Břetislav Pojar: Multi-Talent of Czech Animation (Part 2)

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Here is the second half of my in-depth (though not exactly comprehensive) look at the films of the great Czech animator Břetislav Pojar. The first half can be found here.


Balablok (1972)

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In a kingdom, the cubes live happily until they encounter a ball, whom they bully; the ball then brings his friends to retaliate against the cubes, and war ensues as the cubes and balls call their respective populations to arms against the other group. The violence damages both sides to where they all become octagonal prisms, and all is well again…except at least one of them, it turns out, is not an o.p., but a pyramid.

In the late 1960s, Pojar began his long involvement with the National Film Board of Canada, although he would continue to make films at Krátký Film Praha’s animation studio (where his earlier films were produced) at the same time. His first NFBC film was To See or Not to See (1969), a cutout-animated film about the human reluctance to do new and potentially dangerous things; so it was that Balablok continued the sort of satirical cutout filmmaking that Pojar pioneered by this time.

Where Antidarwin seemed to indict human hatred in general, with sparse use of color, human characters, and a more direct, wide-ranging portrayal of conflict, this more lighthearted film uses vividly-colored wooden blocks to depict identitarian vanity and the desire for violent retaliation against those who would dare violate it. Pojar was assisted in his characteristically bouncy cutout animation, which here makes heavy use of dry-brushed smears, by Francine Desbiens and Clorinda Warny; their use of cutouts makes the retention of the blocks’ solid forms easier, yet their treatment of the technique with a degree of freedom also allows the characters to squash-and-stretch where necessary (especially important for the balls), making them actual characters rather than just, well, animated blocks of wood.

Rather than playing the plot straight, Pojar embellishes it with creative ideas and concepts that make for enjoyable viewing. Whenever the cubes and, at the end, the octagonal prisms greet each other, they lift the top sides of their figures off as if they were their hats; also, the cubes and spheres call their comrades to battle by speaking in pseudo-Morse code shaped like themselves, and the ways that the two groups initially bully each other (the ball is pushed and bounced, the two cubes are spun around) are amusing. In fact, the potential for words to damage and hurt, previously seen in Orator, makes a triumphant return here, as the blocks soon begin yelling out shapes of letters (resembling the other group) that, upon impact, turn into scribbles of strange creatures made from the other group’s shape, like demoralizing insults.

Words aren’t the only weapon that the blocks use, I should add. In due time the balls begin using each other as slingshots against the cubes (their legs as the slings!), with the cubes in turn stacking themselves into a rocket launcher and firing at the balls—a statement on the needless sacrifice of lives in wars today?—and of course each side also resorts to just bashing blocks on the other side and kicking them up into the air. The forces of the impacts and landings cause chunks of the blocks to break off, and those in turn become weapons as well!

Almost adamantly, in spite of the implied carnage of its subject matter, the film refuses to take itself seriously (a great thing). The blocks’ movements and cute, high-pitched voices make their fighting look like child’s play, a feeling helped along by the endearingly bombastic, at turns circus-like and march-like score composed by Maurice Blackburn, best known as a long-time collaborator with the legendary experimental filmmaker/animator Norman McLaren, and orchestrated by Pierre F. Brault. One element that can easily be overlooked is Yvon Mallette’s alluring, sketchy minimalist backgrounds, which appear to be based aesthetically on medieval illustrations, though with appealing color (various shades of reds, pinks, purples, and browns) and even a few modern touches like signs and houses; they’re a good complement to the vaguely fantastic setting, and a neat contrast to the stylized blocks.

Pojar’s determination to wring humor out of every situation in the film at any cost is best epitomized by one moment, when the fighting and chaos is in full swing. The music suddenly turns morose, as if urging the audience to feel sad at the war, and for a moment the film appears to take a serious turn as it goes to the relatively peaceful sky in stark contrast to the action on the ground—but said sky turns out to be teeming with such objects as a hot-air balloon, a unicorn, and even a UFO! The effect is to draw attention to how absurd the film’s world is in general, and in this light blocks fighting over something as trivial as their shape doesn’t seem so unusual after all. It’s like Pojar is pointing out how war itself is as laughable as it is deadly and devastating.

