Jiri Barta – Labyrinth of Darkness (2006)

by | Apr 30, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Jiri Barta – Labyrinth of Darkness (2006)

Eight Animations by the noted Czech filmmaker. 1978-1987
Studio: KimStim/Kino Video KS2042
Video: 4:3 full screen, color
Audio: DD mono
Length: 153 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

Barta is a stop-motion animator specializing in a highly individual style of puppet animation which has been popular in Eastern Europe. He uses old dolls, wood puppets,  and various original figures. In Club of the Laid Off he brings old and damaged store window dummies to disturbing life, accompanied by their creaking sounds. In The Last Theft, his only live-action film, the actors are presented almost as if wax dummies (it turns out they’re really vampires). Barta’s films are extremely dark – beyond the expected Eastern European cynicism and macabre outlook. His world of fantasy and horror has been characterized as influenced by Kafka, Poe, Fritz Lang, The Brothers Quay and fellow animator Jan Svankmajer.

Many of Barta’s plot lines are taken from children’s stories, but they go way beyond the originals and would probably scare the daylights out of kids if they could sit thru them. Both the images and sound are rather poor quality – probably due more to the originals than the quality of the transfers. Some of the films appear to have been shot on 16mm rather than 35mm film. If so, that’s really low budget since you use very little film doing stop-motion animation. But the fuzziness seems to improve the appearance of many of the films since they exist in a dreamlike or nightmarish space anyway. I find the Kafka/Poe slant of the films fascinating and one of the attributes I love about most European animation is that subtitles or translation are not required, but Barta is so very dark that I would definitely not advise watching all these films at one sitting.

Barta’s best-known film is surely his almost hour-long adaptation of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.  Using wood and metal puppets and a sort of combination Gothic and Cubist medieval town set, he draws out the tale with great deliberation in a style that is 180 degrees different from what Disney might do. It’s considered one of the classic works of puppet animation. The rats have a much bigger part in the story than one might expect. And they are not animated – at least many of them are not. Seeing the drownings at the end, I don’t think Barta could say in the closing credits that no rats were harmed in the making of this film…Barta has unfortunately not produced anything since the fall of the Czech Communist government (a similar fate befell a Russian animator).  He has been struggling to get financing for a film titled the Golem.

The films: A Ballad About Green Wood, The Club of the Laid Off, The Design, Disc Jockey, The Last Theft, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Riddles for a Candy, The Vanished World of Gloves.

 – John Sunier