Loving Vincent: an arresting visual animation style papers over a repetitive and insubstantial formulaic plot

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, “Loving Vincent” (2017)

Most viewers will probably be bowled over by the use of oil paintings on canvas as animation cels and the directors’ preference for classically trained painters over animators to do the paintings, resulting in a very arresting visual style drawing heavily on 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant style. For all the distinctive visual style though, the film is not that remarkable in its plotting and I have to wonder why animation was preferred wholly over live action when both animation and live action could have been used. I suspect the animation helps to paper over inconsistencies and flaws in the plot that would have made the film just another ordinary historical biopic about a famous figure.

A year after Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890, young tear-about Armand Roulin (voiced and played by Douglas Booth) is tasked by his postmaster father to personally deliver a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo after the letter fails to reach the latter and is returned to the post office. Although Armand does not know van Gogh well, his father persuades him to take the letter, telling Armand that van Gogh had suffered mental illness and had been ostracised by others as a result. Armand goes to see Julien Tanguy, an art dealer who sold painting supplies to van Gogh: Tanguy tells Armand to visit Dr Gachet, who had cared for van Gogh in his last days, in Auvers-sur-Oise. Armand calls in at the Gachet residence and learns the doctor is away. The young man whiles away his time visiting people who knew van Gogh (who painted their portraits) and tell him all they know of the painter: their stories form a narrative suggesting to Armand that van Gogh might not have committed suicide but instead had been murdered. In Armand’s mind, everyone including Dr Gachet and his family become potential suspects.

The film does flit over several themes including mental illness and people’s attitudes toward mentally ill people in van Gogh’s time, the painter’s difficulties in coping with his poverty and various demons, and how best to remember someone by seeing the world as he saw it, with all its natural delights, and celebrating what he leaves behind in spite of a painful and undeserved death. Unfortunately the film concentrates too much on a story that tends to go round and round in circles and becomes quite repetitive. Ultimately Armand’s adventure seems rather insubstantial – the whole murder plot building up in his mind eventually goes awry after he’s interviewed all the most significant people who knew or met van Gogh – though he does come to appreciate how special van Gogh was to the people who knew him and he resolves to lead a better life than he has done so far. Even so, the idea of a rank amateur trying to solve a murder mystery that the police have dismissed as a suicide, and using rough-n-ready interview techniques to solve where more sophisticated police methods of the time have failed is hardly new.

The acting is not all that remarkable and seems rather flat – but that may be due to the style of animation used. The action proceeds in a leisurely way and only near the end does it become emotional and moving in parts.

Promoters of the film are very fond of saying how it was made and of how many painters (mostly from Poland and Greece, two countries severely affected by neoliberal economic policies and programs ordained by EU bureaucrats) were employed to create the 65,000 oil paintings that became the basis of the film’s animation. When so much emphasis is placed on the film’s technical aspects, one suspects that so much else within the film isn’t quite as good.

Son of Saul: a modern morality play in the midst of extreme evil

László Nemes, “Son of Saul / Saul Fia” (2015)

Of all the stories László Nemes could have chosen to film to launch his career as a director, few are so terrifying as a day or two in the life of a Jewish Sonderkommando unit member working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in 1944. The Nazi German war machine is on its last legs and its death factories are going full-tilt as the regime begins its psychotic self-cannibalism. Hungary has just been swept up into the embrace of the Third Reich and the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau begun almost immediately. On arrival at the camp, the strongest men among these Jews are separated from the rest by Nazi administrators and forced into Sonderkommando work units under threat of death. Their duties are to collect the clothing of people herded by Nazi guards into the gas showers and to search the clothes for gold, money and other valuable trinkets needed for the German war effort; to haul away the dead and throw them into the ovens; to dispose of their ashes; and to clean out the shower rooms for the next lot of victims.