The irony of the blocks’ petty fighting reaches its height at the climax, when the last remaining cube, searching for balls to bash, discovers that all the blocks have been broken into octagonal prisms, yet even so they continue mindlessly fighting. When the cube excitedly spreads the good news, they show their gratitude by clubbing him to be just like them…and their top-lifting greetings toward each other continue on as they were at first, as if nothing had happened at all. Peace returns through the re-conformity of the blocks, as if that was what mattered most; Pojar takes one last dig at this by bringing in an unexpected pyramid block, who ends the film by sticking his tongue out at the surprised prisms. (It’s great to be a non-conformer!)

Balablok remains one of Pojar’s more popular films. Visually, it’s more accessible than Antidarwin, and its messages, densely-packed as they are into the film, are delivered in a jocular, metaphorical fashion, never coming off as patronizing ; even then, it’s simply fun to watch the blocks interact with each other, underscored by their childish vocal effects and Blackburn’s music. In short, an indelible classic.

(As a side note, watch around the 4:56 mark for a hilarious shooting error; there’s at least one other such error elsewhere in the film. Maybe Pojar should have made a short using cutouts of live human hands.)


The Appletree Maiden / Jabloňová panna (1973)

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While hunting an unexpectedly magical deer that turns into a golden chalice, a young king discovers an enchanted apple tree, where three maidens fly out of three apples that fall to the ground. The king fills the golden chalice with water from a fountain that had been dry just before and gives it to the last maiden to drink, whereby she becomes more beautiful; together, they ride back to the castle, only for an ugly witch to stab the cloaked maiden and take her place. The king discovers the witch to his horror, but does not do anything about it at first, believing that she may just be another form of the maiden; just as he is about to be married to the hag, though, the maiden returns in the form of a dove, a sapling, and finally an apple, always with the knife impaled in her. In spite of the witch’s attempts (through her bird minions) to prevent it, the king eventually pulls the knife out, and the witch and her minions combust into flames as the maiden returns to her beautiful form; the royal couple and their subjects live happily ever after.

It may be fitting that, for his first major film to use three-dimensional stop-motion in years, Pojar adapted a story by the Romantic-era Czech folklorist R.J. Erben; in this regard, the film can be seen as a return to his days as an animator under Jiří Trnka, whose best films were often inspired by fairy tales and other fascinating works of literature. Yet whereas those films had a youthful, pioneering spirit indicating how daring they were in the medium of stop-motion, The Appletree Maiden feels like the product of an expert who has lived through those early days, and is now working with a large amount of experience behind him.

Which is not to say there isn’t much to enjoy in this film! Thanks to Miroslav Štěpánek’s art direction, the film looks like a Gothic painting come to life, with exquisitely-crafted, at times ornate puppets and settings and often-meticulous shot composition to match. With regards to the latter, Vladimír Malík’s cinematography does not seem particularly special at first, with relatively sparse camera movement outside of a few zooms and pans (the main exception being the opening chase) and plenty of shots that seem to be looking straight at the action; but by utilizing a painterly approach to the shooting, Malík emphasizes the visuals’ own beauty, along with their medieval inspiration.

In a similar vein, the character animation, by Boris Masník and Pojar himself, seems rather subdued at a cursory glance, as if it were a reflection of the relative austerity with which Gothic art tended to represent people. This was admittedly a disappointment on first viewing; but on closer inspection, there is in fact an underlying richness in the movement, with graceful, thoughtful acting of a kind not seen in many of Pojar’s other films. Perhaps the animation in this film is simply easy to take for granted, given the other elements vying for attention.

Essential to the film’s medieval atmosphere is the music, largely by Pojar’s then-regular composer Jiří Kolafa, which sounds like it may have even been played on instruments originating from the Middle Ages. Here, Pojar went the extra mile and brought on the Italian composer Vieri Tostatti, whose works include a number of operas and several choral works, to compose additional music; at the very least, he likely scored the song that opens and closes the film.

There’s not much else to say about the story itself, which is a pretty typical love-triumphs-over-evil fairytale with a Czech flavor—mystifying, lovely, and imbued with wonder, to be sure, but as it stands what makes this film great is how the story is told. Neither is Pojar’s humor as prominent here, although it is rather funny how the birds frighten the villagers away by breathing fire at them—and then there’s the ending, in which an onlooker, at the sight of the king and his apple maiden, drops an apple onto the ground in the hopes that a maiden of his own will appear, but predictably it only breaks into pieces. A biting reminder, perhaps, that love cannot just be had on a whim, but must be earned.


The Animal Lover / Milovník zvířat (1974)

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A lonely old man brings home a fish and then two puppies, whom he cares for so well that they grow into a whale and two elephants (!) that must be kept in his spacious backyard. He then buys a kitten, but dies shortly after; the house is left alone and a luscious garden grows around the animals (the kitten eventually grows into a giant tomcat), but in spite of a city surrounding the abandoned space, no one knows of its existence.

While Pojar’s famous master Jiří Trnka is widely known for his stop-motion films, he also had a career illustrating children’s books. In 1962, inspired by a beautiful garden at the villa of Turbová (in the Košíře district of Prague) where he lived from 1939 to 1958, Trnka wrote and illustrated The Garden (Zahrada), about a mysterious garden and its odd animals that five schoolboys discover. From 1974 to 1977, perhaps as a tribute to his deceased master, Pojar made a series of five films based on the book. (As it happens, Krátký Film Praha’s puppet animation studio had just renamed itself in memory of Trnka—a fact proudly emblazoned at the beginning of each entry.)

This first entry, telling the heartwarming but sad origins of the garden and its inhabitants, is in a different style from the other four entries. Rather than three-dimensional stop-motion, Pojar used his other main technique of cutout animation; unlike his other cutout films, however, he and designer Miroslav Štěpánek decided to draw and color the character cutouts in such a manner that they have a detailed, almost three-dimensional look, giving the film an appropriate antiquated style while simultaneously setting viewers up for the rest of the series’s aesthetic. The backgrounds, with their tasteful color styling, appear to be painted mostly in watercolors; they’re a perfect fit with the cutouts, creating an atmosphere simultaneously down-to-earth and dreamlike.

This time, Pojar delegated the animation entirely to Boris Masník and newcomer Jan Klos; they manage to live up to his own cutout animation impressively. The old man has a lot of liveliness left early on, when he plays with the fish; his movements are deft, and he clearly enjoys taking on funny faces and appearances in order to entertain the fish, which retains its own flexibility even as it grows ever larger. Among the film’s most elegant moments is when the man rocks the fish to sleep with the fishbowl; as the fish snores, he releases colorful bubbles into the air in tandem with the smoke rings emanating from the man’s pipe, resulting in abstract beauty as rings and bubbles fly through the black night.

Jiří Kolafa’s score as a whole is as playful as it is gentle and melancholy. It is particularly effective in underlining how the man’s puppies grow into elephants over time, through different variations on the same theme; when they first come out of their house, the theme feels curious and uncertain, like the puppies themselves. Soon enough, the puppies grow into energetic, excited dogs, and accordingly the theme becomes much friskier and faster. Not long after, though, the dogs grow large enough that they break their house as they try to leave it; in accordance with their weightier animation, the music is slower and heavier, perhaps through what sounds like a more pronounced tuba. Eventually, they become full-blown dog-eared elephants who “bark” through their trunks, whose excited steps rigidly bounce the man off the ground and whose bringing of a tree as a “stick” causes the man to faint; the melody is reduced to a lumbering, brass-dominated shell of its former self.

