Czech stop-motion animation is some of the most artful and idiosyncratic in the world. Jan Švankmajer is probably the best-known filmmaker to come out of the Czech stop-motion film industry, but Deaf Crocodile has revived and restored a striking and unsettling first feature from another world-class animator, Jirí Barta, called The Pied Piper. This 1986 take on the oft-told tale of the rat-catching piper of Hamelin is more of a revenge-tinged ghost story for adults than a child-friendly fairy tale. The restoration is jaw-dropping and the disc is well supplemented for viewers who need to know more. Highly Recommended.
If Jirí Barta is not a household name to animation fans, that’s the fault of the marketplace much more than the filmmaker. It took more than two decades for Barta to gain the support to produce two stop-motion feature films, 1986’s The Pied Piper and 2009’s Toys in the Attic. He is reportedly at work on the third, a long-gestating version of the Golem of Prague story.
Barta’s feature debut, The Pied Piper is newly restored and released on Blu-ray by Deaf Crocodile and Comeback Company, and it is an utterly original, meticulously crafted, and grimly adult take on the classic folktale. Based specifically on Czech author Viktor Dyk’s 1915 retelling, the film casts a wary eye at the greed and cruelty of the townsfolk of Hamelin. An early sequence shows greedy merchants and stingy customers bartering over goods to the point it becomes grotesque and their faces grow gradually monstrous. A rat sneaks in to steal the goods and is swiftly and bloodily beaten to death by the people of the marketplace.
In the film’s first half, the rats gradually infest the money-mad town. They steal food, but they also steal coins and jewelry. One rat amusingly builds a nest of stolen pearl necklaces and bejeweled pendants and proceeds to guard the nest jealously. It’s tempting to cheer on the rats, if only because they get the better of the awful townsfolk.
Barta’s design of the town is full of odd angles that evoke the nightmarish perspectives of German expressionism (think The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). It’s bleakly rendered in textures of wood and rusted metal. Certain settings and images evoke medieval wood carvings, where the characters step out of and back into the relief. The characters themselves are wooden puppets with cubist features that don’t move with the fluidity of The Nightmare Before Christmas or the Laika films. The style is meant as a visual echo of the story’s Germanic origins, but it never feels overly studied and bristles with energy. The use of real rats for brief actions and taxidermied versions for more complex choreography also creates an interesting textural contrast with the hardness of the other elements in the frame.
In the film’s second half, the Piper shows up with the solution to the town’s rat infestation problem. He plays his tune and the hypnotized rats are possessed to follow him – to their doom. As anyone familiar with the story knows, the townsfolk quickly ignore their promise to pay the Piper for his rodent removal. In this film, the miserly town elders are rendered even more grotesquely than the commoners, with scraggly teeth and screechy voices. (The film features no discernible dialogue, although the characters talk to each other in a German-sounding melodic babble. Some of the town elders’ voices reminded me, for better or worse, of the Neimoidians from The Phantom Menace.)
Worse than stiffing the Piper, a few of the drunken town elders decide to have their way with Agnes, the Piper’s new love. The Blu-ray commentary includes an anecdote about how the film’s German co-producers were initially hoping to sell this film to television as a family Christmas program, but the inclusion of Agnes’ (mostly offscreen) rape and murder put an end to that abruptly. This plot point comes straight from Dyk’s writing, but admittedly it’s a bit frustrating to modern eyes that the story “fridges” Agnes to spur the Piper to his final revenge.
That revenge is also different from the best-known version of the Pied Piper story. This film’s take is a nice twist if you don’t already know it, so I’ll refrain from laying it out here. Barta ends the film on a quietly hopeful note that there is a better life beyond the avaricious confines of Hamelin, if the characters can manage to leave. Fans of Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers should really check this film out. It delves into similarly dark, imaginative places and dazzles with its ingenuity and grace.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Pied Piper comes calling to Blu-ray from Deaf Crocodile and OCN Distribution. The film is pressed on a BD-25 disc and is housed in a standard keepcase with double-sided cover art. A booklet is enclosed, including some stills and an essay by Irena Kovarova. Vinegar Syndrome’s limited edition slipcover has already sold out. The disc loads directly to the full-motion main menu.
Deaf Crocodile collaborated with the Czech studio Krátký Film on the restoration of this film and the end result is impeccable. This AVC-encoded 1080p pillarboxed 1.37:1 is completely free from damage, but it still has an organic, filmic texture. Colors are saturated within the intentionally drab palette selected by the filmmakers: a lot of grays, browns, and ambers. Detail is outstanding in both close-ups (where you can see every little rat whisker) and the wide shots with their multi-textured sets.
The Pied Piper is dominated by sound effects and the musical score by Michael Kocáb. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix sounds well-preserved and nicely balanced. The film does not have dialogue in a discernible language, but the characters do talk to each other. Some of the performances are a little grating to my taste, but they never distort or ring false in a technical sense. An optional English subtitle track is provided, but it only translates the Czech-language credits.
A welcome collection of supplements that illuminate a bit more about director Jirí Barta’s career and about the production of this film.
Audio Commentary by Irena Kovarova and Peter Hames - This pair of historian-curators cover a lot of background on this film, including its literary origins, the career of director Jirí Barta, the screenwriter-producer’s career as a secret policeman for the KGB, the composer’s blacklisting by the communist government, and much more!
The Vanished World of Gloves (HD, 17:27) - A newly restored 1982 short by Barta. It is a slightly twisted love letter to the cinema, using discarded gloves as the animated main characters in various vignettes. It starts with a Keystone Kops slapstick sequence and ends with a dystopian sci-fi scenario, with some pit stops in the realms of melodrama and decadent art. One surreal segment makes some nice askew visual references to the Luis Buñuel / Salvador Dalí collaboration, Un Chien Andalou.
Chronicle of the Pied Piper (HD, 13:13) - A 1985 behind-the-scenes documentary that shows a glimpse of the craftsmanship that went into building the sets and the wooden puppets for the film.
Interview with Jirí Barta (HD, 51:39) - A 2022 Zoom interview. Deaf Crocodile's Dennis Bartok asks the director about his career and particularly his work on the two films featured on this disc. Comeback Company’s Irena Kovarova remains offscreen but provides English translation for the director’s answers. This kind of translated interview always lacks a little something in momentum, but there are some good insights included.
One hesitates to throw around the word “masterpiece,” but Jirí Barta’s detailed designs and deft direction on The Pied Piper make it an unparalleled artistic triumph. Three cheers to Deaf Crocodile and their Kickstarter backers for completing the restoration on this astonishing stop-motion animated film and bringing it to the public. The accompanying short film, The Vanishing World of Gloves, is another underseen treasure. The whole package is a must own for animation fans but, even for your standard-issue cinephile, this disc comes Highly Recommended.