3) Zdeněk Miler and his phenomenal Little Mole

Little Mole, photo: Barbora Němcová

The Krteček (Little Mole) cartoon character has been a favourite of not only Czech children for several generations now. The black-furred creature with a bright red nose was created by Kladno native Zdeněk Miler.

Illustration ran in the Miler family. Zdeněk Miler’s father drew copies of famous artworks, which he gave to friends or hung up at home. But the younger Miler did not consider taking up art until he was inspired to do so by a high school teacher. That is what led him to enrol at the College of Arts and Crafts in Prague, historian Irena Veverková explains.

Zdeněk Miler,  photo: Czech Television

“He realized that he was too young and that he had to be at least a year older to even be allowed to take the entrance exams. So he spent a year at a photography school which he found dreadfully boring. The students there all lived bohemian lifestyles and left Miler unimpressed. It motivated him to prepare even harder for the entrance exams. Once he started his studies, he was called up for forced labour and received an offer to work in a studio in Zlín. There he stayed until the end of the war. He began working on an adaption of Karel Čapek’s Pošťácká pohádka (Postman’s Tale) but could not finish it because the Germans took over the studio and forced the employees to work on German cartoons. In 1945, he returned to central Bohemia and established himself at Jiří Trnka’s studio.”

Most Czech animated films, including the famous Little Mole, were produced at the Bratři v Triku studio. Zdeněk Miler came up with the studio’s logo, which became a symbol of Czech culture even abroad. It seems that the artist’s childhood served as inspiration.

"He was brought up as an only child until he got a sibling when he was eight years old. It was a sister, so completely unsuitable for boys’ games. On the other hand, he had two male cousins. One was named Alois, and they called the other one Milda. He did not deny that the logo depicted him and his two cousins. Alois, Milda, and Zdeněk: The Brothers in Shirts.”

Irena Veverková,  photo: Jakub Říšský / Czech Radio

And how did the famous Mole come to be? Miler got asked to make an animated series for children, so he started thinking about how to make a character that would appeal to a young audience.

"He knew from the start that the character had to come from the animal kingdom. But Walt Disney had used up almost all the animals, and Miler wanted to be original. One day, he tripped over a molehill in the forest and decided to try drawing a mole. But when he looked in Brehm's encyclopaedia, The Life of Animals, he realized that the mole is one of the ugliest animals and, to make it worse, blind. Then he spent several weeks working on the idea for eight hours a day. He started with the eyes and gradually added the rest of the body, approaching it in a very professional manner. He knew that it had to be suitable for animation, so he created a simple mole. The mole in the first episode, “How the Little Mole Got His Trousers”, looks different than in the rest of the series. Its nose is longer and it has a tail. In subsequent episodes, the tail was removed, and three hairs appeared on the Mole’s head.”

Photo: Czech Television

As Irena Veverková adds, the Mole does not talk. And yet, anyone can understand it.

"The series didn’t have to be translated into foreign languages, as it was understood by all children.  The Mole can only laugh, cry, or be surprised. The sound effects were made by Miler’s daughters. He explained to me how he took his daughters to the studio one day to record the Mole’s voice. Then he used the recordings in different situations.”

The Mole’s voice was only used in the first short entitled “How the Little Mole Got His Trousers”.

The first Little Mole film was released in 1957 and immediately received the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. In total, Zdeněk Miler filmed 49 episodes of the series, which saw the Mole take up a range of professions and confront various technological gadgets.

“Over a span of 50 years, the Mole fidgeted with a transistor radio, chewing gum, television, an umbrella, a watch, and a lollipop. He also made plenty of new friends throughout the episodes. In addition, he took up a series of jobs, working as a chemist, photographer, clockmaker, and gardener. A 5 to 7 minute long animated short took about 3 months to make. To film one footstep, one had to construct about 5 frames of different stages of movement. That’s the old-fashioned way of doing animation. At a certain point, Miler got tired of the Mole and started trying different animals. He created a puppy, then a cricket. Still, everyone wanted to see the Mole. It is an unbelievably kind and charming character. Mr. Miler’s sister told me that the Mole has her brother’s personality.”

'How the Little Mole Got His Trousers',  photo: Czech Television

The Mole accompanied Zdeněk Miler throughout his life. And the artist was proud of his creation, attending book fairs to autograph Little Mole books.

“I am happy that the Mole is so successful. Even some Germans and Poles were here to get their books signed. It is not just ours but almost an international cartoon.”

Irena Veverková visited Zdeněk Miler at the hospital shortly before he passed away in 2011.

He was an exceedingly kind and humble man who told me great stories about his work. I called him a famous painter, and he immediately corrected me, saying ‘I’m not a painter, I’m an illustrator’. He talked to me very kindly and answered all my questions. Unfortunately, that was in April of 2011, and he passed away before the article I was writing about him came out. I was able to publish one of his drawings to accompany it. I had told him: ‘people say that you have the Mole in your hand’, and he took a piece of paper, and, before I even finished the sentence, there was a sketched Mole in front of me. He even added a charming note addressed to ‘Irenka’, even though I was an older woman by then. That must be one of the last sketches he made since it is from April of 2011.”

Exposition at Kladno’s castle,  photo: archive of Kladno’s castle

An exposition at Kladno’s small castle is also dedicated to the memory of Zdeněk Miler. Papier-mâché clouds are hung up around the rooms of the exposition. To find out why that is, one must read Zdeněk Miler’s biography, says deputy mayor of Kladno Petra Melčová.

"There are plenty of interesting things there about Zdeněk Miler’s life starting with his time as a schoolboy here in Kladno. He revealed some of his hidden thoughts, dreams  and wishes to museum curator Ms. Slancová, who authored the publication. Here at the museum, visitors can see plenty of balloon-like things under the ceiling. Those are clouds. They reference the documentary shown in Miler’s study, which is called Zdeněk Miler’s Clouds. That’s based on Miler’s early-childhood memories of his grandmother. She would sit him on her lap, and they would watch the clouds out of the window together. The shapes of shifting clouds sparked Miler’s imagination and inspired him to start doing animation.”

"He practised drawing on the way to school, constantly sketching people on the train from Kladno to Prague. He drew many portraits, mostly just as sketches. This beautiful and perfect portrait, which he made for his grandmother Kristýna, is one which he put an extra amount of work into.”

Photo: Barbora Němcová

Zdeněk Miler’s wife recently even donated the worktable on which the Mole stories were drawn up. Petra Melčová told us about Miler’s first film, which is quite a different experience from his later work for children.

“His debut short film is an adaption of Jiří Wolker’s story about the ‘Millionaire Who Stole the Sun’. It’s a black-and-white piece inspired by Kladno, so it is relatively depressing to watch. Although there is a happy ending. We have it here to show how Miler drew inspiration from Kladno and to contrast it with the colourful creatures he spent the rest of his life drawing.”

As Irena Veverková adds, Zdeněk Miler also made an animated musical entitled Sametka.

"It’s the story of a boy and a musically-gifted caterpillar, which dances to the tune of the boy’s piano. Then, once it cocoons and becomes a butterfly, the boy lets it go and plays a farewell song which the film became famous for. It’s a beautiful and lyrical story. Nonetheless, Miler primarily expressed himself through the Mole. It was undoubtedly his most successful character .”