A Jester’s Tale (1964) is a delightful and entertaining period piece that combines live action and animated engravings in an original and ingenious way. A farmer named Petr is happily ploughing his field when a group of soldiers press gang him into joining the king’s army. Petr’s independent and ironic attitude makes him completely unsuited to army life. As the army marches into battle in the Thirty Years’ War, Petr stumbles over rocks and is distracted by forget-me-nots.
In a characteristically humorous turn of events, our hero manages to break his rifle stand, and is forced to shoot from ground level, which serendipitously saves him and an ageing fellow soldier from the firing line. Things begin to look up as the pair find themselves the only survivors of the battle, gaily make off with a carriage full of loot, and even pick up a pretty peasant along the way. But when the three friends are surrounded by enemy soldiers once more, they decide to impersonate the king, his steward and his jester…
Those who are already connoisseurs of the sly humour and sheer inventiveness of Czechoslovak New Wave cinema will not be disappointed with this 1964 instalment, directed by Karel Zeman. The political liberalisation that took place in 1960s Czechoslovakia meant that filmmakers were blessed with an enviable cross between relative artistic freedom and central planning’s guaranteed funding and facilities. Directors of the time were particularly keen to make films about everyday life, previously a tricky subject: Socialist Realism prescribed films that glorified a heroic past or looked forward to an ideal future when Communism’s contemporary difficulties would be ironed out.
Films by documentary-influenced directors like Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer turned their lens on a contemporary setting, but even historical films like A Jester’s Tale had something to say about everyday life. Petr is a perfect example of an individualist who does everything he can to avoid the honourable roles that society attempts to impose on him, because he sees the hollow reality behind the hype.
Zeman makes a mockery of war by representing it through animation. There is something innately irreverent about taking static book illustrations and bringing them to life, and all the more when animation allows unlikely events, like the rank and file soldiers getting their heads blown off in unison. It will remind many viewers of the Monty Python animations by Terry Gilliam, who cites Zeman as one of his influences, along with Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk. Zeman stands out for his ability to combine live action and animation in the same frame, to the magical point where it’s hard to tell where the drawings end and reality begins.
In his engaging liner notes, Ian Haydn Smith tantalises us with descriptions of Zeman’s early shorts, including a popular series of satirical puppet films and Inspiration, a lyrical animation of glass. At just 81 minutes’ running time, A Jester’s Tale leaves some spare space on a DVD, so any of these shorts would have been a welcome addition to this release.