Where to begin with Czech animation

From fabulous fairytale worlds to shape-shifting surrealism, Švankmajer to Trnka, we take a beginner’s path through one of the world’s richest animation traditions.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959)

Why this might not be so easy

One of the first written words I committed to memory was ‘Konec’, or the Czech for ‘The End’, a by-product of Czechoslovak animated shorts forming a surprisingly staple part of 1970s BBC childrens’ programming. Popular cartoon characters like Krtek (aka The Little Mole) were loved worldwide by millions of people who had no idea of his nationality, while feature films such as Karel Zeman’s Invention for Destruction (1958), Jiří Trnka’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959), Jiří Barta’s The Pied Piper (1986) and Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988) provided regular evidence of the astonishing creative fecundity of what by then had been long established as one of the country’s great national art forms.

The Pied Piper (1986)

The history of Czech animation begins with Bohuslav Šula’s unfinished Fireflies (1920), with the first significant production originating in the advertising business. Shoe magnate Tomáš Baťa never intended to become an animation pioneer, but the studio that he founded in 1928 in his home town of Zlín to make commercials for Bata shoes served as one of Czechoslovak cinema’s great talent incubators. Zlin Film Studios alumni include directors Elmar Klos, Oldřich Lipský and Otakar Vávra, composer Zdeněk Liška, and the pioneering puppet animators Hermína Týrlová and Karel Zeman.  

In 1945, Jiří Trnka and Jiří Brdečka founded the Trick Brothers Studio (Bratři v triku), which produced the work of Trnka and Brdečka themselves, Zdeněk Miler (creator of the Little Mole) and Břetislav Pojar – and, later, Švankmajer, Barta and Vlasta Pospíšilová. It was responsible for the first Czechoslovak animated feature film, Trnka’s The Czech Year (1947), which showed admirable confidence in not going down the more typical route of tailoring its content to an international audience; instead, it stirred elements of various Czech myths and legends into a beguilingly eye-catching stew. And long before the Czechoslovak New Wave became a going concern in the mid-1960s, it was the country’s animated films that garnered most international attention, and no wonder.

The golden era ended with the collapse of Communism in 1989 – animation is intrinsically an expensive medium, and private finance was understandably reluctant to cover it on the same scale. But outstanding Czech animated films were still being made, with the films of veterans like Pojar, Pospíšilová and Švankmajer accompanied by that of younger compatriots such as Aurel Klimt, Jan Tománek and even the predominantly live-action filmmaker Jan Svěrák (an Oscar-winner for Kolya in 1996), whose largely stop-motion puppet animated film Kooky (2010) proved that there was plenty of life still being breathed into Czech animation.  

The best place to start – Dimensions of Dialogue

Winner not just of the top prize at the Annecy animation festival but a subsequent prize for the best film ever to have competed there, Jan Švankmajer’s 12-minute 1983 masterpiece (animated by Vlasta Pospíšilová) is both technically and conceptually astonishing. Without uttering a single spoken word, it posits three scenarios in which communication terminally breaks down, whether between a series of Arcimboldo-inspired heads, an unnervingly realistic claymation couple, or a couple of busts engaging in a stare-out contest while their mouths emit various initially complementary but then incongruous and finally diametrically opposing objects. 

Dimensions of Dialogue (1983)

The Czechoslovak Communist authorities were so worried about potentially subversive messages that they not only banned it outright but also screened it behind closed doors as an example of what should not be made in the future, an anecdote that Švankmajer understandably recounted with considerable pride.

What to watch next

Several strong recommendations have already been cited, but other outstanding examples include Trnka’s Old Czech Legends (1953), Cybernetic Grandmother (1962) and The Hand (1965), a study of the plight of the artist under totalitarianism that’s all the more heart-rending for the fact that its hapless, increasingly desperate protagonist is such a classic Trnka creation (in other words, adorable).  

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)

Czechoslovak cinema’s great imaginative world-builder, Karel Zeman evolved a remarkable visual approach that combined delightfully artificial backdrops with live action and stop-motion animation. A showcase of his Ray Harryhausen-style dinosaurs, his early 1955 film Journey to the Beginning of Time is a charmingly pedagogic story of four boys travelling back in time to compile evidence for a school report, although it barely hints at the wonders that would come next. The wildly inventive The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) is the one that everyone remembers, but A Jester’s Tale (1964), the Jules Verne-inspired The Stolen Airship (1967) and On the Comet (1970) are also well worth seeking out – as is, if you’re ever anywhere near Prague, the Karel Zeman Museum. And in a very similar vein, René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973) should be mentioned here, as it was substantially made in Czechoslovakia with animation overseen by Josef Kábrt.

Like many animators, Jiří Brdečka never directed a feature himself (his largely live-action contribution to the 1969 portmanteau film Prague Nights coming closest), but he wrote or co-wrote several for Trnka and Zeman, in between making his own wittily satirical animated shorts (Springman and the SS, 1946; The Forester’s Song, 1966; Metamorpheus, 1969; Prince Copperslick, 1980). He also wrote films by live-action comedy specialist Oldřich Lipský, a couple of which (Adela Hasn’t Had Dinner Yet, 1977; The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians, 1981) feature instantly recognisable contributions by Jan Švankmajer from a time when he was banned from making his own films.

The best-known Czech animator internationally since Trnka and Zeman’s heyday, Švankmajer – who described himself as “a militant Surrealist” – made 26 shorts between 1964 and 1992 (all distributed on DVD by the BFI) and eight features from Alice to Kunstkamera (2022). His work is invariably confrontational and unsettling, whether via his characteristic technique of animating fresh meat and other organs, his jarringly associative editing, or his take-no-prisoners approach to his subject-matter. Tellingly, Alice opens with the statement that it’s “a film made for children… perhaps.”

Alice (1988)

More recently, the veterans Vlasta Pospíšilová and Břetislav Pojar and younger compatriots like Jan Balej, Kristina Dufková, Aurel Klimt and David Sukup have collaborated on the delightful Fimfárum series of stop-motion portmanteau features (three to date, from 2002 to 2011), inspired by the work of Jan Werich, one of the last century’s great Czech storytellers. Other noteworthy recent Czech animation includes Jan Tománek’s Goat Story (2008), the first Czech computer-animated feature, Tomáš Luňák’s European Film Award-winning Alois Nebel (2011), a crepuscular adaptation of a locally famous graphic novel, and Jan Bubeníček and Denisa Grimmová’s Even Mice Belong in Heaven (2021), a big-budget animated feature that seems to have been consciously designed to recapture the widespread international appeal of the golden age of Czechoslovak animation.

Where not to start

Brilliant though it frequently is, Jan Švankmajer’s Lunacy (2005) is strictly for existing fans, although this adaptation of the Marquis de Sade by way of Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t possibly be accused of being dull and formulaic, what with the regular processions of severed tongues and eyeballs (in both cases, clearly the real thing) and the constant threat of imminent sexual violence.

Entomophobes and indeed emetophobes may also struggle with his later Insect (2018) – vomit, albeit faked, being a recurring motif – although this multi-layered presentation of Karel and Josef Čapek’s 1920s play The Insect Play, the actors who perform in it, and Švankmajer filming the result offers a fascinatingly detailed study of a great animator at work.

Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time and Jiří Trnka’s The Emperor’s Nightingale screen as part of our season Stop-Motion: Celebrating Handmade Animation on the Big Screen at BFI Southbank.