Dir: Jirí Brdecka and Jirí Trnka
Cinema 4 Rating: 7/9
We all have our blind spots. Even when we like to think we know more than a little bit about something, there are always areas in which we could learn even more.
While I know some people, even friends, who will never admit that they didn't know something, I would rather not come off that way. While I am as careful with research as I can possibly be, and try to read up on subjects before I write about them at length, I know that there are certain areas, even in a subject such as animation or cinema where I would like to consider myself fairly well-versed, I can always turn around and run smack into a corner that I never considered before.
Consider the animated films of director Jirí Trnka to be one of those corners.
I certainly know the name, having run across Trnka briefly mentioned in numerous books on the history of animation or film. The Czech filmmaker, who chiefly thrived from the late '40s to the early '60s, is cited in numerous sources, his animated puppet films of particular interest. In my life, I have definitely run across the title of Trnka's first feature length film, The Emperor's Nightingale [Cisaruv slavík, 1949), before, chiefly due to Boris Karloff having done the narration for the Western release version of the film. However, even with my Karloff fandom, I have yet to actually watch The Emperor's Nightingale. (I shall be rectifying this soon.) I am also fairly certain, from looking at clips briefly, that I have seen a later short of Trnka's, Song of the Prairie (1964), but "fairly certain" doesn't cut it with me. I would have to actually watch the film anew to consider myself to have seen it. (Another situation I shall be rectifying.)
Usually when I post about individual films here on the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, the films are -- not always, but often -- personal favorites or shorts which I consider to be of importance or interest to both myself and my readers. In many cases, I have seen a cartoon short numerous time, sometimes even dozens of times (in the case of films with which I grew up watching them) before I write about them at all. Like most of the internet, there is a drive for me to write about films with a certain popularity as well; the films can even have a smaller cult following at times, but there is general a wish to stick to known subjects in order to get people to stop by the site and spend some time here.
So, let's use this time on the website a little differently on this go-around. I am going to be educating myself this time, by writing about a director of whom I only know fleetingly little, and about one of his films that I have only just watched for the first time yesterday. As a matter of fact, until yesterday morning when I happened upon this title while seeking out a different short by the same director, I didn't even know this film existed. I am going to discuss one of Jirí Trnka's earliest efforts, Springman and the SS, also known as The Chimney Sweep [Czech title: Pérák a SS], a film he conceived and co-directed with Jirí Brdecka in 1946, not long after the close of World War II. If this is your introduction to Trnka as it is mine, then I hope you will enjoy this time spent with me while I muse upon my initial look at his work.
You might not see the importance of reviewing such a film as Springman and the SS in 2016, seventy years after it was released. The title, the date of release, and the country of origin of its creators probably betray instantly to even the novice that the film likely has to do with Nazism, and yes, indeed it is built around that very subject. But all I that I can see, after having watched the film, is that there is nothing but importance in making sure future generations see films of this type. Art that seeks to make the public aware of the dangers of fascistic states and totalitarianism, stress the importance of the freedom of the individual to live their own lives free of state oppression, and of the need to speak our minds and hearts freely without consequence or threat of imprisonment, torture, and death. It would seem to me that such art is of the most critical sensitivity and should be illuminated most fully.
If this all seems like far too weighty concerns for what many would consider to be a mere "cartoon," then I am guessing that you don't consider animation to be as flexible an art form as any other media, and probably think all "cartoons" are for children. If this is so, as I have mentioned before on this blog, then I feel sorry for you, because you have your head lodged squarely up your keister and there is little hope for you. However, since you have read this far, or have even take the time to visit a blog which is expressly about animated films, it is much more likely that you do have an appreciation for the art form, and are aware of just how far reaching and varied animation can be when applied in whatever direction, adult or childlike, and whatever subject that the filmmaker chooses.
Let us review the film at hand. Over the opening credits of Springman and the SS, we hear the insistently booming horns of marching music, while the title cards flip past casually, each one showing a different European country or city -- such as Holland or Paris -- where a particular landmark of that location has been festooned with the ominous black flag bearing the logo of the SS (members of the Nazi organization known as the Schutzstaffel). Once the credits end, we are shown an empty boulevard with buildings on either side. A marching band crammed together tightly in a pack crawls from the horizon mark towards the camera in time with the music. At the middle front of the pack is a bearer carrying a Nazi standard. The sides of the boulevard are crammed with tight housing, and in a nice style choice, the buildings are not drawn but images of real structures. The camera zooms haphazardly towards one of the windows in a brief series of jagged steps and then focuses on a well-dressed man who thrusts his body through the window.
The man has a very high collar that swallows his chin so that he always looks rigid and uncomfortable, his hair is slicked to the sides perfectly, and he wears pince-nez, which give his eyes an oblong appearance in opposite directions, the effect being that each eye seems to be desperate to get away from the other. He also has a ridiculous little rectangle of mustache below his nose. We realize the man is an utter jerk already, and in fact, the man looks remarkably like Adolf Hitler himself. I may be doing a misread here, but although everything that happens because of the man or to the man during the course of the film can be seen as direct satirical criticism of Hitler (both in looks and action), I am not sure it is actually supposed to be Hitler himself. Hitler would have had others do the things the man in the film does; he was about the attainment of power after all, not in performing rote functionary busywork. Delegation was a major part of his power structure. I believe the man in the film is simply a collaborator who has adopted the Nazi lifestyle so rigidly that he himself grows flush with power throughout the cartoon. [For the duration of my recap of the plot of Springman and the SS, I will refer to this character as first "the man" and for the bulk of it as "the spy".]
The man juts his body angularly through the window, and his right arm raises up stiffly in a Nazi salute, his nervous intent is clearly to be seen honoring the occupiers during the parade. When his hand goes up, however, his cheap paper shirt cuff flies off his wrist and onto the cobblestones of the street (also a filmed image and not drawn). The paper cuff bounces along until it is kicked upward by one of the marchers, where the cuff lands back where it started, upon the wrist of the fussy collaborator. As the oompah band reaches the camera, the Nazi swastika is jammed full force into our faces, and the camera cuts back to the man in the window, who adjusts his tie as he closes the shutters of his window, a very noticeable Nazi party button appearing on his lapel.
As he closes the curtains, though, we suddenly see his eyeball peering through a small crack in the curtains. (It is the one time where it is obvious that he is wearing spectacles of some sort, and as there are no temples to be seen on the sides of his face, I assume he is wearing pince-nez.) The camera zooms in on the eyeball, which shoots in every direction, imparting to us that this man is not to be trusted, as he is eagerly (though nervously) spying upon everyone. With his shoes squeaking quietly, he tiptoes in long steps away from the window to his desk. He pulls a spyglass from a drawer and walks back to the window. Looking out again, he spies a chimney sweep dropping a brush attached to a length of wire down a chimney across the street. Moving the spyglass downward, he spies an old woman whispering a secret into the ear of a comely young maiden. The maiden is shocked by what she hears, and the spying man tiptoes back to his desk and writes something in his ledger: "Jedna pani povidala".
According to the book, Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War by Peter Demetz [2008, Farrar Straus Giroux], "Jedna pani povidala" was a phrase meaning "a woman told me," used as a term of obfuscation, as most rumors were passed with a dose of intentional skepticism built into them during the German occupation. That the filmmakers have included this in the film is a marvelous joke, made literal by the inclusion of women actually passing the rumor.
The man returns to his spying and sees an old, bald man eating a cooked fowl for dinner in his home. The spy writes in his ledger, "Pan jedl husu na černou." [The rough translation I get online is "Mr. eating goose on black," which does describe what the basic action of the old man is, but perhaps someone better versed in the Czech language can help me out here.] The spy looks at the other side of his desk and sees a plate with the stripped bones of a fish sitting there. He jealously imagines a goose of the type that the old man was eating, but then it turns back into the skeleton of his reality. (Hitler would probably not be described as starving in any scenario, however fantasized, hence one of the reasons why I feel this character is not actually der Führer). Angered, he throws the fish bones across the room, where it lands underneath a cabinet. On the spy's wall, a portrait of Adolf Hitler gets angry as well, and his eyebrows knit into a deep furrow. The man cowers before this display, and gets onto his hands and knees to retrieve the bones. [Yet another reason why I feel the spy is not actually Hitler, no matter how closely his appearance emulates the dictator.]
As he reaches for the fish skeleton, which sits next to a chamber pot underneath the cabinet, the spy hears a drumming noise from the floor below his. He puts his ear to the flooring, and the camera zips downstairs to a blond man fiddling with what seems to be a radio dial. The spy grabs the chamber pot, turns it over (thankfully it is empty), and puts his ear to it for the echo. With each continued rumble of the kettle drum sound, the chamber pot bounces up and down against the spy's face. He imagines that the man is receiving a forbidden radio broadcast and rushes downstairs to spy further. The spy slinks like a low dog down the stairs, and thrust his face all about the floor nose-first, practically sniffing out his neighbor, until he decides he has found the proper door. He blows his whistle, but before he is even done blowing, a dozen members of the SS are lined up against the wall opposite him. The spy blows his whistle, and the Nazis get in formation, hold one of their number in their arms, and then use his hard head (because what else could it be?) as a battering ram to crash open the door.
