The Cinema of Karel Zeman

Brno-born Karel Zeman (1910 – 1989) began work as a window display designer and won a prize for one of his layouts.  He found himself working in the 1930s and 40s as a set-director in the Czechoslovak film industry, an endeavor that continued, perhaps surprisingly, during the German mandate of 1938 – 45.  Zeman would eventually head his own division of the state film industry, the Gottwald Studio in Prague, where he wrote, produced, and directed ten feature-length movies between 1952 and 1980.  Zeman had specialized in stop-motion animated shorts during the 1940s, mostly based on fairy tales.  Except that he never went to Hollywood, Zeman’s career parallels that of the Hungarian-born film-maker George Pal, who invented the “Puppetoon” while working in the Netherlands, and continued exploiting this stop-motion genre in the USA in the 1940s before graduating to special-effects features in the 1950s and 60s.  Whereas Pal’s movies – When Worlds Collide (1950), for example, War of the Worlds (1953), or The Time Machine (1960) – tend toward the grimly serious, Zeman’s tend toward the fantastic, the satirical, and even the light-hearted in their mood.  Pal drew on H. G. Wells, Zeman on Jules Verne, but on a nostalgic reinterpretation of Verne that subtly, and by impressive indirection, contrasts the Frenchman’s technological optimism of the Age of Steam with the bombed-out landscapes of mid-Twentieth Century Europe.  The largely non-political quality of Zeman’s cinema might surprise a Westerner who encounters it for the first time.  One would never guess that Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) or The Stolen Airship (1967) originated under a Communist regime.

Zeman discovered his forte in the combination of live-action with both optical effects and miniatures, the latter being elaborately conceived and executed.  Zeman’s penchant for retro-futurism, as in the first of his two masterpieces, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958), makes him the pioneer of what has come to be called Steampunk – or almost.  The codicil is necessary because Zeman’s films had limited distribution outside of the Eastern Bloc.  One saw them at art-house theaters in the 1960s and 70s in poor-quality, badly dubbed, and severely cut prints.  Only The Fabulous World made it to television, but with the names of the actors, all over-dubbed of course, altered so as not to be so alienatingly Czech and with a lengthy distributor-produced prologue featuring Hugh Downs lecturing rather irrelevantly on technical progress.  The Fabulous World and Off on a Comet (1970) appeared in video-tape format, with every disadvantage possible, but even in the DVD-era Zeman’s film wizardry could only be accessed until recently in Czech-made DVDs lacking sub-titles and unplayable on standard North American DVD players.  The Criterion Edition has now stepped forward with a lavish anthology, transferred from the original negatives, of Journey, The Fabulous World, and Baron Munchausen (1962).  The latter is the second of Zeman’s two masterpieces and uses a color-process that emphasizes rich reds and purples.

Zeman based The Fabulous World (its Czech title, Vynález zkázy, loosely translates as The Destructive Invention) on Verne’s novel Pour le drapeau or Facing the Flag (1896), but he also mines Robur the Conqueror, The Begum’s Fortune, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea for details.  In the main plot, Professor Roche has invented the “Roche Fulgurator,” a super-explosive.  A pirate and criminal mastermind calling himself “Count Artigas” kidnaps Roche and takes him, via a hijacked “submarine steamship,” to his island-hideout somewhere in the remote South Atlantic.  Roche’s assistant, Simon Hart, shares the Professor’s fate, but against all odds manages to alert the outside world of the Count’s nefarious plans.  Roche will perish, along with the Count, but Hart saves the sole survivor of packet ship earlier sunk by the captured submarine and looted of its luxurious cargo – a young woman named Jana, who has also been a captive on the island.  Victorian romance figures in several of Zeman’s films.  Jana is a model of modesty and Hart of gentlemanly comportment.  Verne wrote his novel in an over-earnest mood.  Zeman compensates for this by making caricatures out of the villains and emphasizing the ultimate incompetence of their wicked audacity.  Zeman’s film nevertheless captures the essence of Verne – that combination of the voyage extraordinaire with the rich description of technological innovations, such as airships and submarines.

