The Simpsons Folder : Production : Worker & Parasite Explained
Here’s an article from the NY Times, which delves somewhat into the world of the 50’s in Czecheslovakia, which was parodied so brilliantly by “Worker & Parasite”:
March 6, 2004 SATURDAY PROFILE 50 Years of Burrowing Gently Into Czech Culture By IAN FISHER
PRAGUE — In America, anvils were falling. A coyote strapped on Acme rocket skates. A slobbering duck kept getting his beak blasted off and, sadly for him, it may actually have been wabbit season. It was quieter here in 1954, when a frustrated Czech animator went for an evening walk in the woods searching for his own blockbuster of a cartoon character.
“It was already dark,” the animator, Zdenek Miler, now 83, remembers. “It was kind of hard to see. I tripped over something and I fell. I turned around to see what I fell on. It was a mole’s burrow. I said, ‘Here’s a good idea.’ ”
It took three months of artistic tweaking to turn the real animal’s blind face into Krtek, or Little Mole. Over nearly five decades, Krtek starred in 62 short animated films for children that thrived despite the complete absence of exploding cigars. Krtek outsells Disney here, his anatomically incorrect eyes poking out from book bags, puzzles and pillow cases everywhere.
He is shown around the world, and is especially popular in Germany and Japan. (A 20-something Iraqi recently turned to goo when he spotted a foreigner in Baghdad wearing a Krtek T-shirt).
But Krtek never caught on in the United States. Ask why of Mr. Miler (pronounced miller), or his colleagues in the renowned world of Czech animation, and they say Krtek may be just too slow for the frantic land of the Cartoon Network. Krtek films are, in fact, slow, but also lyrical and so hypnotically distinct that they can feel less like watching movies than climbing into another human’s head. That would be Mr. Miler’s.
“It’s an alternate universe, like all of the best animated stuff is,” Michael Medved, the film critic, who has tried for years to stoke a Krtek following in America, said in a telephone interview. “But it’s an alternate universe that feels astonishingly refreshing and kind.”
Mr. Medved added, “I have always considered Miler to be perhaps the greatest living animator.”
Now feeble from age and Lyme disease, but the vision of a kindly old man, Mr. Miler is doing something else that few of his American counterparts would dream of: despite offers, Mr. Miler is refusing to sell off the rights to Krtek — similar, in a smaller way, to if Disney studios had folded when Walt Disney died in 1966. The last Krtek film was made in 2002. What may be the last Krtek book — five million have been sold — comes out this month.
“If I sold Krtek,” he said, “it would be like I killed him.”
The truth is that the association between Krtek and his creator, who meticulously oversaw every frame of his hand-drawn films, may be a little too close to put up for sale.
“You should be able to say it very simply: You created yourself,” said his wife of 46 years, Emilie, with some combination of love and impatience, in their modest home in Prague. She then walked out of the room.
“My wife is allergic to it, because for everyone who comes I have to tell the story of how I created Krtek,” Mr. Miler explained before recounting his “supernatural” stumble over the mole burrow in 1954. But near the end of an interview, kept to an hour so as not to tire him, he conceded that she was right.
“It took me a long time to realize it, but when I draw Krtek I am drawing myself,” he said. “What I mean is that Krtek is the ideal that should be me. But I can’t meet that ideal.”
Born in 1921 in Kladno, just west of Prague, Mr. Miler began his work as an animator while Czechoslovakia was still under Nazi occupation. After the war he worked as an animator on the first films of Jiri Trnka, the guru of Czech animators. In 1948 he made his first film, “The Millionaire Who Stole the Sun,” still highly regarded today.
In 1954, while working at Barrandov Studios here, he was assigned to make a film for children showing how linen is made. He puzzled, feeling that a fairly dull subject needed to be livened up by a compelling character. That turned out to be Krtek. Without the budgets of the American animation studios that Mr. Miler admired so much — Disney’s “Snow White,” he said, is “unbelievable” — the first Krtek film took one and a half painstaking years.
In it, Krtek makes a pair of linen overalls, with help from a frog who soaks the flax, spiders who spin the yarn, ants who weave the cloth, a crawfish who cuts the fabric. Krtek changed slightly over time, but the basics were there: the forest, other animals, a problem Krtek solves entertainingly.
Zdenka Deitch, head of the Barrandov animation studio, who worked on the first film, said Krtek was considered a peculiarity amid the high-art production of Czech animation at the time.
“When I was working on this first film, I didn’t get his idea,” she said. But when it was finished, she said, “it was a very charming film.” It won a first prize in the Venice Film Festival in 1957.
This first movie was the only one in which Krtek actually spoke. The rest were pantomime, apart from a few Czech words and the recorded giggles of his daughters. That turned out to be convenient for both Krtek and Mr. Miler: The films sold easily around the world, in 85 countries, and Krtek’s adventures became a popular export for the Communist government.
“Krtek was very important to the regime because it earned them foreign currency,” said Mr. Miler, who did well, too, when capitalism came in 1989 and opened the door to Krtek merchandise.
Mr. Miler said he steered clear of politics, but as Krtek became his life’s work, the films did not shut out the real world, before or after the fall of Communism. Bureaucrats were poked fun at. He lamented the destruction of the environment. He showed a rabbit graphically giving birth. One film had Krtek traveling the world, stunned at an American mole’s superior burrowing technology.
But it was always gentle, like the man.
“He’s different,” Ms. Deitch said. “He’s quiet. He has a few friends. And otherwise he is living some kind of lonesome life with the characters that he drew. His whole life was to draw something nice.”
At the twilight of his career — and with little chance of any new Krtek adventures — Mr. Miler seems only to wish that Krtek had found an audience in America. In the mid-1990’s, a collection of the films was released there and praised by fans like Mr. Medved. But there never was a market, baffling to fans who admire Krtek for his sweetness without saccharine.
“Pretty much the whole world knows Krtek,” Mr. Miler said. “America, which is usually first in everything, is last in this.”
“I always look at American history,” he said, “and it is a very hard one. People came. They conquered a continent. They suffered hardships, and that hardship is reflected in its movies. I look at children there and think what they are watching is a reflection of that hardness. If you look at America, it is epic. Whereas here, it is more poetic. I feel here there is more lyricism.”
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