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Lisa Fontaine picks out some of the most innovative shorts from the collection of surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer.

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Grotesque and absurd are probably the first words that spring to mind when thinking of Jan Švankmajer’s films. Niche is another. As a self-proclaimed “militant surrealist”, Švankmajer’s unapologetically bizarre films have long fallen victim to the Western European under-appreciation that so many other great films of his native Czech Republic have, and when he is thought of it is often simply as an animator. To label him so doesn’t do him justice.

Initially trained in the fine arts and then becoming involved with the infamous Lanterna Magika Theatre in Prague, his work shows his mastery of the arts, sculpture, puppetry, and of course, directing. His films continue on from a long tradition of Czech political puppet theatre. For those less familiar with Czech history and politics, his films are no less shocking or remorseless.

Svankmajer creates worlds where objects cannibalise each other, are disemboweled and brutalised. The act of being born becomes deeply traumatic and the simple act of eating burns with aggression. Objects are constantly broken down and their materiality explored, often revealing the unexpected as he juxtaposes them. His short films offer some of the most innovative and baffling images cinema has to offer. Here’s a looks at a few of his disturbing masterpieces:

Food (Jidlo)

food Svankmajer

1992, 16 minutes

The fetishizing of food has become a defining theme of Svankmajer’s films. Nowhere does he explore it more than with his unflinchingly gross three act eating affair, Food. Increasingly repulsive with each act: breakfast, lunch and dinner, showing different characters dining in each, the film snowballs into a sordid cannibal banquet.

In the first act, breakfast, a long line of workers consume a greasy breakfast regurgitated by the worker who went before them. It’s a cynical indictment of a conveyer belt system of living and the treatment of labourers under a communist government.

Lunch can also be read politically. Two men, one dressed sharply and one in casual clothes and with shaggy hair, share a table in a café. After failing to catch the waiter’s attention, they hungrily devour the objects around them. Tablecloths, serviettes and plates are all consumed via the magical process of stop-motion animation. Even their clothes are eaten. Whereas the sharply-dressed fellow eats his ‘lunch’ with more finesse, the average man gobbles it like an animal. When everything is consumed the wealthy man tricks his companion into eating his knife and fork too, pretending to swallow his, only to produce them again and use them to cannibalise his buddy. The upper-class character physically consuming his working-class counterpart here is almost slapstick in its satire.

We are spared the sight of these mutilations, however, as it cuts to the next act: dinner. This course proves to be even more garish as a table of bourgeois guests devour a banquet of human body parts.

Jabberwocky (Zvahlav aneb saticky Slameneho Huberta)

jabberwocky

1971, 13 minutes

Švankmajer’s haunting homage to Lewis Carol, Jabberwocky, is a surrealist match made in heaven. It’s an orgy of the mad and illogical. Porcelain dolls eats smaller dolls at a tea party. Children’s outfits dance and play on rocking horses. The artifacts of childhood take on a life of their own, creating havoc on screen with a little help from Švankmajer’s signature stop-motion animation. Objects refuse to grow up and become one with the rational world. Some of these seemingly innocent play objects meet sinister ends. A performing penknife, a doll figure carved on its handle, impales itself and bleeds out onto the tablecloth. A doll’s body ruptures, smaller dolls erupting from its body like an uncanny reimagining of the iconic scene from Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Jabberwocky’s playful wonderland is solemnly muted at the end, however, as a business suit hangs in the wardrobe in place of the dancing child’s one, unifying us with the adult, rational world.

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (Konec stalinismu v Cechach)

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1990, 9 minutes

The Death of Stalinism is arguably Svankmajer’s most political film and where the ‘Svankmajerian puppet’ meets its full potential as a political weapon. He uses rolling pins in place of tanks in his depiction of the Prague Spring and uses clay figures on a conveyer belt to critique enforced uniformity.

The film mainly consists of rapid cuts of photographs of historical events of the occupations and liberations of Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia and photos of political leaders of the Soviet Union. Much of this context may be lost on younger non-Eastern European audiences. Nonetheless, the image of a statue being born from the entrails inside a head statue of Stalin will remain arresting no matter how distant they become from their past. The Death of Stalinism hosts an array of distressing images, and violations of materials that Svankmajer uses so well in his puppet animations.

The Flat (Byt)

theflat

1968, 13 minutes

The ‘man in a flat’ short: it’s a go-to for aspiring directors. If you can make an interesting short with nothing more than a man, a flat and maybe a prop, then the future’s looking good. Scorsese did it (The Big Shave), Christopher Nolan did it (Doodlebug), and in his early years, in 1968, Svankmajer did it with his surreal confinement drama, The Flat.

We never know how the protagonist became trapped in this dingy hovel. This is not the point of the drama. The Flat is about a man battling his environment, and the external forces acting upon it. The external forces trapping him could be read read as a satire on the Communist regime that once crippled Czechoslovakia. The man physically battles the objects in this flat. They conspire to injure him, to starve him. He can’t eat his soup as his spoon is full of holes. When he tries to crack his egg it is his cutlery instead that breaks. The eggshell is so impenetrable that it smashes through the wall when he tries to break it against it. When he tries to take a nap his bed self-mutilates and near suffocates him with its sawdust stuffing. Nothing in this room lives by the rules of normal reality. Even mirrors don’t show a linear reflection. In the end the man resigns himself to defeat, signing his name on the wall of all those trapped in the room before him.

This bleak yet wacky ending is part of what makes this film so astounding. The Flat is by far one of Švankmajer’s darkest shorts, leaving its audience on a note of despair.

As we see in The Flat, this master puppeteer likes to lace his films with satire. There is logic in his lunacy and meaning in his depravity. Svankmajer toyed with repulsion and the grotesque, creating unique worlds. His extensive catalogue of short films show how Svankmajer was a true innovator. His films are the paragon of absurdity – a must-see for any film buff.

Lisa Fontaine

Lisa Fontaine is a London based director, writer and student. She studies film at University of Greenwich. She is the founder of cult and independent cinema site www.bloodpopcorn.com. Her work often explores the surreal and the perverse. She particularly likes to write about the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Czech New Wave, and the fascist aesthetic in Italian exploitation and erotic cinema.

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Posted on Nov 2, 2015

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