through colored filters. With an eye on the past, and using a combination of Melies-style tricks and artistic inspiration from old Victorian postcards, Zeman’s Baron Prasil is a whirlwind of styles and approaches perfectly suited for the fantastic story it relays to us. For more modern viewers, or for those who might not be entirely familiar with the influences, the closest comparison is the animation work done for the Monty Python comedy troupe by Terry Gilliam (who would himself make his own version of the Baron Munchausen story in 1988), but combined with the stop-motion of Ray Harryhausen and the rotoscope style animation combined with live actors that would be used most famously by Ralph Bakshi in the 1970s.
Beginning with a bird and progressing higher and higher and through the history of aviation (provided that history includes handlebar moustached Edwardian gentlemen on winged penny-farthings — which it should), we soon find ourselves in the company of cosmonaut Tonik (Rudolf Jelínek, who also appeared in The Bridge at Remagen) who, whilst strolling along the lunar surface, is surprised to find a space capsule, a victrola, and later, three gentlemen — including Cyrano de Bergerac (Karel Höger) enjoying afternoon tea. Confused beyond the capacity for rational thought, Tonik joins the men and soon also meets the boisterous Baron Munchausen (Milos Kopecký, who also appears in the 1962 Czech sci-fi comedy Muz z prvního století, aka Man in Outer Space). The men on the moon all assume Tonik is a lunar native, and the Baron decides to take the spaceman to see Earth. Tonik, having nothing better to do, goes along.
And so begins a series of episodic and insane adventures that start in the court of a sultan, where Munchausen and Tonik also encounter and save the imprisoned Princess Bianca (Jana Brejchová, also in the groovy East German sci-fi film In the Dust of the Stars). After a thrilling and eerily staged battle with the sultan’s forces, the trio find themselves on the run, with Munchausen jealous of Bianca’s affection for Tonik, who the baron considers to be far less interesting than himself. During the journey, Tonik is separated from Munchausen and Bianca, and the baron takes the opportunity to turn on the charm, even after they are swallowed by a giant fish.
Although the baron is charming indeed, the moment they are reunited with Tonik (who is trying to apply his 20th century aerospace know-how to make-believe 19th century technology), Bianca is back in his arms. Munchausen ends up in the claws of a giant stop-motion vulture, and then he rides around on a giant seahorse (the Munchausenian take on driving around in your Camaro at night, listening to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” while you think on heavy stuff). Finally he arrives in the court of a suspicious military governor who has imprisoned Tonik and thinks the young man is a saboteur. Munchausen sees this as the perfect opportunity to eliminate his competition for Bianca’s love. But in the end, Munchausen is still honorable and heroic, so he assists the young lovers in a daring escape, all while Cyrano waxes poetic on the beauty of romance and adventure.
Much of the delight in Baron Prasil comes from its visual excess and artistic complexity. As he did with Vynalez Zkazy, Karel Zeman instructed the actors to play it low-key, juxtaposing the matter-of-fact narration with the outrageous exploits on screen and the psychedelic way in which they are staged. Using tinting, forced perspective, and every trick in his animator’s bag, it becomes impossible to tell when illustration ends and real sets and real actors begin. Zeman mounts an incredible spectacle of a film, and the over-the-top adventures of Baron Munchausen are perfectly suited for being told in this utterly loony fashion. Zeman’s version lacks the vibrant color of the 1943 German version, but it also lacks the Nazi input. And even though he works mostly in mono- or duo-toned tinting, you wouldn’t ever claim this film lacked color. It is truly a magnificent film to behold.
Flying Blind on an Airship
It’s difficult to follow up a movie like Baron Prasil, and it was several years before Zeman returned to what had basically become the stylistically and thematically unified Zemanverse (or that’s how I think of it) — reminiscent of the science fiction universe woven by Japanese animator Leiji Masumoto (Space Battleship Yamato, Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, and more) where there was no real chronological continuity, but there was certainly a continuity of animation style, design, themes, and characters. Zeman’s films are similarly linked as occurring in the same universe without ever actually connecting to one another. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne began with a montage summary of the Age of Progress, while Baron Munchausen began with a similar animated montage of the Age of Aviation. In 1967’s Ukradená vzducholod — in English, The Stolen Airship — we get another montage, this one the history of overbearing parents chastising curious — or mischievous — children.
In 1964, the (relative to that Stalin feller) liberal and reform-minded Soviet premiere Khrushchev, who had assumed power and immediately set about trying to undo the paranoia and damage done by Stalin, was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev identified much more with Stalin and set about reversing the small in-roads toward a less totalitarian regime that were pioneered by his predecessor. Thus was born, more or less, the neo-Stalinist movement. Czechoslovakia had been, since the end of World War II, at best half-heartedly part of the sphere of Soviet influence, but never the less she was still part of the Eastern Bloc, and the drift back toward Stalinist oppression in the Soviet Union meant the same for the Czech people. So it’s no surprise that Zeman — like all artists, regarded with suspicion in such a social and political environment — would a make a movie (his first in widescreen) whose introduction is basically a rejection of such overbearing government, and whose entire run time is an escape from Communist oppression, albeit one couched in the language of light-hearted adventure.