Rushing into the room, the SS members find that the blond man is not acting very surprised at all. The villains see a radio sitting on a crate and seize it up as a group, but as they lift the radio, they find it is not actually a working radio at all but merely an empty frame concealing a quartet of white bunnies. The SS shrug their shoulders in unison and make to leave, but then, in a nearby birdcage, the blond man's pet canary starts whistling the tune to Yankee Doodle. The SS men leap to the challenge, smash the bird cage to the floor, and slap the tiny canary into irons, holding the poor bird aloft by each wing. The spy, tapping his foot impatiently, juts his unspeaking head at the quiet blond man (there is not a single intelligible line of dialogue within the film itself), and a panther-like snarl fills our ears. But the blond man protests his innocence by showing them his statue of Hitler sitting against the wall, which surely shows his support and approval of the occupation. The SS members immediately salute the statue and shout, "Heil!" but then a pot on the man's stove falls to the ground and makes the same drumming sound that so upset the spy initially. In a sign of sheer absurdity, the spy orders the pot to be confiscated on the spot. The SS men do so, and then depart, leaving the blond man smiling while leaning against his statue of Hitler.
Upon their departure, the blond man picks up the statue and moves it to his bed, where he starts to fiddle with a hidden dial on its lapel. The Hitler statue is indeed a secret radio. However, the spy is not done with the blond man, as he sneaks back into the blond man's apartment through a skylight like a snake and discovers the head of Hitler in bed with the blond man. The spy whistles the SS members back into the room, and it turns out that the evil sneaks were already hidden all over the apartment. They slither out from under the shroud on the statue's base, from behind pictures on the man's wall, and out of the workings of the stove. They all jump into the bed with a healthy length of rope, and bind and gag the blond man for easy transport. Hitler's bronze head still sits on the pillow in the bed, buzzing its faraway music, but the spy pulls out a hammer and smashes the statue to pieces. The SS marches down the street with the pot, the chained canary, and the bound blond man between them, and their signature music is blared along once again as they march.
The arrests begin to get more and more ridiculous as the spy becomes more and more enraged though paranoid as his power seems to grow. A dog on the street, after urinating upon an official Nazi structure, is arrested on sight. Two youths in a window throw a couple of banana peels on the sidewalk to prank an old man. When the old man passes by and slips on the banana peels, his attempts to not lose his balance remind the spy of a Cossack dancer, and the old man is arrested instantly as well. A shop sign showing a cutout of a man holding a trio of carpenter's tools above his head gets transformed in the spy's mind into the hammer and sickle logo of the Soviets, and he has the sign-man figure arrested as well.
Meanwhile, the chimney sweep has been diligently going about his duties. He has occasionally looked down at the world on the ground and seen the arrests and the parade, but has stuck to his work. Even when he sees that the arrests has gotten out of hand -- the parade that passes on their way to the SS headquarters has soldiers pulling wooden toy ducks and carrying entire lines of laundry -- he has continued working. As he is threading his brushline down a chimney, the brush pops out the stove in an apartment where a young couple are pitching woo to each other on a couch. The brush shoots across the room and gets caught in the couch cushions. It pulls the couch across the floor to the stove. When the chimney sweep pulls his brush back, he finds a spring from the couch is caught on the brush. He throws the spring over his shoulder and down to the street below, where it bounces on the cobblestones and then under the feet of various members of the SS parade. They are shot up into the air, one after the other.
This gives the chimney sweep, who has been watching everything quietly all along, a great idea. He threads his brushline back down the chimney and pulls another spring from the couch. He attaches the spring to his foot and starts to bounce in place. He sends the brushline back down to get a third spring, but this time, the young couple, who have already been interrupted in their lovemaking twice by the sweep's brush, pull on the brushline and yank the sweep down through the chimney and out of the stove. Now in their apartment, the sweep grabs another spring, and when they try to catch him, the springs on his feet now allow him to easily evade them. Enervated by his prowess, the chimney sweep (hereafter called Springman) bounces out the window and across the landscape towards the headquarters of the SS.