One such Sonderkommando unit member is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) who gradually becomes numbed to the dreary and tough physical work he has to do, day in, day out, under close supervision from the guards, with little time for himself … in case he starts plotting with other men like himself to fight back against their oppressors, blow up the camps and escape to alert the rest of the world to what’s been happening there for the past three years or so. One day while helping to dispose of yet another batch of asphyxiated victims, he discovers that a 13-year-old boy survived the gassing. A prison doctor comes over to examine the boy and smothers him. Saul however becomes obsessed with the boy: he believes the child may be his son whom he abandoned many years ago as the child had been conceived and born out of wedlock. With great difficulty and putting his life and others’ lives at risk he retrieves the boy’s body. He then searches for a rabbi among his fellow prisoners and new arrivals for chambers who can say a kaddish (a hymn of praise to God) for the boy so he can be given a proper burial. Saul endures unimaginable suffering and torment from both the Nazi guards and other Sonderkommando work unit inmates to find the rabbi; at the same time, he is also part of a scheme worked out by his work unit leader and other Sonderkommando work units to collect enough gunpowder to make bombs that will blow up the camps and help the prisoners escape into the outside world.

By focusing on Saul’s point of view and following him closely, the film relays the horrors of the death camps and the indignities suffered by Jewish prisoners at the hands of their jailers effectively without delivering any sermons or passing any judgement. It is up to the viewer to decide whether to condemn Saul for risking his life and other prisoners’ lives for the dead boy. For Saul, the child represents an opportunity to redeem himself for not having taken care of his son while he was alive; at the same time the dead boy also represents a continuation of the Jewish people since by being buried his body will be evidence of his people’s former existence if they cannot be allowed to live in the present and into the future. As the film continues, the dead boy may be viewed as representing all the victims who perished in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

In his obsessive search for a rabbi – so much so that he risks his own life and at least one other man is killed as a result – Saul in his own way upholds the importance of the spiritual life and the traditions and rituals associated with spirituality and communion with God. Saul is mocked by his fellow prisoners in his search but they do help him find the boy’s body and help lead him to a rabbi, risking their own lives in doing so. Saul’s obsession causes him to fail in his allotted part in the scheme to help blow up the camp but the rebels pull him along with them in escaping from the camp. One would think that, having failed his friends, Saul would have been left behind to face the tender mercies of the authorities when the pathetic rebellion fails as it was bound to … so it is all the more remarkable that they rescue him not once but twice during the rebellion. This might say something about the level of camaraderie that the Sonderkommando prisoners have managed to develop and the depth of humanity they retain in the midst of all the hellish, machine-like evil they are exposed to.

The dialogue is extremely minimal and matter-of-fact and Röhrig is stoic in his facial expressions that seem to say more than words could possibly ever express. This narrative approach allows for multiple interpretations of Röhrig’s motivations and actions, and those of his fellow prisoners, whether they are justified or not in the context of his environment. The cinematography by Mátyás Erdély, relying on a hand-held camera and following Röhrig very closely, so closely that the film jumps when he jumps and swims when he swims, is a stand-out feature of the film; it captures the sickening and hellish ambience of the gas chambers, and the brutal and dehumanising work routines endured by the Sonderkommando work units. Another outstanding aspect of the film is its ambient soundtrack of shouting, crowd noises, explosions and gunfire to suggest various horrors occurring off-screen.

Whatever message the film carries, for most viewers it should surely carry the message that even in the midst of great evil where absolute hopelessness dominates, and people, jailers and prisoners alike, are stripped of all that makes them human, an individual may still be able to find some remnant of humanity within his / her being and through that defy oppressors and gain some redemption. The film drives home the point that morality is very much a personal choice and how one deals with the consequences of making that choice in one’s immediate situation is what saves or damns that person. “Son of Saul” is perhaps best read as a morality play in which a protagonist must decide how best to live his / her life in the midst of unrelenting bleakness, suffering, brutal violence, oppression and hopelessness.