After witnessing the “parents just don’t understand” oppression of the ages — including a caveman who angrily punishes his child for peeing on the fire — we meet five young boys on trial for general impishness. They live in a world of Edwardian marvels, from trolleys to airships to floating platforms carrying around can-can dancers. What boy wouldn’t get up to hijinks in such an age of wonder? When they are cheated by a huckster who is trying to sell the world his inflammable airship fuel (thus solving the pesky tendency of such ships to explode), the boys slyly unmoor the “for display purposes only” airship and take it for a joyride. Unfortunately, none of the lads knows how to pilot an airship, so they are soon hopelessly adrift and branded by government officials as thieves, pirates, and scalawags — at least until the government official doing the branding realizes his own son is among the adventurous troublemakers.
Where I felt the story of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was in the service of the visuals, and similarly the story of Baron Prasil was largely episodic and served as a skeleton on which Zeman could mount his incredible artistic vision, The Stolen Airship puts the plot more in the foreground, and it’s probably not coincidental that this movie skews much more toward live-action and actors than the outlandish illustrations and animation of Baron Prasil. Aside from the story about the boys in the airship, there are additional plots regarding a reporter investigating the inventor of the inflammable fuel — it turns out the fuel explodes just fine, as the boys eventually discover — as well as a bumbling secret agent attempting to steal the formula. Meanwhile, partway through the film, the boys crash the airship and find themselves stranded on what they discover to be Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, complete with a cameo by Captain Nemo and the Nautilus. They go on to get involved with a beautiful woman and a ship full of cutthroat pirates, because you cannot have a proper adventure without such things.
The Stolen Airship has one foot in the art nouveau fantasy of Karel Zeman’s previous two films and the other foot in the “boy’s own adventure” style story he told in Cesta do Praveku (and let’s assume “boy’s own adventure” is an outdated but useful term for a style of adventure story that I’m sure girls would enjoy reading or taking part in just as much as boys). While it doesn’t match the visual ambition of Zeman’s previous work, it is his most ambitious screenplay, and I think that is a wise change of course. It grounds the film in the same style and world as the other films, but it does not feel like repetition. The caper aspect and the skewering of shifty capitalists, overbearing governments, and manipulative journalists all mix up with the core story of five boys having a wild adventure and makes for a film that celebrates such adventures without ever sinking into rose-tinted nostalgia (although there is some literal rose-tinting). And for fans of steampunk, this one paints the richest picture of a turn-of-the-century world full of incredible contraptions and physics-defying balloons, airships, sky rowboats, hang gliders, and other marvels that only exist, sadly, in 19th century illustrations of what the 20th century might be like.
And Away We Go…
For whatever reason, The Stolen Airship was the only one of Karel Zeman’s live-action (or sort of live-action) films not to receive any sort of distribution in the United States. The others might have been re-edited and dubbed, but they still made it to American television sets. It must have just been a function of weird timing, because his next and final “live action” feature, Na Komete (Off On a Comet), also found its way into the United States, albeit with less fanfare than the other films. Released in 1970, Na Komete is Zeman’s most overtly political film, holding up for ridicule military and governmental bureaucracies and war machines in a sort of Duck Soup style satire, but once again wrapping the satire in a mind-bending final visit to the stop motion, cut outs, illustration, and zaniness of the Zemanverse. Oddly, despite being his most biting political film, I also find it to be his funniest. But then, Duck Soup was the Marx Brothers most overtly political film but also their funniest, so the precedent was certainly there.
It begins with satirical narration (again done in the deadpan style that was characteristic of Zeman’s films) by a French officer about how thankful the natives of colonized lands must be to the conquerors who brought them such wonderful progress (although one can see obvious parallels to bloody end of French colonization in Algeria, chronicled cinematically just a few years earlier in 1966’s The Battle of Algiers, it’s easy to also regard this as yet another stab at continued communist “occupation” of Czechoslovakia). This all occurs while an oblivious British officer balloons over North Africa and carelessly sets an entire city on fire, which he never even notices. We soon meet a French soldier in charge of surveying the coast of an unidentified North African colony. Both he and his assistant, bored and perhaps crazy from the heat, are daydreaming as they work — the assistant about food, and the dashing young officer Servadac (Emil Horváth) about a beautiful woman (Magda Vásáryová), whose image he has seen on a postcard. Lost in his reverie, Servadac falls off a cliff and almost drowns.
