Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films Review
The unusual nature of the films made by Jan Švankmajer, the elaborate use of surreal imagery and the rather unsettling effect they produce, is probably best described by the great Czech director himself, quoted above in the documentary The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer. Born in Prague, having studied marionette work at the Academy of Fine Arts there, and having lived through the war and the upheavals of the country’s recent political history, Švankmajer’s work fits comfortably within the Bohemian magical and surrealist culture and tradition - one that is particularly enshrined within its traditional puppet theatre. As the above quote from Švankmajer suggests, much of the director’s work stems from ideas suggested by objects themselves and those ideas are communicated very much in the same way to the viewer by presenting those objects out of context in the manner of the surrealists. The aim of this alchemical process is to spark off an emotional gut reaction within the viewer, rather than a rationalised or intellectualised search for underlying meaning or symbolism in what is presented.
Although certainly not the only experimental or even surrealist filmmaker working in animation, Švankmajer’s take on surrealism is quite a unique one, relying on a common and quite easily identifiable set of objects and themes, but drawing on a remarkable range of techniques that include drawing, puppetry, stop-motion animation, claymation, cut-out animation as well as even live-action to explore the objects and the relationship they have with people as thoroughly as possible. The full range of Švankmajer’s tools, techniques and ideas as presented through his short film work is made available for the first time in its complete form in this DVD collection from the BFI, Jan Švankmajer: The Complete Short Films – a three disc set that contains all 26 short films as well as a number of documentaries, interviews and essays on the filmmaker and his work.
Disc One: Early Shorts 1964 – 72
The Last Trick, (1964, 11:18)
J.S. Bach – Fantasy in G Minor, (1965, 9:25)
A Game With Stones, (1965, 8:36)
Punch & Judy, (1966, 9:54)
Et Cetera, (1966, 6:58)
Historia Naturae, Suita, (1967, 8:38)
The Garden, (1968, 16:08)
The Flat, (1968, 12:34)
Picnic With Weissman, (1968, 10:39)
A Quiet Week In The House, (1969, 19:10)
Don Juan, (1969, 31:19)
The Ossuary, (1970, 10:04)
Jabberwocky, (1971, 13:20)
Leonardo’s Diary, (1972, 11:15)
Disc One collects Jan Švankmajer’s earliest short film work from 1964 through to 1972 and although few of the films are any longer than 10 minutes long, individually as well as collectively they display a dazzling range of techniques and ideas. The themes and patterns in each of these early films are not too difficult to discern – on the surface their points seem quite simple, apparently over-emphasised through repetition and occasionally heavy-handed surrealist imagery. Moreover they usually deal with large, archetypal subjects – Life, Liberty, Death – often displaying a rather pessimistic outlook and ending with a dark, wry punch-line. The techniques by which they are presented however – incredibly elaborate stop-motion animation, lightning edits and suggestive juxtaposition of images – and the choice of particular objects themselves, all serve to create a deep impression that invites the viewer to read beneath the surface and apply any number of interpretations depending on their individual reactions or responses to what is presented.
The Early Shorts are looked at in more depth on Page 2 of this review.
Disc Two: Late Shorts 1979 – 92
The Castle of Otrano (1979, 17:13)
The Fall of the House of Usher (1980, 15:02)
Dimensions of Dialogue (1982, 11:18)
Down to the Cellar (1983, 14:44)
The Pendulum, The Pit and Hope (1983, 14:20)
Virile Games (1988, 14:01)
Another Kind of Love (1988, 3:36)
Meat Love (1988, 1:07)
Darkness, Light, Darkness (1989, 7:13)
Flora (1989, 0:31)
The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990, 9:23)
Food (1992, 16:22)
Although never outwardly critical of the Czech government or the Communist authorities in his films – at least not in any direct or comprehensible manner – Švankmajer’s work and his intent to freely express his individual views on delicate social areas was certainly disapproved of by Party officials. His insistence on expressing those ideas without authorisation on Leonardo’s Diary led to the director being banned from making any further films of his own for seven years. When he returned to short film making with in 1979, that resolve to freely express ideas and challenge the stifling of imagination by the authorities was still paramount and directly referred to in The Castle of Otrano. If anything Švankmajer’s later work takes on increasing levels of horror, terror, mutilation, and a fascination for decay and corruption, whether fruit, vegetables or body parts, often all combined into the one collaged object, and through the use of claymation techniques the levels of realism and surrealism are pushed to astonishing lengths. Rather than striving to use these elements as purely symbolic or representational means of making political or social points, Švankmajer instead seems to revel in the tactile nature of the textures of the objects he is working with, using a repetition of structural form and relying more on the sensory reactions the surreal imagery evokes in the viewer, significantly drawing influence from key references of Breton, Arcimboldo, Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll for those very properties.