Fascism As It Is: snapshot film of the Ukrainian crisis that indicts mainstream Western news reporting

Andrey Karaulov, “Fascism As It Is” (2014)

Looking hastily made, this documentary is a snapshot of the chaotic situation in Ukraine after the massacre of left-wing activists and pro-federalisation rally participants in the Odessa Trade Union building and the building’s subsequent burning by fascist supporters of the interim Ukrainian government in early May 2014. The film concentrates on two incidents: the aforementioned Odessa mass killings and arson and a similar incident of mass killings in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, with mention of a third incident in Zaporizhiya, also in eastern Ukraine, that occurred before the Mariupol incident in which people holding a peacefully rally were harassed by police who used tear gas and chemicals to intimidate and disperse crowds.

The two incidents are retold in considerable detail in the format of interviews by the director with various eyewitnesses and others people spoken over what look like newsreels. Historical film material of incidents of World War II is used in parts of the film that refer to the Soviet defence of Ukraine against the Nazi German onslaught. The format is very stream-of-consciousness and the pace is quite fast so it takes all my attention to follow what is being said. Many viewers might need to watch this documentary at least twice because there is so much information coming at you and so much detail to absorb. However what comes through very clearly is the fact that the government that overthrew the legitimately elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 has very clear links to current Ukrainian fascist forces as represented by the Svoboda Party and neo-Nazi Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and Ukrainian fascists and nationalists of the past (such as the notorious Stepan Bandera) who collaborated with Nazi Germany in the early 1940s and among other things butchered Jewish people in their thousands. Interviewees make clear that Pravy Sektor thugs have infiltrated most parts of Ukraine beyond their base in western Ukraine where Svoboda enjoys electoral support and are terrorising people and committing brutal acts including killing and causing disappearances.

Another theme running through the film is the way the various incidents are reported or ignored in the Western mainstream media. Just about everything that has been occurring in Ukraine has been filtered through an anti-Russian point of view that favours the fascists by Western news media. The incidents in Zaporizhiya and Mariupol have been all but ignored and the massacre of progressive, leftist and pro-federalisation activists by Pravy Sektor, Shtorm and the so-called “Dnepr-1” battalion, the latter two groups being owned by Ukrainian oligarch businessman and politician Ihor Kolomoisky, has been downplayed and the arson given more prominence as an accident. The staged incident of “rival soccer fans”, actually Shtorm and the Dnepr-1 battalion, fighting with one another was portrayed as being for real.

The most horrific part of the documentary comes very late in the film when a journalist tells the interviewer of bodies of dead people being thrown out of the burning Odessa Trade Union building (with accompanying shots of the dead bodies falling from windows and hitting the concrete) and of the smells of chemicals used in the building. The journalist describes how she barely managed to escape the building alive herself.

In spite of its slapdash style and apparent lack of organisation, this documentary is well worth watching. The Odessa Trade Union building mass murders and the arson that was intended to cover up the butchery are documented on other websites and blogs like Oriental Review, World Socialist Web Site and Joe Giambrone so the film cannot be accused of being pro-Russian propaganda.  Interviewees point out that the interim regime’s Pravy Sektor and other enforcers have been killing ethnic Ukrainians as well: the lists of people who were killed in the Mariupol incident and who have been disappeared by the authorities since Yanukovych fled Ukraine include several people of ethnic Ukrainian background.

It is clear from the documentary that the interim government under Acting President Oleksandr Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk is guilty of war crimes. Western governments and the Western news media, by ignoring or obfuscating the truth of the incidents highlighted in the film stand equally guilty as accessories to war crimes.

As a narrowly focused state-of-the-nation snapshot, the film does not fully explain the connections between the Ukrainian fascists and nationalists of the past with their descendants in western Ukraine who now govern the country with brutal force and incompetence. The film does not make the link between the deliberate misinformation generated in the Western news media about the recent shocking events in Ukraine and the fact that the fascist government under current President Petro Poroshenko is taking orders from rogue elements in the United States government (especially the US State Department) who are keen on seizing energy resources in the eastern Ukraine and surrounding Russia with hostile NATO states armed with missiles aimed at major Russian cities.