As evidenced by its title, the film illustrates the wondrous things love can do. It’s simply heartening to watch the man care for his animals like his own children, gradually increasing their food supply, enlarging their living quarters, and spending time with them until, one day, they miraculously become greater beings—he must set them free in the outside world, but still helps them out where possible, as evidenced by the crane lift he uses to transport his whale (note that the whale is carrying books…it is revealed later in the series that he is a bookworm!) and the toys and seesaw he gets for his elephants.

Unfortunately, the film also shows how there are many who, through circumstances beyond their control, are unable to experience this love, and how the world, cynically enough, does not care about one person’s death, especially if they can profit from it. The man suddenly collapses as he is feeding his new kitten from a milk bottle; later, the kitten is thrown from his basket by a jerk who takes most of the man’s belongings away, and the animals can only watch as they are buried in time. Vladimír Malík’s camerawork here is skillful, as layer upon layer of fauna covers the garden up, and the house in turn is obscured by rising buildings.

As cruel as it is, life continues to go on as usual even after someone beloved has died, and the old man who loved his animals is no exception. Pojar, as expected, portrays this fact comically, as two (literal!) party animals walk through the streets in the night, heckling the sleeping townspeople with their noisy bark-singing and causing a shipload of objects to be thrown at them. Cleverly, though, he also uses this relatable scenario of animal hatred to contrast with the deceased animal lover’s kindness; even at this moment, up in the heavens, he is feeding clouds, turning them into larger, fully-animated cloud animals.

Lest I forget, Bohuš Záhorský’s narration is both matter-of-fact and warmly sympathetic; in part due to his presence, the depressing story never comes across as melodramatic, and he instills a sense of gentle amusement into the events. To close, this film is one of Pojar’s most heartfelt creations, with moments of fine visual poetry and genuine emotion; it works wonderfully as a charming stand-alone entry in the Garden series. But for those who would like to know what happened to the garden and the animals afterwards, the saga continues…


That Great Fog / O té velké mlze (1975)

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On their way to school, four boys get lost in the fog, eventually coming upon an old locked gate. They attempt to force it open by shoving their many possessions through the keyhole, finally succeeding with the smallest boy’s harmonica—uncovering the late animal lover’s garden. The fully grown tomcat tries to scare them off for his enjoyment, but only earns the boys’ insults, causing him to chase them off; just as the boys are about to be late to school, the elephants give them a ride through the city, and sneak them through the classroom window before the teacher can fully realize the boys’ lateness.

From this second film in the Garden series onwards, the story of the mysterious garden is brought to the present, and the visual style shifts from old-fashioned, drawn cutouts to fresh, sculpted puppets in a real-life (so to speak), atmospheric setting. Within the new limits, Pojar and designer Štěpánek create a small world of contrasts: as much as they all intermingle, there’s no mistaking the realistically-designed humans for the cartoonish animals, or the cold, foggy city for the exquisite garden, or even—most importantly in this case—the four boys (decreased from the original book’s five) for each other.

Unlike Pojar’s earlier Hey Mister, Let’s Play and Who Threw That, Gentlemen films with the bears, which mostly work well on their own, the Garden films are best watched in order, as the boys’ exploration of the garden and their relationship with the animals develop over the course of the series; this film, of course, is an introduction to the characters, and by itself it’s a delightful example of how Pojar, Štěpánek, and the animators—Boris Masník and Jan Klos again—can create several different engaging personalities in less than 15 minutes.

