Jan Švankmajer’s beginnings as a filmmaker date from the Prague Spring of 1968. Czechoslovakia’s own New Wave cinema had already been flourishing for a few years. In this political and artistic context, Švankmajer (b. 1934) made a handful of anarchic, daring short works until the inevitable run-in with government censors in 1972 that ended with a seven-year ban on filmmaking in the context of the Czech New Wave and the Prague Spring. He returned to cinema in the 1980s, although his situation remained difficult until the Velvet Revolution got under way at the end of that decade, by which time Svankmajer had forged an international reputation and was beginning to make feature films.
Švankmajer is often referred to as an animator and his films display a wide variety of techniques, including puppetry, clay figures and stop-motion animation. Crucially, all of these techniques are imbedded within a live-action frame. Švankmajer uses animation not to create a fictional world but rather to reveal the hidden life of the real world. As Švankmajer has put it, “I am interested not in animation techniques or creating a complete illusion, but in bringing life to everyday objects." This remark reveals Švankmajer as a surrealist filmmaker, recalling as it does Lautréamont’s famous phrase, “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table."
For Švankmajer, surrealism is not an aesthetic movement but a philosophy, an approach to the world that rejects the tyranny of rationalism as akin to totalitarianism. Cinema affords the opportunity of a rich engagement with the material world that allows the unconscious to flourish. Hence his love of making creatures out of old objects whose imperfections reveal their tactile history.
Until recently, Švankmajer had a crucial partner: Eva Švankmajerová (1940-2005), a surrealist painter and ceramicist as well as Švankmajer’s wife. She worked on the production design and animation of virtually all of his films, particularly the construction of the object-creatures. The two also collaborated on a series of art pieces in the 1970s, while Švankmajer was banned from filmmaking.
The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to present a program of Švankmajer’s short works accompanied by some of his more audacious early features.The Jan Svankmajer touring retrospective was organized by Irena Kovarova with additional support from the Czech Center New York.
While Švankmajer has said that he considers all of his work political, the political nature of his animation is perhaps most apparent in his short films, the majority of which were created before the shift to feature filmmaking in 1986 and before the dissolution of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992.
Czechoslovakia 1968, digital video, b/w, 13 min
Czechoslovakia 1968, digital video, b/w, 19 min. Czech with English subtitles
Czechoslovakia 1971, 35mm,color, 12 min. In English
Czechoslovakia 1983, 35mm, color, 11 min
UK 1988, digital video, color, 4 min. In English
Czechoslovakia 1989, digital video, color, 1 min
Czechoslovakia 1989, digital video, color, 1 min
UK/Czechoslovakia 1992, 35mm, color, 17 min
Directed by Jan Švankmajer. With Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmová, Barbora Hrzánová
Czech Republic/Switzerland 1996, 35mm, color, 75 min
Perhaps the most experimental of Švankmajer’s feature films, Conspirators of Pleasure has no dialogue but features a baroque narrative, concerning a group of people each of whom has developed his or her own elaborate autoerotic rituals involving food, inanimate objects and occasionally other living beings. Conspirators is thus that rare object: a truly perverse film, one that suggests that there is a domain of solitary eroticism, wherein sexuality is meant not to unite two (or more) people but rather becomes a vehicle for the imagination. With its refusal of dialogue, the film forces the spectator to become a fellow conspirator, filling in the gaps in the chain that link Švankmajer’s perverts.
Directed by Jan Švankmajer. With Kristyna Kohoutová, Camilla Power
Czechoslovakia/Switzerland/UK/West Germany 1988, 35mm, color, 86 min. Czech with English subtitles
There are now countless versions of the Lewis Carroll Alice books, but Švankmajer’s mix of live action and stop-motion animation returns to those elements of the books that have made them so revered by artists and intellectuals. Švankmajer himself described the difference between his version and the family-friendly adaptations: the latter treat the Alice books as a fairy tale, complete with a moral and with good triumphing over evil; Švankmajer considers the books the expression of a dream, in which repressed urges win out over rational thought. Švankmajer’s Alice is both the protagonist and the narrator, in line with the filmmaker’s stated belief that his own childhood thoughts are the source of his creativity.
Directed by Jan Švankmajer. With Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl,
Czech Republic/UK/Japan 2001, 35mm, color, 132 min. Czech with English subtitles
In this grotesque meditation on parenthood and on the insatiable appetite of infantile digestive systems – and infantile libidos – Švankmajer updates a dark Czech folk tale to present-day Prague. When a married couple realizes they can’t have children like everyone around them, they fashion an infant out of a tree root and nurse it until it comes to amoral, ravenous life. While the story has plentiful cinematic precedents – from Frankenstein to Pinocchio to Eraserhead to It’s Alive – this film revels in Švankmajer’s patented perverse, deadpan surrealism.