“The world is divided in two unequal camps – those who have never heard of Jan Švankmajer and those who happened upon his work and know that they have come face to face with genius,” wrote Anthony Lane in The NewYorker. Czech animator and surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer (1934) was strongly censored by the Soviet regime – his works were banned and strongly suppressed, therefore the rest of the world only got to know him in the 1980s. And oh… what a discovery it must have been.

Švankmajer started out in a puppet theatre – he studied in at the College of Applied Arts and Prague Academy of Performing Arts and later worked for several theatres in Prague. The experience that Švankmajer acquired from the stage has left a notable mark on his cinematic handwriting. His works resemble a particular kind of puppet theatre, collage and nightmare mutation.

For Švankmajer cinema is like a playground, where imagination has no limits and everything can be built from sand or clay. Indeed, clay motion is an occurring motive in director’s work (e.g. Dimensions of Dialogue, Darkness Light Darkness, and The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia). So are the puppets (e.g. The Last Trick, Punch and Judy and Jabberwocky). Most of Švankmajer’s films are shorts.

Milos Forman has famously said: “Disney plus Buñuel equals Švankmajer”.

The Last Trick ( Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara, 1964)

Conspiracy of things

After playing with puppets in his early works, Švankmajer later started toying with objects. In his  films everyday items come alive and revolt against the reign of people. Some of these games are quite brutal and sadistic – objects pull out gruesome jokes targeted at their owners. For instance in the film Picnic with Weissmann garden equipment and furniture have created a rebellious uprising against their owner. Meanwhile, In Flat kitchen utensils fail to serve their purpose – spoons develop wholes, forks become crooked, beer mug becomes minuscule, an egg gets rock hard and uneatable.

Doomed houses are also portrayed in short films like Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy in G minor, A Quiet Week in the House, The Fall of the House of Usher. Walls turn into barriers, houses and apartments become prisons; basements act as torture rooms and humans become captives in their own homes. Švankmajer creates claustrophobic and paranoid environments (maybe it’s a postmodern irony take on consumerism and collecting things). Now the time has come to reverse this situation and take revenge – things begin to own people.

Faust (Lekce Faust, 1994)

Soviet diet

“Do not play with food!” Teachers and grannies from the Soviet Union used to say this to children. Apparently, Jan Švankmajer chose not to listen. Food plays an important role in his films, whether as raw pieces of meat, seafood or as a portrayal of some very bizarre eating rituals. For instance, in the short film Food, two men are having breakfast. It is not as pleasant as it sounds – one of them is serving as a product vending machine with an instruction hang around his neck. When putting a coin into him, the other man gets coffee, sausage, bread and other “Soviet goods”. When the meal is finished, the roles are reversed – the person who was just an immobile food machine becomes alive again while the person who was using him now becomes a robotic machine. And the circle restarts again. Outside there is a huge queue waiting for this mechanized breakfast ritual. The second part of Food features lunch where the feasters are even hungrier and more barbaric, ready to have a bite of their lunch partner. Same reoccurs in Dimensions of Dialogue, where the conversations become aggressive and cannibalistic. 

The political and social criticism is very much present. Švankmajer’s films, rather than being a rebellion against the regime, can be seen as a satire of regimes absurdity. The director mocks Soviet Union citizen’s everyday routine where all activities are repetitive and cyclic, worthless and automatic.  Švankmajer himself thinks of his work as apolitical, however, he does not mind people interpreting it as political.  “I have always been more interested in what’s behind it all, the essence of events. […] I’ve always rebelled to this label because I felt that the entire civilization is sick, otherwise atrocious ideologies like fascism or Stalinism could have never come to fruition. Apart from that, politics is fuelled by the same kind of aggression as sexuality,” states Švankmajer.

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (Konec stalinismu v Čechách, 1990)

Like a dead sparrow

When seeing a dead sparrow, one might feel disgust and pity, but at the same time experience this strange sensation of not being able to look away. Sometimes it is the same with Švankmajer’s movies. The surreal and nightmarish images are horrifying yet captivating in a “cannot look away” sort of way. This is true also in his “child perspective” films such as Alice and Down to the Cellar. Both films are rather disturbing and invite several connotations that border with abuse and sexual under layers. Despite that the creepy imagery and characters grab attention.

Švankmajer took a different turn on Carroll’s classical story. He does not view it as an innocent fairytale. Moreover, he thinks that other adaptations do not really understand “Alice in the Wonderland”. In Švankmajer’s film the characters, (like the Rabbit, Queen of Hearts etc.), which are usually interpreted as cute and wonderfully bizarre, are sadistic, cruel and disgusting. Maybe the director himself is cinema’s Mad Hatter… In 1972 he participated in Czech military coordinated drug test. Švankmajer was one of the volunteers for pure LSD injections (here you can read about this experience in his own words). The experiment started out nicely and pleasantly. Than it become Švankmajer’s worst nightmare – this experience has left some traces in his later work.

Švankmajer’s irrational and absurd realities captivate and distress the viewer almost at the same time. So does a dead sparrow. It’s worth embarking upon his mad and surreal universe.

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