Still from The Highway Sings, a commercial for the Baťa company

Artwork of the Month, February 2020: The Highway Sings by Elmar Klos, Jan Lukas and Alexander Hackenschmied (1937)

A detail camera shot examines rubber being mixed and moulded by heavy machinery. ‘Finished. You’re beautiful. Alas, it took me a while but you have been made properly.’ A young man sings as he is taking a rubber tyre off the machine. Walking through the factory yard and wheeling the tyre alongside, he carries on: ‘And now, off you go on your own, find your master and serve him well, I’m telling you.’ The camera focuses on the tyre with large lettering that reads Baťa and Superb. ‘It’s no easy task as every one of your masters entrusts his life to you,’ the young man warns. And as he starts running with the tyre over a field and down the road leading away from the factory, he cheers up.

Still from The Highway Sings, a commercial for the Baťa company

Still from The Highway Sings, a commercial for the Baťa company (1937) by Elmar Klos, Jan Lukas and Alexander Hackenschmied – photo: The National Film Archive

‘Now you’re free as a bird, keep the wheels turning, go face the world and serve well. Honour my work!’ he calls after the tyre as she (because the tyre turns out to have a female voice) runs on her own down the road. Singing herself, the tyre continues her journey along a mud path where she meets a woman working in the field and a cart pulled by a cow, a symbol of transport of the past, until she reaches a garage in a modern city. The modernity of the city and the contrast with the countryside through which the tyre travelled can be easily deduced from the surrounding functionalist architecture.

While celebratory music is playing, the tyre is fitted on one of the cars outside of the garage and fulfils its purpose. Next, we see a young woman getting in the car and the car drives off on the road. In a close up of the tyre on the road, the tyre rejoices, ‘Hurray, I already found work!’ The next shot shows a busy city with roads filled with cars and traffic chaos. We see and hear a bus driver driving and singing about how important it is to have reliable tyres. In one of the last shots, we only hear (but don’t see) the worker who made the tyre praising it for proving herself, to which the tyre responds ‘Why, I am full of elastic force, I am a tyre by Baťa,’ while we see another close up of the company logo on the rim. Many more tyres run on their own through the fields to reach the city where cars, trams and buses drive in all directions.

Still from The Highway Sings, a commercial for the Baťa company

Still from The Highway Sings, a commercial for the Baťa company (1937) photo: The National Film Archive

The short film ends with an exchange between the worker and the tyre, ‘whoever requires a good service, who is always in a rush, deserves a reliable Baťa tyre.’ ‘A good Baťa tyre!’ they chant in unison as hands lift up three tyres one by one in the last close up that shows the product and the logo, while a triumphant music ends the film.

This black and white commercial film, nearly four minutes long, titled ‘The Highway Sings,’ was made for Baťa in 1937 by the director Elmar Klos (1910-1993) and the cameramen Jan Lukas (1915-2006) and Alexander Hackenschmied (1907-2004). All three are considered important avant-garde artists and their relation to the Baťa company therefore raises interesting questions about the links between art and commerce in interwar Czechoslovakia. Baťa put a lot of emphasis on such short commercial films which employed avant-garde techniques to promote the products, as well as the company philosophy.

Baťa and prosperity

Baťa was founded as a family shoe company in 1894 and was run as such until the communist takeover after the Second World War. Its first location was the small town of Zlín in eastern Moravia which in the 1890s had fewer than 11,000 inhabitants, but following the company’s expansion grew to nearly 35,000 by 1930. The company turned quickly into a successful business that soon extended beyond the manufacture of shoes into a variety of products, ranging from airplane parts to hosiery and items made of rubber, such as children’s toys, swimming caps and tyres. Shoes, nevertheless, were the company’s primary product sold around the globe. The first Baťa shoe shop abroad opened in Belgrade in 1919, and by 1929 they owned nearly 700 shops in 37 countries across 4 continents.

View of Zlín, location of the Baťa company

View of Zlín, c. 1930, contemporary postcard

In the second half of the 1920s Czechoslovakia became the number one shoe exporter worldwide thanks to Baťa, with a production of 100,000 pairs of shoes a day. The Baťa owners also pursued an economic and social vision that included introducing new production techniques, getting the employees benefit from the profit, and creating a ‘healthy’ working and family environment for the them in the so-called garden cities. ‘The Highway Sings’ reflects many of these strategies of the company extending to the spheres of social welfare and commerce; it shows an automated production line which makes labour easier, the clean environment of the factory, and conscientious employees whose work deserves to be honoured. The film also makes it clear that the employee feels part of the entire production process and responsible for the ultimate success of the product. Apart from introducing a five-day working week with a free weekend, Baťa also motivated employees by paying them weekly shares in the company’s profits.

Baťa and the avant-garde

Interestingly, the short film is not introduced as a commercial but as a ‘new melody.’ This evokes an artistic and lyrical dimension to the feature which tries to be closer to an artwork than to an advert. Other advertising films made for Baťa employ similar techniques – the music, dynamic black and white cinematography and closeup photography make a good use of various avant-garde practices of the day. Another striking example of this is a commercial called ‘The New Song’ by Klos and Hackenschmied with music by Julius Kalaš . The first part starts as a recreation of Ilya Repin’s ‘Burlaks on the Volga,’ which shows a group of dishevelled men in torn up clothes and boots pulling an unidentified load, possibly a barge. ‘The Song of the Volga Boatmen’ (known also as ‘Ey, ukhnem!’) by Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin plays in the background to emphasise their hardship. Then, in one shot they disappear behind a billboard advertising Baťa shoes. When they re-emerge on the other side, they are hopping and skipping joyfully in brand new rubber boots to a much more cheerful tune. Humour, as it turns out, was another important element in many of the commercials.

