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6) The New Faces of Czech Animation

'Alois Nebel', photo: Czech Television
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The films Alois Nebel (2011) and Dcera (The Daughter, 2019) are two of the most successful Czech animated films of the last decade. Both were made using innovative animation techniques, and their plots centre around characters that have to deal with difficult pasts. Dcera is a short film directed by Daria Kascheeva, a student at Prague’s film school. It touches on the universal theme of a troubled family relationship. Alois Nebel, on the other hand, is a feature film that deals with the more specific topic of Czech post-war history.

Alois Nebel is director Tomáš Luňák’s debut. It is based on a comic-book trilogy by author Jaroslav Rudiš and illustrator Jaromír Švejdík, or Jaromír 99. The main character is the eponymous Alois Nebel, a middle-aged train dispatcher who lives in the forgotten mountain village of Bílý Potok. The story takes place during the turbulent time of the Velvet Revolution when Nebel becomes haunted by demons from his past. The train dispatcher suffers from flashbacks of the violent post-war expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia, which took place when he was just a child. The film was made as a coproduction involving three countries, as Luňák told Czech Radio.

Jaroslav Rudiš,  Jaromír 99,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio

“I am very glad that it is a Czech-German-Slovak coproduction, because it is really a Central-European story. It centres on the grievances of the last century: exodus, expulsion. I think those are Central-European topics.”

The idea to write the comic book trilogy was first born in a meeting which Jaroslav Rudiš had with illustrator Jaromír 99 in a Žižkov pub. Nebel, the main character, was inspired by Rudiš’s grandfather, whom the author never met. “He was also named Alois and worked at a small train station,” Rudiš told Czech Radio.

“Alois Nebel works at a small train station in the Jeseniky Mountains close to the German border. For him, the trains passing through carry the load of the whole 20th century, and he starts hallucinating a little bit. We came up with the story with artist Jaromír 99 between 2003 and 2005, and it came out as a series of three books (entitled Bílý Potok, Hlavní nádraží, Zlaté hory). We were really surprised by the success it garnered and that Czech readers got into comic books. We had thought that we would only sell a few copies and give out the rest for free. We accepted the offer to make it into a film on the condition that it would be animated to look like a comic book.”

'Alois Nebel',  photo: Czech Television

But making a film adaption of a graphic novel was no easy task. The only previous attempt at a Czech comic-book movie had been Václav Vorlíček’s 1966 science-fiction comedy “Who Wants to Kill Jessie?”.  Director Tomáš Luňák told Czech Radio about how the film differed from the book it was based on.

“The hero of the film is different in that he talks less. The graphic novel is very literary, and there is a lot of the trademark literary language of Jaroslav Rudiš. It is also quite a long book. We tried to make the film rougher, sort of like a Western or a Nordic movie. So there is less dialogue in it, and the sentences that are used are plainer. It was a gradual process, as the first script – really it was a storyboard made by Jaroslav and Jaromír – stayed very true to the book. Nebel’s role there was pretty much that of a storyteller. But in our film, he is much more of a spectator: a sort of medium that accumulates the energy of the surrounding landscape.”

'Alois Nebel',  photo: Czech Television

According to Luňák, converting the talkative Nebel of the books to a less vocal movie form meant two years of working on a script and even disagreements with the authors. Staying true to their condition that the movie would look like a comic book was also hard work, as Jaroslav Rudiš explains.

“The film was first shot on standard video, and director Tomáš Luňák then animated it using rotoscoping. That gives it a real comic-book appearance, just as I and Jaromír 99 wanted it. The leading role is played by Miroslav Krobot, and Karel Roden plays Mute, a taciturn murderer. Leoš Noha plays Wachek, a sort of antipode of Nebel who does well for himself under any regime. All the live actors really come out from underneath that second layer of animation, which has a very profound effect on the viewer. It is a very visual type of film.”

Nebel premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2011 and was also shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2012, it received awards in three categories at the Czech Lion Awards. That same year, it won the European Film Prize for best animated film of the year.

'Alois Nebel',  photo: Negativ

A more recent Czech animated film that has garnered awards and success at festivals, including an Oscar nomination, is the stop-motion puppet film Dcera(Daughter). The film was directed by Daria Kascheeva, a Russian director, scenographer, and student at Prague’s Film and TV School (FAMU). In 2019, it won the Student Academy Award for best animated film, known as the Student Oscar. Kascheeva is only the third FAMU student to have won the award, after Jan Svěrák and Marie Dvořáková. The director got word of winning the Student Oscar the night before her bachelor’s degree final exam.

Daria Kashcheeva,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“I was happy, of course. I couldn’t believe that I had won an Oscar. Just getting nominated had meant a lot to me, and I didn’t expect them to pick a puppet film as the winner. In America, 3D films and computer animation are more popular, so I considered it to be a huge honour.”

The film tells the story of a girl with a painful childhood experience. As a small child, she carries home a wounded bird only to be ignored and misunderstood by her preoccupied father. From then on, loneliness starts to take hold of the main character, and she is no longer able to accept her father’s displays of affection even as she reaches adulthood. The father is plagued by guilt and tries to win back his daughter’s lost trust. Kascheeva came up with the plot while preparing for entrance exams to FAMU. Work on the 15-minute film took a year and a half. Besides directing and animating it, Kascheeva also wrote the script and recorded the film’s sound.

“The film is really about me. I wrote my own story and thought about my relationship with my parents during the filming. I concluded that parents often do not give their full attention to kids. And even though that can make the children feel bad, it does not mean that their parents do not love them. That’s simply how life goes, and it is important to understand that and forgive the parents. So for me, it was a process of forgiveness, a sort of psychotherapy. It is important for me to be personally connected whenever I am working on a film.”

'Daughter',  photo: archive of FAMU

Kascheeva told Czech Radio. The 35-year-old director chose an uncommon animation technique, in which the puppets’ eyes are animated so that they fully express the story’s melancholy. The film was shot using a handheld camera, which is a technique normally used in live-action films. The puppets, which are made from wood and toilet paper, were inspired by the traditional Czech Masopust carnival, whose strange masks fascinated Daria. Because of the innovative production methods, filming was very time consuming. A day’s work would produce perhaps 8 seconds of film.

“The handheld camera really added a lot to the film’s atmosphere. I wanted the viewer to delve deeper into the story and identify with the characters more. Live-action or documentary films shot with a handheld camera always make me feel that I am inside the story a bit more, that I am there with the characters. I got the idea to try that in an animated film. It was very difficult from the technical side, but I think it turned out quite well. I like the impression it leaves the audience with.”

The award-winning director toured over 90 film festivals with her film. That, says Kascheeva, who considers herself an introvert, left her quite exhausted and in need of a break. She sees the Covid-19 lockdown as an opportunity to focus on her next film. There have been offers from other filmmakers from abroad, but the young director wants to focus on another new experimental project. “It will be the story of a grown woman searching for her identity and the right approach to her body, sexuality, and her fight against society’s preferred idea of what a woman should be and act like.” For now, that is all that Daria Kasheeva will reveal about her new project.