In 1954, the Czech cartoonist Zdeněk Miler was tasked with creating educational films about the merits of Communist industry. Miler subverted the project to create Krtek (The Mole), and showed children behind the Iron Curtain the wonders of American cars, rockets, and skyscrapers. Not in vain: this Friday, Miler’s creation will ascend to low Earth orbit aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Watch any episode of Krtek—Miler drew 50 of the over the decades, including 30-minute surrealist features like The Mole in a Dream—and you will wonder how most of them flew in the Eastern Bloc. And you can watch them without speaking Czech: there is no dialogue, only the occasional hello and lots of jazz. Take The Mole and the Car from 1963, my favorite, embedded above for your viewing pleasure. Krtek’s car is clearly a mid-50s American cruiser, the skyline is way more New York than Prague, and the shop where Krtek takes his car to be fixed has an English name.
Perhaps Miler’s great mischief was to hide his Western dreams in a children’s cartoon, flying below the radar of Communist censorship, and creating something quite wonderful in the process. To this day, Krtek is serious business in post-Communist Europe, to the tune of million of dollars of Krtek merchandise sold every year. And it’s not just plush Krteks and cake sets: last Saturday, I saw The Mole and the Car in an actual movie theater in Budapest!
Despite the lack of language barriers, Krtek never really took off beyond the Eastern Bloc and its associated acts around the world. Perhaps people in the West never had to dream about cool cars—they could just pick them up off the lot.
Whatever the case, there will be one happy mole in Florida this Friday. Astronaut Andrew J. Feustel, whose wife has Czech roots, will take a NASA-spec 8" copy of Krtek aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-134, the Shuttle program’s last flight. It may be Krtek’s first real trip into space but the prospect has not escaped Miler’s imagination: his third Krtek cartoon’s title—Krtek a raketa—needs no English translation.