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Kino on Video presents

Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness (1978-89)

Director: Jiri Barta

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for adult themes, mild violence
Run Time: 02h:26m:34s
Release Date: 2006-09-12
Genre: animation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

In the United States, animation is not considered by the larger public to be a means of making serious artistic statements; contrast that with most of the rest of the world, where serious artists have worked the artform, with wonderful results. As a consequence of that schism between art and commerce, little of this "non-traditional" animation gets seen here, aside from a handful of boutique label DVDs and assorted screenings. One of the richest heritages for animation comes from the former Czechoslovakia, where artists like Jiri Barta worked. Now, Barta's eight finished films are available on a single disc from KimStim and Kino. While the films themselves are interesting, the disc leaves much to be desired.

Barta has made only eight films, all of which are included here. According to the most recent information I could find, he is still waiting to receive financing to make a feature-length version of The Golem. He has been working in commercials since his last film, 1989's Club of the Laid Off. His films show a strong concern for showing the perils of greed, consumerism, and avarice; characters often come to bad ends due to their lust for money or other temptations. In Club of the Laid Off, Barta uses discarded mannequins as stand-ins for us; they repeat the same pointless tasks over and over until new, hipper dummies are dumped off, leading to a showdown between duelling philosophies. In The Last Theft, a thief who thinks he's hit a motherlode of riches gets more than he bargained for from the strange residents of the house he burgles.

The real gem here is The Pied Piper of Hamelin aka Krysar, Barta's unique puppet version of the famous story. Clocking in at about 53 minutes, it takes a leisurely tour through the story, with real rats combining with wooden, somewhat cubist puppets representing the humans. Everything about the film is arresting; the architecture of the city looks as if it's erupted from the earth rather than been built, and the puppets are a beautiful range of figures and faces. In this version of the tale, the rapacious, emotionally bankrupt citizens throw back food and argue over prices to the exclusion of all else. Barta realizes communication cleverly, with the price hagglers literally speaking in coins, and everyone otherwise in a gibberish language that needs no translation. The rats then arrive, taking the riches the citizens have accumulated for themselves, and often working as a group to do so. When the Piper arrives, the leaders are eager to strike a bargain to get rid of the rats, and the Piper obliges. But when they renege on the deal, throwing him a button in contempt, he gets vicious revenge on the whole town, leaving virtually no one untouched.

The other films on the disc are interesting, but don't pack the power of Pied Piper. Barta's earlier work demonstrates some clever paper manipulation while showing that same streak of anti-consumerism (The Design, Disc Jockey). The Vanished World of Gloves uses a range of gloves to provide an informal history of cinema, including glove-enacted scenes from classic films, including Un Chien Andalou, to name just one. I'll be honest and say I don't really get the point, but it's amusing nonetheless. If you're a fan of Svankmajer, you'll likely appreciate what's offered on this disc; Barta has expressed how important the elder animator's influence is on him, and while their concerns and interests are different, both have produced some remarkable work. Svankmajer has had quite a bit of exposure over here however, and this disc, flawed as it may be, will hopefully provide the same for Barta.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The look of these films is fairly drab, with dark colors prevailing. Unfortunately, on my player every film except Pied Piper suffers from excessive combing, making them almost unwatchable. The seven shorts that suffer from combing are flagged as progressive, while Pied Piper is interlaced, so the problem presumably lies there. Multiple settings could not get rid of the problem. Viewing on my computer demonstrated a defined ghosting problem when stepped through that looks related to PAL conversion, but the combing was absent. In any event, unless you have a chance to test this on your system before purchasing, I'd approach with caution. Only one of the eight films is subtitled, though in most cases none of them feature speech requiring it. The subtitles are white and optional.

Image Transfer Grade: D

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The basic, unadorned mono tracks sound tolerable if not stellar.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: None. A note here though about the back cover, which is lousy; the use of a dark maroon as background, coupled with black text, makes the copy on the back needlessly difficult to read. There is no insert.

Extras Grade: F

Final Comments

Image problems made much of this disc almost unwatchable, but the lengthiest, best film here is unaffected, which is a small blessing. Otherwise, this is best passed on, despite the quality of the material.

Jeff Wilson 2006-09-14