World-renowned surrealist Jan Švankmajer turns 85

Jan Švankmajer, photo: Šárka Ševčíková / Czech Radio

One of the world’s most acclaimed surrealist filmmakers Jan Švankmajer turned 85 on Wednesday. His signature surreal style, which relies on stop-motion animations and exaggerated sounds, has not only created many world renowned films in the genre, but also influenced other major artists such as Terry Gilliam and Jose Garcia Moreno.

Jan Švankmajer,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková / Czech Radio
Absurd, comical, but also terrifying, Jan Švankmajer’s films are hard to describe to those who haven’t seen them.

Švankmajer himself often describes his films as “imaginative”. A genre he recently explained in an interview with Czech Radio.

“Imaginative film differs from normal acted film, because it works with analogy, metamorphosis and symbolism. Everything can carry some sort of meaning there.”

The artist’s first entry into film came in 1964, when he made The Last Trick, features actors but also puppets. The latter have fascinated Švankmajer from an early age and would become a signature imprint on his style that is sometimes described as “theatre in film”.

In the following five years he made a total of 10 short films and his career seemed to be ascending. However, it was suddenly interrupted by the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Shocked, the artist, who had put his name under the famous 1968 manifesto Two Thousand Words, which called for the liberalisation of Czechoslovakia, emigrated to Austria. However, only a year later, in 1969, he decided to return home.

As the communist “normalisation” policy tightened its grip on Czechoslovakia, Švankmajer saw a number of his films banned and for much of the 1970s was not allowed to make movies either. Švankmajer therefore moved into theatre, becoming a scenographer, while also making art and special effects, for the Barrandov film studios in Prague.

However, once his ban on filmmaking ended in 1979, the surrealist artist became active on his own projects again.

His first feature length film Alice, which came out in 1988, was a loose dark fantasy adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s famous Alice in Wonderland. It was welcomed as “extraordinary” and “astonishing” by Western film critics, many of whom had become acquainted with Švankmajer’s 1960s work through an exhibition at France’s Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 1983.

His work has since become a subject of analysis at Western film schools and artists such as Mexican animator José García Moreno have described him as a major influence.

After the fall of communism, Švankmajer dedicated much of his time to making full length surrealist films. These have since been awarded 5 Czech lions.

Furthermore, Jan Švankmajer himself has received a number of awards, including the Chrystal Globe at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for his contribution to filmmaking.

Those who love Švankmajer’s work were sad to hear him announce that the surreal comedy Insects, which came out in 2018, would be his last feature film.

Recently asked by Czech Radio which of his creations he is most proud of, the 85-year-old said he was unsure, but hinted at the timelessness of his work.

“Some of those films one likes more, some less. I have to say however that preference changes with time, because these films are imaginative. Therefore some of them have become relevant again today.”