Free Radical

By Michael Brooke

Jan Švankmajer

The visionary cinema of Czech Surrealist Jan Švankmajer offers a startling critique of contemporary society and values

Summer 2007 is shaping up to be the best time to be a British Jan Švankmajer fan since 1986, when the films of the Czech Surrealist genius were first distributed and promoted over here in significant quantities. The first two weeks of June see a major retrospective at BFI Southbank, including the first British commercial run of his fifth feature Lunacy, screened at last year's London Film Festival but premiered in Prague in late 2005. At the same time, BFI DVD Publishing is releasing a triple-disc edition of his complete short films, including several UK premieres and numerous extras. July sees an updated second edition of Peter Hames' Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer (Wallflower Press), and there's talk of a collaboration with Tate Modern as well as UK DVD releases of the rest of the features.

A native Prague artist par excellence (the city rarely features explicitly in his work, but its peculiar magic imbues its entire spirit), Švankmajer was born on 4 September 1934. He initially trained as a stage designer and director at Prague's School of Applied Arts and later at DAMU, the Prague Theatre School, which offered the only professional course in puppetry anywhere in the world. 1958 saw two crucial encounters, firstly with the director Emil Radok, his first great creative mentor (Radok's puppet film Johanes doktor Faust, included on the new BFI DVD, features Švankmajer's first screen credit), and, more importantly, with the painter Eva Dvoáková. Jan and Eva married in 1960, and remained inseparable creative partners until her death in October 2005. A French documentary by Bertrand Schmitt and Michel Leclerc, Les Chimères des Švankmajer (2001), explores various facets of their creative dialogue and is also included on the BFI DVD.

Švankmajer then worked at the Semafor Theatre, where he founded the Theatre of Masks before rejoining Radok at the multimedia Laterna Magika. His first film as director, The Last Trick (1964), drew on already-familiar theatrical techniques, involving actors disguised as giant puppets. Until an enforced hiatus in 1973, he produced a steady output of roughly two films a year, most of which made some use of animation, though he has always resisted characterisation as an animator per se. This early work is more varied than what came later, with a sense of groping for a consistent style to match his hyperactive imagination, but the third crucial encounter of his life, with the Surrealist writer Vratislav Effenberger, determined his subsequent orientation. Jan and Eva Švankmajer formally joined the Czechoslovak Surrealist Group in 1970.

alice-jan-svankmajer.jpgAlice, 1987

The 1970s were turbulent times for Švankmajer, not least after he was banned from making his own films from 1973-79. Instead, he worked as a special effects designer at Prague's Barrandov Studios (where his creations included a man-eating plant with a tongue as distinctive as a signature – this was for Oldich Lipský's 1977 comedy Nick Carter in Prague, excerpts from which are included on the BFI DVD), and devoted more time to his fine art. Major projects included the collage encyclopaedia Švank-Meyers Bilderlexikon (1972-3), a series of ceramics produced in collaboration with Eva under the pseudonym J.E (or E.J.) Kostelec, and his tactile experiments, the latter exploring the aesthetic and philosophical properties of touch. These would influence his subsequent films, notably The Fall of the House of Usher (1980), a film he was only allowed to make because it was an adaptation of an "approved" literary work.

The early 1980s saw several major masterpieces, notably Dimensions of Dialogue and Down to the Cellar (both 1982), the latter made in Slovakia after the Czech authorities objected to the former – though as they were unable to define precisely what their problems were, they ended up it as an example of what should not be made. In 1983, through a mutual acquaintance in Michael Havas, Švankmajer met the producer Keith Griffiths, who made the first television documentary about his work, with the help of the then relatively little known Quay Brothers. Their animated links would later be compiled as a separate short, though the original 54-minute version will be getting its first commercial release on the BFI DVD.