The Kinematograph: a familiar and bittersweet story done better by others

Tomek Baginski, “The Kinematograph” (2009)

Here is a bittersweet story of a lone inventor labouring to produce the first moving picture with sound and colour only to lose both his wife and a claim to take out that first patent and to be forever remembered as the world’s first film-maker. The story is a familiar one – the inventor is so obsessed with his technology and his discoveries, that he forgets to care about his loved ones until too late and he is left with only his lifeless machines and memories, while the world moves on, indifferent to his sorrow and loneliness – and Baginski does it no favours by relying on a sparse and unimaginative dialogue, a flat delivery by his voice actors and trite background music that tugs at the heart-strings in an irritating way.

While the animation is quite good and transitions from past memories to the inventor’s current reality are done well and subtly – the inventor is portrayed as elderly while his wife is shown as always youthful (because the film shows him as living in the past) – it does move too quickly in parts and viewers can feel a bit dizzy from all the dynamic spinning of the point of view of the “lens” which purports to be that of the viewers. The film looks rather like a video game as a result and this detracts somewhat from the sketchy story.

The emotion is very forced and viewers can feel manipulated by the short’s plot and message. The characters are one-dimensional and seem very stereotyped: the wife as self-sacrificing to the point where she refuses to see a doctor about her tuberculosis until far too late, the husband as too obsessed with his work to notice that his wife is unwell.

For a better treatment of a similar theme, viewers are encouraged to watch Andrei Shushkov’s “Invention of Love” which has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Tolerantia: a plea for religious tolerance and diplomacy over war

Ivan Ramadan, “Tolerantia” (2008)

An animated 3D short made in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2008, “Tolerantia” is a plea for religious tolerance. Set at the end of the last Ice Age (or the next Ice Age perhaps when the planet is done with the ups and downs of global climatic change), the film is completely silent save for necessary sound effects. A Shrek-like character thaws out of a block of ice and immediately sets about finishing off his personal stone ziggurat which he had planned and started to build countless millennia ago before the Deep Freeze set in. Completing the job with a shrine to the sun, he begins his worship but is rudely interrupted by another fellow who has also just completed his solar-focused pyramid and is irate at being overshadowed. In those days, folks couldn’t apply for council development applications that would restrict overshadowing so the two prehistoric (or post-historic if you will) chaps start the mediation and negotiation process their own way, tossing rocks at each other until they achieve a sort of stalemate resolution.

It’s pretty obvious that if the guys had engaged in jaw-jaw rather than war-war, the sun would have proved quite generous in sharing its bounty between the two and viewers are to assume that if people worshipping different religions could just sit down together and talk, a lot of the pain and dislocation caused by religious intolerance leading to war could be overcome. I do not know how much this is true of Bosnia-Hercegovina in recent times if it is; much of the conflict in that country must also be attributed to resurgent nationalism among the Croatians and Serbians spilling across borders after decades of being suppressed or unresolved under Yugoslav Communist rule.

The reality beyond Bosnia-Hercegovina is that more often than we realise religion is used as a cover for other causes leading to a breakdown in communication among two or more different religious communities and a resort to violence. How does one explain the situation in parts of the Middle East where for centuries Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other religious communities co-existed and co-operated more or less peaceably and it is only during the late nineteenth century and onwards that these communities started experiencing inter-faith conflicts? If we take each major conflict and dissect the causes behind each and every one of them, we will find the causes are much more complicated and often (though not always) involve interventions by foreign actors intent on playing one religion off against others. Current conflicts in Iraq and Syria, two countries with long histories of major and minor religions co-existing side by side in the same communities, turn out to have been stoked and encouraged in part by forces outside those two countries, in particular Britain, France, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.

Apart from all my rambling about its theme, the film is well made with slapstick humour, considering that Ramadan did pretty much everything save for the music, composed and done in traditional Bosnian folk style by Mostar Sevdah Reunion. The message is simple and very straightforward, the story structure builds up steadily and the conclusion is at once devastating and blackly humorous.

