Meet the Czech Daredevil Who Terrorised The Nazi Regime
The phantom menace who became a national hero
Most stereotypes of Czech people enduring Nazi tyranny present them as cowards, collaborators, rebels, and martyrs. Well, add superhero to the list. While the West had Captain America, the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) had its own unlikely avenger known as Pérák, or ‘The Spring Man’.
The character started life as a wartime phenomenon about an enigmatic masked vigilante who defied curfew by prowling the dark alleys and rooftops of Prague, preying on the city’s fascist overlords. A staple of the character was his superhuman ability to jump to extraordinary heights, so it is doubtful he ever existed as a real person.
The urban legend soon garnered national recognition. The post-war period witnessed Pérák’s transition into popular culture, which cemented his status as the first and only ever Czech superhero through various novels, short films, and comic book adaptations.
Today, older generations don’t speak about Pérák and younger generations don’t even know the legend exists. The fact that ‘péro’ (spring) also doubles as vulgar slang for ‘penis’ doesn’t do much in his favour. The following therefore offers a timeline of the character’s fascinating evolution, including an insight into his most memorable appearances on the small screen.
Wartime rumours circulating about Pérák’s exploits were usually bloody and violent. Pérák hunted deserving criminals, Nazis, and collaborators, but targeted innocent civilians on occasion as well. Some versions described him donning gloves fitted with razor blades akin to the Wolverine that he used to slash his victims. Yet, his origins predate the Second World War.
The inspiration for Pérák seems to stem from the Victorian-era English folktale of Spring-Heeled Jack. A demonic hooded figure who terrorised the cities of London, Sheffield, and Liverpool by abducting and assaulting vulnerable pedestrians. He too possessed the ability to jump great heights.
Gradually, pre-war and wartime depictions of Pérák as a violent boogeyman declined in favour of reinventing him as a national hero. Pérák became emblematic of Czechoslovakia’s passive defiance to Nazi terror.
Pérák v Hitler: Dawn of Justice
One cultural artefact to emerge from the wave of post-war art and literature featuring Pérák is the short animated film, Pérák and the SS. Made in 1946 by director Jirí Brdecka and Czech animation royalty Jirí Trnka, the film is credited with launching Pérák’s transformation into a superhero.
The light-hearted take on the character offers a stark contrast to the grim wartime portrayals. Pérák possesses the backstory of a chimney sweep who fashions a pair of shoes out of sofa springs, granting him his signature ability to jump enormous heights.
Pérák mows through countless cohorts of SS who are little more than disposable, incompetent brutes. A cat and mouse game then ensues between Pérák and a caricature of Hitler, ending with the latter being booted sky high over the horizon, presumably back to Austria.
Notable segments include a ‘will they-won’t they’ dynamic between two closeted SS officers that would certainly have Hitler turning in his bunker. Another sees Hitler reluctantly destroy a bust of himself that a resistance member repurposed into a radio to listen to illegal foreign broadcasts.
The narrative’s slapstick humour is used to deliver a satirical critique of the arbitrary grounds under which most offenders of the Nazi regime were detained. Nowhere is this more apparent than the climax, where Pérák liberates an internment camp of undesirables. The prisoners are an assortment of random people and animals, including a bird arrested earlier for whistling the English folk song, Bingo.
The Slav Knight Rises
Pérák retained a cult following in Czech society and popular culture during the late twentieth century and early 2000s. His most compelling and recent portrayal is in the acclaimed student animated film Pérák: The Shadow over Prague, directed by Marek Berger in 2016.
Berger’s interpretation adopts tropes from film noir and the action-adventure genre to present a grittier and grounded origin story for Pérák. He is a former Olympic athlete and dissident who becomes a vigilante once he is targeted by the Gestapo. The narrative heralds a return to the character’s wartime roots by depicting him as a ruthless anti-hero engaging in the type of brutal, stylised ultra-violence found in most contemporary superhero films.
The film opens on a night-time Prague, where the Nazi high command is unearthing a deadly weapon hidden inside a cemetery to further their insidious agenda. This is revealed to be the Golem, a grotesque spectre of Czech-Jewish origin. The irony here escapes no one.
Pérák observes the scene from a nearby rooftop as a watchful protector. He then ambushes the Nazi stormtroopers, the enraged Golem, and a slick female assassin, foiling the plot. However, the conflict leaves Pérák severely injured with both his legs dismembered.
In true superhero film fashion, the epilogue playfully teases the possibility for a sequel, and it’s not a mutant grape flexing his stone collection. Unsuspecting construction workers discover a ruined bunker where they accidentally awake Pérák, who now has enhanced robotic legs. Pérák escapes and discovers it is the future and that a new enemy awaits his wrath: Stalinism.
The narrative is intense, entertaining, and visually captivating. Most importantly, it reimagines the legend with a refreshing and unique perspective without forfeiting the charm and quirkiness of its folktale heritage.
And there you have it. A brief history of the superhero who championed the resilient Czech spirit for decades and whose mythology continues to intrigue the next generation of creatives. Pérák has fought every villain imaginable across his long career from fascists, communists, and even capitalists.
It is fair to say he is not just your average, ordinary, everyday superhero.