42nd Karlovy Vary IFF

June 29 - July 7, 2007

Tribute to Břetislav Pojar

If you should decide to visit the Department of Animated film at FAMU for a particular reason, you’re very likely to come across Břetislav Pojar. Professor Pojar is not a man to be overlooked, his physique is striking, for one thing – he is of tall and graceful build and, at the age of almost 84, he stands erect and his head is covered with wonderful, thick grey hair. He has been teaching for nearly twenty years, he heads seminars on animation and film direction, he advises students on their screenplays and assesses their art designs, films and dissertations. It would be difficult to find another teacher with such universal abilities. Pojar is a natural master of this entire range of specialisations since he has a wealth of practical experience behind him in each of them, fifty years’ worth, in fact, and when making his own films, he was often involved in all disciplines at the same time.

Since the 1950s, when Pojar, as a skilled animator, became an equally skilled director, dozens of animators have also made this professional shift, but practically none of them succeeded in becoming as good a director as he was an animator. Of the four of Trnka’s talented animators, of whom Pojar was one, apart from him, only Stanislav Látal established himself as a leading film director, but only later on and not as prominently as Pojar.

In a piece on Břetislav Pojar, there has to be a mention of his virtuoso approach to the animation of puppets, where he brought to life Trnka’s Prince Bajaja, Klubko (Bottom) (A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Sen noci svatojanské) and Neklan (Ancient Czech Legends / Staré pověsti české). Here, he demonstrated most conclusively how he is able to breathe life into a little figure; he convinced us that we are glimpsing its innermost being and we are able to gauge precisely its state of mind according to the tiniest of quivers. This was indeed confirmation of Pojar’s craftsmanship which was later to mould itself into something truly great, if we remember that Trnka avoided the spoken word and was able to carry the whole film on two or three facial expressions for each individual puppet. It was thanks to these restrictions that Pojar learned to express subtle psychological shades and nuances of mood through movement and, to the same extent, also through what might be termed “film devices”. This was revolutionary in puppet film, and Pojar was right up there alongside Trnka when the world began talking about the “Czech animation school” and its unique artistic approaches.

For specific examples, it’s enough to take a look at one of his early works as a director, his second in fact, which almost classifies as a medium-length (18 minutes) film, A Drop Too Much (O skleničku víc, 1953). Perhaps our astonishment at the sovereignty of this little masterpiece is reinforced by the haze of nostalgia for the bygone age of “Lhoták” technology and for the sincerity of people’s behaviour; in any case, one can hardly believe that the film came into being as the result of a commission from the Department of Health, warning motorists about the dangers of driving under the influence. First of all, in this instance, Pojar conveys the hero’s delight in a serene drive through the countryside: a motorcyclist waves to an overtaking car and train, he looks up at an airplane in the sky, he has time to notice two snails on the road, a pair of little butterflies chasing each other, and a children’s kite. The young man is wearing goggles and a balaclava, thus only these details betray his enjoyment of the ride, along with his head movements, a hint of a gesture here and there, and the sunlit landscape. Then we have the scene of the pub by the side of the road; the rider only wants a lemonade, but he turns up when a wedding is in full swing. In this part of the film, Pojar develops a literally Hrabalesque, poetic and moving storyline about the shy bride and the groom’s jovial companions – all without a single word; he is only aided a little by a cleverly chosen song. The motorcyclist is repeatedly forced to toast the health of the happy couple, and then he starts filling up his own glass when he gets nostalgic over a photograph of his Anička. The camera sways to the rhythm of the singing and dancing; as the rider keeps plying himself with drink, we see only his reflection in the wall mirror (!) and his dancing feet. And then the road starts swaying to the same melody as the young man, in his alcoholic daze, totters from side to side, until he decides to break into a run and chase a car in the distance. Now the car, train and plane gradually appear once more, but now it is night and we see only the menacing silhouettes of machines, distorted by the speed of the motorcycle. Pojar intensifies the ominous atmosphere, more precisely, he creates a rapid succession of shots with flickering lights, homing in on details of traffic warning signs and sharp bends. This entire frantic tempo is experienced subjectively by the rider and generated by the director’s expressive stylisation which finally leads us to one of the motorbike wheels; it has broken off and is now rolling out from the darkness and rain towards us, and towards Anička’s photograph, pasted to the wet surface of the road.

From this point on, not a year went by without Pojar surprising his audiences with his wealth of invention and flexibility in the art of animation. The Little Umbrella (Paraplíčko, 1957) sets out to entertain children, although one should point out that, as in Trnka’s case, for Pojar as well, the distinction between big and small audiences began to play less of a role. Do the enchanting images, fragile metaphors and lyrical details, through which an ordinary object is endowed with emotive urgency, speak only to children? A little chap sails into a child’s room on a little red umbrella during the night, the toys spring to life and show off what they can do. The blinking doll with “real hair” can only look on, since she is quaintly stiff-limbed. Whereas the clown appears to be made of rubber, he does an act on a tightrope with some toy bricks which regroup to form a different figure with his every jump; then there are the Chinese paper kites which, during their “dressage”, transform the screen into a scene full of pulsating abstract ornaments: whirling, spinning, changing colours and shapes and general metamorphoses, whose speed and brilliance make all the objects float before our eyes, and then a moment to focus on charming little details like the little man riding in a small red slipper, in which he is still groping around for the handle of his umbrella, as his magic watch slithers down to its tip. Toys are brought to life again in The Midnight Adventure (Půlnoční příhoda, 1960), for the most part a set of wooden building blocks and an old wooden toy train which, in the end, convinces the puppet-station guard of its qualities and, above all, of its loyalty. And the little train doesn’t have to grow arms, talk or roll its eyes or breathe – Pojar mediates all its emotions via animation, skilful editing, his choice of eloquent details, lighting, and via changes to the narrative’s tempo.

Pojar experimented with another genre before the end of the 1950s, namely allegory. He would pay particular attention to this genre during the following decade, both at home and in Canada, where he travelled to make films on several occasions. In his filmography we will find parables examining the intimacies of human life but, by and large, he focused on allegories which pilloried deformed social and political relationships, as permitted by the more relaxed atmosphere of the 1960s.

One of the first was Romance (1962), for example, or Nightangel (Romance z temnot, 1986, involving the collaboration of Canadian Jacques Drouin, a master of pinscreen animation). You will notice that the titles are related. The romance is essentially a lyrical work with a romantic theme, without any serious tragic conflicts. Pojar adopts this idea yet, in his versions, he introduces a raw shift – his young men experience dramas, however invisible they are at first glance; one is prisoner to his naïve illusions, the other to false dreams which nearly snatch his happiness away from him. Once again, what is most impressive about Pojar’s work is his masterful animation, his poetic vision and his art of effective abbreviation. No-one else would have been able to think of a way to visualise the phrase “to lose one’s head”, as one might describe young lads hungry for love; only Pojar would envisage, in the introductory scene from Romance, putting together a male figure from various segments, which fall down from the sky, tentatively, in surprise, confusion, in need of continual repair work, before the figure is finally ready and its heart starts beating. And the lovers in Romance from the Darkness finally rise up into the air, as if borne on the wings of love, à la Chagall, floating along the horizon in defiance of gravity.

Several titles could be included in the second “group”, for example, the films Bomb-Manie (Bombomanie, 1959), Billiards (Biliár, 1961), Orator (Úvodní slovo pronese, 1962), Antidarwin (Darwin Antidarwin aneb Co žížala netušila, 1969), Balablok (1972), Boom (Bum, 1979), "E" (1981), If (Kdyby..., 1981), even though Orator could be taken as a mockery of self-satisfaction, and Billiards as a reference to the hazardous spread of human irritability. It is here that the director employs various forms of hard-hitting humour, along with lampoonery, irony, satire and sarcasm; in certain cases, they betray the legitimate phenomenon that, with hindsight, what was then most in keeping with the times, has become the most obsolete. In these films, Pojar often varies his theme of human animosity towards everything which is at odds with deep-rooted experience; the hero is habitually a helpless individual, timid, vulnerable, frightened, beaten from both sides. It isn’t possible to achieve a rapid progression or sharp twists of the plot with classical puppets, so Pojar brings in flexibly variable relief puppets or even drawn characters. It would be tricky to open up the head of a three-dimensional puppet to see what he is thinking, whereas a sketched, perhaps almost caricatured relief puppet allows this. Thus we are party to evil notions of various acts of aggression or the disposal of fellow human beings, as conjured up in the minds of people seized by rage which, like the multiple impact of billiard balls, intensifies in Billiards, or we follow the drifting thoughts of members of the audience during a tedious lecture (Orator). Using drawn animation, the film Antidarwin presents the lightning-quick development of an earthworm into a man who becomes the constant victim of permanent historical feuds, thus he opts for regression and only just manages to wriggle back into the earth in time, now in his original wormy form. In Balablok Pojar makes do with geometric shapes to treat this theme: a sphere (“ball-”) and an ashlar (“-block”) are laying waste to each other, but when it seems that one of them has victory within its grasp, a pyramid appears… 

