Jiří Brdečka: life, animation, magic


Jiří Brdečka is remembered above all for the screenplay of one of the best loved Czech comedies. The 1964 film Limonadový Joe (Lemonade Joe) is a parody of the western; the hero of the title is a teetotal sharpshooter, who turns out to be the Wild West sales rep – with a gift for the one-liner – of a soft drinks company called Kola Loka. The film is full of quirky humour and this is something that we also find in a side of Brdečka’s work that has been neglected since his death over thirty years ago. Perhaps his greatest contribution to cinema are the 35 animated films that he directed, films of immense poetic and artistic quality, reminding us that Disney is not the only model for telling stories through animation. Brdečka’s work in the field is the subject of a new book published in English and written by his daughter Tereza Brdečková. David Vaughan has more.

Tereza Brdečková, photo: David VaughanTereza Brdečková, photo: David Vaughan Tereza Brdečková’s book also comes with a boxed set of all her father’s animated films. None of them is longer than 20 minutes, but both individually and together, they are totally absorbing, with exquisite artwork, subtle storytelling and a hint of morbidity. The book, called simply Jiří Brdečka: Life, Animation Magic, is richly illustrated and told with lively authority by Tereza herself and others who worked with her father. I went to see Tereza Brdečková in her flat in one of the ancient houses below Prague Castle:

“People often forget that Czechoslovakia had one of the most wonderful animation schools in the world. It is a very strange story because this animation studio was in fact founded by the Nazis in 1942. Because the universities were closed, people like my father who had been a university student were hired there as animators or draughtsmen and they were working there for one or two years. After the war the Czechoslovak film industry was nationalized and the Nazi film studio became the state film studio of Czechoslovakia, and they made thousands of very beautiful films. My father was a screenwriter and worked together with Jiří Trnka, who today is probably better remembered. He started to make his own films in 1948 and within ten years he was already famous as one of the first directors of animation who were able to step out from the Disney tradition which was very conservative. And it was a little bit of an ideological fight, because one of the reasons why the communists were financing these studios, these films and the work of these artists was to say to the world – to the bad capitalist world: you see, we are not like you, we are not promoting the Disney kitsch films, but we are making beautiful art cinema!”

And you’ve just published a book in English that tells the story of your father and his work in animation.

“I followed in this book the story of his life, which I found interesting, because this is exactly the Central European generation of people who lived through everything bad. My father was born in 1917 during the First World War, he almost died, then he was studying in Prague, then there was the Second World War, then came the communists and so this all means something. I came to the conclusion that these people, my father and his friends, in fact spent their lives in a sort of inner exile, when you really must find your own inner world, take care of it and draw from this world as you create. And I find this very beautiful. I think people should continue to do it, in fact.”

It is interesting that you say that people should continue to do it. Now that we live in an more open and democratic society is it still necessary to live in your own inner, private world? Is it still possible?

'Prince Copperslick', photo: YouTube'Prince Copperslick', photo: YouTube “Well, I think there are always pressures on people who are on the art scene, and today those are, of course, commercial pressures. It was a challenge, how to please the communist authorities and today you have the challenge how to please your publisher or your producer or whatever. Of course, you always have to find a kind of compromise. You should never betray what is unique in you. And this is what my father and people like him managed to do. So when we speak about his animation there was something very particular about his life’s work. He made 35 films altogether, starting in 1948 until his death in 1982. His lifetime dream for animation was to bring to life the paintings he loved. And so he started with his first film with one of the most famous Czech painters, Kamil Lhoták and he continued with other painters. So, each of his 35 films is very different. At the same he was a very good storyteller, so those are stories that are very fine, mostly ironic. He was very much in love with the border of art and kitsch and folk. You have a lot of painters coming out of this same style, including Jiří Trnka, because most were born during the First World War when old Austria was still living.”

In the book you write very vividly about the strange paradox that here was the independent Czechoslovakia, emerging from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but so many of the manners, habits and values were inherited from that earlier time. They come across very strongly in his films.

“Right up to his last film which is called Prince Copperslick (Třináctá komnata prince Měděnce), which is about a prince who eats too much meat and marries a princess who only eats vegetables and who has thirteen rooms where he goes to eat his goose and pork, there is still this spirit of the old times. And at the same time this film is strongly marked by the work of Aubrey Beardsley. So he was inspired by world painting and I think these internationally understandable stories together with the unique artistic language of his films mean that these films still live today.”

And the fact that they were doing something so different must also have been one of the reasons why your father’s films caused quite a stir in the West?

“They discovered in him the person who was first able to dismantle the Disney way of working. This was possible because he had a wonderful team of authors, of animators, and it was all possible because of the communist system: labour was very cheap but the people were working in these studios with a lot of enthusiasm.”

Photo: Limonádový Joe publishingPhoto: Limonádový Joe publishing And it’s another thing that you write about in the book, that your father could have emigrated, because as a successful artist he was able to travel. But he decided not to.

“The main reason was that he realized very well that whatever happens, even after the Soviet occupation of 1968, he will always remain Mr Brdečka here, even in the more complicated conditions, while in Western Europe there were absolutely no such possibilities to create animated films. He knew some producers and artists in Italy and France and they were working in very small basement spaces and earning a living with commercials, and they could never have dreamed of having two hundred animators to work with – as well as inbetweeners and colourists. It was a tough job for them. In fact it was no job at all.”

I was wondering too about the fact that he spent his whole career with people hovering above him, who were basically not sympathetic to his work – first of all in the 1940s when the country was occupied and then under the communist regime – it must have influenced his view of the world and made him more sceptical than he would have been otherwise. There is a lot of irony and even morbidity in his films. Do you think that scepticism is one of the key things that colours his language as a filmmaker?

“I think that scepticism is more general. You can find it in books, films and many art pieces from the same time, from the same generation, because in the end, after all the things that happened to the country, you could not really be an optimist. But at the same time life is always beautiful, isn’t it! As for this morbidity, as you call it, in each of his films there is a funeral, and this funeral is usually viewed as something funny, as something comic, but in the end, if you start to think about it, it’s a little bit bizarre. I think my father has a particular sense of black humour, but a very fine one, so it’s not really doing any harm. This is not the black humour of Tarantino. That would have been unacceptable in those times.”

In the book there is one photograph of the family with you as a little girl sitting in the foreground, and your parents in the background smoking and looking as though they’re enjoying themselves. You look awfully serious in that picture. Was it difficult growing up in that kind of family at that time?

“When I compare the fate of the children of my generation to what is happening to children today in the world, it would really be very wrong to say that it was a bad experience. On the other hand you were always surrounded by an atmosphere of something dark that you really couldn’t define because most of the parents didn’t talk about it – this atmosphere of fear of people, of permanent oppression, of Orwellesque propaganda, this you could feel all the time. And I think many children like me were unhappy. I was.”

Tereza Brdečková in her flat, photo: David VaughanTereza Brdečková in her flat, photo: David Vaughan And there’s another paradox in the fact that we are now sitting in your very beautiful old flat in the heart of the Lesser Quarter of Prague. This is the flat in which you grew up and where you lived with your parents. You talk about the darkness of the time, but there’s also an intense beauty. Before the fall of communism, there was a kind of fairytale beauty to Prague, which also must have informed your father’s aesthetic language.

“Yes, definitely. I think this is unique. You cannot compare it to Italy. It is different in Spain, it is different in France. You always have the feeling that there is something behind the door – and there were all those secret gardens – and at the same time, in the 1950s and 60s, and maybe your also remember it later, everything was as if frozen. It was like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. You had the permanent feeling that something must happen and everything will wake up, which in fact is what happened in the end. So you are right. It was like a fairytale.”

And the book also comes with a box of DVDs with all your father’s animated films. Which are your particular favourites?

“There is one film which is definitely the most attractive till today and that is Badly Painted Chicken (Gallina Vogelbirdae) which tells the story of a little boy who has the soul of a poet and is forced to draw a hen realistically. But he paints a hen that is absolutely not realistic. It is a very artistic hen. He is punished for it, but this little drawing flies from the window and starts to live its own life. It’s captured by an old professor who is discovering new birds, but in this story in the end what it is important to say – and it was an important declaration in 1963 in communist Czechoslovakia when the film was made – that you really cannot kill art, you cannot kill poetry, you cannot kill beauty and this is really a red line you can see in all my father’s films. This is what he was making all his life. There are beautiful things that you cannot kill.”