“Visionary Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman is recognised as one of the great masters of 20th Century fantasy cinema for his innovative combination of live-action and animation, along with the use of ingenious special effects. Often described as the ‘Czech Méliès’, his work has been a profound influence on generations of filmmakers from Jan Švankmajer to Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam to the Quay Brothers and Wes Anderson.
“A Jester’s Tale” is one of Zeman’s most celebrated achievements. Described by Zeman as a ‘pseudo-historical’ film, it is a bold anti-war black comedy following the adventures of a ploughboy and a mercenary, press-ganged into service on the battlefields of the devastating Thirty Years’ War of 1618 – 1648.
Co-scripted by Pavel Jurácek (“Ikarie XB 1”, “Daisies”, “Josef Kilián”), this startlingly inventive film emerges as a sharp satire on war, human nature and of the way we perceive history itself”.
– via Second Run DVD
Director Karel Zeman (1910-1989) may remain little known to modern audiences, but his influence has been recognised by generations of filmmakers who have cited the work of the late Czech director and animator as vital to their careers and ideas. Ray Harryhausen, Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson, and Tim Burton, among many others, have hailed Zeman. Speaking to Radio Praha about Zeman, Burton noted that: “His films, like [The Fabulous] Baron Munchausen… And I remember some dinosaur series with kids in it [probably Journey to the Beginning of Time]… And I remember where I grew up in Burbank there was a documentary on Karel Zeman that showed his creative process and that was extremely inspirational to me.“ (1). Zeman’s work is also clearly a factor in that of compatriot and animator Jan Švankmajer. In Zeman’s 1964 masterpiece “A Jester’s Tale”, you can immediately recognise many visual ideas that directly influenced Terry Gilliam in his artistic creations for both his work in Monty Python and his solo film outings, something Gilliam has readily acknowledged.
The mixture of live action and animation in “A Jester’s Tale” creates a marvellous fantasy world that highlights the absurdity of the Thirty Years’ War and many conflicts to follow by way of a black comedy that is a visual delight. The matte paintings are beautiful to behold and help to create a world in which absurd characters and situations provide comment on the surreal nature of the period. It is a journey through a land of madness, continual change, and the characters that find themselves entangled in a ridiculous spider’s web of epic proportions as first one side is winning the war, then the other, and back again, and again, and again, in a near farcical situation that is shown in a highly amusing manner.
Zeman’s creations were ahead of their time and groundbreaking, allowing a host of imitators as well as new filmmakers to take on board the ideas and methods on show in the Czech director’s work. In his extensive essay in the booklet that accompanies the DVD release, Ian Haydn Smith notes that:
“In his ‘Dictionary of Film’, the critic and former surrealist George Sadoul noted the importance of Zeman in furthering the accomplishments of the ‘eighth art’ – animation – whilst drawing a line between cinema’s earliest fantasist and fellow admirer of Jules Verne: “He is justly considered Méliès’ successor. He undoubtedly brings the old master to mind, not only because he is an artisan impassioned by art, creating his “innocent inventions” with infinite patience rather than with large budgets, but also because of his ingenuous and always ingenious fantasies. Less intellectual than Trnka, but nonetheless his equal, he has great zest and a marvellous sense of baroque oddities and poetic gags… He has never stopped experimenting with new techniques and exploring new genres.”
The monochromatic world in which peasants are mistaken for nobility; you can switch sides by simply changing your clothes; and you can be imprisoned and then feted purely based on how the wind is blowing, is the world presented here. With nods to the swashbuckling days of Errol Flynn as well as the Falstaffian nature of characters, Zeman’s fantasy is a wonder.
“A Jester’s Tale” is another reminder of the seemingly never ending catalogue of Eastern European Cinema that is becoming increasingly rediscovered by international audiences who now marvel at the ideas and stories on show. Zeman’s film is witty, beautifully played by the entire cast, wonderful to behold for the mixture of cinematic techniques, and full of the imagination that most modern filmmakers struggle to present. It is a joyous and clever film that pricks the bubble of the nature of seemingly unwinnable wars in a style that presents a more solid statement that many so-called anti-war films that have come since Zeman. It is a must-see for fans of animated fantasy and those who follow the work of the many filmmakers that would most probably never have begun their careers, let alone succeeded, without the remarkable talent of Karel Zeman leading the way.
Main Cast and Crew:
Petr Kostka – Petr
Emília Vášáryová – Lenka
Miroslav Holub – Matěj
Valentina Thielová – Veronika
Karel Effa – Varga
Eva Šenková – Countess
Directed by Karel Zeman
Story – Karel Zeman
Screenplay – Karel Zeman, Pavel Juráček
Director of Photography – Václav Huňka
Music – Jan Novák
Art director – Zdeněk Rozkopal
Editor – Miroslav Hájek
Sound – Roman Hloch
Costumes – Jiří Jaška
Visual effects/animation – Arnost Kupcík, Frantisek Krcmár
Special effects – Zdeněk Ostrčil, Josef Zeman
Producer – Josef Ouzký
Presented from a new anamorphic digital transfer with restored picture and sound.
New and improved English subtitle translation.
12-page booklet featuring a new essay by writer and book editor Ian Haydn Smith.
Length: A Jester’s Tale: 81 minutes
Sound: Original mono (restored)
Black and white
Original aspect ratio: 1.85:1 / 16:9 anamorphic
Subtitles: English On/Off
Second Run DVD 089
This review first appeared on SFFWorld at: