When I told my friends I was planning on interviewing the Czech animator Zdenêk Miler, they were mainly astonished. My young chauffeur in Prague sat for almost an hour next to the animator until someone brought examples of Miler's most famous cartoon character, Mole (Krtek). Astonished, he inquired "Are you the creator of Mole?" and rushed to ask for an autograph. Also in Finland, most under 40-year-olds remember the round, black and red-nosed character of the inventive Mole either from television or numerous children's books. In the 1970s, Mole glued the little viewers in front of the TV set in early evenings, nowadays the Mole is living its renaissance as the super markets have started selling the videos low-priced. In the Czech Republic, the Mole is already digitalised on DVD.
Zdenêk Miler says he became an animator partly by accident thanks to the Nazis. As a young student, Miler took part in one of the occupied Czech Republic's best-known episodes, the violent protests following the funeral of the young student Jan Opletal shot by the police. As a consequence, German soldiers stormed the student apartments in Prague and arrested hundreds of people randomly on the 17th of November, 1939. The day has been celebrated as the international students' day.
Miler himself did not end up in concentration camps, but as the institutions of higher education were closed in Prague, Miler, who dreamt of being a painter ended up as an animator in a studio in Zlín. Having returned to Prague after the war, Miler still dreamt of painting but financial pressure made him a member of the famous animation group Trick Brothers (BratÍi v triku). In the guidance of Czech animation legend JiÍi Trinka, Miler went into creating animated creatures, and his first own animation About a Millionaire Who Stole the Sun (1948) was the first Czech film to win an award at the international film festival in Venice.
Miler narrates a fascinating story about the birth of the Mole. He was given a topic describing industrial fabric production. "I didn't like the idea, it was too difficult for children; machines don't interest them." Inspired by Disney animations, Miler was interested in using animal characters. However, a suitable character was invented only after Miler went for a walk in the forest to think of the subject and fell over a mole-hill. In the first Mole - How the Mole Got His Trousers (1957) - small animal friends instead of machines make trousers for the resourceful mole.
It took two years to make the first mole animation, "but it was worth it", says Miler. The Mole became an instant hit, and a West German TV company guaranteed its future by ordering ten more Mole animations. Altogether, there were 50 Mole animations. In them, the Mole usually comes across - like a child - odd objects and situations, which it solves and learns to utilize thanks to its resourcefulness. An umbrella, transistor radio, a telephone and a bulldozer destroying nature are typical oddities in the world of the Mole. The Mole's characteristic benevolence reaches everything, not even a crow who steals the Christmas tree decorations can make him mad.
Working with the Germans guaranteed Miler not only an economic shield but also a privileged position in the film circles of communist Czechoslovakia. The creator of the Mole films which poured a lot of Western money into the country was not pressured politically; but Miler had free hands unlike most of his colleagues. "I didn't have problems, children's films are a taboo to communists at any rate. The only time I was afraid was with the Mole as a Painter (1972) episode. There, the Mole trips over a jar of paint and gets stained red." Some film makers turned to children's movies on purpose. That gave them much more freedom than directing movies for adults. "Although this isn't true when it comes to animations, for animation is about technique that you can't learn overnight, it requires talent and years of practice."
Miler says that the question of how it was possible for Mole to be so loved on both sides of the Iron Curtain can be answered best by the viewers themselves. His aim was only to offer children positive emotions that they might not have gotten from their parents or TV. For this reason, he did not like the Disney animations for a long time, "They became brutal and violent, after Disney died". Disney's dominating position in the market also bothers Miler, whose promising marketing on the Mole stumbled over Disney's big money commercials in the USA.
Nevertheless, Miler has learned something from the Americans: there are Mole products of all kinds nowadays, from puzzles to dolls and wall calendars. And there is more to come. Miler proudly shows his latest invention, the Mole towel. His dream is to make a whole linen range with the Mole, "so the children can sleep in an entire Mole field with the Mole and all his friends". Miler hopes to make one more animation film during his retirement, but otherwise he focuses his energy on Mole picture books that almost alone sustain the somewhat big Albatros publishing house.
The Mole animations were produced in Czechoslovakia at a time when the grip of the communist government on the citizens was at its tightest. Today, the Mole still seems blissfully ignorant of the ideological fight, and looking for political meanings in the animations feels sacrilegious. However, the basic themes of the Mole seem to progress the most valued virtues of the communist society. Peace and solidarity among all animals and even plants rule in the world of the Mole. Features that cause disorder can be removed or made useful with the resourcefulness and rationality the Mole has. If the world is not the best possible, it can be made that way, was the message the Mole and the Eastern Block countries sent to the west. A similar, peaceful utopia is present in another gift from the communist society to the world's children, namely the Sandman who was born in 1959 in DDR. Thankfully, both still belong to the program in Finnish's TV2's Pikku Kakkonen.
This Year in Karlsbad
Cinema is still a highly valued art form in the Czech Republic. Large foreign productions filmed in Prague and Barradow studios bring capital and professionalism to the country. This summer, eight international movies are filmed in Prague. More productions would have liked to come here, but the resources are limited. Most often the film makers are after naturally historical authenticity, for instance movies that happen in 18th century Paris. Commercials made with big money add their own aspect.
The Czech are proud of the film festival in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad in German), 120 kilometres west from Prague. The festival has become an institution which ranks in on the same level with Berlin, Cannes and Venice in international festival listings. The event, which has been organised in Moscow every other year after the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, was down for years, but it has grown rapidly in the past few years. Especially the new, respected categories of fiction and documentary films have taken care of this.
This year, the jury led by Abbas Kiarostami gave the main awards to Brazil (Andrucha Waddington's Me You Them (Eu tu eles)) and Poland (Big Animal, Duze zwierze). Duze zwierze is directed by Jerzy Stuhr, known for acting in Kieslowski's films, and it is based on Kieslowski's early script. In the film, the big animal is a camel that the circus forgets to a small Polish town, and that mixes up the middle class life of the place. The main awards in the documentary category went to Swedish Karin Wegsjön's Del av den värld som tillhör dig and Lars-Lennart Forsberg's Min mamma hade fjorton barn.
Seven Songs from the Tundra by Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio has been this year's steady Finnish favourite in international film festivals. In Karlovy Vary, the film comprised of short stories and about the history of Nenets was placed in the category of Eastern European films, which is perhaps the most interesting category the festival has to offer to a western viewer. New Russian, Polish and Middle Asian film is practically impossible to see anywhere else.