It’s quite the ambition, for Czech director Karel Zeman to take his love of Jules Verne books, and make a film of one in the style of the intaglio engraving illustrations contained therein. Despite Invention for Destruction being sixty years old, he pulls it off far better than you might expect. Which is, to be frank, something of a double-edged sword.
If you’ve heard about this but never seen it – released in America as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, it’s regarded as Czechoslovakia’s most successful film ever, but wasn’t as big internationally as implied – then you probably understand it as an influence on the likes of Jan Švankmajer and Terry Gilliam, but Vynález Zkázy (to use the film's original Czech title) isn’t nearly as chaotic as you’d predict. Rather, instead of a jumble of techniques potentially creating something incoherent, Zeman very deliberately chooses his methods and marries all of them together superbly in service of his vision. Layering engraved lines across both sets and ‘live’ backgrounds to produce his ‘living pages’ visuals, his film combines live action, found footage, simple 2D and more complicated 3D animations, plus any number of other processes, all superimposed upon and within one another in order to bring the story to life.
The result is, quite simply, astonishing; Invention for Destruction does literally look like somebody has opened the pages of a book and transferred them directly to the screen. The attention to detail beggars belief, actors interacting quite freely with what you would assume to be fake sets and backdrops. And the story – a simple tale told from the perspective of a professor’s assistant, who along with the professor has been kidnapped and taken to a secret island so that the villainous Count Artigas can make use of their invention, a devastating new explosive – while more than pertinent to the times, feels like nothing so much as an old Flash Gordon serial remade.
In order to service the filmmaking, however, the script has been pared back about as far as it could go, with the characters and performances rudimentary to say the least. So for all of Zeman’s wonderful evocations – this is regarded as the birth of steampunk – the narrative itself is rather less involving.
The restoration, though, is as gorgeous as the pictures it supports, with the team involved making the effort to scan the individual elements and recombine them wherever possible. There are a number of short features about the making of the film and its refurbishment too, but the real delight here is the inclusion of two of Zeman’s short films, one a brief examination of a writer’s inspiration, the other a delightful if dark historic epic told with children’s puppets. All in all, an extraordinary set.
Extras: An Appreciation by John Stevenson, two short films, featurettes on the film, its special effects and restoration, trailer.
INVENTION FOR DESTRUCTION / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: KAREL ZEMAN / SCREENPLAY: KAREL ZEMAN, FRANTIŠEK HRUBÍN, JÍŘÍ BRDEČKA, MILAN VACHA / STARRING: LUBOR TOKOŠ, ARNOŠT NAVRÁTIL, MILOSLAV HOLUB, JANA ZATLOUKALOVÁ / RELEASE DATE: 19TH NOVEMBER