Baťa’s involvement with contemporary art and design was therefore nothing random; rather, it was a well thought-out strategy as many of the commercial films seem to give considerable artistic freedom to the creators yet they do include a strong commercial as well as social message. Tomáš Baťa, followed by Jan Antonín, worked closely with architects, designers, film makers and photographers who all helped to create an image of the company as modern, progressive and customer oriented. They cooperated with some of the most prominent artists in interwar Czechoslovakia. These included architects Jan Kotěra who built a villa for Tomáš Baťa in Zlín, the architects of the various Zlín houses and estates Josef Gočár, František Lydie Gahura and Vladimír Karfík, the painter Cyril Bouda (1901-1984) who designed a panoramic stained glass of the company’s history for the 1939 Czechoslovak pavilion at New York World’s Fair, the actor Vlasta Burian who featured in various Baťa adverts and commercials.

Jan Antonín had also employed the French architect Le Corbusier who came to Zlín to take part in a committee selecting a model house to be used around the city. Le Corbusier himself made plans for a French satellite town of Hellocourt, one of the Baťa towns that replicated the production techniques and conditions of Zlín, and a template for Baťa stores that could be used around the world. Moreover, Le Corbusier designed the company showcase pavilion for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937, fitted with reclining pedicure chairs. Here, customers and visitors could have their pedicure done while watching commercials for Baťa from the comfort of their seats. None of these projects by Le Corbusier, however, were realised for a number of reasons; these were not only financial but also personal as clashes were reported between Baťa and the French architect.

Le Corbusier in Zlín

F. L. Gahura, Jan Antonín Baťa, Le Corbusier and others overlooking Zlín, 1935 – photo: Státní okresní archiv Zlín

The realisation of the importance of film as a medium for communicating the message of a successful product, reliable workers and satisfied customers, in short, the company’s ideology, was translated into the creation of a separate film unit. It was founded in 1928 and started making commercials and newsreels which were later shown in the city cinema that opened in 1932. They were also screened in shops and pedicure parlours and, indeed, at large trade fairs in Czechoslovakia and abroad, which was the case of the Baťa booth at the 1937 exposition. It was here that ‘The Highway Sings’ was first screened.

Young men, women and artists

Klos and Hackenschmied started working in the Zlín studios in 1934 as young men, aged 25 and 27 respectively. Jan Lukas was only 22 when he worked on ‘The Highway Sings.’ Baťa’s trust in young people was also part of the company’s philosophy; most of the employees in the factories were under 35 as they were seen as more energetic, eager to learn and easier to influence. The worker in ‘The Highway Sings’ conforms to this ideal – he is in his mid-twenties and radiates endless energy as well as concern about the difficult task that lies ahead of the tyre. The Baťa company catered well for such men and, to a lesser extent, women who could become members of the Young Men and Young Women organisations.

A Parade of Young Men, Salon, 14 (1935), p. 38

A Parade of Young Men – photo: Salon: společnost, sport, divadlo, film, moda, výtvarné umění, 14 (1935), p. 38

Boys and young men could attend a boarding school where they trained in shoemaking or in other areas. Young women were educated too, however, in more domestic tasks such as housekeeping and family care. Ideally, women would work too but only until they got married and had children when their role would turn into homemaker and product consumer. This patriarchal setup did, however, change during the 1930s when many women in Zlín challenged the traditional roles by not getting married, continuing to work in the factories, picking up competitive sports, and even getting into executive roles. The presence of the young female driver in the commercial is therefore ambiguous. She may be independent enough to drive a car and be the ‘master to please,’ subverting the patriarchal system. But as we don’t know anything else about her background, she may also be the home keeper who does not work.

Coming back to the creators of the short film, their innovative approach to presenting the commercial material as an avant-garde work of art was awarded a golden medal at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. The film combines dynamic motion with striking still-like shots which make a frequent use of diagonals to express movement. Interesting, too, is the central focus on the product, the tyre, which is personalised by having her own voice and being referred to as ‘my darling’ by the worker. People become almost redundant and apart from the worker (the creator) and the driver (the consumer), everyone else is anonymised and partially represented often by feet or hands only.

All of this fits well with the image of Baťa as a modern company with progressive, pioneering ideas. The emphasis on the modern in the film is best captured by the juxtaposition of the archaic countryside with cows and goats with the busy production line on the one hand and of the city traffic on the other. Hackenschmied had previously worked as an editor on a project which celebrated the countryside, Slovak folk customs and the traditional way of life. The title of the film from 1933 whose main author was the Czech photographer Karel Plicka is ‘The Earth Sings,’ which is uncannily reminiscent of the discussed commercial. The reference to singing suggests how important the combination of visuals and music was. As much as in the commercials ‘The Highway Sings’ and the ‘The New Song,’ music was not just the background, it was a self-sufficient form of expression. The documentary gave an avant-garde treatment to an ethnographic depiction of folk culture in Czechoslovakia. Here, the city is absent and rejected, but the form in which this is done is very much that of metropolitan modernism.

The Earth Sings (Zem Spieva) by Karol-Plicka (1933) from fidel kajstrol on Vimeo</i>

‘The Highway Sings’ is one of the many promotional films created for Baťa in the interwar period. It serves as a good example how a combination of avant-garde film, photography and music could promote a modernity of a commercial product. It also expresses, whether consciously or not, much of the company’s philosophy which emphasised the key role of the worker, the central position of the product and their location in a modern environment.

Marta Filipová

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/JB8S4

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