Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness (1978-1989) DVD9
Revered as one of the world's most significant figures in animation, Czech filmmaker Jiri Barta has made a career fashioning stunningly gothic worlds of horror and fantasy that are infused with sublime humor and intense moral examinations. Mixing the aesthetic traditions of such artists as Gaudi, Kafka, Poe, Fritz Lang, The Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer, Barta's films are wondrous creations that go far beyond mere children’s tales.

His early paper cut-out extravaganzas - Disc Jockey (1980) and The Design (1981)- give way to the object ballet of A Ballad about Green Wood (1983), in which logs celebrate the eternal renaissance of spring. Old mannequins spend their cracked and broken lives In the Club of the Laid Off (1989), and myriad styles of handwear spring to life as a brief history of international cinema in the award-winning The Vanished World of Gloves (1982). Barta's international reputation was cemented with The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1985), a very un-Disney adaptation of the classic German fairytale in which carved wooden puppets in a gothic cubist town are plagued by live rats. Considered one of the greatest works of puppet animation, it recalls the dark medieval epics of Ingmar Bergman. His only live action film, The Last Theft (1987), is a jewel thief/vampire flick shot in the style of 1970s European exploitation cinema.

Working mostly from the prestigious animation studio founded by the legendary Jiri Trnka, Barta's works have been criminally overlooked in the U.S. Kimstim is proud to present all eight of Jiri Barta's films, available for the first time together on one DVD. Includes the legendary animated film The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

DVD9 | NTSC 4:3 | 02:26:34 | 7.44 Gb + 3% rec
Language: Czech (only one film with dialogue)
Subtitles: English
Genre: Animation, Experimental

Director: Jiri Barta
Country: Czech Republic

A Ballad About Greenwood (11 minutes, color, 1983): A man splits open a tree stump and the splinters of wood come to life and engage in a sort of mystic ritual in the forest. Barta has illustrated faces on the wood, making them part of the natural interior grooves of each splinter. He intersperses the animated figures with shots of real landscapes and time-lapse footage of the growth process within the woodland environment. The suggestion is that all of this life is interconnected, but rather than go for a schmaltzy circle-of-life routine, Barta instead follows the wood on a surreal journey with dreamlike transitions where one story element flows into the other. The end result is more visually stunning than illuminating, but cool all the same.

The Club of the Laid Off (25 minutes, color, 1989): Set in an empty flat where damaged, retired mannequins are stored, Barta brings those mannequins to life, showing them trying to carry out their prescribed function even though they have been removed from their regular workplace context and are broken and missing pieces of themselves. When newer, flashier mannequins are dumped into the apartment, a war erupts as old meets new. The obvious social commentary is actually pretty much left up to the viewer. There are many possible interpretations of The Club of the Laid Off. It could be an editorial on the plight of the modern worker in a society that is becoming less and less human, or merely a hallucinatory look into the secret life of plastic replicas of people.

The Design (6 minutes, color, 1981): A pair of hands draws up a set of blueprints for a high-rise apartment building, accompanied by the sounds of real building. This playful entry would be at home as a short film shown on Sesame Street, and I mean that in a good way. Once the building is all laid out, the unseen architect fills it up with colorful families, the music morphing to fit the style of people who he is moving in. In the end, though, innovation gives way to conformity, and the structure becomes just another part of mass culture.

Disc Jockey (10 minutes, color, 1980): A mostly black-and-white pastiche of drawn images and the occasional real object, Disc Jockey has a style similar to Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam animation. Using entirely circular objects (plates, drains, dashboard dials, LPs, etc.), it tells the story of one night for a DJ as he gets ready, drives to the club, and spins his records.

The Last Theft (21 minutes, color, 1987): Barta's only film done entirely with live-action footage. An unsuspecting crook is in the middle of robbing what he thinks is an abandoned home, only to discover its owners are still there. Except, there is something strange about them, and after luring him into a rigged game of dice, they reveal their supernatural secret.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (55 minutes, color, 1985): Barta's longest and most famous piece. He takes a familiar tale and twists it around, using stop motion animation to erect a town rife with gluttony. The citizens of Hamelin have resigned themselves to a life of drudgery and repetition, slaves to their own greed. Barta illustrates them trudging back and forth to work as flat figures straight out of a storybook, but styled more like woodblock carvings. They jabber at each other in a gibberish language, arguing over every little cent and playing cruel tricks on one another. Their city is bent and bloated, warped to look like an impressionistic painting, or something out of Picasso's cubist period. Only the rats that take over the town are consistently three-dimensional, decorated with real fur. The vermin taking over are a product of Hamelin's decadence, and the damage they cause brings the town to its knees.

Enter the Pied Piper. He agrees to free Hamelin of rats for a price, and he makes good on his promise. When done, he falls in love with the only woman in the town who can't be enticed by material reward, though the corrupt imperial court has tried. In a scene of true beauty, the Piper plays her a song, and a painted garden landscape springs up, animated through time-lapse photography.

Of course, the chiselers who run Hamelin cheat the Pied Piper. Even worse, they rape and kill his new love. As befitting this darker retelling, the Piper doesn't exact his revenge in the accepted way. He's got something far more hideous in store than stealing Hamelin's children. Rather, he'll expose their true nature once and for all.

Riddles for a Candy (8 minutes, color, 1978): The oldest piece on the DVD, it whimsically morphs objects from one image to another as a creature of indeterminate origin chases a piece of candy through a storybook.

The Vanished World of Gloves (16 minutes, color, 1982): At a trash dump, a man finds a cache of discarded gloves, and among them is a canister of film. He takes it home and puts it on his projector, discovering the history of cinema in microcosm, told entirely with animated gloves. Parodies of the Keystone Cops and romantic melodramas give over to newsreel footage of a fascist glove rally, and then an orgiastic Fellini party and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi exploitation flick.

Related posts:

  1. Jiri Trnka Film Works Volume 5: Sen noci svatojanske / A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959), Jak starecek menil, az vymenil (1953), Kutasek a Kutilka, jak rano vstavali (1954) DVD5
  2. The World of Jiri Trnka volume 2 DVD5
  3. The World of Jiri Trnka volume 3 (1946 – 1962) DVD5
  4. The World of Jiri Trnka volume 1 – The Good Soldier Svejk / Dobry vojak Svejk (1955) DVD5
  5. Daughter of Darkness / Mie men can an zhi nie sha / Mit moon chaam on ji yip saat (1993) DVD9