Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pérák, the two Jiří's and the Nazis

No politics today. It isn't always about politics.

I was randomly hopping around the internet this morning, just following links as I ate breakfast, and happened across a blog (Monkey Muck - I'm not even clear what led me to it, but somebody out there linked to him), where he'd dug up a little piece of animation history.

It was May, 1945. The Germans, who hadn't run a particularly peaceful occupation of Czechoslovakia to begin with, had gotten their noses bloody in the Prague Uprising, which ended in a stalemate, and both sides declared a ceasefire that lasted all of a day before the Soviet troops rolled through the country two days after "Victory in Europe Day," expelling the last of the Nazi troops.

(Yes, that's a simplified look at a long, bloody struggle. There was also no way that the people of Czechoslovakia could know about the ensuing weirdness of the next almost-half-a-century. That's just the least you need to know for perspective.)

Very few people in the West have heard of Jiří Brdečka, but he was a writer and illustrator (you might have heard of Limonádový Joe ("Lemonade Joe"), a series of short stories (occasionally gathered into book form and later adapted as a play), which was made into a movie in 1964, a parody of old-time westerns which reputedly numbered Henry Fonda among its fans and was considered something of a cult classic among Czechs for many years.

(Proponents of the run-on sentence regard me as a master of the craft.)

I'm not sure when they first met, but after the war ended, Brdečka got together with Jiří Trnka (an illustrator and puppeteer), and they would later set up Studio Bratři v triku, the leading producer of Czech animation for decades. The studio logo shows three boys, possibly a reference to the two Jiří's and Eduard Hofman, a writer/director they worked with.

(Bratři v triku is commonly translated as "Brothers in T-shirts," possibly because of the logo. But technically, it's "Brothers in Tricks," and "tricks" (or "trick films") was also a term used to refer to animation at the time. God, I love trivia.)

Of the two Jiří's, I think Jiří Trnka is the more interesting. Considered the founding father of Czech animation, he had worked as a illustrator for Melantrich, a Czech-language publishing house in Prague (named after yet a third Jiří, a Czech Renaissance printer named Jiří Melantrich of Aventino).

As a child, Trnka had carved and sculpted puppets out of wood, to stage shows for his friends. Later, around the same time that he was hired by Melantrich, he started a puppet theater, which closed down with the start of WWII. And later in life, when he found himself uncomfortable with traditional animation, Trnka changed his focus to the medium which gained him some measure of world-wide fame, animated puppetry, mostly stop-motion.

He's been called the "Walt Disney Of The East, although where Disney made films for children and families, Trnka aimed his work at an adult audience.

But this work is before all that. The war had ended, the country was trying to rebuild, and the two Jiří's had gotten together to fill a niche that few other people were considering: animation.

Without a studio, without much backing, they produced a handful of short films together as an experiment, and one of them was Pérák a SS (alternately translated as "Perak and the SS," "The Springman and the SS," and occasionally "The Chimney Sweep").

Pérák the Spring Man was an folktale in WWII Prague, a man who could... well, he could jump. Over trains, walls and small buildings. Much like Victorian England's Spring-Heel Jack (only without the varying descriptions making him into a monster, with burning red eyes, fangs, wings, or whatever). Pérák was just a man. Who jumped.

Czech media would later often retcon him into a superhero, but he started out as just an urban legend of a bouncy guy, who sprang out of alleys and startled people. (It was a simpler time.)

The cartoon was easily on a par with other animated shorts of the period (it was 15 years after Steamboat Willie, and it didn't have a lush feel of Max Fleischer's later work, but aside from the black and white nature of Pérák, compare it even to the current output on Cartoon Network, or any of the 700 Disney channels). And it managed to combine the resentment of a conquered people to their oppressors, with the light-hearted, somewhat fantastical world of the animated Everyman.

(Yes, I can do "pedantic" when I want to. I just don't feel like it too often.)

All in all, it's a cute piece of history that definitely deserves a wider audience.

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