Karel Zeman, a Czech born in 1910 in Bohemia when it was still part of the Austrian empire, became an assistant to Hermina Týrlova, who was making cartoons for children using puppets and stop-motion animation.
He started out as a filmmaker with
shorts like Vanocni Sen/ A Christmas Dream (1945) and the series of
Mr Prokouk (debuted in 1946), a wooden puppet whose adventures were
satires of the society.
His artisan skills wed an experimental spirit: in the silent ten-minute short
Inspirace/ Inspiration (1948) the animated figurines were made of blown-glass,
and another satire, Kral Lavra (1950), an adaptation of Karel Borovský's poem, used
Poklad Ptaciho Ostrova/ The Treasure of Bird Island (1952) is based on a Persian fairy tale and employs a variety of animation methods to recreate the style of ancient Persian manuscripts.
Zeman debuted a hybrid form of cinema, combining live action and animation, in
Cesta do Praveku/ Journey to the Beginning of Time (1954), a film in
which children travel back in time.
This didactic film is basically a pretext to explain to the public what the world was
like in ancient times.
A young man nostalgically flips through the pages of an old diary, the
diary of a journey that involved his best friends when he was still a child.
Jirka was the youngest of them. He found a
fossil trilobite in cave. The other three children (Petr the narrator, Jenda, Tonik the photographer) explained to him what a fossil
is and took him to a museum to see reproductions of extinct animals.
Inspired by Jules Verne's book about a journey to the center of the Earth,
Jirka guessed that maybe there were still living trilobites inside the Earth.
That's where the real story begins.
They sail on a rowboat into the cave and find themselves in an icy landscape.
They pitch tent on the ice and realize that they have reached the Ice Age.
The following day they resume rowing upstream and the ice disappears.
Advancing in prehistory, they spot a mammoth on the bank of the river.
The following day they reach green landscapes of trees: they have left the Ice Age.
They find a cave and inside signs of a human hunter: they are in the Stone Age.
Tonik ventures outside alone following the trail of the hunter, determined
to photograph him, but only manages to find a spear.
They keep rowing and reach the tertiary where they encounter many extinct mammals.
Jirka goes fishing by himself and catches a giant fish.
Another day they are caught in a violent thunderstorm while they are rowing.
Danger is all around them: another day they have to run from a tiger, and another time from a monster bird, their introduction to the age of dinosaurs.
For each animal they encounter we get an explanation of what it was, which
gets meticulously recorded in their diary by Petr.
A dinosaur destroys their boat. Little Jirka cries, but the others built
a raft and the journey continues.
Jirka chases a dragonfly into the swamp and again causes
anxiety to his three older friends. They get mad at him and he resents it,
especially since he found the diary that had fallen off the raft.
They reach the Silurian age, a rocky landscape with no vegetation
where life was born. They walk to the beach and Jirka finds a live
trilobite. The circle is complete.
Vynalez Zkazj/ Invention for Destruction/ The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958), based on
Jules Verne’s novel "Facing the Flag", and with music by Zdenek Liska,
is mainly notable for its imitation of the quaint
Victorian engravings that appeared in the original editions of Verne's novels,
drawings of ships, balloons, dinosaurs, submarines, and all sort of machinery.
The soundtrack was composed by Zdenek Liška for a chamber ensemble of string instruments, harpsichord and woodwinds.
The narrating voice of protagonist Simon Hart introduces the
diary of his journeys, undertaken during an era of rapid progress.
He takes the first steamboat ever that crossed the ocean and reaches America.
During the voyage he spots a submarine and a zeppelin, two new inventions.
He then travels by train and marvels at every kind of technological progress,
especially flying machines.
He finally reaches the castle of a scientist, Roch, who needs money to complete
During a violent thunderstorm, five men in a lifeboat enter the castle.
They are pirates and kidnap the scientist and his assistant (the narrator).
Searches are organized but fail to discover who the kidnapper is.
The crew of a warship inspects the three-master schooner of a count called Artigas but find
The kidnapper is indeed Artigas and the reason that they didn't find the scientist is that the galleon is pulling a submarine that is underwater.
Artigas descends to the submarine and welcomes the scientist. A window shows
the marvels of the sea and all the ships that have been sunk.
Artigas introduces him to Serko, the engineer who has built Artigas' secret
As they are talking, the pirates spot a merchant ship and Artigas orders to
They easily sink the ship, thanks to superior technology,
and Simon witnesses
wearing diver suits
and riding on underwater vehicles,
entering the sunk ship and then pillaging it.
