Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy)

Director: Karel Zeman
Screenplay: Karel Zeman (scenario by Frantisek Hrubín and Karel Zeman; dialogue by Milan Vácha; based on the novel by Jules Verne)
Stars: Lubor Tokoš (Simon Hart), Arnošt Navrátil (Professor Roch), František Šlégr (Pirate Captain), Miloslav Holub (Count Artigas), Václav Kyzlink (Serko), Jana Zatloukalová (Jane)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1958
Country: Czechoslovakia
Invention for Destruction Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Invention for Destruction

Karel Zeman’s Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy) is a genuine cinematic marvel, a masterpiece of ingenious visual realization in which the screen is transformed into a living, breathing Victorian picturebook. Zeman was a lifelong fan of the 19th-century science fiction and adventure novelist Jules Verne, whose writings about magnificent flying contraptions, underwater vessels, and journeys to the center of the earth was fuel for the imaginations of millions (Verne is second only to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie as the most translated author in the world). Zeman’s previous feature, Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do praveku), had been inspired by Verne’s writing, but only indirectly. Invention for Destruction, on the other hand, was Zeman’s attempt to truly bring Vernes’s writing to cinematic life via the woodcut and steel line engravings by Édouard Riou and Léon Benett, the latter of whom illustrated 25 of the 54 novels in Vernes’s Voyages Extraordinaires series. The film was a hit both commercially—it is still considered to be the most financially successful Czech film released in the West—and critically. It played at numerous film festivals, including the Brussels International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix, and it was praised in the pages of the preeminent French film journal Cahiers du cinéma by no less than André Bazin and future French New Wave director Alain Resnais, who named it one of the ten best films of the year.

Zeman and his co-scenarist, the poet and playwright Frantisek Hrubín, drew on a number of Verne’s novels, using a number of the characters and the general plotline from Facing the Flag (1896) while also pulling ideas and motifs from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Robur the Conqueror (1886). As the film’s U.S. release title, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, suggests, Invention for Destruction is a kind of one-stop homage to all things Verne—not just his fantastical Victorian-era inventions like impossible airships and deep-diving submarines, but also his concerns with technology and the dangers they might pose in the wrong hands. The plot of the film, which is recounted by an engineer named Simon Hart (Lubor Tokoš), involves the brilliant, but naïve Professor Roch (Arnošt Navrátil), who is kidnapped by the wealthy Count Artigas (Miloslav Holub). Count Artigas wants to enable Professor Roch to complete his research for a massive new and incredibly powerful invention that Roch imagines will be a help to humankind, but Artigas sees as a world-dominating new weapon.

Thus, the story hinges on control of a new technology that could either benefit or destroy humanity, an idea that had particular urgency in the increasing heat of the atomic age. Zeman’s film is hardly heavy-handed or didactic, though; rather, it is light and playful, joyous and funny in its evocation of various technologies that Verne had envisioned a century earlier. Invention for Destruction is filled with all kinds of glorious contraptions and modes of transport. One of the most notable is a massive submarine that Count Artigas uses as a weapon to sink ships, after which he employs a gang of surly pirates led by the Pirate Captain (František Šlégr) to plunder their riches. There is a funny-evocative underwater sequence in which the pirates travel to a recently sunk ship on underwater bicycles that still have the traditional bike bell on them. Much of the film transpires in Artigas’s secret lair, which is hidden inside a volcanic island and can only be accessed from underwater—a kind of pre-James Bond world of fantastical villainy.

The film finds its greatest achievement, though, in its unique visual presentation, which mimics the engraved line drawings that adorned Vernes’s novels. Zeman and his dedicated crew of craftsmen evokes this imagery in multiple ways, everything from painting lines on the sets and costumes, to printing certain scenes through lined filters. An animator by trade, Zeman pulls out all the stops, giving us puppetry, stop-motion animation, cut-out animation, and miniature effects. He moves us seamlessly between live action and animation and often combines the two modes, which gives the film an epic, expansive feel that in no way contradicts its quaint, old-school craft that would feel right at home in a silent Georges Méliès film from the turn of the century. Zeman’s use of matte-paintings, cutouts, staged backgrounds, and highly stylized sets gives the film the giddy sense of a dream, in which a book’s illustrations have magically come to life. It is an intoxicating concoction.