Landing high on the roof of the SS building, Springman peers down into the open grounds within the center of the building and sees the captives being marched sadly in circles. He removes a sock with a hole in it from his foot and throws it over his head, so that it becomes a mask with a single eyehole. He pounds his chest and emits a Tarzan-like yell. Far below on the ground, the spy sees this Springman and points him out to the SS members to have them capture him. Springman grabs the SS flag from its small pole (because what else would it have?), and does a little balletic taunt with it. The SS members are shocked, but not quite as much as when Springman blows his nose into the flag. But the SS have snuck up onto the roof during this routine, and they try to grab Springman en masse. The hero easily jumps out of their way, and after Springman leaps down from the roof, the spy orders each SS member to jump off the roof after him. After each jump, we hear a crashing sound from the ground far below (the sound is more like a gun being fired) and when all of them are gone (and done for, apparently), the spy carefully slithers down a ladder where he tearfully surveys the holes created by each man's fall.
But the Springman is still being chased by scores of SS members. He bounces back and forth across the screen with the Nazis in hot, zigzagging pursuit, but he always stays just out of their reach, taunting them nonstop with the SS flag still in his grip. Springman leads them back over the open holes created by the bodies of their fallen members, and several more fall into each hole in succession. There is a neat precision to their failure, too; after a hole is filled up completely, the next batch of SS continue their relentless forward motion into the next hole, and so on. Then Springman bounces back and jumps on their heads to smash them down for good. Soon, his confidence soaring, Springman is flying through the air in ever greater leaps. The spy calls for a huge fleet of cars to chase him through the city, while the spy himself continues to run along the street blowing his whistle over and over, like a manic caged bird.
There is then a absolutely unexpected cut to a park bench, where two male SS members are sitting down snuggled up to each other, holding hands in pretty much a romantic fashion. With the cars pursuing him, Springman lands in the middle of a fountain next to the SS couple on the bench, and we see another pair of SS members walking hand in hand along the park pathway, also in a seemingly loving manner. It's an odd bit of homophobic propaganda but it is in line with the rest of the film's attack on Nazis in general. At its lightest, it is a way of pointing out that an organization intent on declaring everything with which they didn't approve as deviant was just as guilty of their own, for lack of a better term for so it would have been then considered, deviances. Moving on, Springman continues to pose in the middle of the fountain like a statue, pretending the water is spraying out of him. The spy is not fooled, however, and soon, each and every car and SS member and even the spy are all piled up on the fountain in a mass of broken car parts, bodies, and rubber tires. Except for Springman, of course, because he leaped away at the last moment!
But the Nazi goons are not done trying to capture the Springman quite yet. The spy manages to spin out of the pile on the still moving gears and tracks of various cars, much like he was stuck inside clockworks, and whistles the SS members back into formation. They make a last ditch effort to capture the Springman, who is now sitting high up on a bridge. He suddenly realizes that the SS has him trapped on both sides of the bridge as they run at him from each direction. He leaps up high at the last second, and the SS clods run up onto each other, almost like a fountain, and off the bridge, falling to their assumed deaths in the water below. Springman managed to jam the ends of his springs into the bridge, so that he affected an early form of bungee-jumping to make his safe escape.
The SS troops defeated, the spy completely blows his top and throws himself furiously at the Springman, who continues to waggle the SS flag with great derision. Springman dodges the spy deftly, teasing the spy with the SS flag like a toreador at a bull, and the leaping villain ends up crashing loudly and endlessly through door after wall after door after wall... and so on... through a building. He ends up seated exhaustedly at the base of a bent lamppost, with a huge bump on his noggin. Swastikas swirl about his head in the manner of birds in other cartoons.
Springman stands above him calmly on the lamppost, and motions at the brain-addled spy in the style of a hypnotist. The spy wobbles his way up and over the lamppost, where Springman leads him into a open manhole. The spy comes out of another manhole, and he continues to meander up onto the base of nearby billboard featuring a man in the midst of shaving. The man on the billboard (a photo, just like the buildings and streets) reacts unfavorably (plugging his nose) to the strong sewage stench now emanating from the Nazi spy. He continues to wander aimlessly across the landscape, falling into this or tripping over that, and almost getting run over first by a speeding train and then a passing car obscured by the thick black smoke of the train. He finally crawls up onto the base of a statue of a soldier seated upon a large horse, and the horse's leg kicks the spy off into the horizon.
