I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

I Object! Jan Svankmajer, Small Rebellions, and Objects

by Kristen Bialik
Nov. 12, 2011
On top of having a great last name, Jan Svankmajer is a master Czech animator who has been making films for over 60 years. Often called the “alchemist” of the surreal, Svankmajer was born in Prague in the early 30s, studied puppetry at the College of Applied Arts in Prague, and continues to make films in Prague at age 77 today. The place where Svankmajer’s imaginations take form is worth noting because, having grown up in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule, Svankmajer was not just imagining but producing wild, surreal films for over four decades under an oppressive, Stalinist regime.

Svankmajer himself has said that he was “steeped” in Prague, and though the city of the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge is hardly present in his films, the Prague of his child is everywhere in his movies. It’s there in the “chipped walls, the dirty staircases of blocks of flats, mysterious cellars, hidden courtyards, the suburbs.” The fact that Svankmajer’s works slipped under the radar, or at least around the censors, is sort of amazing considering the dark influence of the city, the untamed fantasy, and the often highly politicized nature of his works.

Svankmajer’s The Ossuary, for example, was filmed not long after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. This, after the failed liberalization and attempted loosening of media and speech restrictions of the Prague Spring, ushered in a period of harsh cultural repression on the part of the new regime. Artists, and Czech New Wave filmmakers especially, were particularly favored in the harassment department. Lucky for Svankmajer (and Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton, and a whole gang of other filmmakers who’d go on to cite Svankmajer as a major influence), making short films was not only cheap, but ignored! While the more visible comrades in feature film studios faced humorless Stalinists, Svankmajer was filming sculptures made of 70,000 human bones.

Still, even he had to outwit the Party watchdogs. The Ossuary was originally commissioned as a “cultural documentary,” a form thought to be politically innocuous. And as top-notch historical site, the Sedlec Monastery Ossuary seemed like just that - a sufficiently dry topic with subjects unable to make a fuss. But then there was death, and that touchy subject religion, and even vandalism of the sacred with little boy’s scrawled signatures over the medieval remains. There is a recurring shot where Svankmejer pans up from the empty eyes of the skull to the top of the head, where vandals have imprinted their names over the now-gone minds of the former occupants. It’s a vastly unsettling image. What a strange compulsion, you realize, to brand a human body in this way, to lay claim to the remains of a hundred-year old disease. It’s an eerie portrait of physical and moral decay and with it there’s a tiny defiance if only in grimness that frowns upon the eternal optimism of the official communist Party line.

It’s probably not a coincidence under such a climate that Svankmajer refers to surrealism not as an aesthetic form but as mental liberation. Svankmajer explains, “I speak of Surrealism in film. Surrealism is psychology, it is philosophy, it is a spiritual way, but it is not an aesthetic. Surrealism is not interested in actually creating any kind of aesthetic. It was drawn as an element from various different artists, but it does not exist.” Not in any physical or visual form anyway. That’s where the objects come in.

Svankmajer movies are like brilliant and strange junk drawer animations. There are always unexpected objects, forgotten articles, and little fetishized collections. Inanimate objects come to life, not as pieces being moved by invisible hands but as entities with their own personalities and memories. Svankmajer said, “For me, objects are more alive than people, more permanent and more expressive – the memories they possess far exceed the memories of man. Objects conceal within themselves the events they’ve witnessed. I don’t actually animate objects. I coerce their inner life out of them – and for that animation is a great aid which I consider to be a sort of magical rite or ritual.”

In Picnic With Weissmann, this idea is running as wild as the chairs. The domestic objects of the human world are at play and on their own in a green, summer field. Childlike chairs roll down hills and dance to self-selecting record players. Cards and chess games flip and check their pieces. Clothes indulge in olives and spit the pits while a little shovel busies itself in digging a hole. Through all of this, the camera cuts to antique, Victorian-style photographs of people on a cabinet. In the rustling field, alive with artifacts, the faces of human beings are the only figures unmoving. At last there is another human, but he can’t move either. In the end, all of the objects are buried under mounds of autumn leaves that fall like cartoon rain clouds, targeting a select victim while the rest of the world stays dry. But it doesn’t matter. As Svankmajer believes, the objects are far more alive. We’ve seen it in their dancing. Besides, even though they’re buried like humans the difference is that they’re buried in a topical way. The leaves will scatter with a half-hearted breeze, will whittle down into the grass, their piles turned to a paper-thin and unobtrusive layer. Come spring, it seems, the objects will be unearthed and will play again. The human lives, though, will not. They are buried far too deep for that.
It’s interesting; Svankmajer’s fascination with objects, considering how averse he is to a mass culture whose primary media culture is bent on selling objects. When asked about the differences between creating film under a communist and then capitalist regime, Svankmajer said that though he faces no real censorship now, “This utilitarian, profit-chasing civilisation, doesn’t need authentic work. The new iconographic art is now advertising and mass culture, because if advertising were to fail, civilization would collapse, and mass culture is supposed to entertain the masses in their free time so that they don’t think about their poor lot and take to the streets. I don’t intend to do either.” But if surrealism is as Svankmajer says it is (and after all, he’s the alchemist), then perhaps it all makes sense that such surface contradictions would collide over something very real. If surrealism is truly a an exploration of our reality, a journey into the soul, a way of life, a way of thinking about life, and a way of bending life, then the political circumstances don’t really matter that much. Truths and changes alike will all be twisted.

Other Resources:
Jan Svankmajer biography at Zeitgeist Films
Excerpts from Jan Svankmajer’s diary at Kinoeye
New York Times movie review for Jan Svankmajer: Alchemist of the Surreal
Interview with Jan Svankmajer about Otesanek at Kinoeye
Interview with Jan Svankmajer and Eva Svankmajerova at Kamera.co.uk

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.