Jan Svankmajer’s films, surreal transformations of everyday objects into living creatures, are intensely visceral. It’s almost as though one could reach into the frame and peel back the skin of that stuffed rabbit or brush the grime off that rusty nail. You wouldn’t get too far, however, before these objects would shy away, scattering into corners like scared mice, trailing bits of shoelace, ratty fur, speckled little shadows. Even the shadows in this Czech artist’s bizarre, yet oddly familiar, universe have a life of their own.
Such is Svankmajer’s magic, that the most ordinary objects and people can be imbued with lilting strangeness, with action and agency, with personality, and with deeply rooted cultural observations. Although his work lies within the realm of the surreal, Svankmajer uses his films to probe social institutions, classes, and interactions.
This combination of a fantastic aesthetic and a sociopolitical conscience has shaped surrealist writing, art, and cinema since the avant-garde’s first wave. And while filmmakers inspired by Svankmajer’s twisted short (and feature-length) stop-motion animations include Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and the Brothers Quay, Svankmajer’s work remains entirely his own. More importantly, Svankmajer is a top surrealist artist because of the depth and clarity of his vision. His films are mini-universes, foreign and disturbing, yet distinctly rooted in contemporary life.
Even today, 14 years after Czechoslovakia’s “velvet revolution,” the repression and deficiencies of Eastern European communism inform Svankmajer’s work. Born in Prague in 1934, Svankmajer grew up under the yoke of Czech communism. His early training as a puppeteer and theatre set designer gave him the tools needed for his eventual cinematic endeavors. In 1970, Svankmajer joined the Czech Surrealist Group, to which he still belongs. His discovery of this movement ushered in a period of artistic blossoming; in the next two decades, he produced an astounding portfolio of short films, including Dimensions in Dialogue (Moznosti dialogu 1982), banned in his homeland. From the ‘80s through today, Svankmajer also created several feature-length pieces, such as Alice (Neco z Alenky 1988), Faust (Lekce Faust 1994), and his latest, Little Otik (Otesánek 2000).
While many of Svankmajer’s shorts have been available on VHS for years, Image’s two-volume DVD release of his collected shorts is surely welcome. It is a joy to see these films brought to new life through crisp re-transfers and digital sound mixing. While Svankmajer’s visual images are arresting enough, his gift for soundscapes completes the entrancing effects of his films. Filled with bops, brrrips, chirps, and whirrs, his onomatopoetic music of the ordinary (the mechanical noises parallel the everyday objects Svankmajer uses in his animations) functions not only as soundtrack, but also as partner to Svankmajer’s Eisensteinian editing. Such orchestration reinforces the shock of the quick cut or the small mystery of a briefly motionless frame.
No less visionary, even to those familiar with Svankmajer’s work, is his aesthetic, deeply rooted in a lifetime spent behind the iron curtain and observing the futility of human experience. Yet he is concerned less with the politics and theory of communism, than with how it affected daily existence in his homeland. He focuses on rationed food, crowded cities, and, most importantly, dirt. In Svankmajer’s exaggerated fairytale style, Czechoslovakia under communism is a filthy, fetid place, filled with mice, dust, coal, and industrial waste—one can almost smell the stench in grubby flats.
Svankmajer’s aesthetic of dirt remains unique and arresting, even more than 30 years after his first film. Nothing in his universe is alive until it is sullied and/or deconstructed, reflecting a disjointed and bruised world. Animals are dead and stuffed, shoes are scuffed, nails are banged up and bent, and children wear utilitarian garb and mussed-up hair.
In Down to the Cellar (Do pivnice 1983), from Volume Two, a young girl ventures, appropriately enough, to the cellar of her apartment building on a quest for potatoes for supper. Her hair is frizzy, her stockings bunched. Like Red Riding Hood in a tattered cardigan, she clutches a basket and encounters frightening obstacles along her way—a man sleeping on a bed of coals beckons her toward a smaller bed, also made of coals; a baker woman invites her to share bread made from coal dust; a giant black cat stalks her. She’s besieged by a brutal environment, from the lid of the potato bin slamming repeatedly on her head to the final moments when, her potatoes having spilled down the stairs and back into the cellar, the girl is forced to reenter the tomb of her tormenters. She has been marked for torment from the beginning, just as a child is marked for adulthood; her own unkempt appearance links her, in a way, to the obstacles she faces.
Down to the Cellar is particularly unclean, in more ways than one; the cellar itself is a haven for dust and shadows, while the old man who beckons her has the creepy bearing of a child molester. Here, dirt represents innocence corrupted as well as the filth in which the underprivileged are forced to live. Svankmajer offers a parable of entering adulthood and the necessity of facing unfair difficulties. Only this fairytale has no happy ending, just the terrible certainty that troubles will arise again.
Et Cetera (1996), from Volume One, also focuses on travails, in a lighter way. In part one, a shadow figure leaps from chair to chair using a pair of wings; eventually he flies through the right side of the frame and begins the process anew. In part two, a man whips a creature and commands it to do tricks; as he does so, the beast gradually assumes human form and begins beating the man, who is now a beast, ad nauseam. Part three shows a man drawing a house, then attempting to enter it. Unable to do so, he erases it in frustration, then draws himself inside it. Once he finds he cannot leave the house, he erases it and begins again.
Here, Svankmajer calls our attention to the futility of progress and the cyclical nature of history, particularly in parts two and three. Those in power become beasts themselves (once in power, the beasts are perfectly capable of this transformation as well), and human-made boundaries are, by definition, frustratingly rigid. This is one of Svankmajer’s most easily dissected and most clearly symbolic films. It is delightfully animated, yet makes one long for later Svankmajer, when the question of meaning, rather than meaning itself, becomes central. It is not the symbols onscreen that constitute Svankmajer’s theses, but, in Soviet montage fashion, the way that audiences put the symbols together to comprehend “big” issues: love, death, language, and isolation.
There are few better examples of Svankmajer’s take on (or his forcing the audience to take on) these issues than in Dimensions of Dialogue. The tripartite film opens with an animated head made of cutlery and kitchen utensils consuming a similar figure made of fruits and vegetables. After the cutlery figure vomits up the foodstuff figure (which reforms itself), a head made of pens and graphic instruments devours the cutlery figure and vomits it up. The reformed food figure then eats the writing figure, and the process continues until human heads are expelled and commence eating and expelling each other until the film fades out. In part two, male and female clay figures embrace passionately and erupt in erotic pleasure, but when their union produces a small object, they toss it back and forth. Finally, they tear each other apart in a bloody, repulsive approximation of their former sexual union.
Here, even without the use of language, Svankmajer underscores the selfishness of our interactions, our concern with consuming and owning more than giving and understanding. He confronts his audience with the relativity of meaning and moralism. Rarely do filmmakers challenge and engage the viewer to such an extent (or use such brutal methods). And yet, even if beauty doesn’t prevail, it can still be found. The girl in Down to the Cellar will continue to face difficulties, but she has not succumbed to them. The humanoid figures in Dimensions of Dialogue make love in an explosive burst of emotion. And the figure in Et Cetera is, after all, trying to fly. Whether he makes it or not depends not on Jan Svankmajer, master storyteller and teacher, but on his audience.