The boys (voiced by actresses Pavlína Filipovská, Iva Janžurová, Jiřina Jirásková, and Růžena Merunková) differ not only in looks, but also in their interactions with each other and with the environment, and maintain a engaging chemistry as they try to open the gate; it’s easy to tell who is the leader, who seems to merely be tagging along, who is the nerdiest, and who is considered the weakest (often getting the worst of a situation). And they aren’t one-note stereotypes, either; the second turns out to be carrying a small gun (which goes off when the leader tries to use it as a key!), and the latter, when pressured, can be the most courageous, to the extent that he personally gives up his treasured harmonica in order to open the gate rather than let the others take it from him, and later is the one who most vehemently insults the tomcat in the garden. Their short, fat designs and semi-realistic faces allow for believable character animation, and even occasional cartoony motions like stretching their arms and legs out where needed.

The furry tomcat (voiced by František Filipovský), meanwhile, is impossible to truly dislike, even without taking his sad past into account. With his stylized design and his energetic, pliable movement and acting, he could have easily jumped out of a Who Threw That film; his traits are brilliantly suited to his almost-elderly mischievousness, which can turn to violent crankiness if he is provoked. The scene in which he aggressively throws several objects at each of the insulting boys with his noodly arms, at one point uses his tail as a slingshot, and finally lunges right into the slammed door betrays Pojar’s and his animators’ skill for comic timing, making it among the film’s best moments.

The four wrinkly elephants (voiced by Vlastimil Brodský, Lubomír Lipský, Zdeněk Řehoř, and Stella Zázvorková), multiplied from the original two, are the most endearing characters, retaining their friskiness and eagerness to please from when they were dogs in the first film. Witnessing the boys running away from the tomcat, they decide to escape the garden and chase after the boys to make friends; problem is, the boys are almost late for school. Their attempts to greet them are met only with the boys’ hurried grief, and so they make themselves sob out large tears! The elephants soon get the idea to let the boys ride on them in an elephant train; in an example of them (and Pojar) going the extra creative mile, the front two elephants sound it off with a fanfare, then (after bringing the boys on board) develop a train whistle, wheels, and smoke-blower! And during all this they inadvertently terrorize the city; they make the street sweeper jump into his can and nearly drown him in there with their tears, and with their train they scare someone into running away on stilts then (in a slightly risqué gag) nearly run over a bare-legged woman trembling on top of her car (with the traffic cop managing to kick the car away and grab the woman just in time).

A cute running gag is how the smallest boy’s pants keep falling off from time to time, after the other boys over-stretch them in trying to force his harmonica out. It culminates at the very end, when, having made it to class, he sneaks over to the window to wave the elephants goodbye, only for the pants to be left there as he returns to his seat; alerted by the other boys, he sits down before the teacher can notice and then extends his leg all the way out to grab the pants! A swell, cartoony way to end the film, as the boys go back to studying as usual.

As usual, Jiří Kolafa’s music is lovely. One nice touch is how the littlest boy marching over to the keyhole to insert his harmonica is underscored by a harmonica solo; I also love the ragtime soundtrack as the elephants train-ride the boys through the streets. Vladimír Malík’s cinematography is mostly similar to his work in the Hey Mister/Who Threw That films, in terms of the framing often being flat and looking straight at the proceedings; there are a number of ambitious camera actions testifying to his true skill, though, like the multiplane shot of the buildings coming into view as the boys escape from the garden and especially the sudden zoom-in to the classroom window from outside the school, and the fog and lighting effects in several scenes are expertly handled.

As for the three shorts afterwards: the third, How to Catch a Tiger (Jak ulovit tygra) (1976), details the boys’ attempt to hunt the tomcat down only to be bullied around and nearly mauled, and features more great visual gags (the cat rides on a bicycle, for one); the first half, in which the boys brainstorm what to do, features some of the most loose cutout animation Pojar ever directed, and at the end it turns out the elephants (who come to the boys’ rescue at the last second) can fly with their ears. The fourth, About Mice in Tinfoil (O myších ve staniolu) (1977), is when the boys must take care of the tomcat after he gets sick from too much candies; when they all fall asleep, though, the magic garden gnome causes the boys to dream of when the animal lover brought his bookworm whale out into a lake in the garden (represented in the sketchier style of cutout animation from the third film). They discover the whale and his stacks of books in the last film, Elahw the Whale (Velryba Abyrlev) (1977), hoping to get help for their exams the next day, and along the way they discover the garden’s other quirky inhabitants; but, they are overwhelmed by Elahw/Abyrlev (voiced by Martin Růžek) and his trio of singing frogs, and leave the garden once and for all. The series closes on the shining sun, under which the tomcat peacefully sleeps; in the end, we should enjoy the wonders of life while we can, for we never know when our innocence will disappear completely.


