The Teacher: classroom and parents’ meeting as microcosm of political corruption and social stagnation

Jan Hrebejk, “The Teacher / Ucitel’ka” (2016)

Billed as a comedy drama, Hrebejk’s “The Teacher” is a character study of how an individual uses her political status and links to exert and abuse power, and ends up corrupting the institutions and structures in which she works. The film is set in a generic town in Slovakia during the 1980s, a period when it was part of Communist Czechoslovakia and Communism as a governing political and economic ideology was at its most stagnant there and in other Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. The local junior high school hires new teacher Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Mauréry) who also happens to be the chairwoman of the local Communist Party chapter. She takes charge of a class of young teenagers and immediately asks all the students, one by one, to declare what their parents do for a living. She soon starts to demand from the students’ parents various services for free, on which the students’ grades depend: if the parents cannot or will not do what she wants, their children’s grades will suffer. Very quickly two students, Danka Kucera and Filip Binder, are in the teacher’s target sights as their parents recognise the teacher’s manipulative behaviour for what it is and refuse to do what she wants. A sub-plot develops when a third student, Karol, whose mother has gone abroad and whose astro-physicist father, Vaclav Littman (Peter Bebjak), has been demoted to washing windows, enrolls at the school and the teacher latches onto Vaclav in the hope that Karol’s parents will divorce. There is a suggestion in the film, and it is only a suggestion as the film does not elaborate further, that Karol’s mother may have defected from Czechoslovakia in order to find work deserving of her talents, and Vaclav and Karol are being punished as a result.

Fed up with the teacher’s behaviour, Danka and Filip’s parents bring their concerns to the school administrators who themselves also have concerns about her students’ performances in exams. The administrators call the parents of Drazdechova’s students for an evening meeting and this meeting is actually the core of the plot. The parents’ reactions and interactions reveal the extent to which, in the wider society, people are willing to tolerate political corruption and abuse of power because they derive short-term personal benefits along the way. They believe also that their children will benefit in the long-term; the notion that instead society will be led by mediocre bureaucrats promoted through favours, bribes and blackmail instead of through merit and achievement, with the result that the stagnation Czechoslovakia is living through comes about, would be lost on them. Confronted by the stories from Danka and Filip’s parents about the teacher’s treatment of the two children, the other parents resort to denial, suggest that Danka should see a psychiatrist and drag in Mr Binder’s criminal past, his use of physical violence against his son and the Binder family’s working-class background to belittle him and his complaints.

The film works surprisingly well and briskly in structuring the story around the parents’ meeting and bringing in flashback examples of the teacher’s manipulations of the children and their parents to make its point. Maurery excels in the role of the teacher and Bebjak as the sheepish, tongue-tied Vaclav Littman, at a loss as to how to deal with Drazdechova throwing herself all over him, makes a deep hang-dog impression. Cinematography is kept to the minimum necessary to push the plot along or to record characters’ reactions, and scenes in the film have a diorama-like quality. The colours of the film have a grey, drab quality and one notices that interior furnishings in people’s apartments have a retro-sixties look even though the film is set in the early 1980s: this may indicate how society in Communist Slovakia has become stagnant and lacking in dynamism and energy.

Subtle hints of class warfare and snobbery in the treatment of Binder during the parents’ meeting add an intriguing layer that flavours Drazdechova’s predation on the children and their parents. The sub-plot revolving around Karol has rich comedy as well as heart-breaking pathos. The film’s climax contains equal amounts of despair and hope as (spoiler alert) initially the reasons for the meeting come to naught – but then the teacher-administrators who called the meeting find unexpected support that starts small and then grows. This part of the film, more or less soundless, underlines the message that to overcome great obstacles, one needs to start small and over time a movement may gradually develop and grow. However this is followed by an anti-climax that reminds us that the kind of manipulative, predatory behaviour demonstrated by Drazdechova is not limited to Communist totalitarian police-state societies, and we must be ever vigilant against its appearance in our own societies.