The most overwhelming and fascinating element of The Fabulous World is its visual style.  In the original Czech, but not in the original American version, the film opens with a brief review of Verne’s authorship.  Viewers see original Czech editions of Verne’s novels, some open on a reading desk, revealing their interior illustrations.  These were printed from steel plates using bold outlines with cross-hatching for the fill-in.  Zeman conceives his mise-en scène in this fashion throughout.  Even the costumes have been pin-striped seer-sucker-wise so as to show the effect.  It is as though, magically, the old illustrations have leapt into life.  Zeman accomplishes some of this by utilizing Schüfftan rear-screen “takes” that place the human actors in elaborate mattes, but often he creates an entire studio-set that mimics the illustrative pattern and adds to it a kind of cut-out three-dimensionality.  In the American release, the distributor coined the label “Mystimation” to describe the film’s visuals.  Czech audiences of the original release required no neologism.  The name of Zeman sufficed to prepare them for the eccentric, but charming, scenarism.  It might be said that, in its way, The Fabulous World succeeds in locating a halfway-point between book and film, between the literary origin of the story and its graphic realization in motion photography.

Too many moments of The Fabulous World stand out for a full account of all to be given.  The first ten minutes of the film, which recount Mr. Hart’s journey by ship from England to America and his overland trip to the remote seaside mansion where Roche has established his laboratory, luckily typify Zeman’s achievement.  Zeman shows his audience the Savannah, historically the first steam-powered packet to cross the Atlantic (wrecked off Long Island in 1821, but in Zeman’s script — still in use), arriving in an American port after her sea-voyage.  The passengers, including Mr. Hart, line up against the rail to observe the converging sea-traffic.  Passengers and film-audiences alike see the submarine steamship readying itself for submergence.  Hart’s itinerary continues on a railway train pulled by an exceptionally robust looking steam locomotive.  Zeman employs what appears to be a full-sized model.  (But on closer inspection — maybe not.) The final leg of Hart’s errand employs a steam-powered limousine.  From this conveyance, Hart and his companions observe a variety of aerial craft, including a glider of the Lilienthal design, a bicycle-powered dirigible airship, and, in a spectacular appearance, the airship Albatross from Verne’s Robur, as large as a steamship, suspended in the air by multiple helicopter blades, and pushed on its course by large propellers fore and aft.  The panoply of this aerial display delights the eye.  Zdeněk Liška’s musical accompaniment, using a prominent harpsichord in its instrumentation, adds to the retro-futural quaintness of the sequence.

I first saw The Fabulous World in the mid-1960s when a Los Angeles television station broadcast it on The Million Dollar Movie, a program that repeated the same item seven days of the week beginning at eight o’clock in the evening Monday through Saturday and as a matinee on Sunday.  I must have watched it, glued to the cathode ray tube, all seven times.  It provoked me to read Verne, whom Ace Books, a paperback line, had reissued in what they called “The Fitzroy Editions.”  These included those Nineteenth-Century interior illustrations although poorly reproduced.  I saw Zeman’s film again, in company with Baron Munchausen, at the Nuart Theater, an art-house on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles, in the late 1970s.  The only movie comparable to The Fabulous World that I knew at the time was Disney’s adaptation of Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1954), but, as impressive as it was (the visualization of the Nautilus remains unsurpassed), it failed to affect me the way The Fabulous World did.  Zeman’s film probably influenced the Vincent Price vehicle, Master of the World (1961), based on Robur, but Master has crude effects compared to its Czech counterpart.  A high-definition video of The Fabulous World has recently appeared at YouTube.  I have set it at the head of this post.  I recommend it strongly to my fellow Orthosphereans.

One thought on “The Cinema of Karel Zeman

  1. Pingback: The Cinema of Karel Zeman | Reaction Times

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