A Flexible Character

A Flexible Character

The Protectorate-era phantom with springs on his feet obtained his first visual form which was soon to become well-known, in the animated film Pérák and the SS in 1946. Jiří Trnka dressed a smiling chimneysweep into a tight black outfit and, together with Jiří Brdečka, bestowed the elegance of a slapstick rascal on him. Pérák provoked the invaders with his dexterity that helped him to free his fellow citizens from Nazi prisons.

He did not take part in the big purge of national life that started during the May Uprising and focused on catching and punishing Nazi criminals and their Czech collaborators. He came back after the events of February 1948 though, when communist ideologists tried to legitimize political purges as a continuation of the fight against traitors of the nation. When Pérák appeared in a series of the Haló nedělní noviny newspaper, he was dressed the same as Trnka and Brdečka’s diabolical phantom but, unlike them, had a politically more defined agenda.

Stories about a spectre with springs on his feet who went around Protectorate-era Prague were probably first written down by Jan Weiss, an author of fantastic and psychological prose. In his short story The Springman (1943), he presented several assumptions concerning the phantom's origins: “One opinion has it that he is a serial killer, another one that he is a brilliant inventor; a paratrooper; a madman who has escaped from a mental institution. He has been fleeing from the police with huge bounds for several days already. They are right behind him, his pursuers’ arms stretch towards him – when suddenly – a leap – and the Springman is gone!” [1]. The story, first published as late as 1961, is not a mere news report from the Protectorate; it is a story of the origins of one rumour that deftly makes use of the journalistic style. The text is also a detailed psychological study of an enterprising citizen and, with an unexpected twist towards the end, it surprises the reader.

The author's friend, a doctor at a mental institution finds the Springman among the inmates: a skinny beanpole in torn-up slippers who is about to jump over the Earth though jumping over the Moon does not interest him since he considers our natural satellite to be a mere optical illusion. It is his life’s aim to leap into the abyss of the matter: “On one single poppy seed, I shall learn to jump into the abyss of the matter! Leaps a thousandth, a millionth, trillionth of a millimetre long! A leap from a proton onto an electron! What lengths! What depths!” [2].

 

A frame from the animated film Pérák and the SS. ČSFÚ, 1946. Directed and scripted by: Jiří Brdečka and Jiří Trnka. Art: Jiří Trnka. Music: Jan Rychlík. The Protectorate era Prague backdrop consists of photos of real houses, streets and bridges. The character of an ungraspable troublemaker is personated by a young chimneysweep.

 

At the time Weiss’s short story was published, Pérák had not, for a long time been just an amorphic character that obtained certain features in the mind of the narrator and listeners only. If we put aside children’s illustrations to nursery rhymes that, according to Weiss, had been sent around under the desks at Protectorate schools, Pérák was given his first visual form in the animated film Pérák and the SS by Jiří Trnka and Jiří Brdečka in 1946. Elegant in a Charlie Chaplin way, the hero, whose pursuers would end up totally exhausted, was not a stubborn warrior mercilessly crushing his foes. However he did take a firm stand in crucial moments when he could have stayed in the safety of his shelter behind the chimney.

 

A frame from the animated film Pérák and the SS (1946). According to the credits, as well as the list of Czechoslovak documentary and animated films from 1922 to 1957 made by Jiří Havelka in 1959, it was the prose writer and playwright Ota Šafránek who stood behind the idea for the script; but the film itself is rather a felicitous combination of Trnka and Brdeček’s sense of humour.

 

A frame from the animated film Pérák and the SS (1946). The chimneysweep becomes a masked phantom after he has incidentally witnessed an informant’s despicable activities. He then exchanges his comfortable stance of an uninvolved observer hidden behind chimneys for a provocative gesture: Pérák gets hold of an SS flag and, using it as a bullfighter uses his red cloth to provoke the bull, utterly enrages the informant and the invaders.

 

An illustration from a catalogue (Katalog kresleného filmu studia Bratři v triku, 1962). The chimneysweep procures his legendary springs from a sofa on which a pair of lovers had been making out. Jiří Trnka created the elegant young man with a moustache after his fellow filmmaker Jiří Brdečka.

 

Pérák and the SS was screened, together with others of Trnka’s films, at the first post-war Cannes film festival where it drew a lot of attention. The same can of course be said about Czechoslovakia where the process of getting even with Protectorate officials and collaborators was under way: Nazi criminals were convicted and imprisoned or executed and ethnic Germans and Hungarians were driven out of the republic.

 

A frame from the animated film Pérák and the SS (1946). Pérák’s monocular vision was presented by Trnka, with simple elegance, in the form of a mask created by the chimneysweep out of his own sock with holes. Pérák’s eye is a lens viewing the society divided under the pressure of the Nazi terror into good patriots and traitors.

