“The only good answer to the cruelty of life is the scorn of the imagination.”Jan
Jan Švankmajer is a retired Czech filmmaker known for his dark and quirky surrealist stop-motion animation. His work has inspired the likes of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and the Brothers Quay among others across the cinematic spectrum. His own inspiration comes from his training in puppeteering; his literary influences, especially Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allan Poe; Freudian psychoanalysis; and a strong belief in subverting humanity’s anthropocentrism. He made his first short film, “The Last Trick,” in 1964 and continued in the medium until the Czech authorities banned him from filmmaking in 1972. For the most of the 70s, Švankmajer continued to create art, just not film. Once the ban was lifted in 1979, he got right back to making movies.
In 1988, Švankmajer created his first feature length film, Alice (Něco z Alenky); and while Alice is likely his most well-known film, he has made 6 others and 27 shorts in total, all of which expand upon his unique style and his themes of imagination, freedom, and the interrogation of sexual, social, and political conventions.
Even people who are used to weird can be a little unsure of Švankmajer at first. His combination of stop-motion, claymation, pixilation, and live action has an uncanny effect. Together with an aggressive editing style and striking use of sound effects—to say nothing of his subject matter—the results are not for everyone. But if you’re tuned that way, finding Švankmajer is like finding treasure. I’ve linked four of his short films here in the hope that you might find his creations as darkly funny and brain-tickling as I do. Each link is accompanied by a brief description and a little more insight into this fascinating filmmaker.
A Quiet Week in the House (1969) 20 mins
A favorite of mine, “A Quiet Week in the House” begins with a man with a briefcase furtively spying out and entering a rundown house. He stays for six days, each day drilling a hole in a different door. Inside each room is a different experimental vignette.
Like almost all of Švankmajer’s films, “A Quiet Week” has a timeless quality about it. The props are antiquated, the man’s suit is rumpled but classically cut, the lighting is sepia. Other characteristically Švankmajer traits include chickens, tongues, and food as well as humor, non sequiturs, and a destructive, chaotic ending (offscreen as it may be).
Jabberwocky (1971) 14 mins
In an interview for the BBC, Švankmajer said, “Both childhood and dreams are the basic constants of my films.” “Jabberwocky,” based on the poem by Lewis Carroll, is a film about childhood but not for children. Replete with stop-motion animation featuring children’s toys and games, the visuals are whimsical without becoming cloying. In fact, rather than sweet, they are weird, dark, dangerous, and at times undeniably violent. My favorite segments would have to be the cannibalistic baby dolls and the dance of the folding knife with an old woman carved into the handle.
Dimensions of Dialogue (1983) 12 mins
This award-winning film put Švankmajer on the map with the international animated film community. Terry Gilliam included it in on his list of the ten best animated films of all time. “Dimensions of Dialogue” is divided into three sections, each concerning how humans communicate with each other.
For Švankmajer, the filmmaker’s intentions are only the beginning; the audience’s interpretation is as much a creative activity as the artist’s creation of the film. For him, there are two kinds of film: imaginative, like his, and real-life, which attempt to portray the world the way it is. In imaginative film, he says, “everything is equally important—the props, backgrounds, costumes, dialogue, actors, lighting, sound—everything can be the bearer of meaning, everything is a symbol.” However, “Once completed, the imaginative film, as with all other products of the imagination, is just a springboard for the audience’s active interpretation. So the final form and impression of the film takes shape in the heads of the audience, where subsequent creative processes are unleashed.”
So, while “Dimensions of Dialogue” may have three vignettes about human communication, they are contained within yet another dimension of creative dialogue, the film itself.
Food (1992) 17 mins
You could say that “Food” is a film about breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it would be a gross oversimplification. At breakfast, men take turns becoming automats. At lunch, a “have” and a “have not” take turns eating everything but food. And dinner, almost necessarily, becomes a practice in autocannibalism.
“Food” contains blatant political and social allegory, and while Švankmajer considers all of his films to be “politically committed,” some come across as more so than others (see “The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia”). Švankmajer believes, “the only purpose of art (if it has one at all) is to liberate people. When the Surrealists of the 1930s came up with the slogan ‘Transform the world (Marx), change life (Rimbaud),’ it was indeed a revolutionary view of art (even within the avant-garde of the time). Today it sounds very utopian and, in the wake of debacles that civilization suffered . . . nearly ironic. Still, I think the world would come to a halt without utopia. And art is that land where utopia is most at home.”
To gain this utopia, if I’m reading Švankmajer correctly, we must surrender the illusions of anthropomorphism, take heed of our inspirations from childhood and our dreams, and revolt against the “pervasive manipulation” we face in the world. Indeed, as the man himself tells us in the introduction to his last feature length film, Insects, “The only good answer to the cruelty of life is the scorn of the imagination.”
Surrealism is all about the juxtaposition of unrelated, “nonconnectable” objects and ideas. This principle is embodied in Švankmajer work, driven as it is by childhood and dreams, political consciousness, and Freudian psychoanalysis, and expressed as it is in a format most often associated with children’s shows and that takes meticulous perfectionism to do well. For me, it is this juxtaposition, this extraordinary combination, that makes what Švankmajer gave the world so truly creative and valuable.
If you’re interest is piqued, I hope you’ll search out more of Švankmajer’s titles. Not all of them are easy to find, but they are worth the hunt.
- “BBC Interview,” The Collected Shorts of Jan Švankmajer. Kimstim, 2005.
- Johnson, Keith Leslie. Jan Švankmajer (Contemporary Film Directors). University of Illinois Press, 2017.
- Plus all the short and feature length films of Jan Švankmajer.
Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books like Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel and Skull Nuggets. She’s also the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space and a contributing editor at Babou 691.