Invention for Destruction: “… One of the finest pop-up books in modern cinema history”
I’m not one to watch films more than once – outside of personal favourites – and I am even less inclined to recommend a film and for you to watch it twice, but for Second Run’s latest, Invention for Destruction (the fabulous world of Jules Verne), it is an absolute essential. In adapting the words of Jules Verne, Second Run favourite Karel Zeman created not only one of Czech cinema’s most beloved titles, but he has also directed one of the most flabagasting spectacles these eyes have ever seen. The well-regarded animator has put literally everything he had in his extensive repertoire on screen. This is the third of his films to be released by the label, first was the anarchically funny historical piece, The Jester’s Tale, notable for how clear an influence it had on Tery Gilliam. The second was The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. And this, Invention for Destruction is one of the definitive showings of Steampunk in all of cinema and a fabulous capping to this trilogy.
I have yet to mention the story as in the first viewing it is so secondary to the experience of just watching and taking in the spectacle. That’s not to say it’s bad in any way, it’s just this is one of those rare occasions of justified style over substance – the apex of such a notion, in fact. To put it in other terms, it was like seeing Ray Harryhausen as a child for the first time, again. Now, how to describe it? The only things in this world that are real are the actors, everything else is lavish sets, perspective tricks and what I can only assume to be early examples of what is now referred to as green screen technology. The technology was invented in the 1930s, I had to research this just to come to some sort of grasp with what I just watched.
That last point is important, as in the modern age of over-information us fans of cinema like to believe we knew how certain shots or certain traits of a film were achieved. Not here, even with all the information, I have assimilated via podcasts, directors commentaries and ‘making of’ documentaries, I was blissfully ignorant of how this film was put together and credit to the team who programmed this release, even with the extras, the mystery remains. Even now, I am aware that I have yet to put more words on this screen than saying that I was more impressed by the visuals than I may have ever been. As grand a statement as that is, it doesn’t mean an awful lot to the person reading this article.
So, I will now do my best to explain the style of Karel Zeman in Invention for Destruction. All the towns featured, the submarines and boats all of it are put together as a set. The wood and metal of the watercraft have a satisfying, almost pinstripe look to it and all the notches on these materials appear to be handmade. These sets are in possession of the same tactility that makes stop-motion animation so eternally loved only here it is present in static rooms, towns, ports, and buildings. In one of the extras, a close collaborator to Zeman and his daughter say it was a massive pleasure to work on the movie, a further quote in the extras states that Zeman couldn’t possibly work with Verne and not go to such lengths, it would do him a disservice. Long shots of the boats or vehicles from afar see the actors turned into miniature animated characters in the cut out style animation that Zeman and some of his fellow Czech’s pioneered on the big screen (Jan Svankmajer). Deep-sea animals and wildlife too, the imagination can be turned up to 11 in the world building, this is the untethered imagination of Zeman. Combine all of that with live action actors and you’ve got what is possibly one of the finest and most literal pop-up books in cinema history.
This is why I said at the top of the review that you should watch the film twice. The first time just letting the idiosyncrasies of one of Czech cinema’s favourite sons wash over you, and the second where you are actually able to watch the film. Of course, the second viewing wouldn’t be imbued with the same magic, but if you engage with the cinematic medium for its stories, this is essential for Invention for Destruction (the fabulous world of Jules Verne).
I’ve evaded it long enough. Zeman tells the story of a world progressing into the industrial age, with a professor studying the “nature of pure matter” spirited away by a would-be dictator (whose base is inside an inactive volcano) and convinced into building a super-bomb, as a young reporter and a girl rescued from the sea attempt to warn him of their mutual kidnapper’s intentions to dominate the world with a new and more-deadly-yet supergun. Comic book stuff, really. Fun, short at a little over 80 minutes and slight enough for all to get something from it.
Whether or not you call this a bonus is entirely in the eye of the beholder, this Zeman film is pre-Czech New Wave, so pre-heavy political subtext. That means this is more accessible for more people and twin that with a simple story and a visual wonder second to none, here we have one of the best entry points to a -fallen- national cinema. If you are a member of a particularly progressive family, here is a great one you can watch with the kids. Second Run have been getting better and better at packing their releases with more and more additional features, and this one is no different. There are two short films on the disc, Inspiration (1949) & King Lavra (1950). Of the two the prior is more significant, Inspiration is 10 minutes of an artist starring out of his window into the rain and imagining all the conceivable wonder that could be going on in each individual raindrop. There’s no reason for anything that is happening, Inspiration merely provides us with a glance into the mind of one of the finest visual directors of 20th-century cinema.