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Vol 3
 Issue 9 
15 Sept

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Jiri Barta's Krysar (The Pied Piper, 1985) CZECH REPUBLIC
Magic against materialism
Czech animator Jiří Barta interviewed

Barta's inventive and often grotesque animations have railed against the evils of consumerism. However, since 1989, as the director tells Phil Ballard, the capitalist world has presented him with a more practical challenge.

In October 2002, the talented Czech animator came to London as part of the "The Magic World of Czech Animation" retrospective at the National Film Theatre (NFT). The irony is that while Barta is a prominent Czech animator, having produced many shorts and a much-admired animated feature, and he is increasingly honoured with overviews of his work (in May this year, there was one at the American Museum of the Moving Image, for example), his latest project lies uncompleted for lack of finance.

The Czech "magic" that the NFT celebrated seems to be dying out just as it is getting renewed international recognition.

During Barta's London visit, he spoke to Kinoeye about the problems he is facing in putting together his second feature film, as well as earlier films in his career.

What first attracted you to animation?

I started to study in the Animation Department at the University of Applied Art in Prague in 1969, and since that time I've become interested in animation. I made a little bit of animation, not too much. After 1978, I began to animate my first film in the Jiří Trnka Studios, which was one of the biggest film studios in Prague.

Was there a particular film-maker or film that influenced you to become involved in animation?

First of all, I would like to say that our famous director Jan Švankmajer was a great inspiration, because his aesthetic and imagination were very attractive to me. I had a lot of opportunities to see some foreign directors' films, such as those by Yuri Norstein, Priit Pärn and many others. I really like that poetic style of animation.

This was under Communism and during the Normalization period. So was it difficult to have access to these films?

Usually, animated films were shown in front of feature films in Prague. It was very simple to distribute animation in the last years [of the regime], as we were not questioned about what our films were about. They were simply animated films: not for children, not for anybody. In one way it was a much easier situation.

Of course, censorship was a problem; now we have got freedom in our thinking and our ideas. But now we have the problem of finding sponsors and producers and so on. In the Czech Republic, there is not a very strong system for financing film because parliament hasn't voted in a new [film] law. In this film area, there is very little money in the grant system to finance auteur projects. Of course, you can make some commercials and you can ask anywhere you want—not only in the Czech Republic but also foreign countries.

So you have this ironic situation: under censorship with the Communists you were able to make films, now you have freedom you cannot get the finance to back your projects?

Yes, yes.

This obviously leads to your big project: The Golem, which you showed a seven-minute pilot of at the National Film Theatre in London in October 2002. This is a project you have been working with for ten years?

I started, maybe, 12 years ago and at the beginning we were looking for a special technology, a special aesthetic for this film. We wrote a script and then a storyboard. I asked my friend who is a scriptwriter [Edgar Dutka] to help. In 1996, we made a pilot from grant money and since that time we have been looking for some producers or any sponsors. We have had our hopes raised many times. In the beginning, it was a French producer, then it was a German producer, now a Japanese producer.

I think the main problem is everyone is expecting a very commercial story about the Golem, Rabbi Loew and Rudolf II, who was the emperor in the 16th century. Everyone is expecting a fairytale about that legend. Our interpretation is a little bit different, because we start from another point of view, which is Gustav Meyrink's Golem. Gustav Meyrink is a very well-known Czech writer from the 19th century and he wrote a novel about the Golem which is not set in the 16th century but in the 19th. It is much more interesting, but I think that this is the reason why we have not moved forward, why the whole project has stopped, why some producers have disappeared, appeared and disappeared again.

What is it in your version, the Meyrink adaptation, that appeals to you that is different to the traditional legend?

I can say that ours is close to the general philosophy of the Golem legend, because when we were thinking about the Golem it's not only about that one clay man, a clay monster, but the Golem means that this one shape forms something which is everywhere. The Golem in the traditional legend is only one part of the world: this is the accepted version and it's not my fantasy. So I would like to say that we have got another legend, another black, dark legend, which is close to the Golem legend but this is about a 19th-century student looking for the Golem's body and who knows that the Golem died somewhere in this part of Prague.

The student, in his adventure, digs deep into the legend and in our version, in doing so, uncovers dangerous forces. In discovering the secret, the consequences are very bad for him, and bad luck follows him. So this is, briefly, our storyboard about a man who is looking for that legend, who wants to discover that secret.

Part of the legend, I understand, is when there is the Hebrew word emeth which means truth, then you remove the letter e, and meth means death.

Yes, I use this.

Are you familiar with the Golem films, especially the film that came out in 1920?

Yes, I know that there is a Paul Wegener's German film Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World, 1920) and Julien Duvivier's French film Le Golem (1936). Another one is a Czech Golem, Martin Frič's Císařův pekař a pekřův císař (The Emperor's Baker and the Baker's Emperor, 1951). It was a little parodied; it is not really a film about the Golem.

If you can find the money to make it, will it be a feature film?

Yes, I hope so. So, therefore, there is quite an expensive budget, because I need actors. I need a lot of space, sets. That's why it's quite expensive, and that's why the producers are a little bit careful and are disappearing.

