Release Date(s)1986 (August 29, 2023)
Studio(s)Kratky Film Praha/Studio Jiriho Trnky Praha (Deaf Crocodile/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
The Pied Piper (aka Krysař, more accurately translated as The Ratcatcher) is a stop-motion animated feature from the great Jiří Barta, ostensibly a retelling of the legends about The Pied Piper of Hamelin, but in reality it’s something much darker than even the Brothers Grimm might have imagined. Like his fellow Czechoslovakian animators Jiří Trnka and Jan Švankmajer, Barta is a visionary with a unique perspective on the world, and he put his own idiosyncratic stamp onto the film despite the fact that he wasn’t even the original director hired for the project. The Pied Piper was a co-production of the state-owned Krátký Film Praha, Studio Jirího Trnky Praha, and the German TV 2000 Film-und Fernsehproduktions, with the intentions of making something far more family-friendly. The script was by Krátký Film Praha executive Kamil Pixa, inspired by the novella Krysař by Viktor Dyk, and Pixa had already removed two previous directors over creative differences. Yet when Barta took over, he ended up with the freedom to completely re-imagine everything in a singular fashion—much to Pixa’s horror, as it turned out.
Barta’s Piper is anything but Pied, since he decided to return to the dark heart of Dyk’s novel, and that decision influenced the overall look of the film. The protagonist really is the Ratcatcher, not the Pied Piper, and appropriately enough most of the color has been drained out of the figure (and the rest of the film as well). He’s the personification of Death for the townspeople in the film, and his cloak is suitably dark. The people of the town are greedy and selfish, and when this mysterious stranger appears and offers a way to remove the rats that have plagued them, they refuse to hold up their end of the bargain. That’s where the film and the novel diverge the most sharply from traditional versions of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, because the Ratcatcher’s revenge is even more decisive—he doesn’t give them the opportunity to feel any regrets for their actions, turning the whole town into a complete wasteland instead.
Barta envisioned The Pied Piper as a fairy tale directed by Robert Wiene, borrowing the canted angles and forced perspectives of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to create a truly distinctive world for his characters to inhabit. It’s German Expressionism as filtered through the eyes of a Czech animator, and so it doesn’t quite look like any other film. There’s no discernible dialogue, just a nonsense language that’s not intended to be understood. The real language of these townspeople is money, and Barta visualizes that fact by showing literal coins flying out of their mouths while they speak. It’s a world filled with greed, exploitation, and lust. Even the rats are equally greedy, so nearly everyone in The Pied Piper deserves their fates (with one notable exception). Barta arguably pushes the concept a bit too far by offering the unfortunate stereotype of a Shylock, not necessarily a moneylender in this case, but rather the one responsible for minting the coins that everyone uses. That’s a minor misstep, though, and it doesn’t detract from what Barta accomplished with The Pied Piper. it’s a vivid reminder of just how extraordinary that Czech animation can be.
Cinematographers Vladimír Malík and Ivan Vit shot The Pied Piper on 35 mm film using spherical lenses at the full-frame Academy aperture of 1.37:1. This new 2023 restoration was a collaboration between Krátký Film Praha and Deaf Crocodile. The original 35 mm camera negative was scanned by Jan Vanek at Pragafilm, with picture and audio restoration work performed by Craig Rogers under the supervision of Dennis Bartok. The results are simply gorgeous. There’s no damage on display, but all of the original detail and film grain has been left intact. Thanks to the usual impeccable encoding by David Mackenzie at Fidelity in Motion, all of those details are reproduced perfectly, with no compression artifacts to mar them. There aren’t any bright colors to be seen here, because there were never any bright colors in The Pied Piper to begin with. The stylized color design emphasizes browns, tans golds, and dark blues, giving everything a quality that’s not quite monochromatic, but it’s not exactly desaturated, either. Regardless, it’s the right look for The Pied Piper, and Deaf Crocodile has knocked it out of the park once again with this restoration.
Audio is offered in 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. (Since The Pied Piper has no real dialogue, the subtitles are for the opening and closing titles only.) Everything sounds clean, with no noise and only limited distortion from the original recordings. The strikingly eerie score was by Michael Kocáb of the Czech New Wave band Pražský výběr, and it’s reproduced well here even in mono.
The Deaf Crocodile Films Blu-ray release of The Pied Piper is packaged in a clear amaray case that displays the haunting cityscape from the film on the reverse side of the insert, which is visible when the case is opened. It also includes a 12-page booklet with an essay by Irena Kovarova. There was a slipcover designed by Brian Level that was available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, but that was limited to 2,000 units and it’s already sold out. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
- Audio Commentary by Irena Kovarova and Peter James
- The Vanished World of Gloves (17:27)
- The Chronicle of Pied Piper (13:13)
- New Interview with Jiří Barta (51:39)
The commentary pairs Irena Kovarova, film programmer and founder of Comeback Company, with critic Peter Hames, author of The Czechoslovak New Wave. They cover Barta’s inspirations and the themes of The Pied Piper, as well as its production history, including both the development of the story and the making of the film. They see the Piper as being a symbol of fate, or even as a figure of Death, and they do feel that Ratcatcher is a more appropriate title for the film. They also discuss Barta’s career, exploring the ways that he has always combined different cinematic techniques in his work, and devote some time to Barta’s long-gestating production of The Golem. It’s a bit dry for a commentary track, but there’s plenty of tidbits here for anyone wanting to learn more about The Pied Piper.
The Vanished World of Gloves (aka Zaniklý svet rukavic) is a 1982 short film by Jiří Barta that perfectly demonstrates the inventive ways in which he expressed his themes. Barta has always been anything but a purist when it comes to the world of stop-motion animation, freely (even gleefully) mixing in live action and other elements at will. (He’s even been willing to explore CGI in films like Domecku Var!) The Vanished World of Gloves opens in live action, showing a construction crew digging up an old film reel along with some abandoned gloves. When the reel is spooled up, it provides a history of the cinema, divided into six different tableaus, with all of the parts performed by animated gloves. Barta uses this setup to explore everything from the silent era to science fiction like Godzilla and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (He even throws in an amusing homage to Un chien andalou along the way.) It’s a beautiful example of Barta’s endless creativity.
The Chronicle of Pied Piper (aka Kronika krysaře) is a vintage featurette about the making of The Pied Piper. It provides a somewhat sanitized look at the production, ignoring some of the behind-the-scenes difficulties, and focusing instead on the construction of the wooden puppets and the elaborate sets. It’s a priceless look at the work of some extraordinary artisans.
Finally, the New Interview with Jiří Barta is an online conversation between Barta and Deaf Crocodile’s Dennis Bartok. They cover a wide range of subjects including Barta’s family history, his early influences like Jiří Trnka, and various aspects of The Pied Piper, including the lack of comprehensible dialogue, the unique visuals, and the score. They also briefly discuss The Vanished World of Gloves. Barta’s responses in Czech are translated into English by an offscreen Irena Kovarova, so the rhythms of the interview can be a bit leisurely, but that couldn’t be helped. It’s still a great conversation with an incomparable artist.
It’s a fine slate of extras, and while the presence of The Chronicles of Pied Piper and a restored version of The Vanished World of Gloves would have been wonderful enough, it’s nice to get the added value of the interview and the commentary track as well. In any event, it’s the new restoration of The Pied Piper that’s the main selling point here, and Deaf Crocodile has done its usual stellar work in rescuing important films like this from obscurity. Highly recommended.
- Stephen Bjork