Spring-heeled Czech WWII ‘superhero’ reanimated for Prague fest

A highlight of the 4+4 Days in Motion performing arts festival will be a new show on the mythical Czech ‘Spring Man’ who resisted the Nazis

Pérák, or the Spring Man of Prague, reinterpreted | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy Pérák, or the Spring Man of Prague, reinterpreted | foto: ©4+4 Days in MotionČeská pozice
Pérák, or the Spring Man of Prague, reinterpreted | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy

The 16th 4+4 Days in Motion festival, which starts in Prague on Saturday, will blend theater, dance, and urban activism via often quirky events at a range of arts venues and public spaces (including a soccer stadium). But the single most hotly anticipated item on the program is a new show dedicated to Pérák, or the Spring Man of Prague, a Czech “superhero” of urban legend said to have resisted the Nazi occupiers during World War II.

The name Pérák comes from the Czech word “péro,” meaning in this context “spring,” and arose from rumored sightings in the Prague area of a shadowy character with springs attached to his feet capable of leaping great heights and distances.

“I’ve always been fascinated by this World War II ‘Superman,’ which I first heard about when I was a child,” 4+4 Days in Motion organizer Markéta Černá told Czech Position. “We’re extremely glad to be able to join forces to put on the show with the theater Vosto5, whose director Jiří Havelka was behind the idea.”

The only Czech superhero

In a break from last-minute rehearsals for ‘Pérák!’ at its MeetFactory venue, Havelka told Czech Position that similar urban legends had also appeared in the 19thcentury in Great Britain (in the figure of Spring-Heeled Jack) and Germany.

“What’s interesting, though, is that it caught on most in Bohemia during the Protectorate,” says Havelka of the figure he calls the “only Czech superhero,” who apart from springs was supposed to possess a strange mask and shining red eyes.

Early versions of the Pérák legend portrayed him as a diabolical figure, even a rapist. “Spotted” most frequently at locations like the Olšany cemetery and Vyšehrad, he was a kind of bogeyman whose name was used to scare naughty children. “But gradually his reputation turned positive when he became associated with the resistance against the Germans,” says Havelka, 31, who is considered a rising star of Czech theater.

“He used his power to jump in order to confuse the Germans. He could leap over trains or the Vltava River, and when the Germans tried to shoot him they killed one another. It was a case of Czech improvisation defeating German discipline, and it helped the Czechs,” says the show’s writer and director. “In general, his supernatural powers grow according to how much the nation is suffering and is in need of a hero.”

©YouTube This 1946 animated version of the Pérák story by Jiří Trnka and Jiří Brdecka, in which the hero is portrayed as a chimney sweep, helped cement the legend in the public imagination.

Building on the myth

Vosto5’s production – with performances set for Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday – adds considerably to the Pérák myth by placing him in a ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’-style group with real figures from the Second World War era. These include Alois Eliáš, who was prime minister in the Protectorate government but was executed by the Nazis for supporting the resistance; Brigadier General Václav Morávek, a member of the legendary Three Kings resistance group; journalist Julius Fučík, a prominent Communist resistance fighter; and screen star Adina Mandlová, who after the war faced accusations of collaboration.

Havelka says that in terms of design ‘Pérák!’ draws heavily on the bold colors of Nazi propaganda, adding that the acrobatic show will be fast-paced and comics-like in style. What’s more, the three performances during 4+4 Days in Motion will not be audiences’ last chance to see it, with plans already afoot for a bigger show on the same theme next year.

“This version is ‘Pérák!’ and maybe we’ll do a ‘Pérák! 2’,” says the director. “Just as comic books have several parts, there are many possible stories that the character could appear in.”

The kids are all right

In the meantime, the 4+4 Days in Motion festival has a good deal more to offer visitors this year. For instance, curtain-raiser “Before Your Very Eyes” by the UK-German-Belgian group Gob Squad places a group of children behind one-way mirrors on stage and – through instructions from a Big Brother-style disembodied voice – has them act out aspects of aging.

“It’s a theatrical, social probe examining how today’s kids expect that they will behave in five years’ time, in 10 years’ time, in 15 years’ time, what they will think,” says Černá. “We get to see how children perceive us adults, without us being aware of it.”

Another unusual project involving minors is ‘Haircuts by Children’, organized by Canada’s Mammalian Diving Reflex. Brave souls willing to entrust their coiffures to youngsters armed with scissors and shears should pop along to the Toni & Guy salon on Dlouhá St. on October 22 and 23. Meanwhile, returning to 4+4 Days for the third time is the Norwegian comic troupe Jo Stromgren Kompani, which this year brings “The Society,” a multi-lingual production. “It’s about an association of coffee drinkers,” Černá says. “They discover a used tea-bag, and it sparks suspicion amongst them.”

©YouTube Jo Stromgren Kompani’s ‘The Society’

Downtown HQ

While events take place at numerous venues around the city, the festival’s HQ is — for the second year in a row — the now-dilapidated former Institute of Folk Art Production building at Národní 36 in the downtown area, where a temporary bar will be running over its eight nights.

That space will in addition host 4+4 Days’ main exhibition this year, entitled “Happiness,” along with various lectures and other activities. It will also be the starting point for “Field Office Prague,” billed as a fun form of urban orienteering, by the Berlin group Invisible Games.

Further afield, the suburb of Vršovice will witness the single biggest event of this year’s festival when on October 22 thousands are expected to attend, free of charge, an unusual practice session by football club Bohemians 1905 at the old-fashioned Ďolíček stadium it was forced to leave last year.

“We’re going to send a bunch of artists onto the pitch to ‘intervene’ in their training,” says Černá, adding that the prankish “happening” reflects 4+4 Days’ policy of drawing attention every year to one area of the capital undergoing decline or other problems.

“Where the stadium stands now there are going to be loft apartments, which is something the club’s fans have been fighting for years to prevent from occurring,” Černá says. “We want to say, hey, it’s a pity to let one of the few remaining green surfaces in Prague be used for more yet buildings.”

4+4 Days in Motion
Oct. 15–22
Divadlo Archa, Divadlo Alfred ve dvoře, MeetFactory,
Studio Alta, ÚLUV, Stadion Bohemians 1905

Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance writer