“E” (1981)

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A giant statue of an E is helicoptered into a park. Two men argue over it, one believing that it is a B; the onlookers call in a doctor, and it turns out the man in question merely needed glasses. Unfortunately, a local tyrant also believes the E statue is a B, even after the doctor tries giving him glasses, and proceeds to have his men beat the heads of the others until they, too, see a B before them.

In this opus for the NFBC, the events play out in the form of a nonsensical opera, with the only intelligible words being “e” and “b”. The classy piano score, by Maurice Blackburn, is deliciously desecrated by bizarre vocal effects (and, I presume, the gibberish singing as well) courtesy of Les Mimes électriques, and according to the NFBC’s website Patrice Arbour and Bernard Carez also played voices in the film. By reducing the sung dialogue to literal rubbish, Pojar mocks the near-incomprehensibility associated with opera, and his similar treatment of the music makes the film’s audio a funny, distinctively Pojar-ian shot at high-brow culture in general.

Francine Desbiens served as Pojar’s assistant director, and Michèle Pauzé as assistant animator. Appropriately for the film, the cutout animation is broader and more well-acted than in Balablok, with regular deformation of the cutouts’ forms for comedic effect; certain cuts, like when the short man balloons up with anger and explodes and even his piecemeal appearance afterwards, as well as the scuffle between the vision-impaired man and the two ambulance men, appear to be outright hand-drawn animation in their sheer energy. The characters are drawn in a crude manner reminiscent of such European cartoons as Professor Balthazar; innovatively, however, they appear to be shaded in with colored pencils, making them look detailed and more convincing—and the incongruity between the coloring and the cutout medium adds an extra layer of ludicrousness to the film.

This blackly farcical cutout opera is a riff on how dictatorships, in order to justify themselves, force their ways of thinking upon the people, even if they are blatantly false. As in a number of previous films, Pojar brings attention to the interior sides of his characters, in this case their eyesight as it lies in their heads; here, it represents not only the citizens’ ability to literally see what’s before them, but also their ability to see reason. Hence, the police must club the citizens’ heads such that, their minds and vision severely damaged, they see Es as Bs, just like the tyrant; not without cause do they crush the glasses, which could reveal the truth. Those few who have not been beaten into delusion, like the parrot, go along with the situation out of fear for their lives.

The tyrant himself seems like a pretty affable person at first, with his near-constant smile and ostensible naïveté; he even gives an award to the doctor who tries to convince him that the E statue is indeed an E, just before he has police brutality inflicted on the populacethe point being, perhaps, that awards are objectively meaningless in the end. In a way, Pojar also indicts the people who allow the tyrant, with his royal trappings mixed with modern totalitarian urges, to rule over them, caught up as they become in celebratory Glorias over the doctor’s award; any dictatorship could manipulate such a situation to its advantage.

Yvon Mallette’s picturesque, paint-stroked backgrounds are colored mostly with tasteful greens and blues, and design-wise could be a reflection of the tyrant: the looming castle and verdant scenery that would suggest a kingdom are offset by the modern buildings and mostly abstract statues. While “E” is rather short for a Pojar film, it delivers cartoony visuals, an oddball soundtrack, and a clear, politically-charged message all peppered with his usual sense of biting humor within that time, making it one of his most memorable efforts.