There is a break from the jail at SS headquarters, and everyone -- people, animals, and inanimate objects -- comes flying out of the building to their freedom from their oppressors. Springman leaps high into the air one final time while the crowds cheer his heroics on loudly. As he flies through the skies, he pulls the mask off his head, yanks the springs one by one off his feet and tosses them away, and then lands back at his work on top of the building. Smiling his broad everyman smile, the chimney sweep starts to thread his brush back into the chimney. However, the bravos from the crowd below distract his attention, and so he misses the chimney completely. The brush drops through the air on its line like a spider and ends up right between the faces of the young amorous couple, who choose the wrong time to lean in to kiss each other. Their faces get blackened by the soot on the brush, but they continue to kiss. The final title card reads "Konec" and the film is done.
There is a title card that appears near the beginning of Springman and the SS. In the English translated version, it reads:
"During the German occupation, tales were told of a mysterious man who jumped about on springs and brought terror to the occupants with his jumps and springs. Our film is dedicated to this good ghost."
Indeed, there is a legend of a Springman who tormented the Nazis, and he was known as Pérák, the Spring Man of Prague. Tales of this urban legend have not only been written about in several history texts referring to the period of the occupation and World War II, but have led to other artistic efforts besides this animated short. There have been short stories, comic books, and comic strips published as well about this character -- most often portrayed fully as a hero -- and there are in his details parallels to other urban legends of supposedly supernatural beings who leap about and cause consternation to authority and confusion to the public. Most famous of all these characters -- at least to those who speak and read English -- is Spring-Heeled Jack, an urban legend that has existed and flourished in British society and myth for nearly 200 years in various forms.
While I have certainly had a good deal of exposure to the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, I had never heard of Pérák, the Spring Man of Prague until I happened upon this film. I am very pleased that it is the first film of Trnka's that I have had the chance to see, as it was quite enjoyable and provocative, especially on repeat viewings. The animation style is quite impressive for what must have been a rather tight budget, and some of the effects are simply marvelous to behold. The human characters (the non-Nazi ones) have almost a doll-like simplicity that is appealing, though there are some very effective reaction shots shown for some of the villains that have far greater (and humorous) detail. The film itself runs around fourteen minutes, and I will admit that it probably could have used a bit of pruning, especially in the chase sequences. It does feel a tad long later in its running time. And maybe there is something that could be said about kicking the enemy while it is down, and actually vanquished at that time. But I can also understand the need to tell your audience that you will not let such a thing happen again in your country (though something quite like it rather did). The film is indeed propaganda, but it is propaganda on the side of true freedom.
Since watching Springman and the SS, I have gotten the chance to watch three other Trnka films. My favorite thus far, and possibly one of the finest animated films I have ever seen, is The Hand [Ruka], his final short, made in 1965, four years before his death. I will resist discussing The Hand until a bit later, as I feel it really does need to be more widely seen. There is great irony that comes out of that last film of his that would play against the funeral the state gave him, especially given that the film -- which is one of the most potent visual representations of the need for artistic expression and freedom I have seen -- was banned completely by the Communist state, who saw it as a direct threat to their rule.
For now, I want to leave Springman and the SS with the happy feeling that I have made a true discovery for myself. It is a joy that I come into less and less as I get older, as the films that I have seen pile up, the bulk of them being rather unworthy of anything but the most simple attention (if that). That there are still films out there like Springman and the SS and The Hand left for me to discovery in the world is a certainty. There is a whole world of international cinema and animation into which I have only barely begun to delve.
The question is whether I will get the chance to find these films that are worthy of my attention. There is a collection of Trnka's puppet films on DVD, but it is out of print and quite expensive in this country. It was only through the auspices of some daring souls on YouTube that I got to see these films finally. While I am concerned about artists' rights for the most part, I am not so concerned when that artist has been dead for 47 years. I care no more for his descendants receiving royalties than they would for the fact that my great grandfather's brother used to own orange groves in Anaheim, California before Walt Disney came along. If the descendants have made proper arrangements, then that is fine. Let them collect their checks. But generally, they will get nothing and I will get nothing. It's a very complicated issue, though, and I would hate for Warner Bros. and Disney characters to completely fall out of copyright so that anyone that came along could pervert the original material in any manner that they saw fit, most likely sullying our memories and the intent of such material.
But I feel that films like Springman and the SS and The Hand are in a special category. They are films whose message is timeless and should be studied in every art and history class possible. They go beyond mere entertainment (though they are certainly entertaining) and are true representatives of their time and place in history. They should be made available as widely as possible.
And if I have to resort to the low quality versions that I find on YouTube and archive.org, so be it. Regardless, these stories and their truths must be told. Again and again.
And in case, like me, you hadn't seen it...