Havas and Griffiths would be executive producers on most of Švankmajer's subsequent work, including the move into features that began with the Lewis Carroll adaptation Alice. By the time of its release in 1988, several of Švankmajer's shorts had been screened quite extensively in touring packages programmed by the BFI, and he was arguably better known in Britain than in his native Czechoslovakia. After the Velvet Revolution (sarcastically commemorated in The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, made a few months afterwards), Švankmajer formed the production company Athanor with his old friend Jaromír Kallista, with the aim of rekindling a genuinely imaginative Czech cinema. However, Athanor's principle activities remain the production of Švankmajer's own films, including his last short Food (1992) and the features Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Little Otík (2000) and most recently Lunacy (2005).

punch-and-judy-jan-svankmajer-default.jpgPunch and Judy, 1966

The aggressively uncompromising Lunacy is perhaps not the best place to start exploring the Švankmajer universe, though it's a fascinating distillation and summation of many of his long-term preoccupations. Sourced from Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade, it's largely set in a lunatic asylum that during the course of the film's action is run by two very different regimes. One preaches a doctrine of total freedom, the other total repression, with the bewildered Jean (Pavel Liška) forced to consider the equally flawed and unproductive implications of both, assuming he has any time to think at all.

Lunacy harks back to Švankmajer's first live-action film The Garden (1967) in its depiction of a clearly deranged yet strangely coherent universe, whose eccentricities are merely in the eye of the prejudiced viewer. This was also the overriding theme of Conspirators of Pleasure, an explicitly erotic film without a single conventionally erotic image, and both films have provoked similar reactions from their audiences: private giggling as though in affirmation of shared fantasies, with only the occasional collective belly laugh. (It should be stressed that for all the undoubted fact that he's produced some of the cinema's most unsettling ideas and imagery, much of Švankmajer's output, like that of his partner-in-Surrealism Luis Buñuel, is intentionally funny).

The most characteristically 'Švankmajeresque' elements of Lunacy are the vignettes involving slabs of meat, tongues, eyeballs, brains and other body parts, brought (or rather revivified) to uncannily convincing life by long-term animation collaborators Bedich Glaser and Martin Kublák. Seemingly unconnected to the main narrative, they nonetheless form a vital counterpoint, an ecstatic affirmation of Švankmajer's core belief that everything has its own inner life. In one particularly memorable sequence, the meat slithers between the cracks between the bricks of a wall, becoming a kind of living mortar, and in another, slabs of meat are attached to strings and turned into puppets, a cruder but no less valid form of animation.

lunacy-jan-svankmajer.jpgLunacy, 2005

The film's final sequence, with the meat presented in neatly shrinkwrapped packages on a supermarket shelf, brings everything full circle: for all the superficial period trappings of Svankmajer's asylum, his film is ultimately an attack on the structures and preconceptions underpinning our own so-called civilisation. In this he remains a true Surrealist.

The following interview was conducted by e-mail in February 2007.

Michael Brooke: The new BFI DVD of your short films will also include Johanes Doktor Faust (1958) in its entirety, which I believe is its first ever commercial release in the UK. Not only was it the first time you worked with such important creative collaborators as Svatopluk Malý and Zdenk Liška, but it also highlights the work of the relatively little-known director Emil Radok, one of the few people you acknowledge as a significant creative influence. Can you describe your work with Radok, both through this film and in multimedia theatre in general?

Jan Švankmajer: Firstly I would like to say that I consider Emil Radok's film Johanes Doktor Faust as one of the best marionette films that was made in Czechoslovakia. For me it carries, to a large extent, 'initiating' significance. I think that not only because I have met two of my later collaborators – Svatopluk Malý and Zdenk Liška – on the set. As a fresh graduate of the department of marionettes I was involved in manipulating marionettes in this particular film. In fact, it was my first more significant film practice. Myself and Emil Radok instantly "hit it off". My contribution to this film is larger than the credits suggest. I met Radok again a few years later in Laterna Magika. And it was him who introduced me into the secrets of film editing and, most importantly, given me scriptwriting lessons.

In Laterna we worked together on two numbers of the programme Variace (Variations), in one of which we combined film with black light theatre. (It was the adaptation of the film Johanes Doktor Faust for Laterna Magika, for which we had to shoot extra material specific for this programme). In that period we would meet regularly every week and think out and write scripts "for the drawer" with the knowledge that we will never be able to realize them. We worked out we had scripts for about seven years in advance: Two feature films and a number of short films. When Emil emigrated to Canada after the Russian invasion of 1968, it all got lost somewhere. A pity.