Nightangel / L’heure des anges / Romance z temnot (1986)

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In the night, a young man goes outside to meet his lover, only to be hit by a car; he is temporarily blinded by the accident. As he struggles with blindness, he often imagines that a lovely, magical angel is helping him; when the day comes in which he has recovered, however, he is at first disappointed to find a regular woman. In the end, though, he, even in darkness, recognizes his lover for the angelic soul she really is.

Unlike Pojar’s other NFBC shorts, which were produced in-house, this film was a collaboration with Pojar’s home studio, the Jiří Trnka Studio at Krátký Film Praha. Even more uniquely, the short integrates two different animated mediums together: the three-dimensional stop-motion, directed and animated by Pojar at the Trnka Studio, is backed up by pinscreen animation courtesy of the NFBC’s great Jacques Drouin (whose early masterpiece Mindscape I have written about previously)—the first instance, in fact, in which any of Drouin’s animation was in color.

This is a hauntingly beautiful, delicate, yet sadly overlooked gem in Pojar’s oeuvre, his fruitful collaboration with Drouin resulting in rich visual storytelling that is easily among the finest in both of their careers. Drouin’s ghostly animation powerfully evokes not only the man’s fear and bewilderment as he suffers from his blindness, but also his wonder and joy whenever the nightangel is around; it blends in perfectly with Pojar’s stop-motion animation, to which Vlasta Pospíšilová, Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly, and Jan Klos also contributed.

In a change from Pojar’s previous films, and appropriately for this film, the puppets are caricatured after real-life humans, with realistic proportions, head shapes, and faces; their character animation is impeccably naturalistic, as is to be expected of Pojar at this point. Interestingly, the more flexible, free-wheeling side of Pojar’s animation, as seen in his cutout films and the Hey Mister/Who Threw That and Garden shorts, makes a fairly prominent appearance in the form of the chairs, table, and ceiling light that “attack” the blind man after he takes his fish feed canister from the flooryet in this case it serves to create uncanny horror as the furnishings seem to turn savage, to the extent that the light is even imagined turning into a swordfish! That the frightening objects modulate at times to pinscreen drives home how, to the poor man, they have become almost otherworldly demons.

Long-time collaborator Vladimír Malík was joined by Miroslav Kuchař with regards to the cinematography, which truly shines in a way unseen in Pojar’s films for years. Several scenes are shot in almost complete darkness, mirroring the man’s own impaired vision, with just enough lighting to highlight him and whichever part of the environment he senses at that moment; even they are often veiled in cold shadows. The nightangel’s appearances, in contrast, feature colorful, brightly-lit objects and effects in the midst of the black, signifying how valuable her presence is to the man; at times, she herself basks in transcendent radiance. One of the film’s most brilliant sequences, in which the man desperately searches for help after his papers catch on fire and fly around, is almost entirely dependent on the cinematography as it takes on the man’s point of view; the things he comes across are briefly lit up only at the moment of encounter, such that he “sees” walls only as he bumps into them, or the stairs only as he takes a painful spill down them. In a virtuosic display of skill, the camera begins to follow the man around as he crashes from wall to wall, desperately searching for doors where there are none (the animation of the alleged doors suddenly slamming shut is remarkably timed); suddenly, the nightangel arises from out of the darkness, and the camera follows her as she guides the man back to his room. Simply put, the at-times dynamic camerawork is integral to the film’s power, and it’s gratifying that, after about three decades, Malík could still work as deftly as he had in The Lion and the Song.

Michael Kocáb’s music, performed by the Prague Chamber Orchestra, is crucial to the film’s otherworldly, mystical atmosphere. His leitmotif for the nightangel is an elegant yet eerily introspective string piece, at times accompanied by sublime female vocalizing; indeed, most of the music is played by chilling strings, particularly the opening theme which is heard again near the end, with occasional vocal solos heralding the nightangel’s arrival. It becomes truly creepy in the scenes in which the man is terrorized by his surroundings, reduced as it is to synthesized drones complemented by the frightening sound design (Ivo Špalj is credited for the sound in the Czech version, though the Canadian version more specifically credits him for re-recording) or, in the scene where his burning papers take the form of firebirds, fluttering electronic beeps.