The Late Shorts are looked at in more depth on Page 3 of this review.
Jan Švankmajer: Complete Short Films is released in the UK by BFI as a 3-disc set. Disc One contains fourteen short films made between 1964 and 1972. Disc Two contains twelve short films made between 1979 and 1992. In their totality, this collection represents what would be considered the complete short work of Jan Švankmajer as a director. Disc Three contains supplemental material, documentaries and interviews. Each of the discs is dual-layered, the transfer is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. The discs are contained within a fold-out digipak, held within a reasonably sturdy cardboard slipcase. A well-illustrated 54-page booklet is an invaluable reference for the material, containing informative archive and new reviews that consider the content, technique and meaning of each and every one of the short films. There are options to play all or play individual films, as well as the opportunity to view them grouped thematically – Human Protagonists, Puppets and Theatre, Stop Motion, Claymation, Gothic Literature, Oppression, Tactilism etc. – each of the selections usefully identifying and explaining key themes in the director’s works.
The video quality on each of the films is probably about as good as it can be, and it’s often very good indeed. Most films are in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, but those films that are widescreen - J.S. Bach – Fantasy In G Minor (2.35:1) – are anamorphically enhanced. There are some minor marks on the prints, but by their nature they look like they are most likely on the original negatives. Surprisingly, these marks are few and far from problematic. In the main all the prints are perfectly clear, showing an excellent level of clarity, sharpness and accuracy of tone and colour. Occasionally some chromatic cross-colouration can be seen. The transfers are all perfectly stable and show scarcely any discernable sign of significant digital artefacts, macroblocking or edge-enhancement. Live-action and stop-motion animation each present their own challenges, but several films, such as A Quiet Week in the House, have to balance both elements, and they seem to manage rather well, though it can be difficult to judge when the colour tones are often manipulated for effect. The live-action short The Garden is remarkably clear and detailed, although some sequences appear to be highly contrasted with the whites looking a little washed-out.
The later films on disc 2 look the best. Occasionally small scratches are evident – as in Darkness, Light, Darkness - but I suspect that they are more likely to have been incurred in the stop-motion frame-advance process and consequently are there in the original negative. The Fall of the House of Usher has some minor video problems – cross-colouration and video noise, but post-1980, everything looks very impressive. The Pendulum, The Pit and Hope displays good clarity despite the overwhelming presence of shadows and darkness. Down To The Cellar is outstanding, showing sharpness, marvellous colour tones and deep, rich blacks. It’s not quite perfect - I think I detected some minor low-level noise wavering – but with the beautiful cinematography, it will still take your breath away. Despite the amount of stock footage used and old stills (a problem with evaluating the actual quality of many of the films), both Virile Games and The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia also look to be very clear and stable.
The producer of the DVD assures us that, short of striking brand new HD prints from the original negatives, the digitally restored transfers here represent the very best these films can look from the elements available, and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t think anyone could be disappointed by the video quality, particularly those works like Punch & Judy, Dimensions of Dialogue, Jabberwocky, Down To The Cellar and Food which all benefit from the clarity and detail present in them.
The original audio tracks are presented for each film in Dolby Digital 2.0 and the majority are without any noticeable flaws. The soundtracks are largely musical, folkish accordion arrangements, but occasionally benefiting from fine original orchestral and operatic vocal scores by Zdeněk Liša, all of which come across marvellously with the appropriate tone. Only The Flat demonstrated any kind of crackle and weakness among the early material. A measure of how good the audio tracks are is demonstrated in The Pendulum, The Pit and Hope, which is almost entirely made up of creaks, noises, squeaks of rats and associated sounds of horror and torture, and comes across most effectively.
