Movie Reviews That'll Put Yer Eye Out, Kid!

Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness

Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness

Best known for his celebrated stop-motion adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Czech animator Jiri Barta and his films have remained largely unknown in the United States. Nevertheless, KimStim and Kino (as they have with the short works of fellow Czech animator Jan Svankmajer) have aimed to rectify this with the release of all eight Barta films on the DVD, Labyrinth of Darkness.

At first glance it is easy to see that Svankmajer has been an influence on Barta visually, and to an extent, thematically. However, after watching Barta's films it's just as easy to appreciate how vastly the style of animation and the overall aesthetic approach to filmmaking dramatically shifts. All eight films are remarkable, as the filmmaker employs a number of stunning animating/filmmaking techniques, each perfectly suited to their narrative. Rather than appearing inconsistent, however, it seems that Barta is simply comfortable exploring the medium and consistently uses it to great advantage.

As the shifts in visual style indicate, the storytelling is also equally varied, ranging from silent era-influenced vampiric horror (The Last Theft) to a whimsical sketch of cinema's history starring an ensemble of gloves (The Vanished World of Gloves). All eight films are wondrous and delightfully entertaining, but in addition to the two films I've just mentioned, The Club of the Laid Off, and Barta's The Pied Piper of Hamelin (boasting a miniature set that recalls both M.C. Escher and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) are truly spectacular.

The Club of the Laid Off tells the story of a family of discarded mannequins living in a dilapidated apartment, whose routine existence is infringed upon by an assemblage of "modern" mannequins that like to party, and come equipped with a television. It's a great short film reminiscent of Svankmajer, with superb animation and an atmosphere of decrepitude that is both palpable and exquisite. This clash between the past and the present, and the inevitable permutation of the two, is again explored in my favorite of Barta's films, The Last Thief.

In this film, a would-be thief sneaks into a mansion filled with furs and other valuable goodies, only to discover that the place is home to a family of vampires who turn the tables on the thief and, with fangs bared, steal what the thief values most. The Last Theft is an exceptional short film (probably the best short horror film I've ever seen) that uses monochromatic tinting and hand coloring techniques from the era of silent film, in addition to subtle animation to shade expressions and change mood. Gothic atmosphere saturates the film - the art direction is impeccable, it's beautifully photographed and the editing is truly exceptional. To be sure, this film alone makes the DVD worth checking out.

That being said, the DVD is lacking in terms of image quality. It's difficult to say how much, if any, restoration was performed, but several of the films look rather rough - The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Riddles For a Candy, and Disc Jockey being the noticeable exceptions. Furthermore, there are no extras, and given that so little is known about Jiri Barta and his films, some supplemental material would have been welcome. Still, the quality of the films surpass these drawbacks, making Labyrinth of Darkness required viewing for fans of animation, as well as viewers with an appreciation for filmmakers who continue to break through the boundaries of popular cinema.

* A Ballad About Green Wood
11 minutes, color, 1983
* The Club of the Laid Off
25 minutes, color, 1989
* The Design
6 minutes, color, , 1981
* Disc Jockey
10 minutes, color, 1980
* The Last Theft
* 21 minutes, color, 1987
* The Pied Piper of Hamelin
55 minutes, color, 1985
* Riddles For a Candy
8 minutes, color, 1978
* The Vanished World of Gloves
16 minutes, color, 1982

Related and Recommended DVDs:

Labyrinth of Darkness: Jiri Barta
Jan Svankmajer: The Ossuary and Other Tales
The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer
Conspirators of Pleasure
Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Quay Brothers

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