Artigas lies to Roch that the merchant ship had
already before and they merely discovered it lying on the bottom of the sea.
A castaway survives: a beautiful woman, Jana. She is rescued by the pirates.
They finally reach Artigas' island city.
Artigas convinces Roch to continue his experiment using Artigas' high-tech lab
while Simon is jailed in a dilapidated shack.
Roch is working on a chemical reaction that will generate an astronomical
amount of energy.
Artegas confesses to Simon that his goal is to use Roch's invention in combination with a flying machine to become the ruler of the world.
Simon knows that Roch is too naive to see the real purpose of Artegas' interest.
Simon releases a balloon containing a message, which is received by the authorities. Alarms are beamed all over the world.
The pirates realize that someone has betrayed them and prepare to defend themselves with a "super-gun" developed by Serko.
Meanwhile, Jana, grateful that Artegas saved her life, is quietly accepting her job as Roch's maid.
Simon is forbidden to see Roch. He offers to repair as damaged underwater cable so he can escape. Since he never resurfaces, Serko assumes that Simon drowned.
Simon in fact almost die but is saved at the last minute by a friendly
submarine. The pirates sink the friendly submarine but Simon survives and
climbs the castle. He accidentally ends up in Jana's room, introduces himself
as Roch's assistant and tells her that it was Artegas who sank her ship (she has no reason to be grateful to Artegas).
Jana helps Simon enter the laboratory. They don't find Roch, but
Simon overhears Serko explaining the battle plan to Artegas.
The following day the supergun is readied in front of Roch who begins to
realize that he has cooperated with a sociopath.
Simon and Jana disrupt their plan by hijacking a hot-air balloon.
Roch deliberately causes an explosion that destroys the island and kills
Baron Prasil/ Baron of Munchhausen (1961), a retelling of the legend of
Rudolph Raspe's fictional character, again with a soundtrack by
imitates the engravings of Gustave Dore'.
Unfortunately, the story is a bit tedious and the visuals are not as surreal.
The film opens with close-ups of footsteps in the dirt.
A frog is sitting on a pitcher in a pond while birds and flying machines populate the sky.
The camera turns to an astronaut on the Moon, who is following
the footprints in the dirt. He reaches an old
rocket that crashed into the Moon. There's a
plaque on it about Jules Verne's novel "From the Earth to the Moon".
Four men appear, which include three characters from the book and Cyrano de Bergerac.
None of them wears an astronaut's helmet. The astronaut doesn't answer Cyrano's
questions and Cyrano conludes that he must be a Moonman.
Then Baron Munchausen arrives, riding a horse.
They all toast to the Moonman, who still doesn't respond.
The Baron decides to take the Moonman to the Earth and show him how Earthlings
live. The space journey takes place on a flying sailboat,
escorted by winged horses.
The Baron's voiceover narrates the story.
The Baron is amused to realize that, once stripped of the astronaut's spacesuit,
and dressed like an 18th-century gentleman,
the Moonman looks like an ordinary Earth man.
The Moonman is amazed by the Baron's spaceship, which clearly defies science.
The baron is annoyed by the Moonman's talks of science and technology.
The Moonman insists that he comes from Earth (clearly, from the future), his name is Tonik, and
the baron doesn't believe him.
They land near the Ottoman sultan's palace in 18th-century Istanbul.
The baron presents Tonik to the sultan. Bianca, a Venetian princess who is kept captive by the sultan, is immediately smitten by the handsome infidel and sends him a message asking for him to help her escape.
The baron is all too happy to help Tonik in a romantic adventure.
They risk their lives to reach Bianca's room and then flee the palace with her
(the two men try in vain to break a big door that looks locked but then the
woman shows them it's just a sliding door that she gently opens).
They are chased for three days by the Turks until they reach a cliff overlooking the ocean. They dive in the waters with their horses and swim to a schooner,
whose captain immediately recognizes the baron. The ship is headed for Venice,
which suits perfectly their plans.
The Turkish fleet is about to blow the schooner when the baron has the idea
to blow tobacco smoke all around the schooner, thus confusing the Turkish commanders who begin bombarding each other's ships.
Unfortunately a few cannonballs also sink the Venetian schooner.
Tonik and the ship's captain take one lifeboat,
the baron and the princess another one.
