Invention for Destruction (1958) (Criterion)

Stepping into the Phantasmagoric Otherwise with Karel Zeman

While all films project a world that might be, certain films and certain filmmakers, like Karel Zeman, come closer than others in bringing to the surface the underlying phantasmagoric essence of cinema.

Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman
Karel Zeman
25 February 2020

Film begins in darkness. That is its ideal context. Perhaps no theater is totally dark (think of the lawsuits) and yet the impact of film depends upon our initial immersion in darkness, whether fully realized or not. Phenomenologically, the experience of darkness is rife with potential; indeed, it approximates a kind of pure potentiality. It is the obscurity in which anything can arise. Darkness is not the void. Only we can project the void and we often project it onto darkness, but the void is not inherent to darkness. Darkness isn’t empty; rather, what is nestled within it remains hidden, remains possibility awaiting actualization.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his Phenomenology of Perception, describes darkness (night) as “pure depth without foreground or background, without surfaces and without any distance separating it from me” (translated by Colin Smith [NY: Routledge, 1945], 330). Pure depth but without any distance—a paradox that is not easily disentangled (which simply means it is an actual paradox). In darkness there is depth without object. All of space at that moment feels equally near and far by virtue of the fact that no object intercedes to provide perspective. All distinction between the dark space of my body and the dark space in which I am immersed collapses; I am no longer a person in a space. I occupy space in its purity as the site of possibility.

Darkness was not the environment in which theater originally took place. The Greek theater festivals were outdoors; most of the history of theater involved lit audiences—they were as much a part of the spectacle as anything that took place on stage. The darkening of the theater began, more or less, with the 19th-century music dramas of Richard Wagner (indeed many of our current theatrical and cinematic conventions began with Wagner).

But cinema has links to another form of entertainment that required darkness: the phantasmagoria. Beginning in the late 18th century, the phantasmagoria involved the projection of slides and shadows depicting ghosts, witches, goblins, and other specters onto walls, screens, and sometimes smoke. Unlike the more familiar magic lantern, the phantasmagoria relied upon rear projection in order to obscure the source of the illuminations. Projectionists would employ multiple sources and mobile projectors to give the images the illusion of motion. The phantasmagoria was initially associated with seances and throughout its lifespan it retained a connection with the otherworldly, the outré, the uncanny.

Film, which also obscures the source of its projection, inherited this connection to the magical. Residing at cinema’s core is the remnant of the mimetic urge to accommodate oneself to a foreign world that remains of the utmost importance to our existence while also remaining utterly unknowable. Freud claimed that an important source for the experience of the uncanny was the remnants of a pre-modern mythical belief in the frightening, untamable world of demons that continue to haunt our modern insistence upon a world we can grasp rationally. Film is a vessel for the uncanny; its apparatus is grounded in the projection into our reality of another, strange and largely inaccessible alternate reality. Film enchants us with the remainder of a mythical world that lies at the edges of our own.


Angel Wings by Zorro4 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The darkness of the cinematic theater prepares us for a particular kind of experience. Out of the pure depth of potentiality arises a projection of another world. Film affords us a primarily ocular entrée into a constructed world, a world that invites us to inhabit it for a time, to lose ourselves in its alternate rationality. In so doing, film offers us an insight into the constructed nature of our world; it reminds us that the way in which we live is not the only possibility on offer. Film, in its essence, has the potential to show us not the way the world is and not even the world as it ought to be. Rather, film’s essential nature is to show us what the world might be. This applies even to documentaries. Ken Burns’ Vietnam War doesn’t simply show us how that era was; it suggests how it might have been had we been willing at the time to attempt to understand both sides of the conflict, had we been willing to identify strongly with the other.

In this sense, while all films project a world that might be, certain films and certain filmmakers come closer than others in bringing to the surface the underlying phantasmagoric essence of cinema. That is to say, certain filmmakers are more deeply involved in the knowing fabrication of worlds and therefore involve us as collaborators in that construction and as temporary occupants of those worlds. Few filmmakers, it seems to me, do this with greater élan and generosity of spirit than the oft-neglected Czechoslovakian master, Karel Zeman.

Born in 1910 in what was still then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Zeman studied advertising in France and this is where he first worked with animation. It was after he returned home, to what was then Czechoslovakia, and after the end of the Nazi occupation, that Zeman began to produce the solo directorial works that established his fame, such as it was. These films are remarkable, stunning. They left an indelible mark on the work of several notable directors: Tim Burton, Jan Švankmajer, Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson. And yet, Zeman is hardly the household name that he deserves to be, even among aficionados of films that daringly combine live action and animation.