Little Mole in the City: gentle satire poking fun at human nature and Western technocratic society

Zdenek Miler, “Little Mole in the City / Der Maulwurf kommt in die Stadt / Kiskavond a varosban / Kurmiukas mieste” (1982)

Another charming half-hour adventure about Krtecek and his hedgehog and bunny pals thrust suddenly into a city as a result of their forest home being taken over by the forces of Western civilisation and converted into a concrete-n-skyscraper jungle. A trio of town burghers take pity on them and give them a stamped certificate that virtually amounts to a key to the entire city when it is built. Initially Krtecek, Hedgehog and Bunny enjoy a penthouse-level replica of their forest home but when they accidentally trash the place, they take off into the streets below and cause traffic chaos. Eventually the air pollution and the rush of robot-like people begin to pall and some migrating swans are persuaded to lift our friends away and back into a natural forest environment.

Many episodes in the Krtecek series provide Miler opportunities to comment on and satirise aspects of Czech life and this episode is no different: red-tape bureaucracy that suggests apparatchiks from the Austro-Hungarian imperial period and the Soviet period are much the same in slavish adherence to the letter of the law rather than its spirit; the technocratic mind-set that encourages and is encouraged by mass assembly methods, conformity and obsession with order; and the fragility of mechanised civilisation when such seemingly harmless little critters like Krtecek, Hedgehog and Bunny are let loose on the streets and cause mayhem by bunging up car exhaust pipes with sausages stolen from a sausage van. The situation comedy is a series of skits with the first half of the film showing our friends negotiating their way into the city via escalating levels of public-servant officiousness and ineptitude; the second half of the film sees our friends enjoying themselves at the humans’ expense in a kind of sweet revenge for the destruction of their forest. When they leave the city, it’s mainly because they can’t stand the air pollution enveloping the city in a grey haze, not because they’ve run out of ideas of what to mess up next!

Miler’s love of background detail with surrealist influences from his days studying fine art in the 1930s is apparent in most city scenes: the jumping castle disguised as forest installed in the skyscraper is one delirious moment in the film, especially when it bursts, as is also the animals’ visit to a doll-making factory where they watch the entire assembly line process against a background of colourful and psychedelic blinking lights and switches. Hilariously the foreman appears and uses Krtecek as a model for a batch of Krtecek clone toys, photographing him and programming his machine to put the visuals onto a tape which is then inserted into another machine: incredible to think that this film, made in 1982, anticipated the use of CD-ROMs to transfer 2-D images into digital information from which to create and print out 3-D objects from computers. Did Miler have his own time-machine to travel into the future and bring back ideas for Krtecek cartoons? We’ll never know.

The more I watch Krtecek films, the more fiendishly clever, original and inventive they become, and adult viewers will find much gentle satirical humour poking fun at human nature and herd mentality, and taking apart urbanisation, mechanisation and technological complexity and progress, showing how fragile these phenomena are and how easily subverted they can be by little animals.


The Mole and the Eagle: inventive and heart-warming episode about friendship, love and happiness

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole and the Eagle / Kiskavond es a sas” (1992)

Yet another delightful episode from the Little Mole / Krtecek series and moreover one of the best and most inventive episodes as well; it’s about love, friendship and loyalty and what could be more heart-warming than the friendship between Krtecek and the young eagle he finds as an orphan?

The countryside where Krtecek lives is flooded after heavy storms and after being washed out of his home, Krtecek finds a lost orphan eagle. He brings it up and teaches it to fly. The eagle is tracked by a hunter whom Krtecek tries to divert but ends up being captured and taken home as a pet for the hunter’s son. Eagle rescues Krtecek but the hunter manages to wound him with a bullet. Krtecek calls the paramedics to take Eagle to hospital where he undergoes emergency surgery and recuperates in bed. Mechanised equipment feed Eagle and change his bandages and the doctors do double duty as jazz musicians in one of the more bizarre and surrealist passages in the film – but, hey, this is a Czech film so what did we expect? Soon Eagle and Krtecek leave the hospital and they travel to the city together, marvelling at the incongruity of forest on the tops of buildings (in Western countries, there would be only penthouses and swimming pools for the rich) and paying for drinks at a skyscraper cafe with a feather. Eagle takes Krtecek to mountainous country where Krtecek nearly loses his life to a dastardly fox and Eagle finally finds one of his own kind – a girl eagle, natch. Krtecek is saddened that the demands of the natural order and Darwinian evolution take precedence over their unlikely friendship but not for long: Eagle remembers Krtecek’s babysitting skills and before long Krtecek is playing nanny to a bunch of screaming brats.

