Karel Zeman belonged to an obsessive fringe fellowship of moviemakers that stretched right back to the medium’s first formative days—a lineage of auteurs who believed in cinema as a full-blown daydream machine, capable of realizing inhabitable fantasias. These were filmmakers—practical-effects adepts, animators of various stripes, and other hands-on world-builders—who thought of their movies less as stories than as objects, as handicrafts, as looking-glass manifestations of the bygone interior worlds of nursery fiction, Victorian illustration, puppet theater, snow globes, dollhouses, and other forms of child’s play. There had seemed something frivolous and guileless about film from the outset, but these artists took the association one step further, wholeheartedly embracing the medium as a window onto the energies of preteen naivete. First, Georges Méliès, within a heartbeat of the invention of the moving-image camera in the 1890s, brought to the screen a holistic attack of high-spirited fantasy, in his filmic equivalent of the nineteenth-century French theatrical tradition known as féerie, a mutt genre of fairy lore and stage gimmickry; Segundo de Chomón and other imitators turned this style into a subindustry in the early years of the twentieth century, just as Władysław Starewicz began animating rewired insect bodies frame by frame in what looked very much like unalloyed creative play. By the thirties, Walt Disney, Max and Dave Fleischer, George Pal, and Aleksandr Ptushko had anchored this tendency toward comprehensive retro artifice into the escapist moviegoing soil (it’s the handmadeness, the fingerprints and brushstrokes, that distinguishes these films from, say, studio genre product like The Wizard of Oz). Later, filmmakers as disparate as Jiří Trnka and Jacques Demy and Guy Maddin and Terry Gilliam and the Quay Brothers, among others more and less commercially known, expanded the mode’s ironic and formal parameters.
Born in 1910 in what would soon be called Czechoslovakia, Zeman was one of the legacy’s purest hearts, a melder of live action with all manner of animation who was, in the course of his three-and-a-half-decade-long career, perpetually agog at storybook fantasies, always hungry for new and recombinative visual techniques, and almost entirely unsullied by adult concerns. He was the real-life version of The Nutcracker’s Drosselmeyer, the exploding-toy-chest artisan who never forgot the buzz of a grade-school imagination passionately lost at sea. In a filmmaking career that began during the Second World War; overlapped with the Czechoslovak New Wave, as well as the Prague Spring and the subsequent Warsaw Pact invasion, in the sixties; and then pressed on through the dawn of the eighties (he died in April 1989, seven months before the Velvet Revolution began), Zeman remained surprisingly removed from political concerns, all but entirely sequestered from the totalitarian impulses and demands of the Communist state. A scan of his oeuvre for overt subversion is a waste of time, and not because he was anything close to a true believer—his heart was always in the impossible past. (The ruptures of the sixties impacted Zeman creatively only insofar as he started steering clear of Prague and stuck to his animation studio in Zlín, where he would be supervised less.) It couldn’t have hurt that the art and craft of puppetry was then, as it has continued to be, a primary, proudly self-identifying cultural tradition for Czechs and Slovaks going back centuries (it is one of the region’s few UNESCO-listed “intangible cultural heritages”), one that remained in favor throughout the Communist years. In time, the state’s largesse extended naturally to animated cinema, as pioneered by Zeman’s first film studio boss, the “mother of Czech animation” Hermína Týrlová—she helped produce his first short, 1945’s A Christmas Dream, a composite of stop-motion puppets and live action (with a dash of cel animation) that he codirected with his brother Bořivoj, released as Soviet and local Communist control took root. We tend to reflexively think of puppet animation as the isolated work of obsessive loners, but in Czechoslovakia, at least in the sound era, it had the prestige, bustle, and funding of a national enterprise, and like his contemporary Trnka, who created a national animation studio that is still operating in the Czech Republic, Zeman received generous state support for decades. Today, there is a Karel Zeman Museum in Prague.
“Zeman seems to have been as committed to graphic beauty as he was ardent for the days in which such craft mattered.”
Zeman didn’t “merely” animate puppets, though; he didn’t merely do any one thing. His mature style is a unique mixed-media vision, daringly co-opting nineteenth-century graphic illustration not by aping it or evoking it but by using it as literal building material, mastered out of scores of overlapping techniques, from stop-motion to double exposure and superimposition to Schüfftan mirrors and traveling mattes and stock footage, often in an integrated storm of craft that defies dissection. Looking at Invention for Destruction (1958) or The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) is like falling into the imaginational sinkhole of an 1800s kid entranced by a zooming tall tale, woozy in his or her private drugless hallucination, as he or she goes to turn the page but pauses, stupefied, because a wild, meticulous illustration of some utterly fantastic thing has sent him or her flying.