The Forgiveness of Blood: psychological drama of two teenagers caught between rapid modernisation and age-old traditions

Joshua Marston, “The Forgiveness of Blood / Falja e Gjakut” (2010)

Hard to believe that even in Europe there are societies where the very new and modern can co-exist with traditions and customs that have lasted for hundreds of years, and individuals, even communities, end up getting the short straws of both. In an Albania long since supposedly liberated from the rule of Communism, teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) lives in a small village where he dreams of running his own Internet café and has his eye on a girl, Klodi, at his local high school. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), planning one day to attend university, helps her father on his bread delivery run. To make more money, dad Mark (Refet Abazi) takes short-cuts across his neighbour Sokol’s land. The neighbour fences off the land to prevent such short-cuts and a feud develops between the two men that results in Sokol’s death. Mark goes into hiding and his brother is arrested. Sokol’s family invokes the Kanun (a centuries-old code of local law and tradition) and Nik and Rudina are most affected by the restrictions involved: Nik must remain inside the family home to avoid being killed and Rudina must give up her dream of further study and take over Dad’s bread delivery business.

The film, which has a documentary feel in its slow naturalistic approach, close-ups, long shots of scenic country-side and relative paucity of soundtrack music, explores the effect of the Kanun on two young teenagers’ lives and its unexpected usurpation of traditional gender roles by which a teenage girl ends up becoming the family bread-winner while her brother becomes a prisoner in the family home. The film also contrasts the young people’s attempts to find ways of mediation with Sokol’s family that don’t involve too much financial expense and time wastage with their elders’ view that the requirements of Kanun cannot be watered down for the benefit of youth. At the same time, while Nik and Rudina’s family try to bargain for besa (a time period granted by the victim’s family to the killer’s family during which Nik would be free to go outside the house), some members of Sokol’s family harass Nik’s family by shooting at their house or burning down their shed.

The film’s style is quiet and slow and naturalistic in its treatment of the plot and the actors’ actions. Halilej and Lacej give excellent performances as the young stoic teenagers forced to grow up very quickly as a result of their father’s headstrong actions. As the film progresses, Nik and Rudina demonstrate resourcefulness in making the most of their extreme predicament but the long house arrest with no end in sight takes its toll on the two youngsters and the rest of their family. Tension accumulates slowly and casually until it comes to an intense confrontation between Nik and Sokol’s family and Nik is subjected to conditions that force him to make a hard decision about his life that will also affect Rudina and their mother and younger siblings.

Marston’s intelligent and sensitive depiction of a rural Albania under the burden of rapid modernisation and stubbornly maintained tradition, that can never be subjected to change as long as elderly men uphold it to the detriment of the young and of women, is sympathetic to its subject without supporting or condemning age-old values and customs. Rudina enjoys an unexpected freedom running her father’s delivery business and talking to strange men much older than herself. Nik finds a new hobby building a makeshift gym and exercise apparata. One unintended effect of the imposition of Kanun on two rival families is that children seem to act more like adults than the adults themselves do. Nik and Rudina’s older male relatives are unable to countenance any possibility of change and flexibility and the children’s mother disappears for long stretches of film while Nik tries to comfort his younger siblings and send them to school, and Rudina negotiates with shopkeepers to buy cartons of cigarettes at discounted prices so she can make more money on top of what she earns for delivering bread (by horse and cart, mind).

Although the actors portray stoic and resigned characters who get what they can out of a difficult and stressful situation, the film derives its strength from the psychological drama and tension generated by the plot. The naturalistic style helps to focus viewer attention on the characters. While slow and driven by dialogue and plot, the film does feature long shots without dialogue in which Nik and Rudina feel the strain of the conditions imposed on them in accordance with Kanun.

