Sunday, December 18, 2016

Topographia Germaniae

We had a family DVD viewing this weekend: Karel Zeman's Bláznova kronika (A Jester's Tale), a 1964 Czech film about a peasant caught up in the Thirty Years War.  Philip French described it in The Guardian as an 'exquisite black-and-white anti-war comedy' and particularly admired the way 'live action and animation are integrated with wit and elegance into a magical, fantastical world where the winds of change, represented by an animated old soldier puffing away in the heavens, dictate the arbitrary course of history.'  The story itself has some of the charm of an old German novella, with an irrepressible and innocent hero Petr - seen in the images above near the end of the film with Lenka, the pretty country girl he meets on his travels. 

Matthäus Merian, Frankfurt am Main, 1646

The film's visual style was inspired by the 17th-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian.  In many scenes it is as if the characters have been able to step into the slightly surreal landscapes and interiors he illustrated.  These engravings are part way between maps and landscape drawings and their magical quality is a result of the way they strain after a kind of ideal realism, picturing the world laid out neatly from an imaginary bird's eye perspectives.  Merian's engravings eventually covered a large part of central Europe: the first volume of his Topographia Germaniae, on Switzerland, appeared in 1642 and the last, on Burgundy, was published twelve years later.  I have been imagining what it would be like to see all these views combined with black and white photography to create a seventeenth century version of Google Earth, in the style of Karel Zeman. And wondering too whether our own topographic art forms will be found as charming in four hundred years time.

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