Often, Zeman left virtually no surface unadorned with antique hatch work—Gustave Doré’s 1862 etchings for a new edition of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Rudolf Erich Raspe’s famous late-eighteenth-century fabulist satire, weren’t merely an inspiration for Zeman’s own Munchausen, nor only cleverly folded in as a battery of superimposed sets, decades before green screen, but also stood as a model for real, life-size sets, covered in quill lines as though drawn by a giant. His ardor for resurrecting this old-timey archive can, if you think about it, scan as carrying its own low dose of self-referential irony. We’re supposed to notice the design as clearly as we are meant to notice the expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; as opposed to Disney’s lavish mythmaking, Zeman trusted his preteen audience (and anyone else watching) to, again, both swoon with the fantasy and appreciate the artifice, as a separate but complementary dreamworld that bears the real marks of the past and therefore has the air of folk art. Nostalgia as a cultural impulse isn’t, after all, merely dismissible as reactionary escapism—it can also be read as a rejection of the present, and Zeman seems to have been as committed to graphic beauty as he was ardent for the days in which such craft mattered. Whereas Méliès’s self-consciously larky design arsenal was close to being a contemporary style for him, Zeman’s backward-looking portfolio contains a secret beating heart in passionate love with the bygone.
Zeman’s earlier moviemaking years were taken up with comical cartoons and frequently dazzling shorts mixing animation with live action, often with a pedagogical slant, as with his second feature, and his first international release, the rather remarkable Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)—all the more remarkable to me as I saw the altered 1960 U.S. cut on a reissue double-bill matinee sometime in the late sixties, without ever knowing where it came from, and spent decades thereafter hunting for it. Barely out of kindergarten and a classic dinosaur obsessive, I was imprinted and haunted by the film’s imagery—four boys taking a boat into a present-day cave, emerging to confront various stages of prehistoric fauna, all of it a mix of animation and puppets, and all of it scrupulous about presenting then-up-to-date paleontological facts. The American rejigger, erratically available later in cheapjack VHS copies and then not at all, was apparently rife with woeful shortcuts and dubs—not that I could’ve cared then, snug in my plush Sayville, New York, theater seat. In Zeman’s original cut, Journey to the Beginning of Time remains a low-budget odyssey but is a charmingly instructive one, and one that convincingly conjures the childlike sense of exploring a vast museum-of-natural-history terrarium, in a Dangerous Book for Boys kind of way, via a matter-of-fact river journey entirely, and blessedly, devoid of adults. Plus, it was in color—featuring the first stop-motion dinosaurs seen in color anywhere. The sauropods aren’t quite up to Ray Harryhausen standards (1955 was also the year of the black-and-white It Came from Beneath the Sea, for which Harryhausen created a Golden Gate Bridge–decimating giant cephalopod), but I’m not surprised that I was beguiled. It was undoubtedly the first film made in a Communist country I’d ever seen, without even knowing what such a thing was.
“Part of all of his films’ pleasure is the palpable sense that Zeman, whatever his other aims and concerns, was manufacturing these head trips for the sheer love of it—they made him happy.”
Zeman’s next film, Invention for Destruction, based largely on Jules Verne’s atomic-bomb-forecasting intrigue Facing the Flag and also roping other Verne-isms into its story, is where what we can call the Zemanesque authentically explodes, from the swarm of airships and submarines and subterranean cities to the (largely animated) deep-sea divers sword-fighting underwater and the giant octopus killed in a blooming black cloud of blood and ink. But Zeman’s textures are the money: even the sea rocks at night and the pounding engine pistons are made by classic-engraving draftsmanship, and the roiling sea is evoked with undulating pen marks, all of it both 2D and 3D at once; the uncanny mixture of layers and effects and forced perspectives is so carefully and inventively executed, it generates a sense of fanciful astonishment that has almost nothing to do with the story. In a predigital world, Zeman seems to have had no problem putting whatever he wanted wherever he wanted it, and almost every shot virtually insists that you look away from the actors and examine every rococo surface around them. Zeman’s bald-faced recycling of the steel engravings from the original 1896 edition of Facing the Flag, by master artiste and chronic Verne illustrator Léon Benett, among a heap of other recommissioned nineteenth-century artworks, fuses gorgeous old-fashioned artisanship with state-of-the-art special effects, and the result, moment to moment, is a plastic dream that resists easy assignation. This strange state of being for the viewer is gloriously compounded by the intoxicating proto-film-within-a-film scene, in which the evil submarine captain watches, via a kind of mega-phenakistoscope, pilfered newsreely films (all animated engravings), in which British colonials ride roller-skating camels and an airship drops bombs on the captain’s own ship. Geek-out meta-moments rarely come as confident and breathlessly designed.
