4) Jan Švankmajer: Life through a surrealist prism

'Dimensions of Dialogue', photo: archive of Prague City Gallery

In the fourth episode of our series Masters of Czech Animated Film we present Jan Švankmajer, a Czech Surrealist artist, puppeteer, animator, and filmmaker whose work transcends borders. His films, the most famous of which are Alice, Little Otik, or the shorts Food and Dimensions of Dialogue, have received dozens of awards.

The surrealist filmmaker, known for his avant-garde use of three-dimensional stop-motion coupled with live-action animation has influenced Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and others. His films were never mainstream, and their themes and visuals are rather challenging to interpret. Švankmajer explained his filmmaking approach in an interview for Czech Radio.

Jan Švankmajer,  photo: Jindřich Nosek,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“I don’t really have the audience in mind while making my films. That may sound rather stuck up. But I approach all my work, whether it is a film, a collage, or anything else, as a form of self-expression. So you have to be absolutely authentic, you can’t be thinking about if the audience will like and understand the film. I think that since I’ve grown up in this society and am part of this civilization, not some creature different from everybody else, my feelings and impressions will be shared by some other people. Perhaps not by everyone. I have never claimed to make films for everybody.”

Švankmajer’s interest in art began at a young age when he received a puppet theatre set from his parents. The future director went on to study at the College of Arts and Crafts in Prague and the puppetry department of the Academy of Performing Arts. At first, he worked in theatre, spending two years as a director at Prague’s Laterna Magika. In 1964, Švankmajer made his first short film, The Last Trick. In the so-called normalization years in the 1970s, the authorities hindered and eventually banned Švankmajer from making films.

In 1983 his stop frame masterpiece Dimensions of Dialogue received awards at film festivals in Annecy and Berlin. His first feature film, Alice (1987) brought international acclaim. In the early 1990s, Švankmajer and producer Jaromír Kallista founded the Athanor film studio in a former cinema in the small Bohemian village of Knovíz. There, the director went on to make Faust (1994) and Little Otik (2000), which were also well received by critics. In his later work, Švankmajer used unique animation techniques, using live actors to make animated photography. Video editor Jan Daňhel explains how the Czech filmmaker‘s approach to animation differs from other creators.

Jan Daňhel,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio

“He has an animistic approach. He believes that every object that somebody has touched has its memory and history and that it is possible to recreate these memories through animation. He doesn’t just make the characters move: he animates them in the sense that they come alive and show a certain hidden life.”

With a runtime of just one minute, Meat Love (1989) is one of Švankmajer’s shorter movies. It features two raw strips of meat that fall in love with each other. They dance and roll around in flour before being fried on a pan. Food appears as a theme not only in Švankmajer’s shorts but also in his feature films. The director told Czech Radio what food represents in his work.

“There’s two levels, or meanings, to it. The first is that I was the kind of kid who refused to eat. I even had to be in a wheelchair for a time because I was too weak to walk. They did not accept me at school, and my parents sent me to “feeding camps” where they would force us to eat. So, I have some personal trauma on that front. On the other hand, I also think that food is a sort of symbol of this consumerist and cannibalistic civilization, which sort of devours everything before digesting and secreting it in the form of money. That is why the mouth is a big detail in my films – I even choose actors based on their mouths and eyes. I consider the mouth to be a symbol of this civilization’s aggressivity.”

Adam Oľha,  Jan Švankmajer,  photo: Czech Television

Criticism of modern civilization is present throughout Švankmajer’s work, as cameraman Adam Ol’ha, who has worked with the director, explains.

“He uses his work as a platform for constant critique. I admire his uncompromising style and how he is always able to honestly articulate things that people are afraid to say. His work is very direct and thus allows for contemplation. Our civilization is indeed based on ideas that we humans have created without taking into account basic, foundational aspects. Our so-called development has allowed us to live comfortably and not think about the spiritual things in the realm of dreams and magic, which many nations used to consider essential.”

Whole books have been written about Švankmajer’s sources of inspiration and creative style. A documentary about the filmmaker entitled Alchemical Furnace came out last year. It was made by the Czech-Slovak duo of documentarists Jan Daňhel and Adam Ol’ha, who collaborated with the Czech director on his 2018 film, Insects. The documentary creatively catalogues Švankmajer’s work as a director, animator, and artist. It also shines a light on the filmmaker’s personality.

'Alice',  photo: © Channel Four Films

In the documentary, Jan Švankmajer talks about how his childhood is reflected in his films. The director had a kind but strict mother, who did not hesitate to punish him when he misbehaved and who once made him kneel on a grater. That was a very strong sensory experience for the future filmmaker, and one which made its way into his work. Adam Ol’ha explains the importance of the sense of touch in Švankmajer’s films.

“We use touch every day, but we do not focus on it as we do on sight or sound. The unfamiliarity of touch can awaken not just a person’s thoughts but also memories of a certain time in childhood when one is just starting to get acquainted with the surrounding world. And Švankmajer wants to preserve this feeling up to his later work so that he can keep being reminded of his first encounters with different things. His whole work is based on that first time moment, which is why it speaks to so many people and can bring out feelings which are impossible to evoke with normal animation.”

Food, touch, childhood, and dreams are the main themes of Švankmajer’s films. The director told Czech Radio about how the subconscious inspired his wider work and the 2010 film Surviving Life specifically.

Jan Švankmajer in 'Surviving Life',  photo: Czech Television

“In all my films, I use a certain dream logic which combines reality with the tilted reality of our dreams. But I had never made a film that was directly inspired by a specific dream. Instead, I would use the fantastical character of dreams in general. Here (in the film Surviving Life), I used a specific dream which I had had and thought ‘that could be a movie’. So I thought of a plot to continue what started in my dream, which I considered inspirational enough to carry a whole film. I had always wanted to make a film in which dream intertwines with reality in such a way that the viewer stops being able to tell which is which. So the whole beginning of the film comes from one of my dreams.”

Švankmajer’s films have received critical acclaim and drawn audiences across the world. Ol’ha explains what he thinks are the reasons behind that international success.

'Insects',  photo: CinemArt

“Jan Švankmajer’s international acclaim stems from the fact that his films speak a universal language. It is not all about visuals and sounds. His work goes much deeper, touching on the sources from childhood that spark the imagination. And he uses that in his films. Anyone can very easily get in touch with their childhood no matter if they come from Japan or Mexico. The process is the same. His films have no imprint of a specific civilization. They are a critique of society that cuts across different political systems and other differences. That’s why his language is universal and can work even in Japan.”

Since making the film Insects, Švankmajer has written two novels. Today he continues to work on an enormous series of paintings and has started making a new film. It will focus on the director’s “cabinet of curiosities”, his vast collection of artifacts, fetishes, and other occult objects.