The Pied Piper (1985)
The Pied Piper is one of the most famous stories in all European folklore, however the genesis of the character cannot be precisely placed. It is likely the Piper became an embodiment of infectious disease, particularly the Black Death which devastated populations across Europe during the 14th Century. The Piper may also have something to do with the story of Nicholas of Cologne, a Christian zealot from Germany who is thought to have recruited adults and children during the Crusades before leading his followers on a death-march through the Swiss Alps in a futile effort to reach the Holy Land.
In the original German folktale, the townspeople of Hamelin refuse to pay the Piper for solving their vermin infestation and the musician then exacts revenge by luring their children away, usually to their deaths, same as the rats. In 1933, Walt Disney’s studio animated an early Technicolor short based on The Pied Piper as a part of their Silly Symphonies series of cartoons. Not surprisingly, Disney’s version of the Piper does not see the children of Hamelin drowned like rats – but instead are taken away to a fantastical Toyland hidden inside a mountain.
On the darker side of the spectrum, the legend of the Pied Piper was also the inspiration for a stop-motion masterpiece by celebrated Czech animator Jiří Barta. Barta’s first animated short, Disk Jockey (1980) was nominated for the short feature Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. Different from the stylish hand-drawn Disk Jockey, Barta’s next works like A Ballad About Green Wood (1983) and The Pied Piper (1985) are stop-motion fables animated with organic materials, mostly craved from wood. The medieval woodcutting aesthetic of The Pied Piper gives the 53-minute puppet play a disarmingly timeless air – as if the logs had been chopped by the Brothers Grimm themselves. Adding to the universal appeal of Barta’s expressionistic folktale, the woodcut townspeople of Hamelin communicate in comical-sounding gibberish eliminating the need for subtitles and voiceovers.
Barta’s intricately whittled cubist design is visible in every aspect of The Pied Piper– so much so that it slightly shocks the eye when very real, un-stylized rats begin to invade the wooden village. Barta uses stop-motion sequences with taxidermy rodents in combination with live-action footage of living rats to frightening effect. Barta’s emphasis of organic materials is a trait of many Eastern European animators and the use of preserved animals was a favorite practice for the father of stop-motion, Ladislav Starevich.
Animated at the hallowed Jirí Trnka Studio, Barta’s film was originally released as Крысолов or Krysař; Czech for “rat-catcher”. Even in Barta’s version of the The Pied Piper, the horrific ending is somewhat softened by having the Piper’s melody magically transform the greedy townspeople into rats themselves. To make the vengeful title character into a more sympathetic figure, Barta introduces a romantic subplot which informs the Piper’s decision visit tragedy upon Hamelin.
In 2006, many of Barta’s films were collected for the DVD compilation Jiri Barta: Laybrith of Darkness including Disk Jockey, A Ballad About Green Wood, The Vanished World of Gloves, The Pied Piper as well as the live-action short The Last Thief. In 2009, Barta directed the animated family feature In the Attic or Who Has A Birthday Today?, released in North America as Toys in the Attic, which lends a Cold War twist to a tale of abandoned toys.