 

The great purge of the national life went on after the February events when the Communist Party took over the power. While action committees exerted pressure not only on opponents of the regime but on undecided citizens as well, various magazines kept providing their readers with a motley mixture of anecdotes, crosswords, advertising illustrations and stories about progressive forces of the whole world becoming brothers. The press, in the hand of the Communists, created the image of continuous development and legitimized the unscrupulous crackdown on political opponents, claiming that it was the completion of previously approved tendencies that had been left unfinished right after the war due to the activities of the enemies of Socialism (helped by former Nazi policies supporters). This illusion was also being spread by Pérák’s Further Adventures (Pérákovy další osudy) that were drawn, from April 1948, by the caricaturist Vladimír Dvořák for Haló noviny, a Sunday supplement of Rudé právo (Red Law) which was the name of a newspaper run by the Communist Party.

 

Pérák’s Further Adventures. Drawings: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948, no. 13. The fifteen- episode-long series features the destruction of the comical choleric character from a silent slapstick. Once he started talking it was clear that the troublemaker had been replaced by an obedient executor of the Party’s orders.

 

The first six episodes of Pérák’s Further Adventures went back to the Protectorate period, and in the visual style clearly drew on Trnka and Brdeček’s art of their animated films. Readers of Haló noviny could once again meet an informant who was this time motivated by the prospect of profit rather than by a fanatical allegiance to the Fűhrer. The traitor wanted to get the nice flat, paintings and the wife of a typographer called Jan Přímý (John Forthright). Pérák got wind of his intentions though, and thwarted them. He also helped the detained members of the Resistance, and during the May Uprising he stood on a barricade, side by side with the others, wielding a panzerfaust.

 

Pérák's Further Adventures. Drawing: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948, no. 13. Details of the first part of the episode.

 

AAlthough this new Perák wore the same outfit as his predecessor, his character had changed substantially: the new phantom spoke! He spoke through printed text only, but this fact made him much different from the silent slapstick rascal. His ridiculing gestures were replaced by the “Death to fascists!” slogan and his nimble dodges by premeditated tactics of guerrilla warfare. Pérák’s career did not end with the defeat of the Nazis. In the post-February engagement, Pérák once and for all put aside his costume of a masked hero and became a class-conscious citizen directly involved in the fight against the opponents of the Communist Party.

 

Pérák's Further Adventures. Drawing: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948, no. 19. Episode 7 of Pérák's Further Adventures is introduced by a statement which implies that the post-war division of society into classes was in the people’s interest: “We, in fact, begin the second part of our narration. In early May, Pérák took off his uniform and became a common man – a Czech working man with all the worries and joys of a member of a liberated nation. But did Pérák really cease to exist? Did everything we had expected and promised ourselves materialize in May 1945? While Pérák took off his mask, others put it on. Enemies of May events did not give up their fight, this time not against Springmen but against the Czech nation, against its happiness, against peace for everybody.”

 

A traitor called fittingly, Pomej (Slop). became the central character of the story. He started telling his fellow citizens about his heroic deeds during the war but was exposed by typesetter Jan Přímý, a former Gestapo agent and member of a purgatory committee. Mr Pomej sought protection against investigation at the headquarters of the Czech National Social Party which was a staunch opponent of Communist policies, and therefore under attack from the Communist press. Given the fact that National Socialists had been behind the February 1948 resignation of democratic ministers, they were marked as a nest of anti-progress villains that were to be crushed.

 

Pérák's Further Adventures. Drawing: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948, no. 19. Details of episode 7 of the story.

 

The Third Republic is depicted in Pérák's Further Adventures as an unfinished project of a nationwide consensus which, due to the disruptive influence of quarrelling between political parties, became a playground for former Nazis. They found their way into the state administration with the goal of reversing all progressive changes, especially the wholesale nationalization of a great bulk of industry and the banking sector.

 

Pérák's Further Adventures. Drawing: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948, Details of episode 8.

 

Pérákovy další osudy. Kresba: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948.

 

Pérákovy další osudy. Kresba: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948.

 

The last three episodes did not have one whole page at their disposal any more. The story shared the page with a crossword, and the plot, consisting of a conspiracy against the state orchestrated together by the National Socialists and the U.S. Secret Services, was soon to be concluded. Once the opposition had been defeated, Pérák, not longer wearing his mask, returned to his original profession.

 

Pérák's Further Adventures. Drawing: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948, Details of the last episode.

 

The post-war-Pérák’s departure from the scene was a political statement, as well as a completion of a prolonged tendency to tame the undisciplined character by burdening him with the weight of historical responsibility. It is noteworthy that Pérák retained the original features of a young chimneysweep. However, it in no way changes the fact that instead of the ebullient rascal a character broken by circumstances left the scene, a character condemned to a role not determined by his nature but by the Party’s directives.

 

Pérákovy další osudy. Kresba: Vladimír Dvořák. Haló noviny, 1948.

 

[1] Jan Weiss: Pérový muž. Written Na Kozinci 21 July 1943. The text was published for the first time in the book Bianka Braselli, dáma se dvěma hlavami in 1961.

[2] Ibidem.

 

In 2014, a documentary programme Character, was created for ArtyčokTV. It focuses on the ways Pérák’s personality was formed at first by the need to cope with the traumatic experience of the occupation, then by a political order, and eventually by the desire of certain young independent authors to revive this mysterious character as a purely Czech superman with a peculiar name.