Let’s turn back for a moment, since this line of Pojar’s work was introduced by a little masterpiece, a 15-minute puppet film entitled The Lion and the Song (Lev a písnička, 1959), a parable about the relentless voice of the artist and the immortality of art yet, on a more intimate level, it is also a testimony of the strength of human goodness and honesty. To begin with, we have that wonderful metaphor: after a long trek in the desert, a harlequin arrives at an oasis but is then swallowed by a lion, together with his harmonica. The latter remains in his stomach, however, and plays a tune with the lion’s every step, so the animals hear him coming and run away; the lion dies of hunger. At the end of the story, another harlequin comes along, extracts the harmonica from the lion’s white skeleton and plays on… Or is the representation more important? A myriad poetic miniatures, evocative atmosphere, persuasive intimacy and monumentalisation of plot, heroes and environment – all is arched over into a unique form: the gentle fairytale motif of the harlequin’s friendship with the animals who come to listen to his music and his stories; the graceful  springs of the antelopes, the agility of the lizards, the clumsiness of the young, long-eared beasts of prey, the harlequin’s illusory dance with his beloved, whose form he conjures up for his bestial audience from twisted coloured scarves; the ruins of overgrown Classical columns and, viewed from below, the body of the enormous lion hurtling towards us who, in a fit of acute hunger, jumps from column to column, his dark profile at the top of one of them silhouetted against the tropical night sky filled with bright shooting stars – here, Pojar, still in his mid-thirties, created a forceful film poem, compelling not only for its great import, but also with every passing moment. 

It doesn’t happen very often that someone watching an animated film is affected emotionally by what he sees, that he is overcome by profound sentiments at the fortunes or misfortunes of puppets or drawn characters, as in the case of Pojar’s masterworks. One can only regret the fact that even major little pieces such as these are falling into oblivion and are appreciated only by a handful of connoisseurs or casual visitors to film clubs’ occasional animation programmes. When all is said and done, if one part of Pojar’s film oeuvre cannot escape such injustice, there is, however, a second, equally comprehensive branch, regarded almost as part of the Czechs’ national cultural heritage, in the true sense – these films live on in people’s awareness, and they are familiar even to those who have never seen them. Pojar’s series such as Dášenka (1977-1979)  or The Garden (Zahrada, 1974- 1976) are household titles, but the undisputed leader of this group is a collection of eleven films brought together in a free cycle known as Come Sir Let Us Play (Pojďte, pane, budeme si hrát, 1965-1973).

Pojar conceived Čapek’s tenderly intimate introduction to puppy Dášenka’s world as a document tracing the first few months of her life, combined with animated tales which endeavour to initiate Dášenka (and ourselves) into the mysteries of the canine world. We are told about dog fairies, we discover how fox terriers came to have dark patches on their coats, and why terriers love to dig so much. Here, as in the film The Garden, based loosely on Trnka’s book of the same name, we are showered with humorous and poetic images, imaginary follies and absurd situations, silly micro-stories, pranks and games, whose sole aim, it seems, is to offer both young and adult audiences a moment of pure joy and the chance for a bit of daydreaming. Somewhere down below, however, waiting quietly for its “revelation”, is the call for courage, willingness, benevolence towards others’ weaknesses, recognition of loyal friendship, consideration for our neighbours and the amicable solution of conflicts.

