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

The Latter Third: Jan Svankmajer Says Goodbye to Communism and Short Films

by Chris Cantino
Nov. 19, 2011
As part of our continuing reprisal of Jan Svankmajer’s filmmaking history, Network Awesome is spotlighting videos from the latter third of his short film period, between 1983-1992. It was during these years that the trailblazing Czech surrealist took on themes of sex and politics for the first time, partnered with international corporations like MTV and Virgin, transitioned into a post-communist society, and, perhaps most notably, established an international audience. But achieving a pronounced increase of interest in his films was only possible after having overcome significant disruption to his process—Svankmajer’s sardonic portrayals of Czech life had landed him in the hot seat of the Czechoslavakian Communist Party (CCP), who were in the habit of banning his films for content they deemed offensive. In fact, by the time Down to the Cellar was released in 1972, Svankmajer was treading particularly lightly as he had just outlasted a seven year restriction on his filmmaking from 1972-1979. But the Iron Curtain was about to fall. The power of communism in the East was waning, and by the time the Velvet Revolution restored democracy to Czechoslovakia in 1989, Svankmajer was already crossing over to a new fanbase in the West.

Svankmajer, who describes himself as a “militant surrealist,” sees himself less as an animator and more as a puppeteer of sorts. As he says, “I never call myself an animated filmmaker because I am interested not in animation techniques or creating a complete illusion, but in bringing life to everyday objects.” The magic of Svankmajer’s films is that he isn’t concerned with preparing an environment for his creations to inhabit; rather, they are imagined from our own world, and Svankmajer has every intent of keeping them there. It is from this talent that springs the true wonderment inherent in his work: the palatable rendering of our subconscious fears, which draws attention to the surrealistic qualities of life's everyday occurrences which are often taken for granted.

After the jump, get to know a little more about a few selections from this week’s installment, and learn the answer to the question everyone is curious about: Is he eating what I think he’s eating?

Down to the Cellar (1983)
Because Svankmajer’s 1982 film Dimensions of Dialogue had again resulted in his work being banned by the CCP, he chose to film Down to the Cellar in Slovakia. The Kafkaesque film follows a young girl as she fetches potatoes from a cellar that is occupied by representations of her fears. Tellingly enough, Svankmajer also has a fear of the dark stretching back to his own childhood. After venturing into the blackness of the cellar, the girl witnesses a pack of fanged shoes fighting over a piece of bread. She ignores them and ventures further into the dark, where she discovers a man who is burying himself beneath a bed of coal and creepily invites her to do the same. Fearing his intention, she backs up and clangs into the opposite cell, where a woman offers her a sugar-powdered biscuit made of coal. The child flees in fear but soon notices another child in distress. This child turns out to be herself, and after sticking her tongue out at her own reflection (as thought she is teasing herself for being afraid of an imaginary force), she finally finds the crate housing the potatoes. She makes it back to the top of the staircase, but spills the basket of spuds when startled by a black cat. Back where she started, she takes a deep breath and bravely chooses to again descend into depths of the cellar.

The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope (1983)
A disconcerting adaptation of Poe’s "The Pit and the Pendulum", Svankmajer’s 1983 film is a harrowing first-person account of one’s brush with death at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. The nightmare is introduced with the protagonist receiving a death sentence, and awakening with his body tied down to a plank. His eyes adjust to the light and he notices a pull-chain, which he then tugs on warily. Unfortunately, this induces a pendulum blade to lower from the ceiling, which begins to swing with increasing momentum as it descends closer and closer to his vulnerable torso. Thinking quickly, the man finds a plate of food to his side which he rubs onto the ropes tying him down. A mischief of rats promptly scurries onto his stomach to feed upon the scraps, and they inadvertently sever the ropes enough for him to break free. But he is not safe yet. Looking above, he notices a mural of demons with fiery eyes on the ceiling, which begin to devour puppet people in an uncomfortably jerking animation. The wall suddenly descends upon the man, threatening to crush him beneath its weight, but he is able to jam the track the wall is on with a metal dish, once again saving himself from death. Attempting to escape, he navigates a complex series of hallways where various instruments of torture are being utilized. Seeing a crack of light from behind a dirt wall, he claws frantically at it until he is able to pull himself into safety. Or not. Sadly, he arises into the daylight only to be confronted by a figure in a black robe, who holds out his hands and delivers the film’s lone item of dialogue: “But my son, tomorrow could bring salvation... and you wanted to leave?" From the dramatic opening shot of a candle being blown out to the film’s unsavory ending, The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope is a classic Svankmajer exercise in the macabre, intended only to frighten and disturb.