English subtitles are present where required – often in films that have a narrator – and they are optional. Subtitles with captions for the hard of hearing captions are also available. The subtitles are all clearly visible and are easy to read. Extra features, documentaries and interviews are also all fully subtitled.
The extra features on Disc Three give a broader view of Jan Švankmajer’s work, showing early puppet film work, excerpts from a project undertaken in the years he was not making his own films, as well as documentaries and interviews. The 54-page booklet is also invaluable in presenting an overview of the director’s work, with detailed examination of each of the individual short films and documentaries.
The Extras are looked at in more depth on Page 4 of this review.
If not the sole director working in the field of experimental film using animation and surrealist techniques, Jan Švankmajer is certainly a touchstone and an important influence, his roots being firmly within the East European puppet theatre tradition, and with all the dark, nightmarish and bloody historical, political and cultural associations of Prague that include the Golem, Franz Kafka, the horrors of WWII, the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution. As a filmmaker and animator, Švankmajer draws on this history and tradition, but brings something new to the table, capable of marshalling an incredibly rich and varied range of tools and techniques to present objects, images, structures, form and ideas in a manner that strikes up a unique dialogue with the viewer. The humour, the horror and the sheer spectacle of these short films, collected for the first time in their entirety, represent a remarkable and unique body of work, one that has endless rewatch value to dip into now and again for favourite pieces or just to try and establish a connection to their often elusive meanings. The sense of wonder that they inspire will no doubt lead many to examine them frame-by-frame now that they have been so meticulously presented on DVD by the BFI, and no doubt influence another whole generation of experimental filmmakers. For that reason alone, this set must be essential viewing.
An in-depth look at the films themselves and extra features on the set with additional screenshots can be read on the following pages of this review.
The earliest Jan Švankmajer film in the set, The Last Trick alone displays many of the director’s typical characteristics and themes quite brilliantly. Using a mixture of live action, stop motion, puppetry and camera trickery, two living puppets, Mr Edgar and Mr Schwarzwald – actors wearing large papier-mâché heads – perform magic tricks for each other, with increasing levels of competitiveness that lead to a violent conclusion. On the surface it is a simple entertainment of surreal tricks, making inventive use of puppetry techniques, collage and clever editing – an imaginative and complete exploration of the capabilities of animation combined with cinema – but the underlying violence, broken heads and the unsettling presence of a black beetle that appears throughout give the whole film a much darker aspect. Švankmajer experiments further with his animation techniques in J.S. Bach – Fantasy in G Minor using music and textures to draw deeper spiritual elements and resonances out of animated inanimate objects. Using only shifting cracks, holes, and forms shaping themselves in doors, plaster and brick Švankmajer gets almost into Tarkovsky territory evoking scarcely definable undercurrents of memory and entropy by setting it to Bach music.
A combination of the form and content of the first two films informs the direction of the films made between 1965 and 1967 - a repetition of elements with the use of textures and music to evoke dark undercurrents of violence and death can be seen in A Game Of Stones, Punch & Judy, Et Cetera and Historia Naturae, Suita. Although all clockwork and rocks, it’s impossible not to recognise distinct living and human characteristics in the shapes and patterns of A Game of Stones, the rocks taking the form of eggs, blood corpuscles and human forms that lie somewhere between Henry Moore sculptures and Arcimboldo-like collages. By the end, the rocks break, are crushed and the machinery fails. The traditional battle of Punch and Joey in Punch And Judy sees the sinister hand-puppets taking turns to violently bludgeon each other in a battle for a guinea-pig, forcing each other’s dead bodies into coffins. (Švankmajer’s dynamic staging is no more astonishing than in one scene where a punch-drunk Joey sees multiple Punches bearing down on him from the roof of the house). Et Cetera’s three-part display of animated characters demonstrating the use of wings, a whip and a house, shows repetition et cetera ad infinitum, but within certain limitations, not least of which is the attempt to overcome the boundaries of the page itself upon which they are animated. The sting in the tale of each of these series of films culminates in Historia Naturae, Suita, in which animated dead, drawn, caged and stuffed animals, insects, fish, birds and mammals are reduced to skeletal form or are seen ultimately as food – even man himself.
