fri 03/07/2020

DVD: A Jester's Tale | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: A Jester's Tale

DVD: A Jester's Tale

Czech director Karel Zeman reaches English-speaking world with captivating feature-animation mix

Looking for windmills? Servant and imposter master improvise through the Thirty Years' War

The name of Czech director Karel Zeman is far less-known in the English-speaking world than it deserves to be. He began working during World War Two, establishing a name for himself in the rich Czech animation school (and proving a later influence on that movement’s master, Jan Švankmajer), and thus is a decade or two earlier than that country’s celebrated New Wave cinema movement of the 1960s. His later work often combined animation with the feature format in distinctive, and different way: among his fans is Terry Gilliam, who has acknowledged Zeman’s influence, especially in his treatment of the Baron Münchausen story, which both directors covered, though the Czech director’s influence is there in much more of the Python’s work .

Zeman’s 1964 A Jester’s Tale (Bláznova kronika) may not have the 3D animation of some of his earlier works, but it’s still an elaborate, transfixing combination of forms, combining 2D drawn animation in an archaic, lithographic style with a black and white anti-war narrative set during the Thirty Years’ War. Its trio of protagonists struggle to be independent players and escape the devastation of conflict carried on by their ever-changing masters (“two obstinate rulers proving might by fight”).

Pavel Juracek’s script – its anti-war theme surely touches on that rich strand in Czech culture from Good Soldier Schweik territory – tells the story of farmhand Petr (Petr Kostka) who’s trapped into military service, from which he escapes through a combination of fortune and improvisations. He’s helped along the way by Sergeant Matej (Miroslav Holub, main picture, with Petr Kostka), a relationship that surely alludes to that other changeable master-servant relationship, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (another link to Gilliam?).

Fate brings Petr into contact and love with the travelling fool Lenka, before they find themselves in captivity in a fantastic Oz-style castle (DVD release cover, pictured right), their fates depending on the wider winds of war (literally blown across screen by the animated face of the God of War).

The fact that our heroes escape comes as no surprise, and the black comedy of their incarceration is to be relished. As is the sheer invention of Zeman’s technique, which draws on the heritage of French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès (the two shared a fascination with the work of Jules Verne), and story material drawing on a gentle sense of the absurd that stretches forward to Wes Anderson. This release from Second Run comes with an informative booklet essay by Ian Haydn Smith that puts all these historical links in full context. A Jester’s Tale proves that as well as the more widely known Czech New Wave classics that the label has brought to viewers, there is also more eccentric, but no less remarkable work from singular figures – their recent Birds, Orphans and Fools was one such example – that continues to astonish.


Among his fans is Terry Gilliam, who has acknow-ledged Zeman’s influence


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters