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The Forgotten: The Animated Adventures of Václav Bedrich

Václav Bedrich's series of animated mystery-adventures harkens back to an earlier age with wit and panache.
You never hear about the nice things Hitler did. Probably there are very good reasons for that. But one thing he did do, or cause to be done, was boost the production of animated films in Czechoslovakia in the 40s, to make up for the fact that Hollywood cartoons, very popular in Europe, were now understandably no longer available. After the war, the animation studios kept going, and a wave of brilliant movies in a variety of media swept the film festivals and even crept onto TV in the west.
Václav Bedrich began his directing career in 1950, as best we can judge from the patchy credits on the IMDb (several of the films I'm about to discuss are not listed there). In 1969 or 1970 he released the first of seven adventures made in the style of the adventure serials of the 1910s (i.e. Fantômas), but produced in cut-out animation form.
 
While several great animators of the era were able to bypass the censors by making allegorical, wordless films (like Jiří Trnka's famous 1965 parable The Hand, a good place to start if you're interested in this field), Bedrich does not seem to be doing this. And while his speechless films are quite funny, they're not out-and-out parody, more pastiche. But a pastiche that's quite happy to become its own thing, by virtue of the fact that, in the 1910s, adventure serials were never produced as cut-out animation...
 
It's interesting to see this technique used so elegantly. While Terry Gilliam's pieces for Monty Python have brilliant use of sound and timing, the actual movement in them isn't what you'd call refined: Gilliam even wrote a whole book, Animations of Mortality, explaining how to get away with producing animated films with hardly any animation in them. For Gilliam, the ideal cartoon would take place in a pitch-black coal cellar, or else involve tightly-bound characters propelled about from side to side on roller-skates.
Bedrich's figures (unnamed on screen, but apparently the evil genius is called Dr. Goad) have their own individual ways of moving, and are very lifelike, for the most part, in their ambulation and articulation. The director has fun with the amount of time it takes them to cross the screen in his retro-style, flat long shots, spoofing the slightly inflexible timing of early cinema, where the length of time the audience is required to look at something = the amount of time it takes an actor to do it. Imagine the willpower it took to put those chases together, two frames at a time, when everything we know about modern filmmaking suggests that we could cut away halfway through the action and not miss anything. And therein lies half the charm of these mysterious little yarns.
 
The music is by Luboš Fišer, who also scored Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. He plays it quite straight, his endlessly repetitive suspense music only becoming amusing in its dogged insistence on urgency even when not much is happening, quite slowly. True wit.
I've included four of what I'm told is a series of seven. The titles seem to be Deadly Fragrance (the first episode), Drowned Submarine (the fourth), Treasure in the Pyramid (the sixth) and Stolen Painting (the seventh). They don't lose anything in coherence from having missing installments, from what I can tell. But I can't be sure. It may be interesting to imagine whole new worlds of implied narrative convolution, character psychology and political subtext which would suddenly come to light if we could see the missing three chapters...
 
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The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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