Released internationally as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Invention for Destruction is thought to be the most successful Czechoslovak film ever made. It’s easy to see why; part of all of his films’ pleasure is the palpable sense that Zeman, whatever his other aims and concerns, was manufacturing these head trips for the sheer love of it—they made him happy. That bliss is felt most clearly in The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, another ur-Zemanic feast of invention, this time in exuberant color, often by way of retro tinting, that exploits Raspe’s tall tales (credited in the film to their German translator and popularizer, Gottfried August Bürger) for their intrinsic, zesty aimlessness. As undisturbed by history or science or reality as the baron himself, the film begins, Verne-ishly, with proto-astronauts meeting the eponymous yarn master on the moon, and lollygags through his discursive, chaotic avalanche of artful baloney in a way that feels far more like pretend-play than narrative progression. (The fastidiously black-and-white Invention for Destruction, in contrast, is structured by Verne’s clockwork plotting and represents the other extreme—though both films are unmistakably the product of one mind.) The Fabulous Baron Munchausen’s dazzling, detouring cataract of byzantine foofaraw, animated rocket ships and flying cannonballs, stock shots of ice floes and sea anemones, vividly drafted 3D palace rooms and dirigibles—light-footed even when it isn’t funny, but it’s often very funny—feels perfectly simpatico with the lack of conventional storytelling momentum. While you’re watching, it’s hard not to wish you were the child Zeman must have had in mind while making it, the kind of kid who doesn’t grow anxious about chaos and randomness and perhaps naturally bristles at the authority of order, instead surrendering most happily when things are getting curiouser and curiouser. You could say—would Zeman, a daydream carpenter stuck in the logical madness of Communism?—that the world can be divided into these two types of people, the clenched control seekers and the curious explorers, and that as a culture many of our problems would be resolved if the latter cabal had a chance to take over. Zemaniacs of the world, rise!
The Méliès-spawned tribe of wonder seekers would in Zeman’s wake come to include Larry Jordan and Walerian Borowczyk as well as Gilliam, of course, but Zeman has had no direct imitators to speak of, such is the overwhelming and distinctive intensity of his style, his retro obsessions, and his capabilities with camera effects. Even he had to give up on making the kinds of films that made him famous, once the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia installed new restrictions on production, and also once effects technology got to a point (around the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey, some have speculated) that made Zeman’s work seem antique in a not-good way, even to the man himself. After finishing his last big production, 1970’s On the Comet, under Soviet scrutiny, and turning sixty, Zeman spent the seventies holed up in Zlín doing straight-up tabletop animations only. Whatever the circumstances, it’s not difficult to imagine that the filmmaker, a man in general disassociation from the present-moment culture in which he lived, became too aware of being a figure out of sync, and of having pop cinema pass him by.
The present was accelerating, and no one cared much for yesteryear fantasias any longer. (Unless, that is, by way of steampunk, which Zeman nearly invented.) In any case, Zeman is one of the few filmmakers—Sergei Parajanov is another—whose films look as though they were fashioned, impossibly, in the precinematic past; if Verne and Benett had been able to make movies in 1873, something like Invention for Destruction would’ve resulted. (Consider how both Zeman and Parajanov, like impassioned flea marketeers, fill their movies with heaps of old things—ancient bric-a-brac, signifying detritus—challenging us to scan every tableau and note each tarnished object.) It’s a demanding strategy, for us as well as the filmmaker, and like the movies of Wes Anderson (to offer up perhaps Zeman’s most beloved contemporary inheritor), Zeman’s works can be exhausting, even at their relatively brief running times. There is, certainly, too much stuff to see at once, and too much to grab hold of in a single screening; it’s as if each movie begs to be turned back into a book, a huge coffee-table volume in which every dizzying image is frozen and made timelessly available for contemplative study. You can imagine the filmmaker sighing over each concocted frame, and regretting the speed with which it must sail past our eyes. (And the frames do sail—Zeman liked brisk cutting.) You could think of this sensibility as a triumphant sense of bespokeness—a stubborn belief in the primacy of handmade things, during an Age of Plastic otherwise fascinated with machine-stamped products and commercial homogenization. From where we sit today—in a six-walled mediaverse where no image reaches us without being glossified by digital manipulation—Zeman’s films, already engineered to resound with polished antiqueness, feel even more artifactual. In their day, they were loving salutations to the skylarking reveries of a much-missed nineteenth century. Now, they’re treasure chests spilling forth beautiful evidence of the much-missed twentieth-century moment in which such remembering, and imagining, was a vital act of happy defiance.