The director’s first completely live-action short film The Garden, is nevertheless every bit as surreal as his animated work, when a man encounters and takes his place in a “living fence” made up entirely of people reduced to objects. Behind the surreal allegory, the The Party And The Guests-style political reading is just as clear. The theme of everyday household objects coming to life in a rather sinister fashion is even more evident in Švankmajer’s subsequent 1968-1969 films The Flat, Picnic With Weissmann and A Quiet Week in the House. With the advent of the Prague Spring in 1968, a political reading of these almost Kafkaesque films is inevitable, though being completely surreal in a typically Švankmajer manner the films resist such easy categorisation. In The Flat a man struggles to exist in an apartment in which every household object conspires against him in an inventively surreal manner, animated through stop-motion techniques. Inevitably, being a Švankmajer film, entropy and disorder prevail, forcing the man to admit defeat. His ultimate fate at the hands of these objects is perhaps revealed in Picnic With Weissmann, where similar household objects, freed from human ownership, enjoy an outdoor picnic, listening to gramophone records, eating grapes and playing with a ball. Inevitably, there is a dark punchline to this playful surrealism. The most dark and disturbing of these films is A Quiet Week in the House. Filmed like a spy movie with jerky black-and-white photography, a secret agent drills holes in the walls and doors of a house to regularly monitor the bizarre and quite disturbing transformations that are going on. Perhaps the most political of this series of films – although its “politics” cannot be simply defined – the dark abstract surrealism perhaps says even more about the period than any direct statement.
If The Garden, The Flat and A Quiet Week in the House hint at a sinister political climate that ordinary people are lost within, The Ossuary has an even more abstract sense of absurdity in the way it pokes fun at officiousness. Set in the incredible Sedlec ‘Bone Chapel’ of Kutuá Hora, containing piled up skeletons of 70,000 victims of the plague of 1318 and the Hussite wars arranged into chandeliers, altars and even a coat of arms, the visual impact is counterbalanced by the voice of a tour-guide relating the history of the ossuary and at the same time chiding the visitors to keep their hands off the displays. The names and dates scrawled on skulls in defiance of such authoritarianism despite the morbidity of the situation show how much this is heeded. The tour-guide soundtrack was banned and replaced by a jazzy score by Zdeněk Liška, a more official-sounding narrator and a poem by Jacques Prévert, which only adds to the overall sense of absurdity. Both soundtracks are included here. The Ossuary is a rare case of real-life being even more surreal than anything Švankmajer can conjure up, though he certainly has a hand in conveying its absurdity to the viewer.
Švankmajer’s studies and work in puppet theatre evidently informs much of his work, but the director always finds original ways of using the dark material and marionette techniques, experimenting with film techniques to bring something fresh and personal out of them. The same elements that made The Last Trick and Punch & Judy so dark, powerful and dynamic can also be found in Don Juan, the longest of Švankmajer’s early short films. Based on an old Czech puppet play, the film dresses up real locations and real-life actors to look like puppets on a stage and makes the most of the full range of options this affords. Švankmajer’s staging is simply magnificent – imaginatively and effectively drawing out the bizarre and almost surreal levels of dark humour and the horror that lie within the Don Juan tragedy.
Apart from puppet theatre, Švankmajer’s influences can also be found in the works of Breton, Buñuel, Arcimboldo, Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll, the latter two referenced in direct adaptations and full-length features …though often the manner in which they are presented is actually often far from direct. Jabberwocky opens with a child reading Carroll’s nonsense poem and confronts the nature of the stage of growth from child to adult, but it does so very much in a style that is Švankmajer’s own. The innocence of an animated playroom is revealed to have a rather more disturbing aspect, as apples are filled with maggots, dolls dismember and eat other baby dolls, toy soldiers are wiped out, an ornamental pen-knife impales itself and a black cat constantly interrupts the playing of a maze puzzle. Eventually, the spirit of the wild cat is caged within a very Švankmajer-like wardrobe where childhood clothes are abandoned and an adult suit hangs in readiness.
