Vatroslav Mimica, the Croatian director and screenwriter of animated and live-action films, died on February 15, 2020. He was 96.
In his remarkable animation career, which took up little more than a decade of his long life, Mimica wrote 21 scripts and directed nine films, helping to establish the distinctive style of his home city that came to be known as the “Zagreb school of animation.” His finest films combined deep explorations of loneliness and alienation with bold graphic experiments that stretched the language of limited animation in new directions.
While he wasn’t an animator, Mimica worked in partnership with talented artists like Aleksandar Marks, Vladimir Jutriša, and Zlatko Bourek — all key contributors to the Zagreb school themselves. His epochal film Alone (1958), which he made with Marks, played at Cannes and won the grand prix at the Venice Film Festival. Its success helped to establish the school’s fame on the international scene.
The following year, Mimica and Marks produced three more films, including The Inspector Returns Home (watch below), a dizzying existentialist parable about a man chasing his own fingerprint. “[This is] one of the most innovative animations of that time,” Daniel Šuljić, artistic director of Animafest Zagreb, told Cartoon Brew. “The flat graphic style, experiments with perspective, space, and depth, and limited animation are taken to a completely new level. To me personally, the running scene in the middle of the film is the essence of the Zagreb school!”
Mimica was born on June 25, 1923 in Omiš, in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After serving in the Communist-led resistance against fascism during the war, he started out as a journalist and critic (and briefly studying medicine). While working as the manager of production company Jadran Film, he began to teach himself filmmaking by studying the works of Billy Wilder and David Lean, among others.
After directing two live-action features, in 1957 he was hired as a screenwriter by the studio Zagreb Film, where he met like-minded experimental filmmakers such as Dušan Vukotić and Nikola Kostelac. This group burst onto the global scene at Cannes 1958, where a program of their films inspired the journalist Georges Sadoul to coin the term “Zagreb school of animation.” As they hadn’t received permission from their national authorities for the screening, Mimica and a colleague ended up smuggling the film reels by car from Zagreb to Cannes.
Mimica credited Kostelac with opening his eyes to modernism. “[Kostelac] carefully collected various journals that catalogued emerging trends in graphic design and illustration,” he told an interviewer in 2009. “From that moment, we understood that Disney wasn’t everything, and that we could express ourselves differently. So we dropped stretchy figures based on circles, and discovered triangles, square forms, and the other possibilities of graphic modernism — a new method of animation came about and a new spirit was born.”
Throughout the 1960s, Mimica continued to write and direct animated films, concluding with The Firemen (1971). “Mimica couldn’t draw nor animate,” noted Šuljić, “but his knowledge of modernist fine arts and excellent feeling for rhythm and film as media helped him to find and lead exceptional talents to fulfill his directory visions.”
He continued to make equally modernist live-action films for another decade, before retiring in 1981. When asked why he’d stopped working at 58, he replied, “No comment.”