Films conceived in several parts certainly serve to aid the viewer’s memory, yet series in themselves can hardly guarantee strong artistic impact. The latter is assured if the work resonates with the profound emotions of man (in this case, the viewer), and with the intuitive certainty that one finds support in reliable values which will, once and for all, remain true and unshakeable. Have you ever seen young men around the age of thirty, in spontaneous fits of laughter, their whole bodies convulsed? These men had gone to the video store and brought back the film The Bears (Medvídci) – as the last of the three series mentioned above is affectionately known – in order to settle down to enjoy the hilarious antics that had made them laugh as children. They didn’t go for Fik the Maxi-Dog or Bob and Bobek, Rabbits from a Hat, series which had once so reliably also drawn them to the television set. It was as if they sensed that, everywhere else, it was more a case of creating (if successfully) a pretend childhood, whilst, in The Bears, something authentic was “going on”, it contained some kind of direct record of the intellectual and emotional processes which a person undergoes at an early age, and they felt that these little films had the power to allow him to step once more into the river he had left years ago. The first time audiences were given an opportunity to try this out was when Pojar presented his two kittens, tireless rogues who want artist Honza to play with them, to paint furniture and a television for them, to feed them and to send them off to cat school: (The Word of the Cats / Kočičí slovo, 1960, Drawing for the Cats / Malování pro kočku, 1960, School for the Cats / Kočičí škola, 1961). A live actor (the artist) moves about in a three-dimensional space while the kittens are two-dimensional sketches, yet neither side remains passive to the other. The enchanting movement gags and gentle humour of the spectacle flow naturally from the two distinct approaches to reality – the artist mixes his white paint and the kittens lap it up, since they see it as “milk”; the school teacher tries to make the kittens understand that there are two noughts on the blackboard, but they recognise a pair of glasses or a bicycle; Honza paints a parrot and the furry creatures gobble it up, thinking that it’s a decorated cake... 

And the two little bears? They see the world around them through the eyes of a child! Thus there is no need to get them involved in convoluted stories, to think up colourful scenarios with witty punch lines. When they play together on a trip to a lake (How The Bears Went Swimming / Jak jeli k vodě), when they decide to go into the woods to look for dwarfs (Keep Your Hats Please / Držte si klobouk) or when the smaller of them believes a baked fish to be an enchanted princess (You Don’t Sniff Round Princesses / K princeznám se nečuchá), it isn’t obvious that an adult has intervened in their adventures, if only nudging them with a finger to “suitably” set them on the right track. Every step the bears take is an adventure, everything is an excuse for games and wild fantasising, and, round every corner, there’s always some great mystery or surprise in store. Just give them a slight prod and they magic up a story in which logic and the laws of reality don’t really get a look in; what’s important for them are the rules of the game, which they think up themselves. 

The bear films have no setting, just a plain, monochrome background, with individual objects appearing and disappearing, as and when the bear buddies require them. They, themselves, are in relief, however, art director Miroslav Štěpánek decided not to fix their heads and legs to their shaggy bodies securely, thus he is able to freely rearrange them according to the situation. And what’s more: if a bear extends its neck or stretches out its paw, one segment morphs into another in front of the camera, or its neck or limb can be extended at will, to the length of the arm of a crane, for example. But that’s not all, by any means: at play, the bears keep changing into something at every opportunity – a car, boat, palm tree, engine, a wolf, a knight’s horse, an Indian, a little black boy… only the stripes from their T-shirts and their fluffy fur reassure us that they haven’t got lost in their new incarnations, that it’s still them inside.

Not that The Bears is anything more than a chain of playful episodes, an association of linked poetic ideas. Nowhere does Pojar try to pull a fast one on his audience in order that they might remember some piece of wisdom or code of decent behaviour. The little bear is conned by the big bear many times, yet Pojar doesn’t punish the mischief-maker, and even makes him agreeable to us. But we always intuitively recognise the heartening principles in the films of Břetislav Pojar on which his work is firmly based – that, alongside human cunning there is also human goodness and selflessness, that an obliging and trusting nature is not an expression of stupidity, but of noblemindedness, and that, with every new day, it’s worth approaching others to try and have some good old fun and games with friends.

Zdena Škapová


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