MB: You have been an active member of the Czech and Slovak Surrealist Group for nearly forty years. For half this time, its meetings were clandestine and subversive, but for the other half it has been open and garnering increasing international attention, not least through your films and assorted exhibitions, as well as the inclusion of much younger members with no adult memory of life under totalitarianism. Has this led to a change of emphasis in the group's activities, and do you still consider yourself primarily a militant Surrealist?

: I see no reason why I should modify my opinion of the society. My anti-civilisation stance has not been touched by the change of the political system in the former Czechoslovakia. The Velvet Revolution was, in terms of the state of our civilisation, a meaningless episode. Permanent criticism of the current civilisation is the program of our whole surrealist group. One can find a confirmation of this by reading our magazine Analogon.

down-to-the-cellar-jan-svankmajer.jpgDown to the Celler, 1982

MB: You have described your films as 'fantastic documentaries', a term that may be surprising to those who regard the term 'documentary' as pertaining exclusively to non-fiction subjects, and who would therefore only classify The Ossuary (1970), The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia and possibly Historia Naturae, Suita (1967) under that heading. Can you explain what you meant?

: What I labelled as a fantastic documentary is my attempt to show the viewer my imaginary visions in the most realistic form, similarly as we experience our dreams. Only that way can our imagination become subversive. André Breton said that what is most fantastic about the fantastic is how real it is. That is why in my films I use objects which the viewer recognises from his/her utilitarian experience, as for example meat. With the help of animation I give these objects life – life which I then use to create an alternative world. The ideal state being one when the viewer trusts it is possible, because he/she starts to doubt our ordinary reality as the only one.

MB: Pablo Picasso once said that he spent his entire career trying to draw like a child again. Similarly, your work shows a constant preoccupation with the infantile, whether dealing explicitly with childhood subjects, as in Jabberwocky (1971) or Little Otík or via such recurring impulses as the need to eat and to defecate, the exploration of new and unfamiliar worlds (through touch and taste as well as sight and sound), and the unfettered indulgence of the imagination. All of these are given free rein in Lunacy, which you explicitly describe as being an "infantile tribute" to Poe and De Sade, though presumably not in a pejorative sense. How important are your recollections both of your own childhood and of your experience as a father to your work?

: I always say I did not close the door of my childhood. Childhood, exactly because of its view of the world, is one of the basic sources of creativity. I constantly try to lead a dialogue with my childhood. I nurture in myself the defiance of childhood. In an adult dictionary the word 'infantilism' has a pejorative undertone. I do not take it as such. In the utilitarian pragmatic world infantile immaturity is considered a flaw, but in the imaginative work it is the guarantee of authenticity. Yes, my films are infantile, but that is why they attract young people, who are not yet defeated by domestication.

MB: Your films have always been enthralled by the secret life of inanimate objects. However, many of the more recent ones have favoured the animated (or reanimated) treatment of meat and other genuine animal parts such as bones, eyeballs and so on, which reaches its apotheosis in Lunacy. Do you see these sequences as being closer to your animated objects, or to your treatment of live actors – and, if the latter, should we regard your films' human characters as being essentially "meat puppets"?

faust-jan-svankmajer.jpgFaust, 1994

: In my opinion everything in a film is of importance: actors, props, set, sound, editing, script etc. because everything can become the carrier of a symbol. In my films nothing is only what it appears at first sight. Imaginative work of art is always a symbolic expression of reality. Seeing our surroundings as a set of symbols which need interpretation in order to uncover the genuine reality without always remaining on the surface, is the primal viewing of the world. This is how children, tribes, surrealists and hermetics study the world.

MB: Writing about your treatment of Gothic themes, the Surrealist painter Martin Stejskal proposed various categories for your films, sourced from Maurice Heine's quartet of taxonomies. The Castle of Otranto (1979) was 'classic Gothic', The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope (1983) was 'realistic Gothic', Punch and Judy, Et Cetera (both 1966), Don Juan (1969) and Jabberwocky were 'burlesque Gothic', while The Garden, The Ossuary, The Fall of the House of Usher and Down to the Cellar were 'realistic Gothic'. Stejskal also proposed two new categories: 'rationalist Gothic', which could apply to The Ossuary, Down to the Cellar and Dimensions of Dialogue, and 'surrationalist Gothic' for Faust and Conspirators of Pleasure. How would you propose to categorise Lunacy?