The richness of the film’s visual ideas, resulting from Pojar’s and Drouin’s collaboration and combination of their mediums, cannot be overstated. Unsurprisingly, in addition to the more horrifying sequences described above, the best sequences invariably involve the nightangel; she is alluring even from her very first, most ghostly appearance, animated in pinscreen by Drouin, in which she gracefully twirls around as two violins play around her. The first time she comes to the man’s rescue, she feeds his fish as they splash around in the pinscreen-animated water, and lets the man feel one of the fish; suddenly, as a sign of her care, the fish begin to multiply as the water becomes warmly lit up, and as they jump to and fro the man juggles the vivaciously-colored fish playfully! The second time, the nightangel turns most of the monochromatic paper firebirds in the man’s room into lovely butterflies, with the last of them (animated by Drouin) finally perching on the table and transforming into a cake with lit candles and a bottle of wine; after the man blows out the candles, the wine bottle spontaneously pours glasses for him and the nightangel, and after their toast the couple dances around the dark room as mysterious pinscreen-animated fog gathers below them, with colorful butterflies and lanterns above them.

Through its many brilliant components, this masterpiece shows how easily reality can be conflated to romantic fantasy, and there is bitterly ironic humor in how the man’s blindness was caused by his running out into the street towards his romanticized lover; yet it is also a testament to the power of unconditional love, especially for one who has become impaired, that it can inspire such beautiful illusions and sow the seeds of additional true love. When the man disappointedly returns home only to find his lover, ever-caring, has filled his vase with roses, he hurries her back into his dark room and, closing his eyes to simulate his blindness, feels around for her, whereby she tenderly reaches out for his hand; opening his eyes, he sees before him the beloved nightangel, and together they embrace and ascend into the sky, vibrant violins around them, to the gentle vocalizing of Kocáb’s music! As they descend, the fish jump out of their tank vividly, and the vase’s roses grow brilliantly; in a last piece of visual poetry, as they kiss, the clock flies away into the night. Time continues to pass, even in what is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements in Pojar’s career; for this film, though, the time the viewer spends watching the story unfold is absolutely worth it.


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Pojar would continue making films for the NFBC well into the 1990s; of these, currently available is the delightful Mouseology, an offbeat anti-smoking film that takes the loose, color-penciled cutout style of “E” even further. In Bohemia, meanwhile, in 1987 he collaborated with then up-and-coming animator Pavel Koutský (his Youtube channel here) on Od kroku k pokroku, an amusing look at the evolution of transportation; while the film was animated by Koutský in his distinctive pencil style, Pojar’s influence comes through in the story and humor. In 1991, he created the feature film Motýlí cas (known in English as The Flying Sneaker), which combined live-action with stop-motion and a bit of 2D by Koutský; the animators included Jan Klos, Vlasta Pospíšilová (both animators on Nightangel), and even Boris Masník.

The last decade of Pojar’s life was largely spent contributing to various omnibus films. He was among the foreign animators who contributed to Kihachiro Kawamoto’s Winter Days in 2003 (his segment here), and in 2006 he contributed the Paleček (Tom Thumb) segment of Fimfárum 2; the animators on the latter were Klos and Kateřina Pávová, and interestingly Koutský was the designer (Pospíšilová herself, meanwhile, served as director of another segment in the film). His last work was the pleasant first segment of 2011’s Autopohádky, which again featured Koutský as designer (he also animated the thought bubbles, a well-established motif of Pojar’s at this point), and additionally had Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly (from Nightangel) animating; it harkens back somewhat to his Hey Mister/Who Threw That and Garden films. The following year, on October 12, Pojar passed away, leaving behind a legacy of many enjoyable, at times even excellent films that will entertain general audiences and animation enthusiasts alike for years to come.

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