Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films

Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films

*****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

From Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel to Walerian Borowczyk, from the Quay Brothers to David Lynch, all the grand masters of surrealism began their cinematic careers making experimental mini-films, and Jan Svankmajer is no exception. Prague's most influential surrealist since Franz Kafka may now be best known for absurdist mixed-media features such as Alice (1988), Faust (1994), Conspirators Of Pleasure (1996), Little Otik (2000) and the recent Lunacy (2005) - but between 1964 and 1992 he also made 26 short films, ranging in length from 30 seconds (Flora, 1989) to 31 minutes (Don Juan, 1969). All of these, as well as two-and-a-half hours of extra materials, have been collected in a new, immaculately compiled three-disc retrospective from BFI.

In fact, long before he discovered the expressive potential of cinema, Svankmajer had worked as a marionette artist in various Czech theatres, and this early experience in puppetry pervades his subsequent films. For not only do they employ, alongside their live action, an array of animation techniques - marionettes, stop motion, hand-drawn cartoons, claymation, cut-outs, re-edited archive footage, insane collages and dizzyingly rapid montages - they also show an obsessive thematic concern with the interplay between the spiritual and the material, the animate and the inanimate - so perfectly embodied by the figure of the marionette, made of dead wood yet magically invested with life by the artist.

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The two pieces that draw most explicitly on Svankmajer's marionette years are Punch And Judy (1966) and Don Juan. Both films feature traditional wooden puppets (with strings, and sometimes even the puppeteers' hands, unconcealed), but the first film has a live guinea pig interacting with its animated antagonists, while the action of the latter spills out from a stylised stage to its backstage areas, and then beyond to the outside world. The marionettes in both films defy conventional death, repeatedly escaping their coffins or returning as ghosts, and yet they are also, quite literally, deconstructed before our eyes as their parts end up violently severed, in a dark celebration of both the spiritual endurance and material fragility of 'life'.

Other films in the collection further explore the relationship between people and objects. At one extreme, there are the all-live films which, without once resorting to animation, still reduce their human 'characters' to objects with merely functional or aesthetic qualities. So in The Garden (1968) a group of meekly compromised individuals submits without complaint to its assigned role as 'human fence' for a rural farm; while The Ossuary (1970) documents the chapel near Kutná Hora where thousands upon thousands of human bones have been transformed over many centuries into giant sculptures and macabre tableaux – with layers of graffiti still being added today.

At the other extreme, there are the films in which objects are shown at play in the absence of any 'characters' - although even here, the human form is never far away. In JS Bach - Fantasy In G Minor (1965), a dusty building's bricks, wires, fittings and cracks are shown dancing in sympathy to an organ piece, whose player is glimpsed only briefly at the film's beginning. In A Game With Stones (1965), rocks poured out by a strange clockwork device march and swirl in elaborate patterns that culminate in mosaic faces - before they destroy the very machine that has spawned them. In Jabberwocky (1971), children's toys run riot under the gaze of a portrait of Lewis Carroll. The Fall of the House of Usher (1980) uses voice-over narration, animated landscapes and haunting mood to conjure up the (unseen) presence of Poe's characters. In Meat Love (1988), two slices of meat engage in a fleshy courtship (a forerunner of the carnal interstices found in Lunacy) before a fork tosses them together into the frying pan.

Most of the films, however, fall somewhere in between, showing humans and objects in unexpected, at times unnerving configurations. In The Flat (1968), Picnic With Weissmann (1968), A Quiet Week In The House (1969) and Down To The Cellar (1983), domestic furnishings rebel, with varying degrees of humour and terror, against their human 'masters', instantiating their anxieties and fears in the most banally concrete of forms. In The Castle of Otranto (1979), an enthused archaeologist (Jaroslav Vozáb) attempts to excavate the supposed truths underlying Horace Walpole's fanciful Gothic novel even as the antiquated illustrations in a Czech edition of the book come to life. In Leonardo's Diary (1972), animated versions of Da Vinci's sketches are rapidly intercut with found documentary footage in a series of visual matches that suggest we may all be an extension of the Renaissance man's creative genius. And in Virile Games (1988) a football fanatic drifts into a beer-fuelled, sadomasochistic fantasy in which players - all bearing his distinctive moustache - murder each other using items found in his apartment.

It is hardly surprising that Svankmajer's work should have been regarded with suspicion, and has at times been suppressed or even banned by the Communist authorities. Against the Marxist conception of human history as a natural evolution towards the socialist ideal, Svankmajer prefers to portray evolution as a futile process leading at best to endless circularity and at worst to terminal self-destruction - principles well illustrated by A Game With Stones (1965), Et Cetera (1966), Historia Naturae, Suita (1967), Darkness-Light-Darkness (1989) and Food (1992), in all of which apparent progress proves to be illusory.

Even The Death of Stalinism In Bohemia (1990), Svankmajer's self-styled 'work of agitprop', marking the welcome arrival of the Velvet Revolution, looks to the post-Stalinist future with as much dread as relief. And against the Communist adherence to the revolutionary power of dialectic, in films such as The Last Trick (1964), Punch And Judy (1966), Another Kind of Love (1988), Food (1992) and above all Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), Svankmajer suggests that true dialogue between individuals is a self-defeating impossibility.

Add to this the barely disguised critique of oppression and tyranny in The Garden (1968) and The Pendulum, The Pit and Hope (1983), and you have the kind of material that is unlikely to please any totalitarian regime. Most importantly of all, though, Svankmajer's defiantly irrational negativism was directly at odds with the rational positivism espoused within Communism. The animator brings to full life precisely what his rulers were endeavouring to keep repressed: the nightmarish, the unconscious, the nonsensical, the abject, the uncanny, the insatiable, the immoderate, the ecstatic. This is cinema of quietly determined, barely licit resistance, and it hardly seems a coincidence that shortly after the Communists were removed from power, Svankmajer's own interest in short films came to an end.

While Svankmajer's vision may at times be pessimistic, bleak and disturbing (Flora manages to push all these buttons in its economic half-minute duration), it is also playful, irreverent and devilishly funny, as is perhaps best emblematised by his favourite image - recurring through many of these short films - of a tongue poking out.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2007
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Selection of surrealist shorts gets a polished release from the BFI.
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