A-Paws! A-Paws!

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published September 15, 2010, issue of September 24, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A-Paws! A-Paws! for Animated Film Delight ‘My Dog Tulip’ and Its Creators, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger

My September 2 interview with Paul Fierlinger, who wrote, directed and animated the new film “My Dog Tulip,” and his wife, “Tulip” co-director and co-writer Sandra Fierlinger, who colored this enchanting movie that is showing at the Film Forum, took an unexpected detour.

Dog Days: Paul Fierlinger
Dog Days: Paul Fierlinger

“Memories are true only if remembered correctly,” said Paul Fierlinger, who was born in Japan’s Ashiya, a suburb of Kobe, in 1936. “My father was then the Czech ambassador to Japan. My mother was Jewish.” Inspired by British literary figure J.R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir of the same name, Fierlinger created 58,320 hand-drawn frames — all via computer — for this must-see film. In keeping with author Ackerley’s observation, “Unable to love each other, the British turn to dogs,” the animated Ackerley character in the film, voiced by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, adopts a traumatized “Alsatian bitch” (a female German shepherd) that has pooper-scooper issues. He names the dog Tulip and comes to love her. Fierlinger disclosed that, like Ackerley, “I don’t hug, I don’t kiss…. I have been damaged.” It was hard to believe this of the handsome, charming and articulate man across from me at New Yorker Films’ headquarters. Then came the narrative.

Fierlinger recalled: “In 1939 we left [Japan] for Moscow, where my uncle Zdenek was Czech ambassador to Russia. He was a ruthless politician… one of 10 siblings. He told my father, ‘I’ll find you an appointment with the Benes government.’” (Edvard Benes was president of Czechoslovakia in exile from 1940 to 1945.) An overview of his father’s rollercoaster political career in Czechoslovakia also included an association with Jan Masaryk (Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister from 1940 to 1948). In response to my question of whether he spoke Czech as a child, Fierlinger shook his head: “Our parents never raised my brother and me. I never learned to speak Czech as a child. In Japan we were cared for by a Japanese nanny and spoke [baby-talk] Japanese. [English] was my first language.”

He said that when the family finally made it to the United States, “I rarely saw my parents. They put an ad in the Herald-Tribune that a refugee family needs help in caring for two children. My brother and I were taken in by a family in Burlington, Vt.” Smiling, he wryly added, “My parents considered putting us up for adoption.” I gasped. Then what? “Then came boarding school.” When his parents returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945, he said, they sent him “to an elite boarding school, patterned after England’s Eton for future members of the Czech government.” His classmates were writer Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, and Milos Forman, Academy Award winning film director (“Amadeus,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).

Fierlinger, whose mother died when he was 13, continued the narrative: “In [communist] Czechoslovakia, when I was 16, I needed an inner passport. They asked you your nationality: German? Austrian? Russian? Jewish? To infuriate my father, I wrote ‘Jewish.’ My father went into hysterics. It was the worst time of Stalinism. I was scared of him, and asked: ‘So what is Jewish? Why do they ask?’ He replied, ‘People born of Jews are Jews.’” Fierlinger added: “My aunt, whose father had a farm [in Czechoslovakia], wanted to know ‘Why are we called Jews?’ Does that mean that our horses are Jews, too?’” Taking a deep breath, Fierlinger added soberly, “My mother’s parents ended in Theresienstadt.”

The conversation then returned to “Tulip” and to the fact that there is nothing cartoonish or anthropomorphic about the animated Alsatian, nor about any of the other dogs in the film. They behave — move, pant, run, scratch and mate — like the dogs we know. There are visits to a roster of veterinarians and, finally, to a most sympathetic practitioner, Dr. Canvenini, voiced by Isabella Rossellini. And when Tulip goes into heat, it is touching to watch elderly animated Ackerley play matchmaker with a roster of pedigreed Alsatians and their owners. Yet Tulip chooses to mate with a disreputable mutt who fathers a litter of puppies.

In 1958, Fierlinger established himself as Czechoslovakia’s first independent producer of animated films. In 1967 he escaped to Holland from Czechoslovakia, then went to Paris and then to Munich, where he worked as an animator, finally arriving in 1968 in the United States, where he worked for Universal Pictures as a documentary director. In 1971 he established his own animation house, AR&T Associates, Inc., which initially animated segments for ABC’s Harry Reasoner specials and the Public Broadcasting Service’s “Sesame Street.” To date, AR&T has produced more than 800 films and several hundred commercials, and Fierlinger can boast more than 100 major film festival awards to his credit.

I came across the following coincidental tidbit while checking on Zdenek Fierlinger: The father of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (nee Marie Jana Korbelova), Josef Korbel, was a Jewish Czech diplomat. At the time of her birth he was press-attaché at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Belgrade. At Wellesley College, from which she graduated in 1959, her senior thesis was on “Czech Communist Zdenek Fierlinger.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.