Zeman began to combine live action and stop-time animation in his first short film, A Christmas Dream (1945). Already his technical skill is astounding. A young girl, overwhelmed by her new Christmas toys, tosses her old doll on the ground. She soon falls asleep only to dream of the doll coming to life and performing several dance routines. Most of the film involves the alternation of scenes with the animated puppet and reaction shots from the girl who remains in her bed, enraptured by the doll’s performance.

img-4479A Christmas Dream (1946) (IMDB)

But there are two stunning moments in this early work. First, is the brief shot where the live action and animation are contained in the same frame, when the doll pulls on the blanket covering the girl, casting her new toys to the ground where they can, one by one, join the doll in his revelry. There is a shot and a reverse shot. The initial shot faces the doll, grimacing under the strain as he pulls the blanket from the bed. If you stop or slow the film at this point, you can see that the girl (whom we see from behind) is probably herself a mannequin for this shot—in order to guarantee that she remains still during the series of shots it would take to construct the pulling action of the doll. But it is the reverse shot that amazes. Zeman manages to divide the frame so that the doll in the lower frame continues to pull while the girl, occupying the upper frame, reacts.

The other shockingly impressive shot comes toward the end of the short when the doll is playing with an electric fan, blowing materials and objects around room. He turns the fan toward the wall where a framed picture of a ship hangs. The ship is suddenly animated and whisks through the water into the distance. But besides the tour de force of animation technique, this film already captures the slight melancholy that haunts so many of Zeman’s creations and that crops up in the strangest and subtlest of manners. As the doll turns the fan every which way, it begins to affect the Christmas tree, bending its branches and rattling its ornaments. Zeman’s camera zooms in on a couple of Christmas bulbs shaking in the artificial wind, precariously bouncing on their perch, threatening to fall to the ground.

Something about that detail, the concentration on the small, ephemeral things, the things that hardly seem to matter in the bigger picture, strikes me as a hallmark of Zeman’s style. Small, seemingly insignificant things, festive but on the point of collapse, the Christmas bulbs remind us that nothing lasts long—not the girl’s dream, not the season, nor the delight she takes in a doll she nearly cast aside. Like the phantasmagoria, A Christmas Dream shows us what might be, always with the knowledge that these charming possibilities must eventually collapse back to reality.

img-4480Imagination (1949) (screengrab)

One of Zeman’s most astonishing early creations is the short Imagination (1949). An artist designing small glass figurines and becoming frustrated gazes out the window as the rain cascades against the pane. We see his face through the water streaming against the glass. Water and glass: both caught between transparency and translucency. We look through these clear media and yet something of their bodily mass penetrates and inflects our perception. We simultaneously see glass and water and see through them.

At the right angle, in the right conditions, glass and water also reflect light; the light glimmers from their placid surfaces, images are reflected in a clear or distorted form. In this manner, glass and water are deeply related but occupy differing states: one is solid, the other liquid. We started this journey from another object in the world that hovers between liquidity and solidity, that reflects light and accepts it into its deepest recesses: the human eye. The film charts a trajectory that careens from the eye to the rain to the glass figures, between states of being, relative speeds and flows, creating a world that takes form only to again dissolve into surging current.

Through the artist’s eye we see the droplets of water fall on the leaves of a nearby tree. The camera approaches a single drop and we enter it. Inside are tendrils and among them swim fish made of blown glass. The entire image shimmies in the tender, soft light—living glass figures in a drop of water teeming with artificial life, the glass appearing to be a slightly more solidified form of water. Water congeals into the rigidity of glass; glass threatens to dissipate into the currents of liquidity. The forms twist and dance and soon a ballerina-like figuring appears; water turns to ice and she skates along its smooth surface. A dandelion bursts; its snowy seed fluffs disperse and one pierces the bubble of the raindrop. The fluff bulges and becomes a small clown, a Pierrot; the ballerina is his Columbine. He pursues her; walls of ice separate them and we see her form refracted through the glassy pane—water returns to glass as glass flows into water.

In his larger works, Zeman expands the scope of his imagination and creates strange new worlds, drawing us into their forbidding symmetries and charming asymmetries, enticing us to lose ourselves in their labyrinthine embraces. In essence, Zeman monumentalizes the séance-like incursions of the phantasmagoric into our quotidian world by reversing the directionality of its uncanny force. Instead of appearing as an intrusion from a small, forgotten realm of mythical resemblances and the ghostly remnants of the minor demons that haunt the fringes of our experience, Zeman’s feature films immerse us in fully realized alternative worlds where the familiar laws of nature are subverted and the line between the real and the fantastic is not so much blurred as it is obliterated entirely.

But Zeman treads a careful path here. These are not mere ventures into the bizarre. These films do not traffic in heavy-handed absurdities that call attention to themselves as breaches from the unintelligible beyond in the manner of some directors influenced by Zeman—for example, Terry Gilliam. Zeman’s worlds appear to be entirely coherent and inhabitable; their regularities reveal themselves to view gradually, inviting one to deeper absorption. For a time, we live there, we breathe that rarefied air without the nagging suspicion that we do not belong. And when the film ends, we hold on to an element of what had charmed and beguiled us, as though that world continues to exist somewhere to the side of our world; its logic continues to hold and the lives of its inhabitants continue to unfold.

img-4481Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) (Criterion)

This makes his first feature almost programmatic in nature. Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) follows four young boys who discover a shell similar to a recognized fossil. They postulate that the river flowing out of a cave may have some animal survivals from a prehistoric era. As they push their rowboat against the river’s flow, they soon discover that they are moving backwards in time. They encounter the stegosaurus, the pterodactyl, the triceratops, the Tyrannosaurus rex. Each era, each distinct world, lay side by side. Time becomes space; moving upstream is simply a method of striving against the tide of natural history. So, each world endures, occupies its own reserved space, and the young protagonists are able to step into and out of each world of their own accord.