For its subject matter, the film appears calm and subdued. Yet there is tension between families and within families, and violence can be unexpected and sudden. One doesn’t expect that there’ll be an easy answer or a happy resolution that satisfies everyone. The message though is very despairing: the only way out for Nik is to escape literally but this leaves Rudina with a very uncertain future. What we have seen of Rudina in the film though is supposed to leave us in no doubt that she’ll find a way to survive and thrive, and this is the hope viewers are expected to carry at film’s end.

Tango: cycle of life with 36 disconnected characters from young to old playing out in one room

Zbigniew Rybczinski, “Tango” (1981)

Winner of the 1981 Oscar for Best Animated Short, this 8-minute film is a collection of live-action film clips, all of which are repeated over and over in parallel in an artful way. In a plain setting of a room with three doors, a round wooden table surrounded by benches, a cupboard without a door, a bed in the foreground, a window opposite and a baby’s cot to the right-hand side of the screen (from the viewer’s point of view), a ball is tossed through the sole window into the room. A boy climbs through the window to retrieve the ball and then returns outside the same way. The ball then comes into the room again and the boy repeats his action; almost immediately a woman comes through a door to the left of the window into the room to nurse a baby and then place it in the cot before returning to her original spot through the same door. As with the boy and his ball, the woman repeats her action over and over. With each repetition, new people, one by one, enter the room: a burglar climbs through the window to steal a case on top of the cupboard; a schoolgirl comes into the room to dig about in the cupboard; a courier arrives to place the case on top of the cupboard; various workmen arrive; a man balances upside down on one bench; another man stands on the table to touch the light, screams and falls onto the floor, recovers and goes off with a limp; a naked woman enters the room to put on her clothes; two lovers make out on the bed; an elderly woman lies down on the bed; and somewhere in all of that to-ing and fro-ing, two other women enter the room (separately of course), each with a small child in tow.

Viewers quickly lose track of who goes in and out and does whatever in the meantime. A gorilla could have entered to face the audience, beat its chest with a roar and then exited without being noticed. The crowd of people go about their actions repeatedly without any one of them noticing what everyone else is doing. The courier does not notice that the burglar has stolen his case. The burglar need not have worried about anyone noticing him. The schoolgirl appears to throw something at the burglar but he does not notice. Nobody comments on the naked woman in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. The two lovers go about their business openly. The man who is electrocuted receives no help. No-one laughs at the fellow doing his headstand on the bench. A workman brings a toilet-bowl into the room. What’s significant here is that people are doing outrageous things and everyone else rushes by!

Eventually people stop performing their obsessive actions and it’s only at the very end that something new happens: there is a connection between an action performed by someone and somebody else noticing the result of that action. But that second person does not know who performed the action that led to the result – because the perpetrator has vanished. This might say something about how fragmented and impersonal our society has become.

Mini-narratives might be seen: the burglar and the courier might be two spies vying for valuable secrets in the case; the lovers are interrupted by another character who flees the scene in distress; workmen come and go. The small children might represent the same child at different ages. An entire cycle of life takes place in the room from the tiny baby being nursed and put into its cot, to children at play or home from school, to young adults finding life partners, to adults at work or caring for children, to elderly people being served dinner or put to rest.

There’s no definite narrative – viewers can interpret the short in different ways. Some might see modern society at its most impersonal and robotic, others might simply see people in all stages of a person’s life-cycle going about their daily activities.

Technically the film is no big deal in this age of computer-generated imagery and it does look dated and flat. Still, it’s quite mesmerising in its own way with a rhythm all its own. The film can bear a certain number of repeat viewings until the viewer registers most of the characters and the mini-narratives being enacted to his/her heart’s content.

The Banquet: a much loved cartoon with wry gallows humour

Zofia Oraczewska, “The Banquet / Bankiet” (1976)

Its style seems outdated for a short animation of its vintage but I believe this is still a much loved cartoon in Poland for its inversion of roles and what that might have said about Polish society at the time (and might still say generally about Western society today). Waiters and cooks working at a swanky hotel or palace prepare a lavish banquet for guests (one of whom looks suspiciously like Liza Minnelli) who arrive dressed in luxurious furs and glittering jewellery in chauffeured limousines. The guests eagerly race for the food – but unpleasant surprises await them and never was the saying “eat the rich” more appropriately applied as here.