Virile Games (1988)
Also known as The Male Game, Virile Games is a tale of indulgence and voyeuristic pleasure derived from witnessing physicality and violence. The film begins with a soccer fan arriving at his apartment and readying himself for a relaxing evening in front of the television. He has everything he needs to enjoy himself this evening: a pack of beer, a plate of cookies, a pot of beans, and a lively soccer match. The whistle blows, and the game begins. Stop-motion soccer squads kick the ball around a bit, but they are mostly concerned with muilating each other by various means, such as replacing one’s nose with a faucet, then opening the valve so that the hair, eyeballs, and eventually the entire head drain out. Train tracks are directed through the backs of skulls, and cookie cutters are used to carve out various features of the opponent’s faces. After a number of other creative disembowelments, the dead return to the game housed within their coffins and kick the ball around vigorously. All the while, our sadomasochist soccer fan gorges himself on beer and sucks sugar from his fingers, figuratively glued to the screen. Svankmajer also chooses to remain focused on the television—while his protagonist takes a bathroom break, the viewer is left alone to enjoy a momentary commercial break starring a litter of playful felines. At the end of the match, one of the players kicks the soccer ball off the screen and into the man’s bathroom sink. The soccer clubs naturally follow the action and arrive in his apartment, where the game continues. Finally, the film closes with a close-up of the now drunk and exhausted man scraping clay flesh and an eyeball from the seat of his pants, as he had inadvertently sat on and squished the head of one of the soccer players.

Another Kind of Love (1988)
Svankmajer’s only music video, “Another Kind of Love,” implants Svankmajer into the British post-punk scene with Stranglers’ frontman Hugh Cornwell. The project was funded by a consortium of Virgin Records, Nomad Films and Koninck International; owners of the latter two companies, Michael Havas and Keith Griffiths, were largely responsible for the stability of Svankmajer's film career over the next several years. The video is perhaps Svankmajer’s self-referential, recycling objects from several of his past films (e.g., the newspaper clippings from Punch and Judy or the sharp-toothed shoes from Down to the Cellar). Svankmajer had occasionally referenced sexuality in his early work, but the delivery was either sterile or uncomfortable. Never had Svankmejer presented these themes as overtly as he does here. Existing somewhere between the real world and Svankmajer’s made-up one, Cornwell sings awkwardly into the camera until he becomes attracted to his backing singer, who is fabricated entirely of clay. As his face is rearranged into various animal forms, Cornwell grows more and more persistent until she succumbs to his advances, and the two’s faces join together in an impossibly deep kiss. In the end, Cornwell enters into her against the wall, and she pulls him closer until he eventually disappears into the wall. It would seem that Svankmajer’s success here is his success of literally absorbing a pop star into his world.

Meat Love (1988)
This micro-short, commissioned by MTV, is perhaps Svankmajer’s best-known film. Thanks in part to its success, Svankmajer was able to crossover into the households of Western viewers, and the American film community was prompted to revisit and give credit to his earlier work. Clocking in at just one minute, Meat Love is a charming animation of anthropomorphised meat that succeeds at making you care about the fate of its leading couple regardless of how little time has passed. The sequence begins as one steak introduces itself to the other by smacking it feistily on the rear. Though dismayed, the harassed becomes endeared to the offender as they dance to ballroom music emitting from a 1970’s radio. Before long, the two embrace in a passionate lover’s tryst on a bed of flour for just moments before being tossed to their death into a frying pan. The fact that the meat used to be alive lends a tragic element to the film. Would we care as much about these star-crossed lovers had they been fillets of wood?

Darkness/Light/Darkness (1989)
A hand drags itself into a miniature room. Upon discovering his eyeballs, he inserts them into his fingertips. His other hand joins him and they begin to discover the rest of their body. Ears rap upon the window, flapping frantically in the sky like a moth seeking the light. His nose is puled from the back of a pig’s tail which turns out to be a whole head. A flesh and blood tongue slathers across the room and is accompanied by a pair of dentures and real brains. His feet burst from each side, smashing his face. An unknown object slams loudly on the door, causing the torso-less being to fall apart. A glass of water is fetched and thrown upon the clay monster to “cool it down,” and a moment later a contrite (and now flaccid) penis makes its entrance. In the end, we have a crudely formed clay being who is cramped uncomfortably inside the miniature room with no escape.

