Retro-futurist classic from the Cold War era continues to delight.
One of the most significant names in the history of Czech animation, Karel Zeman has frequently been referred to as the Czech Méliès. Working in the pre-CGI era, his pioneering use of special effects anticipated digital techniques used in contemporary science fiction films.
Admired by Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson, Zeman was one of the few Czechoslovakian directors to receive international acclaim in the period before the Czech new waves searing satirical bite lit up art house cinema screens.
Previously the head of a department store’s advertising section, in 1943 he was offered a job at the Bata Film Studios in Zlín after film director Elmar Klos submitted a report on Zeman’s window-dressing. At the studio he collaborated with Hermina Tyrlova on the short film A Christmas Dream. Released in 1945, the film was Zeman’s first attempt at combining live-action footage with animation. The film won the Grand Prix International for best short fiction film at the Cannes International Film Festival.
In 1955 Zeman directed his first feature-length film Journey to the Beginning of Time. Predating Jurassic Park by several decades the film was a semi-educational adventure story that extensively employed animation, models, matte-paintings, and puppetry.
Today the director is best known to international audiences for his cycle of Jules Verne inspired films and The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen. Four years after the release of Journey to the Beginning of Time the director received widespread international acclaim for Invention for Destruction.
A strong contender for the first steampunk film, Invention for Destruction (alternatively known as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne ) was exported to 72 countries. In America, a dubbed version was initially released as the bottom-half of a double bill with the kids’ friendly circus film Bimbo the Great. At one point 96 cinemas in New York City were simultaneously screening Zeman’s film.
Marketed in America as a children’s film, in other territories it was recognised as a major achievement in the development of European cinema. The film won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58 in Brussels and was praised by André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma.
Ostensibly based on Jules Verne’s 1856 book Facing the Flag, Zeman’s film incorporates plot points from the French writer’s Voyages extraordinaires novels. The film presages the phantasmagorical imagery offered up in CGI heavy blockbusters.
A 2010 Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication stated that Invention for Destruction was the most successful Czech film of all time. Despite the acclaim washed upon it and international box office success, the film is perpetually out of time. The techniques employed by Zeman may have been reused by Terry Gilliam but the experience of watching the film offers no other reference point except other Zeman movies. The director created cinematic art which was undeniably unique and stretched the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve with special FX in a pre-Star Wars era.
Commentators have suggested that the film is Zeman’s response to the detonating of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A warning of the dangers of technology should it fall into the wrong hands. The film celebrates science’s advances but strikes a cautionary tone.
Emphasising artifice the film’s distinctive retro-futurist visual style is a homage to woodcuts and illustrations featured in early editions of Verne’s novels. Posters for the film’s American release declared it was ‘The First Motion Picture Produced in the Magic-Image Miracle of Mysti-mation!’ Zeman’s smorgasbord of techniques incorporates multiple layers of effects and live-action to create one of Czechoslovakia’s most visually distinctive films.
Narrative cohesion is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of visual splendour but when every frame is filled with wit and inventiveness any discontinuities are swiftly ignored. Zeman’s playful juxtapositions emphasise the fantastic. The film is an inventive steampunk odyssey filled with mechanical wonders and an exploding octopus.