The glories of the film are to be found in the animals’ numerous and varied encounters with human beings: some treat the animals well and others, well, not so benevolently but even the worst humans Krtecek and Eagle meet are kindly in their own way. The doctors could have come straight out of Jaroslav Hasek’s famous novel “The Good Soldier Svejk”, their fancy black moustaches and prissy manner reminding me of quaint Ruritanian soldiers from the far reaches of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Miler’s eye for detail is at its most creative and original in the scenes where emergency relief workers help people come down from the tops of churches, trees and houses after the great flood has subsided, and the hospital scenes where Eagle has his operation and is taken to a ward to recover. Then it’s off to the busy, bustling city where cars follow one another smoothly with nary a sight of a traffic jam or two drivers punching the lights out of each other in mutual road rage.

The look of the film is deceptively simple but its details can be very technical in a functional and minimalist way without appearing over-fussy. The adventures the two animals share segue into one another naturally and seamlessly depending on the situation and viewers can almost predict what will happen as Miler puts in objects that Krtecek or Eagle finds a use for almost by accident. The accordion-dominated music is cheerful and sweet without becoming sentimental or sickly.

Highly recommended viewing for families with young viewers for its adorable characters who demonstrate loyalty to each other and express love, affection and happiness without affect.

The Mole and the Medicine: heart-warming film about a resourceful and fearless little hero

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole and the Medicine / Krtek a medicina / Kiskavond es a gyogyszer” (1987)

Found on Youtube under its Hungarian title, this episode of the Krtecek series sees our hero off to foreign lands and climes in search of a herbal medicine to cure his friend Mouse of a high fever. Doctor Owl diagnoses a bad cold and prescribes matricaria and chamomile as the cure so Krtek eagerly sets off in search of the herbs. His journey takes him to Africa where he has many adventures with a lion, a giraffe, an elephant, a caterpillar and a carnivorous plant. A hot-air balloon sends him to Australia, land of rabbits, kangaroos and a polar bear that’s just run away from the zoo. A whale carries them both to the polar regions where the bear introduces Krtek to his wife and kids. They pop him on an ice floe and send him off to yet another foreign country where he comes across a conservatory looked after by a caretaker mole. His new best friend takes him to the airport and sends him home. Safely back in his own community, Krtek informs Doctor Owl that his journey to find the herbs has been in vain, only to be told that the matricaria and chamomile are growing beside his little mole mound! Happy at last, Krtek brews a herbal drink for Mouse and the two pals are soon reunited.

The episode is an opportunity for Miler and his team to show off their skill at painting plants in their two-dimensional details, yet not so technically exact that the plants threaten to steal the show from Krtek. The Venus fly-trap comes close to upstaging our hero but it’s all in good fun. The film’s original plot shines especially in the links between one country and the next: Krtek does good deeds for fish trapped in a basket and a caterpillar trapped in rapids and he is repaid in kind. Strange creatures big and small offer him hospitality and do all they can to help him though they haven’t a clue what matricaria and chamomile might be. A really loopy moment comes when he sniffs an orange flower and the perfume sends him floating (and later an elephant) up to the heavens – literally. Dialogue as usual is kept to the minimum needed for the film – “Hallo!”,  “Ahoy!” and “Chamomila?” are the words heard most often. The music is gentle and relaxed and the accordion melody reminds me of old cartoons set in Gay Paris or the French Riviera of the 1950s though Krtek never goes anywhere near La Belle France.

The highlight of the film really is the flora featured as Krtek examines each and every flower and herb he sees, and every plant seems to have its own individuality no matter how simply it is portrayed. Insects are also among the stars here and even an octopus gets a shoo-in.

If there’s a message for families and small children, it is that one should never be afraid to ask for help and to venture afar to help a good friend, and one can have fun and make new friends no matter how different they are. A very beautiful and endearing film about a resourceful and fearless little animal, “The Mole and the Medicine” is highly recommended viewing.

The Mole and the Matchbox / Der Maulwurf und die Geburt: how Krtecek makes creative multi-tasking look so easy and tidy

Zdenek Miler, “Krtek a zapalky / The Mole and the Matchbox” (1974)

Zdenek Miler, “Der Maulwurf und die Geburt / Krot i Rody” (1990s?)