The latter is swallowed by a giant fish. Inside the fish there is a lagoon.
The baron sees a schooner, also trapped inside the fish, and asks the castaways for shelter for himself and the sleeping princess.
The fish takes them to the Arctic and to Egypt.
It also passes by Europe and the baron rejoyces at the sound of cannons, which he considers a sign of civilization. Life on the schooner continues normally as if it were a cruise.
During a thunderstorm the fish is harpooned by another schooner and drifts
dead to shore.
They soon run into Tonik who is using his scientific knowledge to
power a ship with steam, something never seen before in that century.
Alas, the experiment fails and the ship explodes.
The baron and everybody else thinks it's nonsense to power a ship with steam.
The baron is kidnapped by a giant bird (and calmly smokes his pipe), dives
into the ocean, rides an underwater horse (calmly straightening his jacket),
is tempted by mermaids, and reemerges near the ship that is carrying Tonik and
Bianca. The baron is now determined to "save" the princess from Tonik, whom he
considers a lunatic. They disembark and stay at the fort of general Elemele,
an old friend of the baron. The general can't see where the enemy is and the
baron volunteers to be shot on a cannonball to survey the enemy's camp.
He flies back to the fort on a cannonball shot by the enemy.
The baron's ingenuity defeats the enemy.
Meanwhile, Tonik romances Bianca.
Tonik gets in trouble when he drops the general's gunpowder into a well until there is none left. The general sentences him to death.
Tonik fools the guards and escapes. The baron checks Tonik's drawings of
modern inventions and realizes that Tonik has been trying to build a rocket.
The baron lit a candle and throws it into the well. Tonik and Bianca are
turned into rockets which fly to the Moon and are welcomed by Cyrano, and
Cyrano laments that the Moon used to belong only to poets and dreamers.
In the last scene we see them both dressed like astronauts, ready to take off for the Earth.
These films are breathless rhapsodies of tricks, with humorous overtones.
The anti-war satirical historical film Blaznova Kronika/ A Jester's Tale/ War of the Fools (1964), a collaboration with screenwriter Pavel Juracek and mostly directed live, was still a baroque exercise of imitation, this time of Matthaus Merian's engravings.
It is the most dynamic of his films, with plenty of action, and also the funniest, bordering on slapstick comedy.
An old jester introduces the the Thirty Years’ War through a series of
printed images. One day
the simple peasant Petr is forcibly recruited by a Protestant gang to fight
against the Catholics, i.e. duke Wallenstein and the Holy Roman Emperor.
They tie him and his cow and drag him away, promising
fame, money and girls.
When the cow distracts the old gang leader, ,
Petr manages to jump on his horse and ride away,
but is captured by the imperial (Catholic) army.
Surprisingly, the old Protestant gang leader, Matyas, shows up, introduces
himself as Matyas, and switches side swearing loyalty to the emperor.
Petr and Matyas are marched with thousand others to the battlefield.
Right where the two armies face each other, the
beautiful Lenka is washing clothes in the river and sings about the
madness of men.
Matyas pulls Petr down to the ground while the other fearless musketeers shoot at the enemy and are mowed down by cannon fire.
At the end of the battle Matyas and Petr seem to be the only survivors.
They are not even sure in whose camp they are.
Matyas doesn't care and loots what he can, loading it into a cart.
Petr only saves the portrait of a beautiful woman.
One day they find an abandoned donkey and Matyas immediately takes it to pull the cart.
Later, Petr runs into a woman who is looking for the donkey.
Petr falls in love and heroically defends Lenka against three musketeers,
revealing to be a skilled fencer.
Matyas shows up only when the fighting ends.
Matyas convinces Lenka to join them so he doesn't have to return the donkey.
They see a group of horsemen who are about to attack them. Matyas, who has both uniforms, thinks they are Protestants and quickly wears a Protestant uniform,
while Lenka quickly changes into the clothes of a jester.
Unfortunately, it turns out they are Catholics. They are arrested and taken
to a count's castle. But they mistake Petr for a margrave so he is treated with respect, while Matyas is assumed to be his chamberlain.
The trio is dumped in the dungeons.
The captain who arrested them, Varga, boasts to the count that he captured them in
battle and proudly exhibits the portrait that Petr loved, which is the portrait
of the count's daughter Veronika.
