Thursday, February 23, 2017

Krabat – The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Čarodějův učeň; animated fantasy, Czech Republic / Germany, 1978; D: Karel Zeman, S: Ludek Munzar, Jaroslav Moučka

Lusatia, 18th century. Krabat is a homeless orphan who has a tough time when winter arrives. One night, while hiding in a barn, a raven appears and tells him to follow him to a mill. There, a man offers Krabat the chance to be his apprentice in the mill, and the boy accepts. He meets eleven other boys who also work in the mill. However, it turns out the master is a sorcerer, and now Krabat cannot escape from the mill anymore. The sorcerer uses boys to extract money from the villagers in various tricks: for instance, Krabat is transformed into a bull, sold for a high price to a peasant, only to escape and return to the mill. Each winter, the sorcerer challenges one of the boys to a duel, and kills one. Krabat falls in love with a girl in a village, and transforms into a raven to sneak out to see her. When the girl wants to free Krabat, the sorcerer makes a bet: if she identifies Krabat wearing a blindfold, she will save him. She does, and the sorcerer and his mill go out in flames, thereby liberating all the apprentices.

One of Karel Zeman's lesser films, "Krabat" is a patchwork – even though it was an adaptation of Otfried Preussler's eponymous novel, it is a dark film for grown ups and of questionable value for kids, yet it lacks highlights, whereas its cutout animation and the grotesque design of the sorcerer seem more bizarre today than inspired. "Krabat" offers very little true spark, ingenuity or fun of some of Zeman's best adventure films, instead relying more on disturbing moments, from the fact that the title hero, a boy, is transformed into a bull in order to be sold on the market as a ploy, up to the pity that a subplot  – in which Krabat liberates a captured Marshall by transforming him into a horse and riding away with him right in front of the noses of the Ottoman guards – was just dropped and left bizarrely forgotten and unfinished. A few nice moments (Krabat and his friend want to sneak out of the mill and thus transform into mice to go under the door, but the sorcerer counters and stops them by transforming into a cat), yet the storyline seems uneven, disjointed and all over over the place, failing to truly engage the viewers. The surreal cutout animation gives the film an unnatural, spurious feel, though the animators did play around with the macabre to their benefit here and there, such as the design of the crows and the phantasmagorical landscapes.


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