Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pérák, the Spring Man

Pérák, the Spring Man was an urban legend originating from the Czechoslovakian city of Prague during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in the midst of the Second World War. In the decades following the War, Pérák has also been portrayed as a Czech superhero.

According to historians Callum McDonald and Jan Kaplan in their book Prague in the Shadow of the Swastika: a History of the German Occupation 1939-1945 (London, 1995), "the Springer" was said to leap out from shadowy alleys and startle passers-by. Oral tradition suggests that some of Pérák's leaps were of an extraordinary magnitude, including the act of jumping over train carriages, similar to England's Spring Heeled Jack.

A contemporary and perhaps associated rumour concerned a "Razor Blade Man" who was said to slash at victims with razors attached to his fingers.

Researcher Mike Dash quotes George Zenaty, a noted authority on the policing of Prague during the war years, that:

... in 1940-1942 none of our police precincts in Prague informed us in their daily reports of the existence of a ‘Spring Man’. This does not mean that such rumours might not have circulated; however, it would have been impossible to include [them] in the reports without tangible proof."

The 14-minute Czech animated cartoon Pérák a SS (The Springer and the SS, also released in English-speaking markets as Jumping Jack and the SS, The Spring-Man and the SS Men and The Chimneysweep), which was released in 1946, portrayed the ‘Springer’ as a heroic and mischievous black-clad chimney sweep, with a mask fashioned out of a sock. He was capable of performing fantastic leaps due to having couch springs attached to his shoes.

This cartoon, created by the renowned Czech animator Jiří Trnka and film-maker Jiří Brdečka, featured Pérák taunting the German army sentries and the Gestapo before escaping in a surrealistic, slapstick chase across the darkened city.

Trnka's post-War interpretation of Pérák as a quasi-superhero, defying the curfew and the authority of the German occupying forces, formed the basis for sporadic revivals of the character in Czech science fiction and comic book stories.

In 1961, Pérák featured as a heroic character in the story Pérový muž (The Spring-Man), which was written by Czech science fiction writer Jan Weiss and published as part of a collection of short stories entitled Bianka Braselli, A Two-Headed Lady. In his 1997 biographical essay on Weiss, Vilém Kmuníček speculated that the inspiration for this story was in response to National Socialist propaganda:

... an original fantastic world, which develops the opportunities of the real world, the world of forced silence during the occupation, to the absurd, bringing the hope that this world contains the germs of something that will destroy it."

In 1986, Czech science fiction writer Ondřej Neff also portrayed Pérák as a heroic figure of resistance against the Nazi occupation of Prague. In 2001, he created (under the pseudonyme "Aston") a satirical comic strip titled Pérák kontra Globeman (Pérák versus Globalman) which conflates the figures of the Springer and the Razor Blade Man and pits him against a villain called Globalman, who bears a strong resemblance to McDonalds mascot Ronald McDonald.

Trnka and Brdečka's Pérák a SS is featured in a DVD anthology of World War 2 propaganda cartoons, Cartoons for Victory, which was released on May 2, 2006.

The cartoonist Adolf Lachman, in cooperation with scriptwriters Monge and Morten, is producing a new series of comic strips about Pérák, portraying him as a World War 2-era costumed superhero who battles the Gestapo with the aid of various weapons and mechanical spring-powered boots. In addition, the Czech magazine Živel is giving space on its pages to those Czech writers and artists who have been influenced by the stories of Jan Weiss, Jiří Brdečka, Jiří Trnka and Ondřej Neff.

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