Jiri Barta and The Pied Piper

Czechoslovakian filmmaker Jiri Barta is at last finding wide recognition of his work outside his own country. Jeremy Clarke telephoned him in Prague.

Jiri Barta’s feature length puppet film The Pied Piper is now being distributed in Britain by the BFI. The film illustrates the legend of ‘The Pied Piper’ with a cast including sixteen carved walnut puppets and numerous realistic looking rats. It also has over 170 detailed sets.

The Pied Piper by Jiri Barta.

The Pied Piper was a prize winner at the Espinho Festival in 1986, shown out-of-competition at Annecy ‘87 and featured at the 1987 Bristol Animation Festival as part of the ‘Theatre of Eccentrics’ programme.

Jiri Barta was born in 1948 and studied at the Applied Arts and Crafts College in Prague.

Jeremy Clarke: The Pied Piper opens with close shots of an astrological clock which fascinated me, where did this come from?

Jiri Barta: It is an element of mediaeval philosophy, which is the basis of the story and an organic part of the whole thing. It is a story about the fate, the destiny of a town, or a city if you wish, or a society, and that is why I have used this symbolism.

JC: The story of The Pied Piper is based on an old myth, and although it may exist in various forms, the version I am familiar with is Browning’s poem, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, which has various elements that do not appear in your film, such as children, including a little lame boy who doesn’t make it into the mountainside into which the Pied Piper ultimately leads the other children. When you initially decided to make the film, did you start with another version of the story, or did you make a lot of changes to put your version on the screen?

JB: There is a Czech author who died a long time ago, Victor Dyk, and he wrote a novel called ‘Krysar’ (‘the Rat catcher’), which is this one precisely and is the version known in Czechoslovakia. The novel itself is in a more lyrical genre. Apart from which, of course, many versions are known, all based on the original twelfth century legend. I’ve familiarised myself with all of them, but in the end I decided on my own version which is a stylisation of all the different versions, a stylisation which makes the best use of animation technique. I’ve tried to capture the Germanic spirit, which is the spirit of the original legend.

JC: When you adapted it did you add all the grinding mechanisms and so on, or were they in one of the versions you found?

JB: No, they are entirely my own invention. But of course, they have an important place in the whole story as a sort of prelude to what is to come, namely the fatality of the story and the connection with time.

JC: There is a figure of death, or Father Time, who appears later on in the film with an hour glass.

JB: That’s Saturnos – Saturn.

JC: These mechanisms also struck me as being like automata, an element I associate very strongly with Eastern Europe.

JB: Well, it is a certain mechanism which puts the whole thing on rails and starts the story rolling. And as it turns out, a certain determining principle.

JC: Do you see it as a determining principle in a wider sense? Was the film trying to symbolise Czech society, or the way the world is generally, by means of this machinery?

JB: No, it it not conceived as a specifically Czech thing, it has a more universal validity, because certain human qualities such as greed cannot be confined to a particular society. They are universal, they exist everywhere in the world.

JC: It wasn’t my intention to suggest that Czechs are greedy or some such thing. There was another strange element in the film, the coat of arms above the town with the bell and the two rats on either side with hammers. I was intrigued – it seemed an interesting way to link the town with the greed and the rats.

JB: Yes, but of course the analogy between the rat society and the human society is not limited to the emblem, the coat of arms, it is a theme which runs throughout the film. There are certain scenes which are repeated exactly, like, for instance, the banquet in the council ball, where on the one hand you have the council stuffing themselves at the table and under the table the rat society are doing exactly the same.

JC: There were some very powerful images in that scene. Someone from the town splits a bull or cow’s head open and takes the blood in a large vat to the town council, who promptly drink it with great gusto.

JB: Except that the blood really turns into wine.

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