The Deadly Invention (Karel Zeman, 1958)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Deadly Invention.

criterion logoCalled “the Czech Méliès” and “the Walt Disney of Czechoslovakia,” Karel Zeman created worlds of fantasy that seemed to pre-date cinema’s invention.  His masterpiece, The Deadly Invention, loosely adapts Jules Verne’s Facing the Flag, bringing to life the etched illustrations of Verne artists like Edouard Riou and Leon Bennett.  Mixing real actors and sets with stop-motion animation, cut-outs, mechanical props, and other visual effects, Zeman produces a monochromatic world of steampunk imagination that transcends notions of reality and unreality at the same time.  A forgotten classic in science fiction cinema, Zeman’s 1958 version is presented here, along with the 1961 American version of its release, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Isolated score by Zdenek Liška
  • Introductions by filmmakers Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton
  • The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, the 1961 American reworking of the original film, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Inspiration, Zeman’s 10-minute stop-motion short featuring blown glass figures
  • The Magical World of Karel Zeman, Zdenek Rozkopal’s 1962 documentary on Zeman
  • The Special Effects of Karel Zeman, a 1980 documentary on Zeman’s ingenious techniques
  • Video tour of the Karel Zeman Museum with museum director Jakub Matejka and a video essay from the museum on the making of The Deadly Invention featuring Zeman’s daughter Ludmila Zemanová
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by film archivist and Jules Verne Scholar Brian Taves and journalist Andrew Osmond

Given his distinctive and creative use of animation and special effects, it’s astounding that Czech artist Karel Zeman is not more widely celebrated, or even better known within film history.  Trained in a French advertising school in the 1920s, Zeman then returned to Czechoslovakia, first working in the ad departments of various Czech companies and then making animated shorts and features in a Czech animation studio.  The filmmaker’s legacy largely rests in a series of films made between 1955 and 1970 wherein he merged live action footage with various animation techniques.  Frequently using the works of Jules Verne as his source material and inspiration, Zeman employed styles and designs that offered a decidedly primitive appearance.  Many of these films mimic in their animation the appearance and texture of etched drawings, paper dolls, and two-dimensional puppets, earning Zeman the title of being the “Czech Méliès.”

No film better exemplifies Zeman’s creativity, his ability to combine live action and animation, or his presentation of an artistic style that feels both entirely consistent throughout the work and historically accurate to its subject matter than The Deadly Invention (Vylánez zkázy).  Based primarily on Jules Verne’s Facing the Flag, The Deadly Invention tells the story of an inventor, Professor Roch (Arnošt Navrátil), who is abducted by Count Artigas (Miloslav Holub) and his band of pirates led by Captain Spade (František Šlégr).  On Artigas’s isolated refuge, Back-cup Island, Roch is easily convinced to continue his research, while Artigas plots to construct a doomsday weapon with the help of his engineer, Serko (Václav Kyzlink).  Simon Hart (Lubor Tokoš), the inventor’s captured assistant held prisoner by Artigas in an isolated shack, works to foil the pirates’ plot, reveal their sinister plans to Roch, and save Jana (Jana Zatloukalová), a beautiful young woman saved by Artigas after his crew secretly sunk and pillaged her ship.  In doing so, The Deadly Invention offers a wondrous array of steampunk mechanica and thrilling underwater adventure sequences unlike any otherwise seen.

The Deadly Invention may not win any praises for its characterizations or its subtext, but Zeman’s primary focus was on creating a cohesive fantasy world, not on motivating his actors’ performances – “My heroes were not allowed even to sneeze or scratch their heads; they had to adapt themselves completely to their unreal surroundings.”  It is Zeman’s world of ornate machinery, deep sea creatures, and illustrated environments that is the primary character of The Deadly Invention, a world entirely faithful to the books of Jules Verne and the etched illustrations of artists like Edouard Riou and Leon Bennett.  For the filmmaker, there was no better way to tell Verne’s stories than to faithfully draw on the visual world already established in Verne’s volumes.  As a result, The Deadly Invention tantalizes not merely because of Zeman’s singular style.  The film, with its in-camera tricks of perspective and design and its primitive effects in stop-motion and superimposition, evokes the very origins of cinema and the fantastic realms of Georges Méliès, and then goes even farther, employing the visuals of the book’s lined drawings to conjure forth the texture of the printing press and the earliest days of mechanical reproduction.  Technology, once fantastic in Verne’s day and anachronistic by Zeman’s time, stands at the forefront of The Deadly Invention, both in content and in form.  This merger is expertly done and exposes the heady origins of modernity through Verne’s story and through the film’s plastics.  While the steampunk machinery of The Deadly Invention may fetishize technology as a product of personal and singular efforts, its world is cast as fantasy portrayed on the stamped pages of mass produced literature and elaborates on the nature of film itself as a modern art form.  Seeing all those spoked wheels, spinning propellers, and steamer sidewheels during the opening sequences of The Deadly Invention can’t help but elicit thoughts of film reels and cinema, and a later appearance of a fantastical magic lantern (complete with gigantic Viewmaster reels) makes explicit the film’s relationship to cinema’s formative periods.

Jessica HischeThe Criterion Collection has previously included films in its library specifically for their contributions to movie effects, Jack Woods’ Equinox (1970) being the obvious example, and The Deadly Invention is clearly a celebration of cinematic invention worthy of a wacky “C” acknowledgment.  Zeman’s film would also make contributions to areas typically under-represented by the Collection – animation, science fiction, family/children’s cinema.  The Deadly Invention would also occupy a distinctly new place in the Collection as a great Czech film made decidedly outside the Czech New Wave.  Given Zeman’s faithful reproduction of the lined engravings featured in the original editions of Verne’s novels, it makes sense to draw on the idea of those leather bound, foil stamped editions we associate with classic literature.  And who better to complete a Criterion cover commission than Jessica Hische, designer for the Barnes & Noble Classics series?  Hische has a real knack for antiquated scripts and fonts, and identifies the project as her favourite in her career in design thus far.  Given the current layout of the Collection’s spines with those blocked sections for the logo and number, Hische’s book spines would compliment the existing format perfectly, and with room to elaborate thereupon.

Credits:  Both Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton are on the record as admirers of Zeman’s work and being unable to choose between the two, we’ve selected both to offer introductions to the film.  The remainder of the identified special features are all in existence and provide a good overview of Zeman’s artistry and genius.  Brian Taves is a Library of Congress film archivist, vice-president of the North American Jules Verne Society, and co-author of The Jules Verne Encyclopedia, making him eminently qualified to provide a booklet essay, while Andrew Osmond is the author of the BFI’s 100 Animated Features wherein he spotlights The Deadly Invention specifically. We’ll conclude this post with John Landis’s Trailers From Hell discussion on The Deadly Invention, just in case our word isn’t enough.

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