Issue 49 (2015)

Robert Crombie, Rinat Gazizov: The Good Soldier Schweik (Pokhozhdeniia bravogo soldata Shveika, 2009)

reviewed by Lora Mjolnsness© 2015

schweikThe Good Soldier Schweik is an animated film directed by Robert Crombie and Rinat Gazizov, with Manuk Depoyan. This film is based on the famous novel by Jaroslav Hašek and was first released in Ukraine in 2009. Jaroslav Hašek’s work, an unfinished satirical comedy about World War I published in 1921–23, has an international reputation and inspired several much-loved films, including а live action film by the Czech director Karel Steklý (1957) and an animated film by the great Jiří Trnka (1955). This latest animated version is the result of the effort of the British director and producer Robert Crombie, who teamed up with Ukrainian animator Rinat Gazizov at the Kiev Yalta-Film Animation Department in order to fulfill his wish of bringing Hašek’s work to the screen. According to Robert Crombie, he is responsible for the idea, script and creative direction, while Rinat Gazizov and Manuk Depoyan are the animation directors of the film. In Russia, the film was released in 2012 and it aired on television in the UK in 2014. While listed as a family film, the subject matter and humor—including prostitutes, deaths and drunkenness—are for adults rather than children. The film had limited success in Russia as it managed to attract only 9,100 viewers to the cinemas and brought in only a little more than USD 34,000. 

schweikThe animated film follows the plot of Hašek’s work in general. However, the film struggles to recreate the spirit of Hašek’s original that endeared it to so many generations. Schweik is a dog trader who has previously been discharged from the army as feebleminded. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Schweik is arrested in a pub following a careless remark. The first third of the animation is spent following Schweik on his adventures from the police station to a lunatic asylum and then home again. He is released and saved repetitively due to his idiotic and confusing replies that seem to be made in innocence. The second third of the film is centered on Schweik’s conscription into the military despite his previous discharge and his rheumatism. The military doctor, who does not take kindly to Schweik, sends him to the military psychiatric hospital-cum-prison, where the main distraction is attending church. The alcoholic priest, Katz, is impressed by Schweik and makes him his orderly.  Schweik saves the priest on many occasions, but Katz also loves gambling and loses Schweik to Lieutenant Luká.

schweikIn the final third of the film, Schweik and Lieutenant Luká are transferred to a battalion headed to the front line after they are implicated in stealing a Colonel’s dog. Schweik is reunited with the men from the psychiatric hospital on the train to the front. Even Schweik’s trusty dog accompanies him. Close to the front line, Schweik is taken prisoner by his own side as a suspected Russian deserter and spy (he takes a swim and then tries on a Russian military uniform). Narrowly avoiding execution, he manages to rejoin his unit (which has already reported him dead) on Christmas Eve… as a Christmas miracle.

The next day during battle the troop is paralyzed with fear and hopelessness. Schweik, armed with his simplicity and naiveté, continues to pursue peace. He ties a white flag to his weapon and marches towards the Russian soldiers. The war may not be over yet, but German, Finnish, Russian and Czech soldiers celebrate Christmas together with games and, of course, alcohol. But just for the day. The narrator states that the next day the war resumes. There are many narrative departures from Hašek’s original, but according to Crombie this film is only “based on” Hašek. The end of the film feels a bit rushed and differs more from the original novel; however, since Hašek left his novel unfinished, perhaps the film mirrors it in this way. ]

schweikThe animation itself has charming aspects and at times captures the spirit of Hašek’s original work. The sequences that best deliver Hašek’s spirit are the black-and-white cartoon-inspired sequences that illustrate the feeble and innocent interpretations which Schweik (and sometimes others) has about a given event. These scenes are linked visually by the repetition of the same gray bubble. These cartoon bubbles stand out from the rest of the animation, because they are in black, white and gray tones with red, pink, red or peach, yellow or tan used for emphasis. The first example, in which Schweik explains the beauty of his dog-trading business, illustrates Schweik’s strange form of honesty and outspokenness, which somehow protects him from the idiocy of the real world. In this first cartoon bubble Schweik discusses the benefits of a mutt who takes the best character traits and physical attributes of all the purebreds that appear in the mutt’s lineage and hence ensure Schweik’s success in the world. Another example of the gray balloon is a depiction of Schweik’s Colonel during his first tour of duty. While Luká berates Schweik for his stupidity, Schweik innocently informs Luká that he and this Colonel were in fact discharged from the army for feeblemindedness. The Colonel was dismissed for giving orders with his fingers stuck up his nose. Schweik’s unexpected description of the Colonel silences Luká and again Schweik is able to escape a bad situation.

schweikThe 2D animation has other attractive aspects as well. The background scenes, especially the opening scenes of Prague, provide nice detail and set the tone of the film. The concern with detail, whether the blowing leaves or Luká’s penning a letter in Czech to his sweetheart, keeps the viewer’s visual attention. The character design of the protagonist Schweik does not quite capture Josef Lada’s famous and well-loved illustrations for Hašek's novel, but is still endearing. In terms of physical appearance, the new animated version of Schweik has the big nose and the rounded physique of Lada’s drawing, but also has more hair on his head and less on his face. The character design of Schweik is missing some of the charm of Lada’s illustrations, and yet there are times—such as when Schweik walks down the streets of Prague with his legs swinging awkwardly and his arms moving in the other direction—that are reminiscent of the spirit of Lada’s drawings.

Reviewing this film a hundred years after the beginning of World War I, we should remember the anti-war message of Hašek’s work. The Czech nation at that time was an unwilling part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Schweik’s views were unusual for a Czech citizen, as he felt it to be his duty to fight for the emperor. While the humor in Hašek’s work makes the anti-war message clear, it is really the ending of this animated film—Schweik playing in the snow with Russian, Finnish and German soldiers—that solidifies the anti-war message in The Good Soldier Schweik.

 

Lora Mjolnsness
U of California at Irvine

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The Good Soldier Schweik, Ukraine 2009, Russia 2012
Animated Film, 77 minutes
Director: Robert Crombie
Animation Directors: Rinat Gazizov with Manuk Depoyan
Editor: Andrei Shtern
Sound Editor: Mikhail Ugrin
Music: Maro Theodorakis
Voice Actors:  Aleksandr Ignatusha, Vlad Zadneprovsky, Alexander Zavalsky (Ukrainian version, 2009); Gosha Kutsenko, Iurii Stoianov (Russian vesion, 2012)
Producer: Artur Novikov
Co-Producers: Andrei Novikov and Robert Crombie
Production: Kiev Yalta-Film Animation Department

Robert Crombie, Rinat Gazizov: The Good Soldier Schweik (Pokhozhdeniia bravogo soldata Shveika, 2009)

reviewed by Lora Mjolnsness© 2015

Updated: 02 Jul 15