I can’t find an English-language version of this Krtecek (The Little Mole) episode so I’m not really sure of the English title. The German title translates as “The Mole and the Birth”. In this episode, our little pal plays a minor multiple role as matchmaker, marriage celebrant and midwife to a pair of amorous bunnies who start off as flirts, fall deeply in love and matrimony, get pregnant and give birth to a trio of bonny kittens.

The episode is noteworthy for its minimal and matter-of-fact depiction of bunny sex – Miler discreetly removes a line between the kissing lagomorphs’ bellies – and of later bunny birth as the prospective father soothes his wife and whistles for the doctor. Krtecek comes charging with his case, opens it and tosses out surgical equipment to find a stethoscope to listen to the babies’ heartbeats. While Krtecek massages Mum’s tummy, Dad draws out the first child and two others pop out after much kneading from Krtecek. An insect musician hurries to serenade the happy family with a violin concerto and everyone dances a gentle polka. If only real life could be so easy and tidy!

A more charming piece is an earlier episode from the mid-1970s in which Krtecek and one of his regular co-stars the Mouse discover a matchbox and invent all kinds of fun uses for it: a boat, a swing, a table, a car and a go-kart. Eventually they find what it’s really for: it’s used to store the discarded matches on the forest floor and to light them up. Except they get rather more than they bargain for as the matches burn indefinitely into the night!

As with all other Krtecek episodes I’ve seen, these animations feature beautiful painted forest backgrounds and settings and there is no dialogue apart from children’s laughter and shouts of “Hallo!” Once again Krtecek proves himself a multi-tasking meister, and if he were to meet Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, why, between them they could solve Third World poverty and hunger, ensure everlasting peace in the Middle East, clean up the Daiichi nuclear reactor complex in Fukushima and get rid of global banksters and their pals in the worldwide arms manufacturing industry. If only real life could be so easy and tidy!

Krtek the Multi-talented Mole tries different occupations in near-abstract / experimental shorts

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole as a Chemist / The Mole as Painter / The Mole as Photographer / The Mole as Watchmaker” (1972 – 1975)

By the mid-1970s, Krtek the Mole was nearly 20 years old so it seemed right that he should start looking for gainful employment. In this quartet of short pieces made from 1972 to 1975, he tests different roles for size and although he’s quite good at a couple, he doesn’t last beyond one short and at the end of all of them, Krtek is back to digging ditches.

In the 5-minute short “The Mole as Photographer”, our friend Krtek acquires a camera from a mouse and immediately starts taking pictures of a family of frogs – but the camera plays up on him and he is reduced to drawing pictures of the family. Soon all the animals want portraits done and they drive the little fella nuts as he tries to keep up with all their demands.

Krtek digs his way into a warehouse of chemistry sets in “The Mole as a Chemist” and finds a set to play with. Predictably the mix of chemicals he makes threatens to explode so he hides the test-tube in a box, from which geometric shapes in different colours burst out. He assembles the pieces into a car, then a wheel, then a mobile castle with towers, but all of them quickly get out of control and he ends up spraying the box with the test-tude with a neutraliser he finds in the original set. Everything the box spews out turns into bubbles and Krtek is relieved that the mess he created soon disappears.

In “The Mole as Watchmaker”, Krtek finds an unlikely new friend in a mechanical cuckoo he finds in a clock set up in a tree. At first the cuckoo annoys him so he tries to teach the bird a lesson in manners and ends up crashing the clock onto the ground. He puts it back together to revive the comatose cuckoo and in no time at all the clock is in perfect working order and the cuckoo revives.

The longest of the four, “The Mole as Painter”, Krtek and his friends paint themselves and the forest with various paints they find in discarded cans in order to torment a fox that’s been harassing them all. Faced with a psychedelic scene, Reynard panicks and runs off. The rains come and wash all the brilliant colours and patterns away and the animals celebrate Reynard’s permanent banishment.

IN all these little animated situation comedies, there’s often a moral about co-operation and mutual benefit, being kind to others and helping them, or messing about with dangerous and unknown things. The most ordinary situation is bursting with original creative potential: a set of chemicals and equipment generates strange and wonderful shapes and colours and a forgotten set of paints provides an opportunity to render one’s home in crazy cacophonies of colour. “The Mole as Painter” must have had particular resonance for Miler who originally trained as a painter before the Second World War disrupted as career.