The captain boasts of killing all the enemies except the margrave, who can now be exchanged for ransom. The captain, Varga, is granted what he wants: Veronika, whose fiance', a general, has certainly perished in the real battle.
We see that the old jester of the introduction is living in the castle at the service of the count.
An imperial envoy (who comically bounces up and down after riding a horse for a long distance) delivers the news that the emperor has been defeated.
Now the count is ready to switch sides and he orders the margrave Petr to
be treated like a guest of honor and even grants
Veronika to Petr, whose beauty Petr already admired in the portrait.
Varga is no longer Veronika's fiance': Petr is.
Meanwhile, the old jester of the count saves Lenka from punishment when she
accidentally steps on Veronika's long dress, and then saves her again (with an improvised puppet show) when her wit is upsetting Veronika.
Petr, however, is in love with Lenka and gets tired of the charade: he confesses
to Veronika's mother that he is nothing but a peasant.
Varga is Veronika's fiance' again and chases Petr to kill him, but Petr outsmarts him.
Petr and Lenka wander in the vast rooms of the palace, and they finally kiss.
At night they try to escape climbing down a ladder from a tower but are spotted
by the guards. Petr knocks at a window which turns out to be Veronika's window.
Thinking that the handsome Petr is coming for her, Veronika is excited and let her maid open the window while she undresses, but instead Petr and Lenka simply sneak out of
Varga is informed that two intruders have climbed into Veronika's room and
does the same. Veronika is not amused to see the ugly Varga instead of the
handsome Petr and kicks him out.
A drunk Matyas escapes using his skills as a thief.
Petr challenges Varga at a duel and has to fight all his troops while Varga
runs to safety on top of a tower.
Lenka finds a way to summon the men to lunch. The soldiers stop fighting and
sit at the table to eat.
Varga is furious but in his excitement he falls from the tower and has to beg
Petr for mercy.
The wind of war changes again and the count sides with the Protestants.
Varga releases the prisoners. Matyas wastes time to pack his loot onto the cart, and that's enough time for the war's course to change again: Varga closes the gate again. Matyas fools the sentry into saying the wrong thing and Varga reopens the gate. This time Petr and Lenka can finally ride out of the castle.
Petr stops to help a peasants whose cart is overturning. It turns out to be
a trap: they are captured by the imperial army and sentenced to hang.
Matyas doesn't fall into the same trap and hears that Petr and Lenka have escaped.
He runs to the rescue.
Matyas (no longer the selfish opportunist) abandons his loot so that
the soldiers who are chasing them stop and fight over the loot.
Petr and Lenka reach an abyss that they have to cross by balancing themselves
over a log.
Matyas lags behind. Instead of crossing the abyss he drops the log and faces
the soldiers. Before they shoot him, he asks to be allowed to drink from a bottle of wine. That's enough time for the wind of war to change direction again,
but this time Matyas throws his bottle at it.
Ukradena Vzducholod/ The Stolen Airship (1966), which adapts two Verne novels, was a tribute to art nouveau.
Na Komete/ Off on a Comet (1970) is another anti-war satire and again based on a Verne novel.
Pohadky Tisice a Jedne Noci/ 1001 Nights/ Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (1974) compiles seven shorts made in 1971-74:
the 14-minute "Dobrodružstvi Namornika Sindibada/ Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor" (1971),
the 13-minute "Druha Cesta Namornika Sindibada/ The Second Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor" (1972),
the 13-minute "V Zemi Obru/ In the Land of Giants" (1973),
the 15-minute "Magnetova Hora/ The Magnet Mountain" (1973),
the 11-minute "Letajici Koberec/ The Flying Carpet" (1973),
the 10-inute "Morský Sultan/ The Sultan of the Sea" (1974),
and the 12-minute "Zkrocený Demon/ Taming the Demon" (1974).
The style is rather trivial, almost childish, compared with his classics.
Carodejuv Ucen/ Krabat – The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1977) is a rather
simple cartoon that retells an ancient fairy tale.
Krabat is an orphan boy who becomes one of the many boy apprentices to a sorcerer. All the boys learn magic and perform magic on behalf of the sorcerer. Every Christmas one boy fights the sorcerer, loses and dies.
One day Krabat falls in love with a girl and then discovers the secret to defeat
the sorcerer's magic: love. The sorcerer dies and his books of magic go up in flames.
His last film was
Pohadka o Honzikovi a Marence/ The Tale of John and Mary (1980), inspired by the style of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Zeman died in 1989.