2) Karel Zeman – wizard of the big screen

Karel Zeman, photo: Czech television

The year 1956 saw the premiere of Invention for Destruction, a fantasy adventure by Czech director Karel Zeman, loosely inspired by Jules Verne’s novel of the same name. The film became a global success, selling to more than 70 countries, and made its creator, as well as Czechoslovak cinematography, famous throughout the world.

Karel Zeman,  photo: Czech television

The year 1956 saw the premiere of Invention for Destruction, a fantasy adventure by Czech director Karel Zeman, loosely inspired by Jules Verne’s novel of the same name. The film became a global success, selling to more than 70 countries, and made its creator, as well as Czechoslovak cinematography, famous throughout the world.

During his lifetime, Karel Zeman was admired by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin, but he has also influenced a number of present-day filmmakers, such as Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton.

The famous Czech director, screenwriter and fine artist Karel Zeman was born in 1910 in the village of Ostroměř, in north Bohemia. After completing high school he went on to study advertising design, both in Czechoslovakia and in Aix en Provence in the south of France.

After completing his military service, he began working at the advertising section of a department store in Brno, where his work caught the eye of the famous film director Elmar Klos. He offered Zeman a job at the Baťa Film Studios in Zlín. That’s how the career of one of the most influential Czechoslovak filmmakers began.

Karel Zeman debuted as a filmmaker with a short puppet film called Christmas Dream which won a prize in competition at the very first Cannes Film Festival in 1954.

In the following decade, he created a popular puppet series featuring the character of Mr Prokouk. But it was his feature films, mixing a variety of revolutionary animation techniques with live action, that brought him world-wide recognition, says Michaela Mertová from the National Film Archive:

Mr Prokouk,  photo: Miloš Turek

“I would say his biggest contribution was that after puppet films, he started to create elaborate feature films combining special effects, acting and animation. His films transported viewers into fantasy worlds which they couldn’t normally reach.

“By combining different methods, he created his own world, which doesn’t cease to amaze audiences even in today’s age of digital technologies.

“He succeeded in capturing a sense of adventure, sparking interest in exotic worlds and bringing them to viewers regardless of their age.”

Karel Zeman’s first, and perhaps most beloved feature, Journey to the Beginning of Time, premiered in 1955. It tells the story of four boys who travel on a boat into the past, through the age of mammoths and dinosaurs to the primordial swamps and seas from which life originated.

Journey to the Beginning of Time,  photo: Czech television

Journey to the Beginning of Time was Zeman’s first film which featured actors alongside stop-motion and other special effects, a feature that he further developed in his following works.

Invention for Destruction,  photo: Czech television

Three years later he completed Invention for Destruction, his first film inspired by the works of Jules Verne. The visual style of the film was based on faithfully recreating that of the Victorian line engravings featured in the original editions of Verne's novels.

Invention for Destruction has become the most successful Czechoslovak film in history and celebrated success the world over. In New York alone it was screened simultaneously in 96 cinemas!

Just like other pioneers of Czech animated film, namely Hermína Týrlová and Jiří Trnka, Karel Zeman developed his special film technique entirely on his own.

Invention for Destruction,  photo: Czech television

In an earlier interview for Radio Prague, Karel Zeman’s daughter Ludmila, who spent much of her childhood at the Zlín film studio with her father, described him as an innovator, who came up with a number of novel approaches.

“I think that he was very much ahead of his time. He always tried to find ways of bringing his ideas to film and he believed in movie possibilities.

“What he invented really was the combination of many techniques: cell animation, cut-out, 3-D puppets, and live actors. And he put all these techniques in one film and was really trying to erase all these barriers.

“That was really his speciality and I don’t think any other filmmaker was able to do special effects as well as my father.”

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne,  photo: archive of Muzeum Karla Zemana

According to Michaela Mertová, Karel Zeman’s biggest advantage was that he was able to put all the available technology to the best possible use. He also drew on his extensive experience in film advertising.

The fantastic worlds he created in his films are not unlike the ones created by his predecessor, Georges Méliès, to whom he is often compared, she says:

“Mr Zeman has often referred to the work of the French film pioneer. And I think that to some extent, he drew from his ideas and techniques.

“But he always used his own technical, technological and artistic possibilities and thus created a method entirely his own, which can hardly be repeated by anyone else.”

Karel Zeman’s third feature film, the Fabulous Baron Munchausen, which premiered in 1961, is regarded by many as his masterpiece. The fantastical adventure, inspired by engravings by Gustave Doré, featuring unique effects and funny gags, won many awards at prestigious festivals, including Cannes and Locarno.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen,  photo: NFA

The film also served as inspiration for the American director Terry Gilliam, member of the legendary Monty Pythons, for his own version of the famous 18th century novel.

In the years to follow, Zeman made another three feature films, including two more adaptations of Jules Verne’s novels. In the 1970s he returned to making animated films for children.

Apart from his long-term collaborators, the genius composer Zdeněk Liška and animator Karel Hutečka, his daughter Ludmila also took part in some of his later projects.

Karel Zeman with his daughter Ludmila,  photo: Czech Television

Karel Zeman’s last film, an animated fairy tale The Tale of John and Mary, was made in 1980. Here is part of a programme recorded that same year by Czechoslovak Radio on the occasion of the filmmaker’s 70th birthday, in which he spoke about his love for filmmaking:

“I have one the most beautiful jobs there are: I tell stories. I draw a figure, create a storyline, and then I work for a couple of weeks to make it move.

“When I arrive with my colleagues in the studio at the end of the week, we can see, that what we made up has come to life on the screen.

“That is something that makes you really happy. It is like drawing a nice picture. But we can make that picture come alive, which makes us even happier!”

Karel Zeman died ten years later, in 1990, but his films remain hugely popular to this day. In 2012, a museum in his honour opened in Prague, established in cooperation with his daughter Ludmila, who has lived in Canada since the 1980s.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen,  photo: Karel Zeman Museum

Zeman’s special place in the history of world cinematography was confirmed a year ago, when the prestigious US film distributor Criterion Collection launched a set of his digitally restored films.

Called “Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman”, it includes his most famous films: Journey to the Beginning of Time, Invention for Destruction and Baron Munchhausen.

So what exactly is it that makes Karel Zeman’s films so appealing even today, in the digital era? Michaela Mertová offers her explanation:

Karel Zeman | Photo: Czech Television

“It is true that many people are taken by surprise when they realize such films were made in the pre-digital era. And of course that today, the special effect possibilities are entirely different. But whether a film works depends mainly on the story and the magic between the actors.

“Just like the books by Jules Verne will always attract new readers, I believe Karel Zeman’s films will continue to attract new generations of viewers. That’s because they can transport them into a fantasy world and it makes no difference whether they are captured on film or created digitally.”

Author: Ruth Fraňková
  • Masters of Czech animated film