The film is a tour de force—live action footage interleaves with 2D and 3D models, stop-motion animation, puppets (animated models), painted film cells, and the clever integration of foregrounds featuring the boys and backgrounds featuring paintings of extinct landscapes. The techniques are so varied and carried out with such conviction that the boyhood fantasy of tramping into the living worlds of a prehistoric past seem palpable, seem paradoxically and improbably possible.

img-4481Invention for Destruction (1958) (Criterion)

But if Journey to the Beginning of Time presents a world that once existed and sets it alongside our more familiar world, reducing time to space, Invention for Destruction (1958) explores the tension inherent in film between the two-dimensional screen of representation and the three-dimensional “reality” depicted on that screen. Invention for Destruction draws on Jules Verne’s 1896 novel, Facing the Flag, while adapting the black-and-white illustrations featured in Verne’s work for the construction of its world.

The entire film is a dialectic of dimensional tension. Zeman integrates his live actors in all their bodily presence into the teeming density of the flat environment. An alluring improbability emerges as a tantalizing possibility. Animated illustrations encapsulate living people; people shift between being live figures and enlivened animations; rooms are papered with the firm lines of illustrations; a real bird flies near an animated hot air balloon, a real sea sponge dwarfs a passing animated submarine; real waves are etched with cross hatching; people weave in and out of seemingly two-dimensional illustrations. The illustrations gain depth and we move into them, the proportions shift; what appeared to be another flat page takes on depth of field. A man works at a desk in front of a deep cavernous tunnel. In the middle ground a crane lowers: is it real or animated? The distinction collapses.

The sincerity of the endeavor lends it a credence it could never have as an isolated moment of the surreal. The flatness of this world absorbs its three-dimensional inhabitants, it unfolds and falls away into depth, making room for them, welcoming them. The whole is so securely envisioned, so capably rendered that we cannot help but linger with these images, to imagine ourselves ensconced in their strangely enticing rigidities. The inert is enlivened, the living reduces to pattern.

The illustrations in 19th-century novels typically function as sketches—representations that serve indexically to point at something different, something less unlikely. The caricatures of such illustration are meant to indicate something beyond caricature, something more substantial; their arch deviation from reality calls attention to the gap between their artifice and the realness the novel attempts to articulate. Zeman revels in the seeming insubstantiality of such illustration and lends it a gravity that contends with that of our world.

These are not caricatures; they are not mere representations. They manifest a vision of another world, another range of possibilities. In this vision, the world is mechanical like ours but the mechanisms operate in another, untold manner. The lines of force that invisibly crisscross our world are substantiated here; their tendrils ramify and seek out connection. The drawn world draws in its occupants, ties them into the complexities of relationship, strands them through the outlines of isolation. Lines of flight, trajectories of escape, are made literal. Dimensions function as a resonating force emanating from the dimensionless point—all that lives here threatens collapse and the resistance to that collapse is the emblem of freedom in this new world, the emblem of its ability to imagine life otherwise.

The otherwise is the operative logic of Zeman’s imagination. The freedom of thought depends on it not succumbing to the foretold, to the mold of what has always been and shall always be. Freedom depends on the otherwise. In this sense, Zeman’s oeuvre concerns itself with liberation from our stilted view of what is and the normative doldrums of what ought to be. Zeman envisions what might be, the inherent openness of the otherwise.

It is nearly impossible to resist stopping each frame to see how Zeman produces these minor miracles; one desires against one’s best interest to puncture the magical spell the director casts over the screen. We recognize we are being offered an illusion and are enchanted; that enchantment breeds a kind of resistance, an eagerness to see how it is all done and thereby dispel the hold it has over us. And yet our better angels insist that we remain satisfied with these worlds, crafted to immerse us in the pleasure of the otherwise, the joys of inhabiting the careful realization of what lies on the other side of the possible.

img-4482The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) (Criterion)

Criterion Collection has recently released a truly amazing edition of three of Karel Zeman’s feature films: Journey to the Beginning of Time, Invention for Destruction, and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. The films are all restored to their finest splendor and Criterion has lavished the collection with documentary shorts, short films by Zeman (including those discussed here), demonstrations of the restoration efforts, discussions by other filmmakers of the production and animation techniques Zeman employed, and a booklet featuring pop-up illustrations of the films. This is a collection well worth the investment.

RATING 10 / 10