I don’t know whether Leonardo Da Vinci would also be considered an influence on Jan Švankmajer, but his importance in regards to art, science, ideas, imagination and invention would be difficult not to acknowledge. Leonardo’s Diary animates some of the artist’s sketches very beautifully (and unusually for Švankmajer as pure drawn animation), but cleverly juxtaposes those drawings with modern-day visual analogies in stock film footage. The imagery seems more playful than anything, but its references to contemporary society were deemed inappropriate by the authorities and his tampering with the film would lead to Švankmajer not being able to make his own films for the next seven years.
Having been subjected to official scrutiny and interference over the making of Leonardo’s Diary in 1972, Švankmajer was forced to resign from the Krátký Film production company and did not make any films of his own for seven years. Returning in 1979, The Castle of Otranto - based around a cut-out animation adaptation of the Horace Walpole novel - would seem to be a typical delving into mythology of the bloody sort for the director, but it is the framing device which seems more important here. The story is intercut with documentary footage between an academic researching the actual location of Otranto and a rather sceptical interviewer. Between the fantastical elements of the Walpole story itself and the pseudo-documentary, it is not too difficult to see a crying out for the necessity for freedom of expression and the imagination of the artist versus the rather stifling Party-line social realism. This is borne out in the film’s dedication “to researchers whose activities are founded on bafflement”.
The darkest realms of the imagination and the horrors that can lie within are explored by Švankmajer in his adaptations of two Edgar Allan Poe stories The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pendulum, The Pit and Hope. The former is more interested in evoking the sensations and tone of the piece than literally telling the story. A narrator reading abridged extracts is the only concession to plot in the film, and with a complete absence of characters, it is the imagery rather that represents the gothic tale through textures, elemental forces, rippling mud, crumpling walls, splintering wood, tangled animated tree roots, thunder and lightning, the camera exploring every dark corner of the house decaying under the weight of corruption. Comparatively less experimental, The Pendulum, The Pit and Hope is no less effective in depicting the horror of a prisoner subjected to implements of torture and death by viewing it from a point-of-view perspective and filming it in gothic black-and-white. There is precious little hope in the tale, the film taking place in almost complete darkness amidst torture devices, rats and menacing figures in cloaks, the only light bringing images of even greater horrors and death. Although the horror of the punishments is completely without context and almost an abstract meditation on terror, the film did not please the Czech authorities and the film was banned.
Abstraction is also the name of the game in Dimensions of Dialogue, which uses a familiar three-part structure and repetition of elements to illustrate means of communication and how it can fail. In Factual Dialogue, the “exchanges” are swallowed whole, ground down to pulp and spewed out repeatedly until they become meaningless and interchangeable, losing their initial integrity. Passionate Dialogue explores the physical communion between a man and a woman and the resultant product that comes between them. Exhaustive Dialogue would seem to work to mutual benefit, but exchanges are not always reciprocal and can be at cross purposes. Much more interesting than the themes here however are Švankmajer’s animation techniques, particularly the stunning claymation work, which is able to forcefully represent these abstract themes in a fascinating and meaningful way. The interacting and blending of characters through clay figures is also used to similar effect in Švankmajer’s animation for the Hugh Cornwell music promo video Another Kind Of Love, with an underlying violence to the relationship between the man and the woman.
Dimensions of Dialogue becomes a key work then in Švankmajer’s later short films, as does the use of claymation, animated in most cases by Bedřich Glaser. The use of clay allows the director to push even further his distortions, contortions and mutilations of the human body. Virile Games uses this to great effect in its Pythonesque satire of sport as an excuse of violent and sadistic behaviour for entertainment – Švankmajer’s gleeful inventiveness in the increasingly brutal dismemberments of the opposing teams capably and graphically rendered through the claymation techniques. Darkness, Light, Darkness is another accomplished piece of work in this style, a body being constructed piece by piece, each of the animated parts working together to build up a full body which, once complete, can barely fit in the room where it is contained. Along with the title, the film would seem to be a commentary on the experience of life.
