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FILM REVIEW: Jiří Brdečka: Master of Czech Animation – ‘unique and unlike anything ever put on screen’

8 May 2018, Juno Schwarz, ceel.org.uk

To celebrate the fantastic world of filmmaker Jiří Brdečka (1917-1982), one of the founding fathers of Czech animation, the Czech Centre London and Limonádový Joe s.r.o. organised a screening of eight of Brdečka’s short animations at Regent Street Cinema, followed by a Q&A with the artist’s daughter, Tereza Brdečková.

Brdečka’s talents ranged from journalism to screen-writing, to illustration and animation. Working in the famous Czechoslovak film studio Bratři v triku, he created 35 short animated films between 1948 and his death in 1982, collaborating with many artists at the top of their craft. Brdečková describes the atmosphere in the studio after WWII as a magical bubble amidst an oppressive communist regime. Brdečka especially was in an exclusive position. His fluency in English and French and previous successes enabled him to travel to the West and to freely pursue his artistic projects – with one important exception: his masterpiece Metamorpheus (1969). This 14’ short revisits the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a story of two people whose love transcends the realm of the living and the dead. The film’s style’s unique and unlike anything ever put on screen. Brdečka’s vision was to bring Pompeii frescoes to life while capturing the powerful expression of each individual image. The result’s a minimal level of animation and reduced movement, allowing us to engage with the immense quality of the artwork. The film only picks up speed as Orpheus watches his lover being drawn back into the Underworld; Orpheus’ opera-esque expression of pain and grief’s enforced by drums as the screen’s swamped by a pool of lava and Medusa-like demons entering the world of the living. This powerful imagery of darkness has been interpreted as a parable for the Red Army in the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, leading to the film’s censorship just after its release in 1969.

For Brdečka himself, Metamorpheuswas a reference to the endurance of art, notwithstanding social ideology and political rule. The ubiquity of this message’s apparent when comparing Metamorpheusto Gallina Vogelbirdae(1963). Juxtaposing the rigidity and realism of a teacher with the vivid imagination of a young boy, this film highlights the power of creativity and ridicules conservatism and superficial social conventions to show that art can take on a life of its own.

Brdečka was fascinated by kitsch and folk, paired with dark and ironic humour, and while ill-fated love, revenge, and the twists of the human psyche’re recurring themes in his work, his artistic language constantly changes. The art-nouveau-style Love and Zeppelin(1958) catapults the audience into a fin-de-siècle love story, in which a young girl’s promised to an unattractive colonel. Her heart, though, belongs to a young dreamer of no social status. On the day of the wedding, the young man heroically saves his love from the claws of her groom, making Love and Zeppelinthe most uplifting film of the evening: no deaths, no funerals, and a happy ending.

Many of Brdečka’s other shorts end in tragedy and bizarre events: In Thirteen’s Chamber of Prince Copperslick(1980) the main character dies as a result of his own greed, choking on a piece of meat as his wife enters his secret food chamber. Revenge(1968) tells the tale of a young artist in love with a beautiful girl whom he tries to beguile with his poetry. She’s more interested in the brute who’s a virtuoso with the sword, though, so the artist seeks dark magic and kills the brute – only to be arrested and hung in public. Finally, in There Was a Miller on a River(1971), a young veteran returns home, but his parents don’t recognise him and kill him out of greed. When they realise what they’ve done, the parents commit suicide,  leaving a grieving daughter behind.

Though the films’ creative styles vary, their stories’re surprisingly similar. Brdečka plays on the susceptibility of people to go down a dark and immoral path to achieve their goals. The fantastic combination of extravagant artwork, exquisite storytelling and breath-taking music makes the spectator feel like stepping into a painting, following the protagonists’ journeys of self-discovery, in which they all too often  give in and  wander down dark and often lethal paths. As Brdečková describes it, her father strived to reach the quality of a dream. In many cases, though, he created a nightmare, which leaves a mark in our consciousness even after we’ve woken up…

The screening was organised by the Czech Centre London and Limonádový Joe s.r.o. in collaboration with Faculty of Media, Arts and Design University of Westminster. Films courtesy of the Czech National Film Archive, Krátký Film Praha a.s.

You can find the review on CEEL website HERE