The Short Films of Jan Švankmajer

[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, David Guerrini-Nazoa. The assignment was to produce a set of screening notes that might be of use to first time viewers of a set of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Feedback in the comments section below would be most welcome.]

Jan Švankmajer is a renowned Czech filmmaker, who has been continually cited as an immensely influential Eastern European animator. His influence can be said to have had an impact on the western cinema of animation as a whole, even though at the start of his career as a filmmaker his work was screened by the Czech communist government, and later nearly completely repressed from 1970s to the 1980s – in fact it was only after that period in which he expanded from his short films into full feature-length films. In terms of origins, his inspirations rise from his childhood experiences, Czech surrealism, communist censorship suffered and the folk tradition of Central Europe, especially notable for drawing on gothic influences. In fact, Švankmajer tells that his artistic interests began when he was given a puppet theatre for Christmas as a child; one especially can see an obvious link to this in his first short film, The Last Trick (1964).

Figure 1

Here two magicians, with heads made out of papier-mâché and clockwork machinery, take turns performing tricks on a bare wooden stage against a pitch-black backdrop. The film concludes on a rather violent note, as after a series of particularly aggressive handshakes the pair quite literally tears each other apart, till all that remains are two floating arms fiercely grasping each other (Fig.1).

This film shows some of the themes that would reoccur in his later work – violence, destruction, and a breakdown of communications, the style of film that can be noted to prelude his turn towards surrealism. However, while there is stop-motion animation in this film, it is hardly to the same extent as used in his later ones, with the majority of this in live-action with the tricks of magical movement done in koroko style utilising the black backdrop. The resulting film creates somewhat unsettling images, which are repulsive and fascinating at once, such as the one created by the fat black beetle crawling out of ears and on pictures of ladies combined with a series of visuals with added layers of depth and meaning. This is not simply some ‘trick’ film, but a combination of humour and the grotesque.

The degree of progression from this early film, and the influence of joining the Czech Surrealist Group and his marriage to Eva Švankmajerová, a surrealist painter, can be observed in some of his later work, such as Jabberwocky (1971). This film utilises a variety of found objects not made for the film, brought to life via a wide variety of stop-motion animation techniques. Starting with Lewis Carroll’s poem being read out by a child to the scene of a wardrobe moving through a forest, the film is set within the space of a child’s play area (Fig.2), within which, a series of what could be called ‘adventures’ or events occur using inanimate items brought, rather bizarrely to life, that result in the symbolic growing-up, or an escape from childhood.

Figure 2

The impact of surrealism makes it difficult to summarise this film, much is occurring amongst scenes of violence and destruction, in which toys are constantly created and destroyed or changed, with the last scenes having the picture of the father figure vandalised by a blob of ink escaping a maze and the room via the window. This, as described by Nottingham, can be seen as a commentary on the repression of the communist regime and the censorship imposed on freedom of expression (the blob of ink running away, having the last laugh by vandilising the picture).

Also quite present, and arguably present even in The Last Trick even if to a much lesser degree, is the subject of food. Švankmajer openly talks in interviews about his ‘obsession’ with the subject of food within his films stretching back from his childhood as a ‘non-eater’. In Jabberwocky, this can be quite plainly observed in the scene of ‘doll cannibalism’, where dolls at a table are seen to be cooking and eating smaller dolls, which has also been seen as a metaphor for Švankmajer view of the Czech socio-political during the communist government’s ‘normalisation’ period (Fig.3).

Figure 3

Thus, Jabberwocky is another sinister yet fascinating creation; unfortunately, in conjunction with The Ossuary, it was perceived by the Communist Czech government to have an undermining message and sparked the repression and censure of his film making. And it is the latter that would confine his work and reputation to Czechoslovakia till about the 1980s.

Today, Švankmajer is well known for his use of stop-motion animation particularly with clay, otherwise known as claymation. This is mainly due to the fact that when he did become more known to the Western cinema as a whole, one of the first widely distributed was Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).

Figure 4

This film is a trilogy of different types of discussions, presented through a media of claymation. ” Exhaustive discussion”, “Passionate Discourse” and ” Factual Conversation” (Fig.4)  are portrayed through absurdity of surrealism and the cultural background of heads styled similar to Arcimboldo’s (an Italian artist who worked in the courts of Prague during the 1500’s and admired by surrealist artists). It also hinges heavily on images of the mouth, eating and food. Also, violence and destruction are also at the fore in each of the discourses, whether it be figures consuming, tearing, or exhausting their partners in various forms. Due to his then recent liberation from political repression, this topic easily links back to a newfound freedom that enables Švankmajer to actually engage in discussion without state-enforced limitations.

While Švankmajer made many more films, not all animated or short, arguably one can capture the progression he made as an artist, noting the continuities and changes over the course of his career, via a selection of his short animated films. And even though the context in which he made his films has changed dramatically, mainly due to the collapse of communism, his films to this day continue to demonstrate the same gothic and macabre style, pioneering novel styles of stop-motion animation that are fascinating to watch.

Works Cited

Filmography:

©David Guerrini-Nazoa, 2010

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One thought on “The Short Films of Jan Švankmajer

  1. Nice charting of influences and good designating of the different animations forms… personally I think the notes for Dimensions of Dialogue are the sketchiest of the three. I’m not sure about this sentence:

    ‘”Exhaustive discussion”, “Passionate Discourse” and ” Factual Conversation” (Fig.4) are portrayed through absurdity of surrealism and the cultural background of heads styled similar to Arcimboldo’s (an Italian artist who worked in the courts of Prague during the 1500’s and admired by surrealist artists).”‘

    …since it’s only really the first part which wears its Arcimboldo influence on its sleeve and it is too important an influence to go unexplained (and it’s a bit of an awkward sentence!)

    Also, it strikes me as significant that Jabberwocky is so much more explicitly Freudian (well, Kleinian perhaps) than those films made before Švankmajer joined the Surrealist Group, so perhaps a nod to that could be made? Plus – I’m nitpicking with a desire to be helpful, but apologies if it does come off as nitpicking – it would seem remiss to have Švankmajer screening notes without some mention of editing technique!

    Hope that helps! :)

    P.S. I found out last week that I got a distinction for my dissertation so thank you for the part you played through proofreading the first chapter!

    - Adam

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