As with other Krtek shorts, these cartoons have beautifully painted background scenery and “The Mole as Painter” goes to town on this as the animals paint spots, lines, patterns and spirals all over one another and over the trees, flowers and grass. The style of animation is appropriately minimal if somewhat old-fashioned for the period but it suits Miler’s purposes in teaching young viewers about colour and creativity and a couple of shorts featured here acquire an abstract and experimental look and feel.

The music is significant to the shorts and often features whistling and cheery accordion melodies.

All cartoons are recommended for families with young (and not-so-young!) children. The educational purpose is quite subtle and the mood is usually happy and optimistic without being sentimental or treacly.



The Mole and the Robot / The Mole and the Rocket / The Mole as a Gardener: lessons in co-operation for little people

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole and the Robot”(1995) / “The Mole and the Rocket” (1966) / “The Mole as a Gardener” (1969)

Let’s turn to a 5-minute charmer in which our friend Krtek acquires a robot to help him do all his hard work. After nearly putting his back out tunnelling and shovelling dirt as moles do, Krtek finds a rare diamond and goes into town to sell it. He returns home with a huge parcel, opens it, reads the instructions and brings out a boxy contraption that converts into a robot when Krtek presses a button on remote control device. The robot does Krtek’s bidding, tunnelling and shovelling you-know-what and Krtek admires its work. As he’s had a long day, Krtek goes to sleep outside his mound. Two mice take advantage of his slumber to program the robot into stealing food and drink for them. Krtek soon finds out what’s been going on behind his back so he orders his robot servant to find a solution to rid him of those pesky rodents.

A little more adventurous is an 8-minute episode in which Krtek comes across a rocket and flies off in the air. The engine sputters and the rocket falls and crashes on a tiny island strewn with shells. After despairing that he will never return home, Krtek is found and befriended by a crab who helps him recover the remains of the rocket and rebuild it. Several other creatures like jellyfish and seahorses also scout about and retrieve bits and pieces. Just as the rocket is rebuilt, a snorkelling boy intrudes on them and attempts to stop Krtek from returning home but our mole has a narrow escape and sails off happily into the sunset.

In “The Mole as a Gardener”, Krtek tussles with a rogue garden hose that turns out to be blocked in its middle. A mouse helps Krtek to redirect the water in the burst hose to the flowers that need it as the weather is hot and the delicate plants are wilting in the heat. Krtek digs a channel to and around the flowers and the mouse directs the water into the channel dug.

In these shorts in which Krtek confronts an aspect of human technology and uses it not just to benefit himself but to help others and along the way acquire new friends, there’s a subtle little message about the value of people working together to achieve common goals and what happens to people if they steal things and use them for selfish purposes. The tone is always cheerful, everyone receives his or her just deserts and any sticky situation Krtek finds himself is resolved through his resourcefulness, quick thinking and hard work. As always in these shorts, there is plenty of detailed (but not too technical) drawing and sketching, the background scenes are lovingly rendered in soft colours, the mood is always bright and the action fast-paced. There’s very little violence, apart from when the mouse reshapes Krtek’s accidentally misshapen head after an unfortunate encounter with a woodwind instrument in the 1969 cartoon.

The Mole in a Dream: children’s animation short verges on surreal and sci-fi / apocalyptic

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole in a Dream / Krtek ve Snu” (1985)

Another film episode in the life of Krtek the Mole and this one’s a real doozy verging on the near-surreal and sci-fi / post-apocalyptic. I gotta wonder whether Miler was high on hallucinogens at the time he made this little classic. This time the focus is on an unnamed human adult male who meets Krtek and this gives animator Miler a chance to show he can do more than paint lovely forest and flower backgrounds and write little kiddie stories about Krtek and his animal pals. One fine sunny day Krtek emerges out of hibernation underground and watches peak hour traffic; he’s bemused at the sight of a motorist’s car stopping due to a flat tyre and the motorist getting out and, by remote control on a handheld computerised transistor radio box, commands the car to replace the flat tyre with a spare. Intrigued, Krtek hitches a ride on the car and is taken back to the motorist’s house which is completely computer-controlled and can do its own cooking, cleaning and caring for its occupants. There the man has dinner and a bath, and then settles down in front of the TV to watch a pop music program. Krtek gets himself a free meal in the man’s house while its owner, oblivious to his presence, falls asleep and has a dream.