JŠ: The film Lunacy comes under 'Surrealist Gothic'. I think this film contains most fully each of the basic themes of Surrealism: dream, eroticism, revolt and especially its contemplation on freedom, the principal theme of the whole Surrealist movement.

MB: What were the principal reasons for your ban from filmmaking from 1973-79?

: The main problem was the film Leonardo's Diary (1972). Or more precisely the harsh criticism from the pen of [communist newspaper] Rudé Právo's official film critic, who saw it at Cannes, and got upset by the fact that such an "ideologically confused film made to please bourgeois audience" represents the Czechoslovak socialist republic. Such criticism obviously caused panic in [production company] Kratky Film, and because I was just in the middle of shooting The Castle of Otranto, the company's internal censorship attacked it. The censor's remarks were unacceptable and upon finishing the shoot I handed in my resignation. And that is how the seven year gap in my filmmaking began. The film was offered to a number of directors for completion, but in the end nobody was willing to take it on. With the arrival of perestroika to Moscow the situation in our country also eased and I was finally able to finish my film.

MB: Your post-1979 films clearly show the influence of the tactile experiments you conducted in the 1970s – especially The Fall of the House of Usher (whose alternative title could easily be 'Tactile Portrait of Edgar Allen Poe'). Given that film is not a tactile medium, how did you approach the problem of conveying tactile impressions through such cinematic devices as staging, framing and montage?

ossuary-jan-svankmajer.jpgThe Ossuary, 1970

: It is important to remember that during the development of a human being the body sense (Touch) becomes subordinate to Sight. It is possible to even speak of a doubled sense Touch – Sight. Especially while performing a utilitarian action these two senses are merged. That is why at the beginning of my tactile experiments I have tried to isolate tactile objects from my sight. I covered them up. But thanks to this connection of the two senses it is possible to transmit some of the tactile impressions via sight, just as the isolated feel of a tactile object becomes visualised in front of the inner eye. In most extreme cases this is demonstrated by reflexive psychosis. That is why in my films I work on emphasising the textures of the filmed objects through great detail, animation of a gesture imprinted into soft materials such as clay or plasticine, by 'torturing' of objects, destruction, emphasising of the state or the properties of matter. In these attempts I look for a deeper experience, but also see it as a way of making films more realistic, exactly in the spirit of a 'surrealist document'.

MB: In a complaint to the BBC in the early 1990s, you described its treatment of your films in a documentary as being worse than anything that happened to them under totalitarianism. You had already presented, in The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia and accompanying texts at around the same time, a decidedly pessimistic corrective to the euphoria that engulfed Czechoslovakia in the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. More recently, Lunacy seems to be exploring the pros and cons of two very different political systems, and finding fault with each. Would it be fair to say that you remain a pessimist, and that personal and artistic freedom is ultimately illusory?

: I am tempted to say that freedom as a permanent state does not exist, but is about a dynamic, actually ungraspable and unreachable ideal, which cannot be realised without remorse of conscience based on the fact one has achieved it through the detriment of others. However what does exist is the act of liberating oneself, permanent liberating of oneself, liberating without an end. If you accept such a concept then you can, with clear conscience, consider absolute freedom as represented by the Marquis de Sade, to be your unreachable goal.

MB: Between 1964 and 1992 your film output consisted almost entirely of shorts. Since then, you have made only features. Was this a conscious artistic decision, or one imposed by commercial/funding imperatives? And do you think you will ever make another short film?

: In my work I never went from somewhere to somewhere else. My themes are constant, and by repeating them I keep liberating myself from my demons. The fact that at this moment feature films win over short films is only because my inspiration currently lends itself to a feature length theme. A year or two later it may be a short film again, or perhaps I will not make films at all.

Lunacy opens at London’s BFI Southbank on 29 May, along with a complete retrospective of Svankmajer’s work. His complete short films are also released on dvd at the same time.

Michael Brooke works at the BFI and is the mastermind behind their magnificent DVD releases by the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer. See also page 70.