Invention for Destruction Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman Criterion Collection BoxsetInvention for Destruction is available as part of The Criterion Collection’s “Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman” boxset, which also includes Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962).
Aspect Ratio1.37:1 (all three films)
Audio
  • Czech Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (all three films)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    SupplementsJourney to the Beginning of Time
  • “Directed by Karel Zeman” featurette
  • “The Birth of a Film Legend” featurette
  • “Why Zeman Made This Film” featurette
  • “Where Was This Film Shot” featurette
  • “Special Effects Techniques” featurette
  • Restoration demonstration
  • U.S. theatrical version
  • Trailer

  • Invention for Destruction
  • Alternate U.S. opening (3:00)
  • “Making Magic (23:29)
  • Four early short films by Zeman: A Christmas Dream (1946), A Horseshoe for Luck (1946), Inspiration (1949), and King Lavra (1950)
  • “Why Zeman Made the Film” featurette
  • “Special Effects Techniques” featurette
  • “About the Restoration” featurette
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Trailer

  • The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
  • Film Adventurer Karel Zeman documentary
  • “Why Zeman Made the Film” featurette
  • “Cast” featurette
  • “Special Effects Techniques” featurette
  • “Karel Zeman The Legend Continues” featurette
  • “Karel Zeman and the World” featurette
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Museum Promo
  • Trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.96
    Release DateFebruary 25, 2020

    COMMENTS
    All three films in Criterion’s beautifully designed and executed Karl Zeman boxset, which features pop-up artwork for each film that is worth the price alone, has been digitally restored in 4K as part of “Restoring the World of Fantasy,” a joint project undertaken by the Karen Zeman Museum, the Czech Film Foundation, and Czech Television. According to the liner notes, all three films were scanned from their original 35mm camera negatives (Journey to the Beginning of Time also made use of a 35mm duplicate positive because parts of the negative were damaged beyond repair). The images are absolutely gorgeous and bear no traces of age or wear. Journey’s colors look a bit faded and muted, but that seems to be the original look of the film. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, on the other hand, is bright and bold, with a deeply saturated color palette. Invention for Destruction, the only one of the three in black-and-white, is also gorgeous, with the high-definition resolution drawing out the unique visual details that make the film appear as though it is an animated woodcut (all those thin, closely spaced horizontal lines must have been horrible in creating moiré effects in lower resolution video versions). The original monaural soundtrack for each film was mastered from the original 35mm sound negatives (with Journey once again making use of a 35mm duplicate positive) and sounds great.

    The supplements are quite extensive and are all but essential viewing if you are not fully familiar with Zeman’s story and his work. Each of the discs includes a series of short featurettes produced in 2015 for the Karel Zeman Museum that focuses on different aspects of the film: why Zeman made it, the special effects used, and how it was restored. Journey to the Beginning of Time also has a featurette about the locations where it was shot, while Baron Munchausen has one about the cast and two titled “Karel Zeman: The Legend Continues” and “Karel Zeman and the World,” as well as a short museum promo. Each of these featurettes runs between three and five minutes. The Journey disc also includes “The Birth of a Film Legend,” a 5-minute overview of Zeman’s life and career, a trailer, and the complete 1966 U.S. release version of the film, which differs quite substantially in the beginning and end because new footage of American kids (always with their backs to the camera) visiting an American museum was shot and edited in place of the opening footage in the original version (the transfer is not as good as the Czech version, but it still looks very good). The Invention for Destruction disc includes “Making Magic,” a fantastic 23-minute featurette in which special effects veterans Phil Tippett (Return of the Jedi, RoboCop) and Jim Aupperle (The Thing, Dreamscape) discuss what made Zeman’s work unique and innovative; four of Zeman’s short films—A Christmas Dream (1946), A Horseshoe for Luck (1946), Inspiration (1949), and King Lavra (1950); and the alternate opening credits sequence for the U.S. release version, where it was retitled The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. Finally, the Baron Munchausen disc includes Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (2015), a 100-minute biographical documentary that features interviews with many of Zeman’s collaborators as well as those who have been inspired by his work, including Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)



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