Food and its Arcimboldo-like representation of human features is also very evident in Švankmajer’s short works. In Meat Love, where two slices of raw meet enjoy a brief romance before being thrown in a frying pan, it is at its most basic. When the claymation is employed in conjunction with food, Švankmajer’s ideas and themes are given full rein and become more sophisticated, such the decaying of fruit and vegetables in conjunction with the human body in the brief but visually rich and powerful Flora. Another tripartite piece, Dimensions of Dialogue is again referenced in Food the dialogues in question between characters here revolving around food becoming increasingly aggressive towards each other and against themselves to the level of cannibalism and even the eating of parts of one’s own body. The intimate nature of those parts of the body and a self-conscious motion at the end before consumption perhaps referring to the aggression against oneself that comes with the buying into the idea of cosmetic surgery.
Two of the latter short films stand apart from the usual Švankmajer themes and treatment. With its blend of live-action and animation, Down In The Cellar is however closely linked with the director’s feature film work, looking very much like an early version of Little Otik (2000). Although there is no voracious animated log figure here, a young girl’s journey to down to the cellar of an apartment block is nonetheless littered with similarly nightmarish representations of fears she has about the neighbours she encounters on the stairway. Strikingly photographed, the themes of the later feature are presented here in a much more concise form. The director’s techniques are certainly evident in The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, but the political nature of the subject is more direct than usual, and without any knowledge of the principal figures of Czech politics in the period 1968 – 1990, the viewer might fail to catch the nuances of this self-proclaimed piece of agitprop. Nuance however is perhaps not the intention, and it’s not too difficult to recognise the grander gestures directed against the State, Communism and Stalin, whose clay head is painted with the Czech flag and operated on in true Švankmajer style.
Disc Three’s extra features complement the set with additional material by Švankmajer outside his main body of short film work, as well as several documentaries and interviews that examine the variety of his other art and film projects.
Johanes Doktor Faust (Emil Radok, 1956) (17:22)
Švankmajer’s first piece of credited film work was as a puppeteer on Emil Radok’s magnificent and colourful piece of filmed puppet theatre, included in its complete form here. An important influence in the direction Švankmajer would take when making his own films – most notably a feature film Faust in 1994 - the puppet film displays now familiar characteristics of surrealism, dream sequences and inevitably a certain amount of horror. Significantly also, there is a score by Zdeněk Liša which is important in driving the story in the absence of dialogue. There is a narrator, but primarily the film aims to evoke mood, and the puppetry and direction achieves this most effectively. The print, although non-anamorophic, is presented in full 2.78:1 widescreen and looks marvellous.
Nick Carter in Prague (1977, 4:59)
During the period when he was unable to make his own films, Švankmajer worked as special effects designer on this fantastical spy-caper film. Selected clips from the film show Švankmajer’s signature puppet and stop-motion animation techniques and imagery in a carnivorous man-eating plant.
The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984, 53:35)
Commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, this is a surprisingly thorough look at an experimental filmmaker who would have been virtually unknown back in 1984. Film critics, art historians and artists examine Švankmajer’s techniques and themes, showing clips from his short films. There is no contribution from Švankmajer himself or any interviews, but he is quoted throughout by a narrator. The Quay Brothers contribute animated inserts (already included in the BFI’s The Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979 - 2003 set), illustrating the subject in their own inimitable way. The Quays are interviewed for a new filmed introduction (3:17) to the documentary, describing how they discovered Jan Švankmajer’s work and became involved in the production of the documentary.
Les Chimères des Švankmajer (2001, 58:17)
This superb French documentary gives an excellent overview of Jan Švankmajer and his wife Eva and a great insight into their personality and working methods, watching them at work on the making of the feature film Little Otik (2000) and putting together surrealist art pieces for a tour of their exhibition Anima Animus Animation. Both are interviewed throughout (as is briefly animator Bedřich Glaser), the soft-spoken Jan Švankmajer talking about his obsessions and the childhood traumas that feed his work.
Czech TV interview (2001, 8:57)
Part of a TV series on the history of Czech art and painting, this excerpt looks at Fantastical Art and in particular at Švankmajer’s fine art more so than his animation, though they can’t be easily separated. As well as briefly interviewing Jan Švankmajer, the programme also looks at and analyses the work of his wife Eva.
Lunacy Trailer (2005, 3:04)
The trailer for Jan Švankmajer’s latest film – just now receiving its UK theatrical release – is a dazzling riot of imagination, madness and disembodied tongues.