Last month the Film Society of Lincoln Center showed, as part of its "Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi" series, Karel Zeman's 1958 Vynálaz zkázy, an unusual live-action/animation hybrid derived from several Jules Verne tales. Well, actually, the Society showed The Fabulous World Of Jules Verne, the English-dubbed and presumably re-edited version of the film that Joseph E. Levine prepared for U.S. release in 1961. That's the only version of the film I've seen—I recall it as a kind of mind-blowing staple of afternoon and late-night television as a kid, as was Zeman's Baron Munchausen picture—and I presume it was the only version of the film available. Cheesy intro—hosted by Hugh Downs, game-show host and network television's answer to amiable pedagogy—and oddly cobbled narrative notwithstanding, World is still a trip, its peculiarly proportioned and designed backdrops/sets and swatches of animated action giving the whole film a feel of fantastic engravings come to life. Zeman's work clearly influenced Terry Gilliam, whose clip-art animated collages made more irreverent use of 19th-century graphic styles. But both filmmakers share an irreverent wit. More recently, the depictions of the title edifice in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the action sequences of that film, show a distinctly Zeman-esque elan.
For all that I was a little surprised at how well-attended the screening of the Zeman film was, and plenty gratified. Subsequent inquiries yielded exciting information; my colleague Jordan Hoffman told me, after the screening, of a Zeman museum in Prague. A restoration of Vynálaz zkázy is in the works; someday soon, we'll be able to see the picture with a Czech soundtrack, a possibly more coherent storyline, and, pace the Downs family, no Hugh Downs. Most exciting: the release by the great U.K. DVD label Second Run of Zeman's Bláznova kronica, A Jester's Tale, Zeman's 1964 30 Years War fantasia. I was terrifically excited to watch this picture—one of the rare instances in this critic's life in which I can have a completely new and largely unanticipated film experience based on an impression that's still somewhat mysterious. Unknown factors included the plot. And to tell you the truth, after watching the movie, a recounting of the plot is hardly the thing I want to impart to the reader. What I want to impart is that if you live in the U.S. and have a foreign-region DVD player, this disc is, I think, the reason you have that player. Jester's Tale is a miraculous watch. Zeman's work here combines the rollicking exuberance of the Czech New Wave (the female lead is the delightful Emília Vásárová; the future "first lady of Slovak theatre" was only in her ealry 20s here) with the magical mechanics of Meliés; every frame is an intoxicant. There's the optically-printed lightning (seen in the screen capture above).
The amusing, brief bits of "pure" animation, such as what we see above, put modernist caricatures in the foreground of antique engravings to sardonic effect without breaking the film's peculiar spell.
My favorite scene is at the movie's midpoint, when Vásáryová's character, who's been disguising herself as a male Fool, is unmasked by the film's villain and wanders the halls of the castle where the movie's hero is half-heartedly masquerading as a nobleman. She takes a short, hallucinogenic journey around the artworks, which come to various forms of life and seem to concoct a montage encapsulating an allegory of war and the fall of man. It's both visually ravishing and emotionally bracing, a head-spinning jolt that, again, doesn't mess with but in fact enhances the movie's overall character. I hope this release, which showcases a beautiful version of the film, conscientiously transfered (exactly what one expects from Second Run) is a portent and that further Zeman magic will soon be more easily accessible to Western audiences.