Flora (1989)
Another micro-short for MTV, this one flies by in just thirty seconds. Witness a clay female tied hand-and-foot to bed posts as she is subsumed entirely by, you guessed it: flora. Vegetables burst through her skin, decomposing as maggots are birthed from her stomach. The only thing that can be heard is overwhelming traffic noise and a synthetic siren, and in the final frames we see our vegetarian goddess struggling to hydrate herself with a glass of water, which remains just out of reach. Ignored by the world outside, she dies privately, chained and unable to sustain herself.

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990)
If you don’t know Czech history from 1948 to 1989, when communism ruled the country, you’d be easily lost here, because there isn’t any dialogue, and it’s entirely political. Thirty years into his career at this point, Svankmajer was finally able to make a definitive political statement as the CCP had finally dissolved a year earlier. Made in the UK for the BBC, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia dissects the top-level politics of communist history, and is rife with symbolism but presented in a remarkably linear and objective format compared to Svankmajer’s prior productions. The film begins with a shot of a collapsing building, and shortly after arrives in an operating room in which a surgeon is slicing into the head of clay Stalin. The ceramic visage of Klement Gottwald, longtime president of CCP, is pulled from his head and disconnected by the severing of an umbilical cord. The head is promptly spanked and made to cry like an infant, and then delivers an enthusiastic Stalinist speech, much to the approval of his country’s people who would adopt that philosophy for the next 40 years. Workers on an assembly line manufacture expendable clones that are sent off to work at the factories, and dissidents are promptly killed off while industry booms and profits go through the roof. Suddenly, a skull devours Stalin’s portrait, symbolic of his death. Khrushchev briefly appears from beneath a blanket of corn kernels, which are representative of his unsuccessful campaign to cultivate corn throughout the Soviet Union, but he is quickly bundled up and recycled as Era of Stagnation leader Leonid Brezhnev succeeds him, prompting a downhill tumble of rolling pins through the streets which serve to flatten out various symbols of industry. A skull again arrives to digest Brezhnev at the height of his personality cult, and the film flashes briefly through three less remarkable Soviet leaders before zoning in on the Mikhail Gorbachev. Perestroika ensues with orgiasmic imagery, and eventually a frame housing photos of the USSR’s leading men falls to the floor and shatters with the dismantiling of that republic. We then jump to a depiction of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, where Stalin’s bust is being painted over with the colors of the Czech flag. The repurposed Stalin is again operated upon, and a nameless baby is exhumed from within his brain, representing the unknown future of the soon-to-be-birthed Czech Republic, and, in a way, Svankmajer’s own future.

Food (1992)
Could Svankmajer’s food issues ring any louder? Jan tells of his early history with food, “I was a non-eating child—my mother always forced me to eat.” Svankmajer’s final short film kicks off with the first meal of the day, in a world where people devour sausages retrieved from each other’s stomach cavities as though they were a human vending machine. At lunch, when a couple is ignored by their waiter, they decide to eat whatever they can get—literally. They eat flowers from a vase, they eat their plates. They even eat their shoes, and continue to chow away at their own clothing until they sit naked. Once the table and chairs become victims of their appetite, there is nothing left to eat, except for each other. If cannibalism didn’t take things far enough, just wait until you see what is served for dinner, as various persons enhance their autophagic experience by flavoring their own body parts with garnishes and condiments before digging in. The film ends on a humorous note when the final diner shoos away the cameraman, cupping his hands over something he’d only eat in private: his own penis and testacles.

Furthur reading (and sources):

Nottingham, Michael, Downing the Folk-Festive: Menacing Meals in the Films of Jan Svankmajer, EntertText, Issue 4.1, Winter 2004/2005

Wendy Wilson, “The Surrealist Conspirator, An Interview with Jan Svankmajer”, Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.3, June 1997

Peter Kral, “An Interview with Jan Svankmajer”, Positif , no. 297, November 1985 (via Rosewood Graphics)

Taubman, William (2003), Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, W.W. Norton & Co.,5 (via Wikipedia)



Chris Cantino smokes, drinks, and skips breakfast every day. In his spare time he enjoys cooking pork, building his characters up to level 99, and playing in the band Archers. Chris supervised a unit at a mental hospital for several years which thoroughly traumatized him, but has since begun to recover since directing himself toward a future in writing. He often wonders why most towels are white or if that is even true, and as he writes in the third person, he feels like a fucking tool. You can find Chris's work in the Portland Mercury, on Intothewoods.TV, and elsewherelike right here!