In the dream, the house malfunctions and the man has to call the tradesman to come and fix the central control unit in the basement. Unbeknownst to him as he lives in the countryside, civilisation has broken down and the man near freezes to death while waiting for the tradie. Krtek and his friends (Hare, Hedgehog) take pity on the man by lighting a fire in his house, warming and reviving him. Excitedly the man chops ups all the furniture in the house to keep himself and his new animal companions warm. A bear – we’ll call him Bear – joins them all and they teach the man how to survive in the forest. They kindly find him a goat that can give him milk. A lion joins them all and as winter makes way for spring, they find an old gramophone player with a record and start playing music and dancing in a circle as if performing a spring celebration rite. A mammoth tries to join the party and near flattens the man and at this point he wakes up.

As with other Krtek cartoons I’ve seen, the animation style is kept minimal while at the same time it portrays objects and backgrounds in considerable technical detail, though not too much so for young viewers and for 1980s-era animation purposes. In those days, animators were still working with pen and paper and, in Miler’s case, paintings. (With CGI now, we may have lost a lot of the whimsical charm of cartoons like the Krtek series.) The animation enables Miler to show how a smart house might operate: the man in the film presses a button and talks into his transistor box and an assembly line delivers him food and drink, and cleans up the dishes – and Krtek by accident who ends up bleached and pressed into a template along with the crockery and cutlery; fortunately Mouse comes by and sprays black shoe polish over him.

There is a little message about how humans can learn to live in harmony with nature and how cocooning yourself in automated comfort can put you at risk of danger and death if technology breaks down. Nature can be harsh but also offers help if one learns to be resourceful (and Krtek is a very resourceful little fella!) and reaches out for assistance from others and co-operates with them. Situational humour arises in most parts of the film though there are a few unexpected scenes where the action is forced: a lion comes by, storks kidnap Krtek, a Tree of Life sprouts through and destroys the man’s house; I know we are watching a dream which has its own logic but still, my conservative mind finds the lion and the mammoth a little jarring. Lots of little Chekhovian guns abound to serve as linchpins for plot development or the preservation of personal dignity: a carpet gets burned early on with a big hole in the middle so the man uses it as a poncho, having lost all his clothes to a wild boar. Once the gramophone appears on the scene, the animals play with it but you know eventually they’re going to fiddle with the stylus and force it play the old shellac record.

Without a doubt this is the kookiest and funniest Krtek film I’ve seen so far and I want to see more! There are full-frontal nudity scenes (oh my!) and lots of gentle slapstick but no violence. The music is varied and ranges from acoustic instrumentation for most of the film to near-trance tribal electro-acoustic music at the end where the animals and the man dance in a circle. I’m amazed that censors in Czechoslovakia overlooked that neo-primitive shamanistic aspect of the film. I heartily recommend this film for all age groups, even the very young under-18s.

How the Mole got his Pants: charming little short on making flax that set off a phenomenon

Zdenek Miler, “How the Mole got his Pants / Jak krtek ke kalhotkám prišel” (1957)

As it turns out, I’ve stumbled across the famous series of cartoons about Krtek the Mole that animator Zdenek Miler made over a period spanning 45 years, starting with “How the Mole got his Pants” in 1957. This first cartoon is a little charmer about how flax is spun and how clothing can be made from it.  Our little pal Krtek needs something to carry various tools in so he can perform his handy-man jobs and he gets the idea for a pair of overalls with deep pockets. He enlists the help of various animals like a lobster, a bird, a hedgehog and several species of insects to help him grow the plants, harvest the raw material and beat it, and then weave it into cloth. The plot is highly inventive with a very endearing scene of little bugs organising themselves into little work teams to set up the loom, throw the shuttle and weave the material for the overalls.