He is, however, rescued by none other than Angelika, the very woman about whom he was daydreaming and who has just escaped from a nearby band of pirates that waylaid her, her brother, and some of his friends out sailing. Those same pirates are supplying weapons to a local sheik who plans to use them to overthrow the French garrison and declare himself king. The pirates, in turn, are led by a Spanish diplomat who hopes the locals and the French will destroy one another, allowing Spain to step in and claim control of the country. In a convoluted series of events that includes a bomb, an earthquake, a storm, and a mysterious second sun, the entire country and surrounding sea is ripped away from Earth and sent hurtling through the cosmos, Space: 1999 style.
Despite the extraordinary circumstances now surrounding them, all sides continue their petty squabbling. Things start to get really weird when the newly rent chunk of Earth unleashes a gang of daintily high-stepping dinosaurs, which go rampaging through the camp and nearby town with all the sneering disregard for civility one expects from your more unruly biker movie gangs. Cannons are useless against the stampeding beasts (any of the scientific accuracy for which Karel Zeman strove for in his very first feature film is totally absent here), but Servadac accidentally chases them off by making a racket with pots and pans. Pleased with the young soldier’s success, the garrison commander orders all cannons and guns disposed of and replaced by pots and pans tied to sticks.
Even as French behavior becomes more absurd, so too does its rule become more tyrannical. Determining the whole situation to be rather unusual, the garrison commander declares martial law, arresting all foreigners without charge or warrants. Hue inhabitants of the comet lapse into petting scheming and casual decadence. When Mars appears on the horizon, Servadac determines that there is no escaping its gravitational pull, and that their little chunk of comet will plow into the planet and kill everyone. This suddenly apocalyptic fate causes everyone to abandon their petty quests for power. Prisoners escape or are released, dancing girls abound, money is abandoned, and soon everyone realizes how easy it is to get along — at least for a little while.
As with The Stolen Airship, Na Komete puts its plot in the foreground, with Zeman’s signature animation style used in its service instead of the other way around. And once again, it is the actors who are front and center more than the animation — though one can hardly dismiss a dinosaur riot, sea monsters, and a walking fish that turns into a boar. And since Terry Gilliam cites Karel Zeman as a major influence, it’s also worth mentioning that this is the most “Monty Python” of Zeman’s scripts. The scene in which, having discarded their guns (which were picked up by the Arabs), the French army vigorously shakes their pots and pans at the approaching rebels could have been right out of a Monty Python sketch. Perhaps because this was his most political film, this is also Zeman’s most comedic, and most of the comedy worked for me. It’s also his most effective love story, even though Servadac and Angelika meet and fall in love with the same lack of introduction to one another as the men and women in any of Zeman’s previous films.
The Journey Begins
The end is bittersweet, as is the film overall. Although Zeman would continue making films and shorts in the 1970s, Na Komete was his final visit to the wild and wonderful Zemanverse. The rest of his work was more straight-forward animation, including a series of Sinbad the Sailor cartoons and the animated feature film Čarodějův učeň (Krabat — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). He all but retired in the 1980s, passing away in April of 1989. Just a few months later, his stolen airship came home. In what became known as the Velvet Revolution, massive pro-Democracy demonstrations filled Prague’s Wenceslas Square. In a matter of days, and without almost no violence, the communists were removed from power. In 1992, Czechoslovakia was divided into two newly independent nations: the Slovak Republic and the modern day Czech Republic.
It was through the capital of that country — an amazing mix of the medieval, the industrial age, and the modern — I was strolling when that giant wooly mammoth beckoned me away from the bridge and the popes with birds on their heads and into the halls of the Muzeum Karla Zemana. It is unlikely, without that moment of serendipity, that I would have remembered Karel Zeman’s name on my long list of filmmakers about whom I should know more. The museum carries on his legacy, not only serving as a spot to learn about the man and his work but also releasing his films on DVD. As of this writing, they have released five films: Journey to the Beginning of Time, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, The Fabulous World of Baron Munchausen, The Stolen Airship, and Krabat — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, all with English subtitles on all-region PAL discs; there is also a set of the first three films available on blu-ray. Na Komete remains MIA on legitimate DVD, but I don’t imagine that will be the case for very long.
There’s not a one of his strange brews of animation and live-action that I would not whole-heartedly recommend. They are each prime examples of how fun and imaginative film can be, and how an innovative filmmaker can take the influences of the past, be they old illustrations, Czech marionette theater, Jules Verne, Georges Melies, or old silent era special effects films — and craft them into something wholly unique and wonderful. Although the name Karel Zeman may not carry the international recognition of his contemporary, Ray Harryhausen, or even of the men he inspired, like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, his place in film history is never the less secure, and the mad, dizzying universe he created is always there, waiting for adventurous filmgoers in stolen airships and hand-cranked submarines to discover.