Presumably you use a lot of different styles, new technologies?

Yes, I was looking for a special technique for this film. So the main aesthetic, the main method is a combination of clay animation and live action. Not separately but together, it's mixed: sometimes it's live clay; sometimes it's live actors; sometimes it's something in between.

In Krysař (The Pied Piper, 1985), for example, you use some live action with rats and then you mix it with the puppetry. Jiri Barta's Krysar (The Pied Piper, 1985)Going on to that film, the style is very interesting. Would you say that you are influenced by certain genres or styles?

The first feeling was that this was a story with a very strong atmosphere: Germany as a source of Expressionism combined with the Middle Ages. I like Expressionism because it's a very simple but very strong style and I try to use it in this sense with the puppets. Of course, I can't say that this is pure Expressionism as in Robert Wiene's Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1920), but it's my version; it's my interpretation.

The shaping of the puppets is very interesting. They were almost cubist, or had come out of modernism. Was that intentional?

Yes. When I made the design of the puppets it was important that they were a little bit like machines, just puppets. I didn't want to say that they were small people, live people. If you compare it with the world of rats they were much more alive than the puppets, so it was my aim to show that the world of rats was very dynamic, very emotional, very dramatic. The puppets world was one of horror.

The puppets were more mechanical, except the girl Agnes. She was softer?

Jiri Barta's Krysar (The Pied Piper, 1985)Yes, of course because Agnes represents a world of purity the same world as the fisherman because he is a poor man who is also very naïve and simple. They are two main persons, the other belongs to the city, which is the city of evil. The person of the Pied Piper is somewhere in the middle, because he belongs to the world of time, of Saturn. He is a symbol of nobody, of death, of time, destiny and so on.

You seem to have a strong sense, not just in Krysař but also in other parts of your work, criticizing materialism and consumerism. There is a sort of spiritual decay in society. There are elements of hope, like the fisherman and the baby, but society is often portrayed as materialistic and greedy.

Yes, I wanted to finish that story not like the old German legend, which is very strict, very depressing where children drown themselves in the water, but I wanted a very small hope that there is something more and so it was a picture of a dream landscape: a fisherman in a boat. This is a question that audiences often ask me: why didn't I finish the original story with the original idea.

Could you talk about the short Klub odložených (The Club of Discarded Ones, 1989) and tell me how the manikins came about?

This is my last film, nearly last film, not the last because I have made several commercial films recently. But my last auteur film. I prepared a storyboard with my colleague and scriptwriter Edgar Dutka. Of course, this is a metaphor for the Prague society we were living in. It was a society before the [Velvet] Revolution; it was a conformist system, and everything was very boring, everything was very empty, everything was very average and closed in rooms and boxes. So we decided to use manikins because they represented the world of robots. They are like something between puppets and actors. They are bizarre objects.

Did you make them or did you find them?

I found about four manikins and the others I made myself. Some of them we had to repair a little bit, and we had to prepare for animation, cut off pieces and build again. This was the main problem. It was interesting that it was shot in a big space, in a big room, a big studio and the camera for the first time was inside the scene. Normally when you shoot puppet animation the camera is outside the scene; you are looking at the scene from a distance. Down among the manikins we had the opportunity to move the camera more, to find the different shots, different angles and so on. We finished this film in 1989 and it was before the Revolution. Speaking with my scriptwriter about the film's relevance today, he feels it may come into its own again maybe after ten or fifteen years.

Unfortunately, this is your last completed work of authorship. You work now on commercials or more commercial enterprises and you are unable to find any funding. Is The Golem your only project that you are trying to find funding for or is there anything else?

I've got many projects on pieces of paper in a drawer: for instance, we tried to write a story for children; it could be either a one-hour film or divided into many small pieces like a serial. We have got this film in ten-minute and five-minute sections and a big collection of different scripts. If I make a feature film it's possible to show it in the cinema, but if I make a very short film—about ten minutes—it's not possible to show it anywhere. I can send it to a film festival, and that's it. So that's why nobody can give money to such an un-commercial project. I can ask for some grant money, but it would cover only 50 percent of the budget—this is the problem with Czech animation. It isn't just my problem.

Is the Animation School smaller now than it was, with not so many people?

I don't think so. It's interesting in the department where I teach we get about 40 entry forms, and we can assist only two or three people, so it's still a large number of people who are [apparently] interested in animation. But I'm afraid they are more interested in art school than in animation, because they are trying to get in at the first opportunity.

So, you fear that they don't want to continue the tradition of animation?

Yes. They can continue in another town or they can continue in another department: for instance, they can change from animated film to graphic design.

Phil Ballard

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Photos courtesy of the National Film Archive, Prague; the American Museum of the Moving Image, New York; and the Czech Film Center, London.

Also of interest
About the author

Phil Ballard has a BA (hons) in English & History from the University of Hertfordshire and an MA in Film & Television Studies from the University of Westminster. He is currently a part-time tutor of English and Film Studies, a script consultant and a freelance film journalist specializing in independent film production.

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