The short piece is rich in gallows humour fantasy at a level that would delight and scare the very young and the old alike for different reasons: among others, the weak and powerless rise up against those who would literally consume them, heart and soul; Gothic horror meets the every-day; and the amount of mayhem and mess left behind when the waiters come to clear away the dishes might be a comment on the devastation we unthinking humans leave behind whenever we stop at or pass through a place or country.

The animation is reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s collages of cut-up figures set against painted backgrounds. Only the waiters and cooks are fully animated characters done in conventional children’s-cartoon style, and only they seem fully alive and alert to their surroundings. Everything else from the food to the guests either looks realistic in parts or is grotesque and crudely drawn, which suggests the food and the guests have much more in common with each other than either has to the general human collective. Thus the eater and eaten are cannibals of a sort.

The music is excellent accompaniment to the proceedings, giving away little hint of the carnage and bloodshed that will occur when the guests charge towards the groaning tables of food.

As long as there is short, succinct and intelligent animation and an audience exists for it, “The Banquet” will always have its fans.

Little Black Riding Hood / The Walls: two very different early shorts by Piotr Dumala

Piotr Dumala, “Little Black Riding Hood / Czarny Kapturek” (1983)

Piotr Dumala, “The Walls / Sciany” (1988)

Based on the familiar childhood story but rendered in such a way as to make it an adults-only animation short, “Little Black Riding Hood” is an early work by Piotr Dumala that subverts expectations about what a film adaptation of a fairy tale should do and about the roles of the characters themselves and what they represent. The result returns some of the original darkness of the story back to it: some mediaeval versions of the tale included cannibalism and sexual intercourse, and both are present in Dumala’s adaptation.

Drawn in a superficially child-like scrawl, the whole cartoon has a slight smutty air, encapsulated in the sketchy landscapes where trees have a bushy, almost electrified appearance and suspiciously resemble pubic hair. As soon as the girl and the wolf meet, they’re at each other’s throats straight away in an orgy of violence, bloodletting and carnivorous consumption. The hunter who’s supposed to be the hero of the story joins in the carnage. Granny turns out to be skilled with a crudely drawn katana and further bloodshed ensues. Then the story repeats but with a happy ending instead as two unlikely characters decide to get it on and the house conveniently spews enough chimney smoke to preserve decorum.

Most viewers might find the short meaningless and pointless but it does remind us of the original tale’s themes of restoration and rebirth, however low-brow these transformations appear, and that fairy-tale characters aren’t always strictly good (and tame) or strictly bad (and wild) but possess aspects of both. There is an absurd quality to the short as well and that may be Dumala’s snide reference to some versions of the Red Riding Hood tale which had a moralistic slant about how well-bred young ladies should not talk to strangers who might have bestial designs on them.

Five years later, “The Walls” represents Dumala at his more typical and refined: his distinctive technique of drawing over plaster and scratching out figures, then erasing and drawing new figures gives a three-dimensional and very nuanced appearance to his characters, and brings a melancholy that suits the existential theme and the main character’s inner psychological turmoil. light and shadow are beautifully illustrated with depth and the technique readily lends itself to stream-of-consciousness thinking and surreal imagery and story-telling.

The film can be interpreted on several levels: on one level, it could be about a prisoner or a deranged man in a mental asylum; on another, it could be an allegory about living in a repressive society where one’s life is at the mercy of uncaring bureaucrats and ideologues; on yet another, it might be an expression of angst at living an absurd life in an absurd universe created and controlled by an indifferent God for whom existence may also be absurd.

Both very different in style, theme and mood, yet in their own way these shorts may have deeper meanings that viewers need to draw out for themselves.

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.