The Pied Piper

by Charlie Largent Jul 29, 2023

The Pied Piper
Deaf Crocodile
1989 / 53 Min. / 1.37:1
Starring Oldrich Kaiser, Jirí Lábus
Written by Kamil Pixa
Directed by Jiří Barta

In 1897’s Dracula, Bram Stoker warned of a plague in human form, and it was Renfield who sounded the alarm: “Rats, rats, rats! Hundreds, thousands, millions of them, and every one a life!” Pestilence rules in The Pied Piper of Hamelin too, but it’s a different kind of horror story with a different kind of bloodsucker.

Over the centuries the legend about the mysterious rat catcher has been modified to fit comfortably in children’s storybooks—and while the rats remain bloodthirsty scavengers, the piper’s ambiguous persona has evolved, whether in film, opera, or comic book. One thing about the enigmatic magician remains the same—though his coat of many colors suggests a jolly good fellow, his intentions are anything but. Even so, the piper’s peculiar hold on the public’s imagination has not wavered over the decades.

In 1933 Disney cast him as a fun-loving exterminator in a Silly Symphonies cartoon. In 1949 Porky Pig tangled with both rats and cats in Looney Tunes’s Paying the Piper. In the winter of 1957 NBC produced a prime time special starring Van Johnson as a singing, dancing piper. The network hyped the event as a “delightful musical” but the macabre atmosphere is inescapable; the piper makes his entrance in snake-like fashion by slithering down a tree and the show’s dialog—adapted from Robert Browning’s poem—seems engineered for nightmares: “Rats!/They fought the dogs and killed the cats/And bit the babies in the cradles.”

Other versions continued to swarm theaters and TV—Donovan starred in 1972’s The Pied Piper directed by Jacques Demy, and in 1985 Eric Idle played the part in an episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater. True to the medieval legend and its times, Demy’s version was possibly the darkest version of the tale yet. Czechoslovakian artist Jiří Barta would make it even darker.

Produced in Prague in 1986, The Pied Piper is a stop motion horror show told in an aggressively expressionist manner—the townspeople are a collection of grimacing manikins afflicted with permanent snarls and misshapen limbs while the architecture of Hamelin itself is as twisted as an ant colony. Working with Krátký Film Praha, the animation studio behind René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and Karel Zemen’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, Barta and his colleagues used a combination of Walnut wood and metal armatures to build their puppets and stained the surfaces with a coat of muted greys and greens. The same color scheme was employed throughout the production—even the sky is an oxidized eyesore. The result is a claustrophobic and nearly colorless world drained of all joy.

The screenplay by Kamil Pixa underscores that already oppressive atmosphere with nods to the soul-killing machinery that rules Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times. In Hamelin the machine has clearly triumphed; the town clock triggers the action of the film itself—at the flip of a switch, the streets spring to life.

Some life. The townspeople spend the days gorging themselves, haggling with customers and stockpiling the profits in cobwebbed vaults. The gluttony that plagues the villagers distracts them from another contagion—a scourge of rats has invaded, attacking the pantries, contaminating the closets, and burrowing into the bed chambers. In one brilliantly disgusting flourish, what appears to be an elegant fur coat reveals itself as a pack of nestling rodents.

Standing vigil over this gruesome spectacle is a hooded figure armed only with a flute—he resembles the Pied Piper of legend but with a difference, instead of a multi-colored cloak, this gloomy specter is dressed in the same faded colors of the villagers themselves. The stranger has a proposition for the town fathers—he’ll vanquish the rats for 1,000 pieces of silver. A bargain is made and the piper goes to work, leading the rats over an embankment where the rodents meet their fate in the waters below. But when the time comes to pay the piper, he’s met with ridicule—surely a perilous mistake to make with this particular spellbinder—he has a cure for human rats too.

All evidence to the contrary, Barta is not a complete cynic about the human condition. There are moments of beauty (one character is given a brief respite from the horror in a countryside idyll) and the film ends on a hopeful note when an infant is rescued from the piper’s cold-blooded revenge. But those brief episodes come too late to vanquish the sights and sounds of Barta’s masterly but merciless fairy tale.

Deaf Crocodile has released Barta’s mini-masterpiece on Blu ray with a very fine transfer and some well-produced extras including a new interview with Barta conducted by Deaf Crocodile’s Dennis Bartok (formerly of the American Cinematheque).

Other extras include The Vanished World Of Gloves, a restoration of a rare short film directed by Barta in 1982, and Chronicle Of The Pied Piper, a 13 minute documentary on the making The Pied Piper. There’s also a feature-length audio commentary from Czech film expert Irena Kovarova, and film critic & historian Peter Hames. Inside the disc’s keepcase is a booklet with an excellent new essay from Ms. Kovarova who examines the politics of making art in 20th Century Czechoslovakia.

You can pre-order the disc from Deaf Crocodile store here, and a specially commissioned poster by Dave McKean is available at the Deaf Crocodile store here.

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