In contrast to the earlier cartoon I saw, “The Mole and the Clock / Krtek na hodiny”, this piece includes voice-over narration (the version I saw on Youtube was in German) which is helpful as the plot by itself is not clear with respect to all the details of flax production and needs more explication by voice, either in voice-over narrative or by having the animals speak to one another. I believe it was with the second cartoon in the series that Miler decided to do away with spoken voice altogether and just use his daughters’ voices to create sound effects such as laughter to emphasise the mood of particular scenes. The music here takes secondary place to the voice-over and tends to illustrate the mood of a particular passage, follow actions or call attention to a development in the plot.

The animation is deceptively simple but look closely and you’ll see the backgrounds and forest settings are beautifully rendered in pale green, blue and brown watercolours with very detailed portrayals of plants and flowers. Those viewers interested in painting or portraying scenes of nature and still life pictures of flowers, trees, other plants and of objects like looms should take note of the clinically yet minimally delineated two-dimensional background settings: they are obviously down-scaled for children’s perceptions but adults can find much to admire in the way individual flowers and trees are sketched and filled in. The technical minutiae of the flax-making scene are wonderfully drawn and depicted fairly accurately with all the little beetles tirelessly working together to set up the loom and make the cloth.

The Krtek series enjoyed tremendous success across eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and was exported to Germany, India and China as well. It is only very recently that the series has become known in the English-speaking world and already a commercial campaign to sell the series with Krtek dolls made up is beginning in the United States. Not that Krtek needs much to sell his charms. Curiously with his rounded head and ski-slope profile he resembles Josef Lada’s drawings of the famous soldier Švejk in Jaroslav Hašek’s famous novel “The Good Soldier Švejk” and that cannot be merely coincidental as Krtek is as obliging and resourceful as that lovable dog-catcher rogue.

Krtek a Hodiny: amusing children’s animated film hides a moral about industrialisation’s effects on humans

Zdenek Miler, “Krtek a Hodiny” (1995)

Found this 28-minute cartoon on Youtube while looking for Latvian animated shorts which compared to the abundance of Estonian animated films I found last month (July 2012) appear very scarce and what there is, is made for children’s television. This work is also aimed at children but at nearly 30 minutes in length, it seems a mighty stretch for littlies’ attention span. Just as well though that it has a strong story-line in which the three main characters – Mole, Rat and Rabbit, all with wide, startled-looking eyes and perennially cheerful expressions – come across an alarm clock that’s just fallen off the back of a truck travelling through their forest home. After a few surprises, the trio rapidly accustom themselves to the clock and the daily routines it forces on them while other animals in the forest, especially the family of owls, must put up with the discomfort of the constant ticking that upsets their sleep and other circadian rhythms. Over time though, Mole, Rat and Rabbit find themselves enslaved to the clock’s demands of constant exercise and work, and the other animals become increasingly distressed by the clock having taken over their friends’ lives until one animal decides to get rid of the clock once and for all.

The action is completely silent save for the sound of children’s laughter when the animals are happy and the occasional tears when they’re sad. Cheery accordion and other instrumental music accompanies the action. The animation looks ingeniously simple, at least until your glance starts wandering over the forest backgrounds and it’s here that the film’s charm is displayed in full glory: the painted  backgrounds are beautifully and lovingly rendered and coloured in a small-scale, homely and friendly folksy way. The paintings looks as if they are in watercolour and the emphasis on pale washed-out greens and blues contrasts with the animals’ stronger browns, blacks, greys and other block colours.

The story didn’t completely pan out to my satisfaction: Mole, Rat and Rabbit should at least have acknowledged that the clock had them in its slave-master grip and should have been made aware of the upset the other forest denizens were experiencing and the estrangement between themselves and the other animals that was developing as a result. Co-operation is a major theme here and all the animals could have been shown as agreeing that the clock is the source of their problems and tensions so they could all work towards ridding themselves of their unwanted guest. The clock itself appears friendly but its face betrays no expression; it’s a completely ambivalent being. A little moral might be present: if it’s very easy for Mole, Rat and Rabbit to fall into a trap created by the clock, so it may be easy also for humans to let their lives become debased by machine routines and that at the end of the day, it’s not how much activity and work you pack into a set period, it’s how you enjoy what you do and having time to play and be friends with others that count.

The film can be found on Youtube as “Kurmis un modinatajpulkstenis”, its Latvian name. There are other animated shorts about Mole and his friends that have been uploaded in Czech, German and Hungarian.