The Pied Piper arrives, a lone hooded figure on a nearby hillside. Wailing electric guitar distortion heralds his windward entry into the village. He demonstrates his musical magic before the unctuous king, who offers $1000 in exchange for purging the vermin outbreak. Hundreds of drowned rodents later, the town returns to its avarice and vice, but the king refuses to lighten his coffers for the savior.
In the original story, the piper waits for townspeople to go to church and then enchants the children into a cave from which only a single child escapes. That’s pretty grim, but Barta’s version has an even more dark and mythic tone. The piper marches by torchlight into the upper spires of the giant mechanical cathedral that dwarfs Hamelin. There he holds a whispered moonlight consultation with a deathlike statue of Jupiter who halts the flow of time with his primordial hourglass. The waking townspeople are greeted not by the sun, but by the vengeful notes of the piper, transforming them into rats and compelling them towards the same aquatic demise.
Giving the classical tale an anti-capitalist overtone is typical of Barta’s work, which is available on the DVD collection “Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness.” There is a harsh denouncement of consumer society in almost all his shorts (at 53 minutes, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is his longest), although it is often softened by his love for novelty and whimsy. Depending on your perspective, his work is not necessarily political in nature, with the focus usually geared towards the essential opposition of humanism and materialism. Greed, habit and conformity are always shown as destructive forces, a message which could be regarded as a critique of either American or Eastern Bloc societies.
The vice and wickedness sequence that launches the film does indeed harp for a little too long, but the film builds momentum. The story never quite catches up to the presentation, but it makes a good fairy tale frame for the amazing handcrafted woodwork. Everything from the slashed-up set design to the repugnant villagers exudes personality, coming out like a cross between “The Cabinet of Caligari” and the “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but with a startling originality and tactile quality of its own.
Another oddity that invites investigation is the untranslated pseudo-language that Barta employs. Dialogue is quite convincingly unnecessary for this tale (and would likely risk dispersing the delicate antiquated atmosphere) since the use of emotive mise-en-scene, exaggerated gestures and inflections and careful storyboarding guide our attention.
Considering that I was scared of the ex-Disney, G-rated “The Secret of NIMH” as a kid, I would recommend not putting this one in heavy rotation for the little tykes. Shots of bloody rat corpses, drowning rodents and a subplot with a heavily-implied rape-murder probably make that a no-brainer, but it’s really the merciless tone, unrelenting pessimism and unpleasant imagery that make this one potentially traumatizing.
The Ballad of the Green Wood – An experimental woodmation that plants the seeds of “Pied Piper.”
Club of the Abandoned – A tragicomic play acted out with broken manikins. One of Barta’s most intricate and famous shorts.
The Design – A blunt attack on mass production and utilitarian architecture using paper cutouts and drafting paper.
Disc Jockey – A mix of animation and cutouts, all of them circular, in the life of an unseen DJ. Unfairly maligned for its abstractness.
The Last Theft – A Guy Madden-esque live-action silent film about a jewel thief and vampires.
Riddles for a Candy – A silly shape-shifting riddler that doesn’t translate well, but twinkles with cuteness.
The Vanished World of Gloves – A compressed historical survey of cinema told by an enclave of gloves whose lost civilization is accidently excavated at a construction site. A personal favorite.
Much of Barta’s work was on my backlog for the Poor Little Animated Shorts series, but I’m glad I was able to dedicate a more detailed treatment just for him. Keep an eye out for two possible upcoming features by the great Czech master: “The Golem” and “In the Attic or Who Has a Birthday Today?”
Walrus Rating: 9.0